structure for a history essay

How to Structure a History Essay – Illustrated Guide

structure for a history essay

To write an excellent college-level history paper, you’ll need a structure that will help you organize your facts and ideas. 

In this guide, first I’ll give you three effective ways to organize your historical essay. 

And then I’ll show you how to further outline your larger sections in case you have to write one of those bigger papers.

As a result, you’ll be able to:

  • Organize your thoughts
  • Get ideas out of your head quickly
  • Write a well-organized essay without getting stuck

Let’s dive right in!

Let’s Pick Our Historical Subject and Setting

To have a productive guide, we need our subject (the What) and the setting (the When) to use throughout the techniques and examples. 

Let’s pick our subject and setting.

The antagonism between the United States and the United Kingdom in the quest for petroleum in the Middle East. 

Middle Eastern oil was a big factor in the early 20th century, and the two countries have quite a history of rivalry in the quest for this precious resource. 

This rivalry escalated between World War I and World War II. 

Oil was especially important in the two world wars when war machines began to play a crucial role in warfare. It was also important in between the wars when the motor car industry exploded. 

Let’s write out our full thesis (main point) so that we know what exactly we’re discussing in this essay we want to structure.

Our Sample Thesis

“ The antagonism between the United States and the United Kingdom in the quest for petroleum in the Middle East escalated between World War I and World War II.”

Now that we know what this history paper will be about, let’s look at three very effective ways to structure such an essay.

1. Structure Your Essay Chronologically

A chronological structure is the most intuitive way to organize a historical essay because in it you simply proceed from earlier to later events as they happened in history.

History books are usually organized this way. And it’s a fine way to structure your paper. It is also a pretty simple and straightforward way. 

Our structure for this essay about petroleum would look something like this:

structure for a history essay

By the way, I usually choose to divide my essays into three main sections. Three is a very practical number when it comes to writing essays. 

Besides, number three works very well for our example because we have three shorter periods – during WWI, in between the wars, and during WWII.

But you can use three sections with any subject and setting. This means you will have three supporting ideas for your main point. 

You’ll see how easy it is to do as you read the rest of the guide. 

What Happens In Each Section

I’ll give you several great ideas on how to structure each of your sections later in the guide. But for now, you can see the clear focus of each section.

Each one is devoted to a definite time period. You just need to make sure that you stick to what belongs in each section as you write it.

As you write your first section, make sure you focus only on what happened between the US and the UK during WWI, or between the years of 1914 and 1918.

This approach gives you a clear direction. Once you’re done with this period, proceed to the next. And then do the final section where you focus only on the period between 1941 and 1945.

Let’s move on to the next way to structure a historical essay.

2. Structure Your Essay Thematically

No matter what historical subject you write about, your essay will have certain themes. For example, an essay about war can include the themes of warfare strategy, financing of the military operations, or the treatment of civilians. 

If you have a good idea of your themes, then maybe arranging your essay thematically is the right approach for your paper. 

In our example, since petroleum played such an important role in the early 20th century, several themes come to mind:

  • We can discuss why the demand for oil increased in each country or situation.
  • We can talk about the scarcity of oil and why it was hard to come by at the time. 
  • And we can discuss the actual process of rivalry or quest for oil . 

Here is what our structure would look like:

structure for a history essay

Again, we have three main sections. And we’ll have a distinct subject in each one. 

Note that our thesis, our main point about the antagonism between the two nations stays the same regardless of the structure we choose to organize our evidence.

In other words, you can use one of these structures to organize any history essay or to support any thesis. 

To organize your essay thematically, you’ll need just three themes. Make a list of several themes about your subject and just pick three. 

Pick those themes about which you feel the most knowledgeable and competent to write. This structure will work especially well for you if you already have a few themes in mind when you begin.

We’re ready for our next way to structure a history paper. 

3. Use a Compare/Contrast Structure 

This structure can work for any subject, if you choose to compare things. Or, use it whenever your professor asks you to write a comparative paper. In any case, this is a great option.

Here is what a basic comparative structure can look like:

structure for a history essay

In this essay, we would simply have two sections. 

In the first section, we would discuss everything that pertains to the United States and its Middle East oil policy.

And in the second section, we can discuss the United Kingdom’s oil policy in the region. 

As a result, the similarities and differences between the oil policies of these countries will become apparent. 

This is a very basic way to write a comparative historical essay. In a minute, I’ll show you a better, more advanced way to organize such a paper. 

But now you have three simple and effective ways to structure your history essay. And it’s time to dig a level deeper and see how to organize content within the main sections of these structures. 

How to Organize Your Ideas by Combining These Structures 

Yes, I’ve saved the best for last. I’ve kept you in suspense a little. And that’s because we had to lay a solid foundation first.

Now that you know how to use chronology, themes, and comparison to structure your historical essay, you can simply combine these methods to create a complete outline. 

By the way, if you need help with writing essays in general, I wrote this great tutorial for beginners . 

Let’s look at the ways you can create a structure within a structure, using the methods you already know.

Combine Chronology with Themes

To use this combination, simply structure your essay chronologically first. And then use themes within each main section to create another level of organization.

This can really help you put every thought, every idea in place. Let’s see what the main structure would look like:

structure for a history essay

As you can see, we still have our three main sections arranged chronologically. 

But now, within each of the sections, we also have a structure arranged by theme. Our three themes are the demand, the scarcity, and the quest for oil. 

And all we need to do is have three little subsections in each section. Each subsection can have one or more paragraphs, depending on how big your paper needs to be.

Here’s what a complete outline of this essay might look like.

Sample History Essay Outline 

  • Introductory sentence.
  • Thesis statement.
  • The demand for oil rose during WWI due to war machines 
  • Oil remained a scarce resource for a number of reasons
  • The US and the UK competed for Middle Eastern drilling sites 
  • The demand for oil rose due to the auto industry 
  • The US and the UK continued to compete for Middle Eastern oil
  • The demand for oil rose again during WWII due to war strategy 
  • The US and the UK raised the stakes in their quest for petroleum

When you have this level of clarity about your essay, writing it becomes easy. It’s even easier when you do your math in terms of the number of words you need. 

How to Meet Your Word Count Requirement

Let’s say that you need to write a 2,000-word essay. Here is how your basic math would work.

  • Introduction Paragraph ( 100 words ) 
  • 200 words about the demand for oil
  • 200 words about the scarcity of oil
  • 200 words about the quest for oil 
  • 200 words (demand)
  • 200 words (scarcity)
  • 200 words (quest)
  • Conclusion ( 100 words )

If you add up all the words, you get 2,000.

Your giant paper becomes a collection of smaller essays that you can easily handle, one by one. 

Let’s explore the next way of combining structures. 

Combine Themes with Chronology

This sounds the same, but is in fact different. In this case, your main structure is not chronological but thematic. 

In other words, you arrange your main sections by theme, and then organize your subsections chronologically. Here is what this would look like:

structure for a history essay

We basically switched Chronology and Themes around and made our thematic structure the main one, and the chronological the supporting one. 

I don’t give you this option just to play with content. Instead, I want to make you see that you have many ways of organizing the same material. 

Just pick a structure that you like and stick to it. Your material will often give you hints as to how you should organize your information and what structure would work best.

Now, as promised, I’ll give you the best way to organize your essay if you opt for a comparative structure. 

The Best Comparative Structure for a History Essay

Earlier, I showed you how to divide a comparative essay into two main sections:

That way you can simply talk about one subject completely, and then talk about the other one completely. And that’s how comparison becomes apparent.

But it’s not the best way to do it for an important reason. You see, by the time your reader gets to the end of the first section, she has already forgotten what you were talking about in the beginning.

That’s because when you have only two sections, they are pretty long. 

And now, as the reader goes through the second section, she has to keep referring back to the first section to see the similarities and differences. 

This is why it is much better to structure your comparative essay either chronologically or thematically, and then use compare and contrast within subsections. 

This way, you have three main sections instead of two. And it is much easier to see the similarities and differences when discussing them one next to another. 

Let me illustrate.

structure for a history essay

As you can see, in this structure, we arrange the main content chronologically. And we compare the US with the UK within each main section. 

This is just much easier for a reader to digest. This is also easier to write because you as a writer have an easier time following your own comparisons. 

Here is how you would use a thematic structure with comparison:

structure for a history essay

In this case, we again have three main sections, this time arranged by theme. And then we simply compare the US and the UK in whatever terms appropriate within each section. 

I hope this guide was helpful. 

If you’re a visual learner and would enjoy this lesson on video, here you are:

I also wrote a great tutorial on how to write a thesis statement that you might want to read next.

I wish you all the best with your history essay. Let me know how it went in the comments. 

Tutor Phil is an e-learning professional who helps adult learners finish their degrees by teaching them academic writing skills.

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structure for a history essay

How To Write a Good History Essay

The former editor of History Review Robert Pearce gives his personal view.

First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay? Probably no two people will completely agree, if only for the very good reason that quality is in the eye – and reflects the intellectual state – of the reader. What follows, therefore, skips philosophical issues and instead offers practical advice on how to write an essay that will get top marks.

Witnesses in court promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. All history students should swear a similar oath: to answer the question, the whole question and nothing but the question. This is the number one rule. You can write brilliantly and argue a case with a wealth of convincing evidence, but if you are not being relevant then you might as well be tinkling a cymbal. In other words, you have to think very carefully about the question you are asked to answer. Be certain to avoid the besetting sin of those weaker students who, fatally, answer the question the examiners should have set – but unfortunately didn’t. Take your time, look carefully at the wording of the question, and be certain in your own mind that you have thoroughly understood all its terms.

If, for instance, you are asked why Hitler came to power, you must define what this process of coming to power consisted of. Is there any specific event that marks his achievement of power? If you immediately seize on his appointment as Chancellor, think carefully and ask yourself what actual powers this position conferred on him. Was the passing of the Enabling Act more important? And when did the rise to power actually start? Will you need to mention Hitler’s birth and childhood or the hyperinflation of the early 1920s? If you can establish which years are relevant – and consequently which are irrelevant – you will have made a very good start. Then you can decide on the different factors that explain his rise.

Or if you are asked to explain the successes of a particular individual, again avoid writing the first thing that comes into your head. Think about possible successes. In so doing, you will automatically be presented with the problem of defining ‘success’. What does it really mean? Is it the achievement of one’s aims? Is it objective (a matter of fact) or subjective (a matter of opinion)? Do we have to consider short-term and long-term successes? If the person benefits from extraordinary good luck, is that still a success? This grappling with the problem of definition will help you compile an annotated list of successes, and you can then proceed to explain them, tracing their origins and pinpointing how and why they occurred. Is there a key common factor in the successes? If so, this could constitute the central thrust of your answer.

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The key word in the above paragraphs is think . This should be distinguished from remembering, daydreaming and idly speculating. Thinking is rarely a pleasant undertaking, and most of us contrive to avoid it most of the time. But unfortunately there’s no substitute if you want to get the top grade. So think as hard as you can about the meaning of the question, about the issues it raises and the ways you can answer it. You have to think and think hard – and then you should think again, trying to find loopholes in your reasoning. Eventually you will almost certainly become confused. Don’t worry: confusion is often a necessary stage in the achievement of clarity. If you get totally confused, take a break. When you return to the question, it may be that the problems have resolved themselves. If not, give yourself more time. You may well find that decent ideas simply pop into your conscious mind at unexpected times.

You need to think for yourself and come up with a ‘bright idea’ to write a good history essay. You can of course follow the herd and repeat the interpretation given in your textbook. But there are problems here. First, what is to distinguish your work from that of everybody else? Second, it’s very unlikely that your school text has grappled with the precise question you have been set.

The advice above is relevant to coursework essays. It’s different in exams, where time is limited. But even here, you should take time out to do some thinking. Examiners look for quality rather than quantity, and brevity makes relevance doubly important. If you get into the habit of thinking about the key issues in your course, rather than just absorbing whatever you are told or read, you will probably find you’ve already considered whatever issues examiners pinpoint in exams.

The Vital First Paragraph

Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is vital. This is the first chance you have to impress – or depress – an examiner, and first impressions are often decisive. You might therefore try to write an eye-catching first sentence. (‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a climax,’ counselled the film-maker Cecil B. De Mille.) More important is that you demonstrate your understanding of the question set. Here you give your carefully thought out definitions of the key terms, and here you establish the relevant time-frame and issues – in other words, the parameters of the question. Also, you divide the overall question into more manageable sub-divisions, or smaller questions, on each of which you will subsequently write a paragraph. You formulate an argument, or perhaps voice alternative lines of argument, that you will substantiate later in the essay. Hence the first paragraph – or perhaps you might spread this opening section over two paragraphs – is the key to a good essay.

On reading a good first paragraph, examiners will be profoundly reassured that its author is on the right lines, being relevant, analytical and rigorous. They will probably breathe a sign of relief that here is one student at least who is avoiding the two common pitfalls. The first is to ignore the question altogether. The second is to write a narrative of events – often beginning with the birth of an individual – with a half-hearted attempt at answering the question in the final paragraph.

Middle Paragraphs

Philip Larkin once said that the modern novel consists of a beginning, a muddle and an end. The same is, alas, all too true of many history essays. But if you’ve written a good opening section, in which you’ve divided the overall question into separate and manageable areas, your essay will not be muddled; it will be coherent.

It should be obvious, from your middle paragraphs, what question you are answering. Indeed it’s a good test of an essay that the reader should be able to guess the question even if the title is covered up. So consider starting each middle paragraph will a generalisation relevant to the question. Then you can develop this idea and substantiate it with evidence. You must give a judicious selection of evidence (i.e. facts and quotations) to support the argument you are making. You only have a limited amount of space or time, so think about how much detail to give. Relatively unimportant background issues can be summarised with a broad brush; your most important areas need greater embellishment. (Do not be one of those misguided candidates who, unaccountably, ‘go to town’ on peripheral areas and gloss over crucial ones.)

The regulations often specify that, in the A2 year, students should be familiar with the main interpretations of historians. Do not ignore this advice. On the other hand, do not take historiography to extremes, so that the past itself is virtually ignored. In particular, never fall into the trap of thinking that all you need are sets of historians’ opinions. Quite often in essays students give a generalisation and back it up with the opinion of an historian – and since they have formulated the generalisation from the opinion, the argument is entirely circular, and therefore meaningless and unconvincing. It also fatuously presupposes that historians are infallible and omniscient gods. Unless you give real evidence to back up your view – as historians do – a generalisation is simply an assertion. Middle paragraphs are the place for the real substance of an essay, and you neglect this at your peril.

Final Paragraph

If you’ve been arguing a case in the body of an essay, you should hammer home that case in the final paragraph. If you’ve been examining several alternative propositions, now is the time to say which one is correct. In the middle paragraph you are akin to a barrister arguing a case. Now, in the final paragraph, you are the judge summing up and pronouncing the verdict.

It’s as well to keep in mind what you should not be doing. Do not introduce lots of fresh evidence at this stage, though you can certainly introduce the odd extra fact that clinches your case. Nor should you go on to the ‘next’ issue. If your question is about Hitler coming to power, you should not end by giving a summary of what he did once in power. Such an irrelevant ending will fail to win marks. Remember the point about answering ‘nothing but the question’? On the other hand, it may be that some of the things Hitler did after coming to power shed valuable light on why he came to power in the first place. If you can argue this convincingly, all well and good; but don’t expect the examiner to puzzle out relevance. Examiners are not expected to think; you must make your material explicitly relevant.

Final Thoughts

A good essay, especially one that seems to have been effortlessly composed, has often been revised several times; and the best students are those who are most selfcritical. Get into the habit of criticising your own first drafts, and never be satisfied with second-best efforts. Also, take account of the feedback you get from teachers. Don’t just look at the mark your essay gets; read the comments carefully. If teachers don’t advise how to do even better next time, they are not doing their job properly.

Relevance is vital in a good essay, and so is evidence marshalled in such a way that it produces a convincing argument. But nothing else really matters. The paragraph structure recommended above is just a guide, nothing more, and you can write a fine essay using a very different arrangement of material. Similarly, though it would be excellent if you wrote in expressive, witty and sparklingly provocative prose, you can still get top marks even if your essay is serious, ponderous and even downright dull.

There are an infinite number of ways to write an essay because any form of writing is a means of self-expression. Your essay will be unique because you are unique: it’s up to you to ensure that it’s uniquely good, not uniquely mediocre.

Robert Pearce is the editor of History Review .

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How to Write a History Essay

Last Updated: December 27, 2022 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Emily Listmann, MA . Emily Listmann is a private tutor in San Carlos, California. She has worked as a Social Studies Teacher, Curriculum Coordinator, and an SAT Prep Teacher. She received her MA in Education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2014. There are 8 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 242,171 times.

Writing a history essay requires you to include a lot of details and historical information within a given number of words or required pages. It's important to provide all the needed information, but also to present it in a cohesive, intelligent way. Know how to write a history essay that demonstrates your writing skills and your understanding of the material.

Preparing to Write Your Essay

Step 1 Evaluate the essay question.

  • The key words will often need to be defined at the start of your essay, and will serve as its boundaries. [2] X Research source
  • For example, if the question was "To what extent was the First World War a Total War?", the key terms are "First World War", and "Total War".
  • Do this before you begin conducting your research to ensure that your reading is closely focussed to the question and you don't waste time.

Step 2 Consider what the question is asking you.

  • Explain: provide an explanation of why something happened or didn't happen.
  • Interpret: analyse information within a larger framework to contextualise it.
  • Evaluate: present and support a value-judgement.
  • Argue: take a clear position on a debate and justify it. [3] X Research source

Step 3 Try to summarise your key argument.

  • Your thesis statement should clearly address the essay prompt and provide supporting arguments. These supporting arguments will become body paragraphs in your essay, where you’ll elaborate and provide concrete evidence. [4] X Trustworthy Source Purdue Online Writing Lab Trusted resource for writing and citation guidelines Go to source
  • Your argument may change or become more nuanced as your write your essay, but having a clear thesis statement which you can refer back to is very helpful.
  • For example, your summary could be something like "The First World War was a 'total war' because civilian populations were mobilized both in the battlefield and on the home front".

Step 4 Make an essay...

  • Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively. [5] X Research source
  • When writing your plan, you should already be thinking about how your essay will flow, and how each point will connect together.

Doing Your Research

Step 1 Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

  • Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about.
  • Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past. The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography.
  • It is not unusual to write a literature review or historiographical essay which does not directly draw on primary material.
  • Typically a research essay would need significant primary material.

Step 2 Find your sources.

  • Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography. Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there.
  • Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.
  • Use the library. If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians.
  • Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources.
  • Use online sources with discretion. Try using free scholarly databases, like Google Scholar, which offer quality academic sources, but avoid using the non-trustworthy websites that come up when you simply search your topic online.
  • Avoid using crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia as sources. However, you can look at the sources cited on a Wikipedia page and use them instead, if they seem credible.

Step 3 Evaluate your secondary sources.

  • Who is the author? Is it written by an academic with a position at a University? Search for the author online.
  • Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press? Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign.
  • If it's an article, where is published? If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal. [8] X Research source
  • If the article is online, what is the URL? Government sources with .gov addresses are good sources, as are .edu sites.

Step 4 Read critically.

  • Ask yourself why the author is making this argument. Evaluate the text by placing it into a broader intellectual context. Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea?
  • Consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument. Always keep a critical mindset and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence doesn't match the author's claims. [9] X Research source

Step 5 Take thorough notes.

  • Label all your notes with the page numbers and precise bibliographic information on the source.
  • If you have a quote but can't remember where you found it, imagine trying to skip back through everything you have read to find that one line.
  • If you use something and don't reference it fully you risk plagiarism. [10] X Research source

Writing the Introduction

Step 1 Start with a strong first sentence.

  • For example you could start by saying "In the First World War new technologies and the mass mobilization of populations meant that the war was not fought solely by standing armies".
  • This first sentences introduces the topic of your essay in a broad way which you can start focus to in on more.

Step 2 Outline what you are going to argue.

  • This will lead to an outline of the structure of your essay and your argument.
  • Here you will explain the particular approach you have taken to the essay.
  • For example, if you are using case studies you should explain this and give a brief overview of which case studies you will be using and why.

Step 3 Provide some brief context for your work.

Writing the Essay

Step 1 Have a clear structure.

  • Try to include a sentence that concludes each paragraph and links it to the next paragraph.
  • When you are organising your essay think of each paragraph as addressing one element of the essay question.
  • Keeping a close focus like this will also help you avoid drifting away from the topic of the essay and will encourage you to write in precise and concise prose.
  • Don't forget to write in the past tense when referring to something that has already happened.

Step 3 Use source material as evidence to back up your thesis.

  • Don't drop a quote from a primary source into your prose without introducing it and discussing it, and try to avoid long quotations. Use only the quotes that best illustrate your point.
  • If you are referring to a secondary source, you can usually summarise in your own words rather than quoting directly.
  • Be sure to fully cite anything you refer to, including if you do not quote it directly.

Step 4 Make your essay flow.

  • Think about the first and last sentence in every paragraph and how they connect to the previous and next paragraph.
  • Try to avoid beginning paragraphs with simple phrases that make your essay appear more like a list. For example, limit your use of words like: "Additionally", "Moreover", "Furthermore".
  • Give an indication of where your essay is going and how you are building on what you have already said. [15] X Research source

Step 5 Conclude succinctly.

  • Briefly outline the implications of your argument and it's significance in relation to the historiography, but avoid grand sweeping statements. [16] X Research source
  • A conclusion also provides the opportunity to point to areas beyond the scope of your essay where the research could be developed in the future.

Proofreading and Evaluating Your Essay

Step 1 Proofread your essay.

  • Try to cut down any overly long sentences or run-on sentences. Instead, try to write clear and accurate prose and avoid unnecessary words.
  • Concentrate on developing a clear, simple and highly readable prose style first before you think about developing your writing further. [17] X Research source
  • Reading your essay out load can help you get a clearer picture of awkward phrasing and overly long sentences. [18] X Research source

Step 2 Analyse don't describe.

  • When you read through your essay look at each paragraph and ask yourself, "what point this paragraph is making".
  • You might have produced a nice piece of narrative writing, but if you are not directly answering the question it is not going to help your grade.

Step 3 Check your references and bibliography.

  • A bibliography will typically have primary sources first, followed by secondary sources. [19] X Research source
  • Double and triple check that you have included all the necessary references in the text. If you forgot to include a reference you risk being reported for plagiarism.

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About This Article

Emily Listmann, MA

To write a history essay, read the essay question carefully and use source materials to research the topic, taking thorough notes as you go. Next, formulate a thesis statement that summarizes your key argument in 1-2 concise sentences and create a structured outline to help you stay on topic. Open with a strong introduction that introduces your thesis, present your argument, and back it up with sourced material. Then, end with a succinct conclusion that restates and summarizes your position! For more tips on creating a thesis statement, read on! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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How to organise a history essay or dissertation

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Research guide

Sachiko Kusukawa

There are many ways of writing history and no fixed formula for a 'good' essay or dissertation. Before you start, you may find it helpful to have a look at some sample dissertations and essays from the past: ask at the Whipple Library.

Some people have a clear idea already of what they are going to write about; others find it more difficult to choose or focus on a topic. It may be obvious, but it is worth pointing out that you should choose a topic you find interesting and engaging. Ask a potential supervisor for a list of appropriate readings, chase up any further sources that look interesting or promising from the footnotes, or seek further help. Try to define your topic as specifically as possible as soon as possible. Sometimes, it helps to formulate a question (in the spirit of a Tripos question), which could then be developed, refined, or re-formulated. A good topic should allow you to engage closely with a primary source (text, image, object, etc.) and develop a historiographical point – e.g. adding to, or qualifying historians' current debates or received opinion on the topic. Specific controversies (either historically or historiographically) are often a great place to start looking. Many dissertations and essays turn out to be overambitious in scope, but underambition is a rare defect!

Both essays and dissertations have an introduction and a conclusion . Between the introduction and the conclusion there is an argument or narrative (or mixture of argument and narrative).

An introduction introduces your topic, giving reasons why it is interesting and anticipating (in order) the steps of your argument. Hence many find that it is a good idea to write the introduction last. A conclusion summarises your arguments and claims. This is also the place to draw out the implications of your claims; and remember that it is often appropriate to indicate in your conclusion further profitable lines of research, inquiry, speculation, etc.

An argument or narrative should be coherent and presented in order. Divide your text into paragraphs which make clear points. Paragraphs should be ordered so that they are easy to follow. Always give reasons for your assertions and assessments: simply stating that something or somebody is right or wrong does not constitute an argument. When you describe or narrate an event, spell out why it is important for your overall argument. Put in chapter or section headings whenever you make a major new step in your argument of narrative.

It is a very good idea to include relevant pictures and diagrams . These should be captioned, and their relevance should be fully explained. If images are taken from a source, this should be included in the captions or list of illustrations.

The extent to which it is appropriate to use direct quotations varies according to topic and approach. Always make it clear why each quotation is pertinent to your argument. If you quote from non-English sources say if the translation is your own; if it isn't give the source. At least in the case of primary sources include the original in a note if it is your own translation, or if the precise details of wording are important. Check your quotations for accuracy. If there is archaic spelling make sure it isn't eliminated by a spell-check. Don't use words without knowing what they mean.

An essay or a dissertation has three components: the main text , the notes , and the bibliography .

The main text is where you put in the substance of your argument, and is meant to be longer than the notes. For quotes from elsewhere, up to about thirty words, use quotation marks ("...", or '...'). If you quote anything longer, it is better to indent the whole quotation without quotation marks.

Notes may either be at the bottom of the page (footnotes) or at the end of the main text, but before the bibliography (endnotes). Use notes for references and other supplementary material which does not constitute the substance of your argument. Whenever you quote directly from other works, you must give the exact reference in your notes. A reference means the exact location in a book or article which you have read , so that others can find it also – it should include author, title of the book, place and date of publication, page number. (There are many different ways to refer to scholarly works: see below.) . If you cite a primary source from a secondary source and you yourself have not read or checked the primary source, you must acknowledge the secondary source from which the citation was taken. Whenever you paraphrase material from somebody else's work, you must acknowledge that fact. There is no excuse for plagiarism. It is important to note that generous and full acknowledgement of the work of others does not undermine your originality.

Your bibliography must contain all the books and articles you have referred to (do not include works that you did not use). It lists works alphabetically by the last name of the author. There are different conventions to set out a bibliography, but at the very least a bibliographic entry should include for a book the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title of the book in italics or underlined, and the place, (publisher optional) and date of publication; or, for an article, the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title in inverted commas, and the name of the journal in italics or underlined, followed by volume number, date of publication, and page numbers. Names of editors of volumes of collected articles and names of translators should also be included, whenever applicable.

  • M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • William Clark, 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 1–72.
  • M. F. Burnyeat, 'The Sceptic in His Place and Time', in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 225–54.

Alternatively, if you have many works to refer to, it may be easier to use an author-date system in notes, e.g.:

  • MacDonald [1981], p. 89; Clark [1995a], p. 65; Clark [1995b], pp. 19–99.

In this case your bibliography should also start with the author-date, e.g.:

  • MacDonald, Michael [1981], Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clark, William [1995a], 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26, 1–72.

This system has the advantage of making your foot- or endnotes shorter, and many choose it to save words (the bibliography is not included in the word limit). It is the system commonly used in scientific publications. Many feel however that something is historically amiss when you find in a footnote something like 'Plato [1996b]' or 'Locke [1975]'. In some fields of research there are standard systems of reference: you will find that this is the case if, for example, you write an essay/dissertation on classical history or philosophy of science. In such cases it is a good idea to take a standard secondary source as your model (e.g. in the case of classics, see G.E.R. Lloyd's The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practices of Ancient Greek Science , Berkeley 1987).

Whatever system you decide to follow for your footnotes, what matters most is that the end-product is consistent.

Keep accurate records of all the relevant bibliographic information as you do your reading for your essay/dissertation. (If you don't you may waste days trying to trace references when you are close to submission deadlines.)

Consistency of style throughout the essay/dissertation is encouraged. There are many professional guides to thesis writing which give you more information on the style and format of theses – for example the MLS handbook (British) and the Chicago Manual of Style (American), both in the Whipple, and a booklet, H. Teitelbaum, How to Write a Thesis: A Guide to the Research Paper , 3rd ed., 126 pp., New York: Macmillan (& Arco), 1994 (in the UL: 1996.8.2620). But don't try to follow everything they say!

Every now and then you should read through a printout of your whole essay/dissertation, to ensure that your argument flows throughout the piece: otherwise there is a danger that your arguments become compartmentalised to the size of the screen. When reading drafts, ask yourself if it would be comprehensible to an intelligent reader who was not an expert on the specific topic.

It is imperative that you save your work on disk regularly – never be caught out without a back-up.

Before you submit:

  • remember to run a spell-check (and remember that a spell check will not notice if you have written, for example, 'pheasant' instead of 'peasant', or, even trickier, 'for' instead of 'from', 'it' instead of 'is', etc.);
  • prepare a table of contents, with titles for each chapter of your essay/dissertation, page numbers and all;
  • prepare a cover page with the title, your name and college;
  • prepare a page with the required statement about length, originality etc.

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How to Write a Good History Essay. A Sequence of Actions and Useful Tips

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Before you start writing your history essay, there is quite a lot of work that has to be done in order to gain success.

You may ask: what is history essay? What is the difference between it and other kinds of essays? Well, the main goal of a history essay is to measure your progress in learning history and test your range of skills (such as analysis, logic, planning, research, and writing), it is necessary to prepare yourself very well.

Your plan of action may look like this. First of all, you will have to explore the topic. If you are going to write about a certain historical event, think of its causes and premises, and analyze what its impact on history was. In case you are writing about a person, find out why and how he or she came to power and how they influenced society and historical situations.

The next step is to make research and collect all the available information about the person or event, and also find evidence.

Finally, you will have to compose a well-organized response.

During the research, make notes and excerpts of the most notable data, write out the important dates and personalities. And of course, write down all your thoughts and findings.

It all may seem complicated at first sight, but in fact, it is not so scary! To complete this task successfully and compose a good history essay, simply follow several easy steps provided below.

Detailed Writing Instruction for Students to Follow

If you want to successfully complete your essay, it would be better to organize the writing process. You will complete the assignment faster and more efficient if you divide the whole work into several sections or steps.

  • Introduction

Writing a good and strong introduction part is important because this is the first thing your reader will see. It gives the first impression of your essay and induces people to reading (or not reading) it.

To make the introduction catchy and interesting, express the contention and address the main question of the essay. Be confident and clear as this is the moment when you define the direction your whole essay will take. And remember that introduction is not the right place for rambling! The best of all is, to begin with, a brief context summary, then go to addressing the question and express the content. Finally, mark the direction your essay about history will take.

Its quality depends on how clear you divided the whole essay into sections in the previous part. As long as you have provided a readable and understandable scheme, your readers will know exactly what to expect.

The body of your essay must give a clear vision of what question you are considering. In this section, you can develop your idea and support it with the evidence you have found. Use certain facts and quotations for that. When being judicial and analytical, they will help you to easily support your point of view and argument.

As long as your essay has a limited size, don’t be too precise. It is allowed to summarize the most essential background information, for example, instead of giving a precise list of all the issues that matter.

It is also good to keep in mind that each paragraph of your essay’s body must tell about only one issue. Don’t make a mess out of your paper!

It is not only essential to start your essay well. How you will end it also matters. A properly-written conclusion is the one that restates the whole paper’s content and gives a logical completion of the issue or question discussed above. Your conclusion must leave to chance for further discussion or arguments on the case. It’s time, to sum up, give a verdict.

That is why it is strongly forbidden to provide any new evidence or information here, as well as start a new discussion, etc.

After you finish writing, give yourself some time and put the paper away for a while. When you turn back to it will be easier to take a fresh look at it and find any mistakes or things to improve. Of course, remember to proofread your writing and check it for any grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. All these tips will help you to learn how to write a history essay.

structure for a history essay


Tips from my first year - essay writing

This is the third of a three part series giving advice on the essay writing process, focusing in this case on essay writing.

Daniel is a first year BA History and Politics student at Magdalen College . He is a disabled student and the first in his immediate family to go to university. Daniel is also a Trustee of Potential Plus UK , a Founding Ambassador and Expert Panel Member for Zero Gravity , and a History Faculty Ambassador. Before coming to university, Daniel studied at a non-selective state school, and was a participant on the UNIQ , Sutton Trust , and Social Mobility Foundation APP Reach programmes, as well as being part of the inaugural Opportunity Oxford cohort. Daniel is passionate about outreach and social mobility and ensuring all students have the best opportunity to succeed.

dd profile

History and its related disciplines mainly rely on essay writing with most term-time work centring on this, so it’s a good idea to be prepared. The blessing of the Oxford system though is you get plenty of opportunity to practice, and your tutors usually provide lots of feedback (both through comments on essays and in tutorials) to help you improve. Here are my tips from my first year as an Oxford Undergraduate:

  • Plan for success – a good plan really sets your essay in a positive direction, so try to collect your thoughts if you can. I find a great way to start my planning process is to go outside for a walk as it helps to clear my head of the detail, it allows me to focus on the key themes, and it allows me to explore ideas without having to commit anything to paper. Do keep in mind your question throughout the reading and notetaking process, though equally look to the wider themes covered so that when you get to planning you are in the right frame of mind.
  • Use what works for you – if you try to use a method you aren’t happy with, it won’t work. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment; to the contrary I highly encourage it as it can be good to change up methods and see what really helps you deliver a strong essay. However, don’t feel pressured into using one set method, as long as it is time-efficient and it gets you ready for the next stage of the essay process it is fine!
  • Focus on the general ideas – summarise in a sentence what each author argues, see what links there are between authors and subject areas, and possibly group your ideas into core themes or paragraph headers. Choose the single piece of evidence you believe supports each point best.
  • Make something revision-ready – try to make something which you can come back to in a few months’ time which makes sense and will really get your head back to when you were preparing for your essay.
  • Consider what is most important – no doubt if you spoke about everything covered on the reading list you would have far more words than the average essay word count (which is usually advised around 1,500-2,000 words - it does depend on your tutor.) You have a limited amount of time, focus, and words, so choose what stands out to you as the most important issues for discussion. Focus on the important issues well rather than covering several points in a less-focused manner.
  • Make it your voice – your tutors want to hear from you about what you think and what your argument is, not lots of quotes of what others have said. Therefore, when planning and writing consider what your opinion is and make sure to state it. Use authors to support your viewpoint, or to challenge it, but make sure you are doing the talking and driving the analysis. At the same time, avoid slang, and ensure the language you use is easy to digest.
  • Make sure you can understand it - don’t feel you have to use big fancy words you don’t understand unless they happen to be relevant subject-specific terminology, and don’t swallow the Thesaurus. If you use a technical term, make sure to provide a definition. You most probably won’t have time to go into it fully, but if it is an important concept hint at the wider historical debate. State where you stand and why briefly you believe what you are stating before focusing on your main points. You need to treat the reader as both an alien from another planet, and a very intelligent person at the same time – make sure your sentences make sense, but equally make sure to pitch it right. As you can possibly tell, it is a fine balancing act so my advice is to read through your essay and ask yourself ‘why’ about every statement or argument you make. If you haven’t answered why, you likely require a little more explanation. Simple writing doesn’t mean a boring or basic argument, it just means every point you make lands and has impact on the reader, supporting them every step of the way.
  • Keep introductions and conclusions short – there is no need for massive amounts of setting the scene in the introduction, or an exact repeat of every single thing you have said in the essay appearing in the conclusion. Instead, in the first sentence of your introduction provide a direct answer to the question. If the question is suitable, it is perfectly fine to say yes, no, or it is a little more complicated. Whatever the answer is, it should be simple enough to fit in one reasonable length sentence. The next three sentences should state what each of your three main body paragraphs are going to argue, and then dive straight into it. With your conclusion, pick up what you said about the key points. Suggest how they possibly link, maybe do some comparison between factors and see if you can leave us with a lasting thought which links to the question in your final sentence.
  • Say what you are going to say, say it, say it again – this is a general essay structure; an introduction which clearly states your argument; a main body which explains why you believe that argument; and a conclusion which summarises the key points to be drawn from your essay. Keep your messaging clear as it is so important the reader can grasp everything you are trying to say to have maximum impact. This applies in paragraphs as well – each paragraph should in one sentence outline what is to be said, it should then be said, and in the final sentence summarise what you have just argued. Somebody should be able to quickly glance over your essay using the first and last sentences and be able to put together the core points.
  • Make sure your main body paragraphs are focused – if you have come across PEE (Point, Evidence, Explain – in my case the acronym I could not avoid at secondary school!) before, then nothing has changed. Make your point in around a sentence, clearly stating your argument. Then use the best single piece of evidence available to support your point, trying to keep that to a sentence or two if you can. The vast majority of your words should be explaining why this is important, and how it supports your argument, or how it links to something else. You don’t need to ‘stack’ examples where you provide multiple instances of the same thing – if you have used one piece of evidence that is enough, you can move on and make a new point. Try to keep everything as short as possible while communicating your core messages, directly responding to the question. You also don’t need to cover every article or book you read, rather pick out the most convincing examples.
  • It works, it doesn’t work, it is a little more complicated – this is a structure I developed for writing main body paragraphs, though it is worth noting it may not work for every question. It works; start your paragraph with a piece of evidence that supports your argument fully. It doesn’t work; see if there is an example which seems to contradict your argument, but suggest why you still believe your argument is correct. Then, and only if you can, see if there is an example which possibly doesn’t quite work fully with your argument, and suggest why possibly your argument cannot wholly explain this point or why your argument is incomplete but still has the most explanatory power. See each paragraph as a mini-debate, and ensure different viewpoints have an opportunity to be heard.
  • Take your opponents at their best – essays are a form of rational dialogue, interacting with writing on this topic from the past, so if you are going to ‘win’ (or more likely just make a convincing argument as you don’t need to demolish all opposition in sight) then you need to treat your opponents fairly by choosing challenging examples, and by fairly characterising their arguments. It should not be a slinging match of personal insults or using incredibly weak examples, as this will undermine your argument. While I have never attacked historians personally (though you may find in a few readings they do attack each other!), I have sometimes chosen the easier arguments to try to tackle, and it is definitely better to try to include some arguments which are themselves convincing and contradictory to your view.
  • Don’t stress about referencing – yes referencing is important, but it shouldn’t take too long. Unless your tutor specifies a method, choose a method which you find simple to use as well as being an efficient method. For example, when referencing books I usually only include the author, book title, and year of publication – the test I always use for referencing is to ask myself if I have enough information to buy the book from a retailer. While this wouldn’t suffice if you were writing for a journal, you aren’t writing for a journal so focus on your argument instead and ensure you are really developing your writing skills.
  • Don’t be afraid of the first person – in my Sixth Form I was told not to use ‘I’ as it weakened my argument, however that isn’t the advice I have received at Oxford; in fact I have been encouraged to use it as it forces me to take a side. So if you struggle with making your argument clear, use phrases like ‘I believe’ and ‘I argue’.

I hope this will help as a toolkit to get you started, but my last piece of advice is don’t worry! As you get so much practice at Oxford you get plenty of opportunity to perfect your essay writing skills, so don’t think you need to be amazing at everything straight away. Take your first term to try new methods out and see what works for you – don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Good luck!

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  • How to write an essay outline | Guidelines & examples

How to Write an Essay Outline | Guidelines & Examples

Published on August 14, 2020 by Jack Caulfield . Revised on July 23, 2023.

An essay outline is a way of planning the structure of your essay before you start writing. It involves writing quick summary sentences or phrases for every point you will cover in each paragraph , giving you a picture of how your argument will unfold.

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Table of contents

Organizing your material, presentation of the outline, examples of essay outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about essay outlines.

At the stage where you’re writing an essay outline, your ideas are probably still not fully formed. You should know your topic  and have already done some preliminary research to find relevant sources , but now you need to shape your ideas into a structured argument.

Creating categories

Look over any information, quotes and ideas you’ve noted down from your research and consider the central point you want to make in the essay—this will be the basis of your thesis statement . Once you have an idea of your overall argument, you can begin to organize your material in a way that serves that argument.

Try to arrange your material into categories related to different aspects of your argument. If you’re writing about a literary text, you might group your ideas into themes; in a history essay, it might be several key trends or turning points from the period you’re discussing.

Three main themes or subjects is a common structure for essays. Depending on the length of the essay, you could split the themes into three body paragraphs, or three longer sections with several paragraphs covering each theme.

As you create the outline, look critically at your categories and points: Are any of them irrelevant or redundant? Make sure every topic you cover is clearly related to your thesis statement.

Order of information

When you have your material organized into several categories, consider what order they should appear in.

Your essay will always begin and end with an introduction and conclusion , but the organization of the body is up to you.

Consider these questions to order your material:

  • Is there an obvious starting point for your argument?
  • Is there one subject that provides an easy transition into another?
  • Do some points need to be set up by discussing other points first?

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structure for a history essay

Within each paragraph, you’ll discuss a single idea related to your overall topic or argument, using several points of evidence or analysis to do so.

In your outline, you present these points as a few short numbered sentences or phrases.They can be split into sub-points when more detail is needed.

The template below shows how you might structure an outline for a five-paragraph essay.

  • Thesis statement
  • First piece of evidence
  • Second piece of evidence
  • Summary/synthesis
  • Importance of topic
  • Strong closing statement

You can choose whether to write your outline in full sentences or short phrases. Be consistent in your choice; don’t randomly write some points as full sentences and others as short phrases.

Examples of outlines for different types of essays are presented below: an argumentative, expository, and literary analysis essay.

Argumentative essay outline

This outline is for a short argumentative essay evaluating the internet’s impact on education. It uses short phrases to summarize each point.

Its body is split into three paragraphs, each presenting arguments about a different aspect of the internet’s effects on education.

  • Importance of the internet
  • Concerns about internet use
  • Thesis statement: Internet use a net positive
  • Data exploring this effect
  • Analysis indicating it is overstated
  • Students’ reading levels over time
  • Why this data is questionable
  • Video media
  • Interactive media
  • Speed and simplicity of online research
  • Questions about reliability (transitioning into next topic)
  • Evidence indicating its ubiquity
  • Claims that it discourages engagement with academic writing
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Expository essay outline

This is the outline for an expository essay describing how the invention of the printing press affected life and politics in Europe.

The paragraphs are still summarized in short phrases here, but individual points are described with full sentences.

  • Claim that the printing press marks the end of the Middle Ages.
  • Provide background on the low levels of literacy before the printing press.
  • Present the thesis statement: The invention of the printing press increased circulation of information in Europe, paving the way for the Reformation.
  • Discuss the very high levels of illiteracy in medieval Europe.
  • Describe how literacy and thus knowledge and education were mainly the domain of religious and political elites.
  • Indicate how this discouraged political and religious change.
  • Describe the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg.
  • Show the implications of the new technology for book production.
  • Describe the rapid spread of the technology and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
  • Link to the Reformation.
  • Discuss the trend for translating the Bible into vernacular languages during the years following the printing press’s invention.
  • Describe Luther’s own translation of the Bible during the Reformation.
  • Sketch out the large-scale effects the Reformation would have on religion and politics.
  • Summarize the history described.
  • Stress the significance of the printing press to the events of this period.

Literary analysis essay outline

The literary analysis essay outlined below discusses the role of theater in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park .

The body of the essay is divided into three different themes, each of which is explored through examples from the book.

  • Describe the theatricality of Austen’s works
  • Outline the role theater plays in Mansfield Park
  • Introduce the research question : How does Austen use theater to express the characters’ morality in Mansfield Park ?
  • Discuss Austen’s depiction of the performance at the end of the first volume
  • Discuss how Sir Bertram reacts to the acting scheme
  • Introduce Austen’s use of stage direction–like details during dialogue
  • Explore how these are deployed to show the characters’ self-absorption
  • Discuss Austen’s description of Maria and Julia’s relationship as polite but affectionless
  • Compare Mrs. Norris’s self-conceit as charitable despite her idleness
  • Summarize the three themes: The acting scheme, stage directions, and the performance of morals
  • Answer the research question
  • Indicate areas for further study

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structure for a history essay

You will sometimes be asked to hand in an essay outline before you start writing your essay . Your supervisor wants to see that you have a clear idea of your structure so that writing will go smoothly.

Even when you do not have to hand it in, writing an essay outline is an important part of the writing process . It’s a good idea to write one (as informally as you like) to clarify your structure for yourself whenever you are working on an essay.

If you have to hand in your essay outline , you may be given specific guidelines stating whether you have to use full sentences. If you’re not sure, ask your supervisor.

When writing an essay outline for yourself, the choice is yours. Some students find it helpful to write out their ideas in full sentences, while others prefer to summarize them in short phrases.

You should try to follow your outline as you write your essay . However, if your ideas change or it becomes clear that your structure could be better, it’s okay to depart from your essay outline . Just make sure you know why you’re doing so.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

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structure for a history essay

A Guide to Teaching Essay Structure

Red pen marking student essay

Prevent students from 'telling a story' in their essays by helping them understand how arguments work

Essays are an important assessment type in subjects like History, and the skills required to succeed in essay writing are also foundational to other assessment pieces as well. As a result, both students and teachers need to invest significant time in understanding how to craft them.

When you first teach essay writing to students, it is important to demonstrate the core elements of structure first. Since the structure of History essays is foundational to the success of the argument and, by definition, the success of the essay itself, it is the most obvious place to start.

Here are the crucial ideas that students need to grasp about the argumentative structure of History essays:

  • An essay’s hypothesis must be a 'genuine argument'
  • The topic sentences of each body paragraph must be drawn from the hypothesis
  • Each body paragraph needs to be supported by good evidence

structure for a history essay

In order to teach these ideas, I find that it is best not to use a historical topic as your first example. Most students struggle to understand the contestability of historical arguments, so using one as your first example could only confuse students more as they will already be working hard to understand essay structure.

Therefore, I tend to find that more ‘real world’ examples work best when teaching essays for the first time. These ‘real world’ examples can be based upon your students’ own interests. For example, create an example argument about who the best sports team is, or who the most influential global personality is, or whether homework is important to academic success. The more interesting the topic, the more the students will care about the argument.

Alternatively, you could prepare a number of these example topics for your class and even get them to choose which one they would like to use.

Once decided, use it to proceed through the following steps.

1. An essay’s hypothesis is a 'genuine argument'

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing essays is that they simply present a ‘story’ about a historical event or person. As a result, they fail to understand the purpose of a hypothesis .

A hypothesis is a statement about what the entire essay is arguing .

When an essay is nothing more than a narrative story, there is no argument.

Crucially, then, the first concept that needs to be understood is that each essay needs a hypothesis that is a 'genuine argument'. A ‘genuine argument’ means that what the essay is trying to prove could be challenged by someone else, or that the opposite of the hypothesis could be used in a different essay.

For example, a student could argue that:

“Homework is detrimental to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students”

If this is a genuine argument, the opposite of it could easily be used by someone else for their own argument. For example, another student could argue that:

“Homework is beneficial to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students”

This is one of the reasons that a ‘narrative’ essay fails to create good hypotheses: it doesn’t create a genuine argument. For example, a simple ‘story’ essay could say that “World War One saw a tragic loss of life as millions of soldiers from many countries died between 1914 and 1918”. Clearly, there is no argument here: it is just telling a story. One way of demonstrating the lack of an argument is to show that there is no way to argue the opposite of this.

2. Topic sentences of each body paragraph must be drawn from the hypothesis

The second key concept helps build upon the first. As a hypothesis presents the argument that the entire essay is going to prove, then students must make sure that they’re proving it throughout their body paragraphs .

Students can easily get lost in writing their body paragraphs and forget that they are supposed to be proving the argument they presented in their hypothesis.

To highlight that there is a direct relationship between their hypothesis and each of their body paragraphs, it is worth showing students that a good hypothesis can be ‘sliced’ into three parts that each of their body paragraphs will prove.

For example, the hypothesis that “ Homework is detrimental to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students ” has three clear elements that need to be proven: the social , emotional and physical impacts. As a result, each will become a topic sentence for their body paragraphs.

Be aware that once students notice the three elements, they will try to take the ‘path of least resistance’ in making their topic sentences. So, using the example above, they might try to make the following topic sentences:

  • Homework is detrimental to the social wellbeing of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the physical wellbeing of students

It is important to stress that each topic sentence needs to be expanded to provide a specific reason. Most of the time, students will need to know what evidence they’re using in order to successfully provide specific justifications. For the sake of the above example, here are three improved versions of the topic sentences:

  • Due to the extra time required that could otherwise be spent developing friendships, homework is detrimental to the social development of students
  • Homework is detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of students because of the additional daily stress it adds to students who are already overloaded with assessment pieces.
  • Homework is detrimental to the physical health of students because it requires extended periods of student inactivity.

If the students find that they cannot identify three separate components from their hypothesis to prove in each body paragraph, it may indicate that their hypothesis was not developed enough. However, if you are introducing essays to your students for the first time, ensure that you provide example hypotheses that have three clear elements in order to help students grasp this step easily.

3. Each body paragraph needs to be supported by good evidence

Another common mistake made by students is that they feel the need to fill their body paragraphs with as much historical knowledge as possible. Consequently, students often fall back into the ‘tell a story’ mode which provides a series of people and events about the topic, rather than using the paragraph to present information that helps prove their argument.

The crucial step for students to understand is that whatever they said in their topic sentence needs to be shown in the sources from which they quote in their body paragraphs. While students will have to demonstrate historical knowledge of people, places, dates and event in their work, it should only be used as a way to help show how their sources prove their topic sentences.

If you’re doing your example essay which was based upon a ‘real world’ argument, this can be a great time to let students conduct research to find their own evidence. For example, if students are arguing for their favourite sporting team or their most inspiring personality, they can find facts and figures to justify their argument. (Also, this might be a great time to teach referencing of their sources, if you have time).

Once students then have their sources, they can begin crafting their body paragraphs in order to use their chosen evidence to prove their topic sentences. (You can read more about how to write essay paragraphs here , as I don't have the space to expand upon this part of essay writing in this blog post).

The end result

By the end of their example essay, students should have a better understanding of what makes a good hypothesis, how each topic sentence is drawn from the argument and how evidence is used by body paragraphs to help prove the argument.

Once you have built the example essay as a class (about a sports team or homework, etc.), working as a class to deconstruct a pre-written History essay to identify each element can be enormously beneficial for the students. Furthermore, if time allows, following the same steps to then begin writing their own History essay will often be the moment when the ‘lightbulb moment’ occurs for many of your students.

The entire process I have outlined may take as much as three or four lessons. If you have this amount of time, here is a potential approach:

  • Lesson 1: Example ‘real world’ essay construction
  • Lesson 2: Deconstruct a pre-written History essay
  • Lesson 3-4: Plan and write a class History essay

Also, if you're looking for a more detailed guide to academic essay writing, particularly for senior students, I cannot recommend the book  A Short Guide to Writing About History enough (pictured to the right).

structure for a history essay

Final thoughts

Essay writing is an art that can only truly be mastered by continual practice. Don’t expect students to produce academically sophisticated essays straight away. However, if they can master the key structural elements of how an argument works through the hypothesis, topic sentences and evidence, they can avoid the simplistic errors found in the ‘narrative’ essay.

I hope that this has helped spark some new ideas for your own teaching of History essays. I would be very interested to hear from other teachers about what they have found works for them. Please feel free to add your thoughts below so that we can all benefit from the accumulated wisdom of other professionals.

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Best way to structure a history essay

The Best Way to Structure an Undergraduate History Essay

The Best Way to Structure an Undergraduate History Essay 

structure for a history essay

Any essay, regardless of the subject, teaches you to think critically, to reason on complex and controversial issues, to characterise phenomena. With regard to history, reflect on events and reveal the identity of the historical character. Such a creative task helps the examiners understand how well the student knows the subject, whether he is able to organise and analyse the material, whether he can write about it freely. History is not an easy science. This is just information, and the researcher ponders how it was or how it could be in reality. That is why we decided to help you and tell you a couple of secrets on how to better structure your essay.

Important to  Remember

Before starting your paper, it is necessary to clearly understand the specifics of historical research. In many ways, the work of a historian resembles that of a detective. Based on the available evidence (sources), using relevant methods, it is necessary to restore the picture of the events that took place. But there is one big difference from the activity of the detective, namely, the historical background must be taken into account. There is no need for a detective to concentrate on this specially, he/she, him/herself lives in this reality. 

For a historian, everything is not so simple, he/she must take into account that at different times people were driven by a different logic. The picture of the world of modern man and the picture of the medieval world will differ dramatically. It is impossible to assess the events of the Middle Ages, the same Inquisition , from the point of view of modern morality. If you do not have the ability to look at historical events as an independent historian, then perhaps you would be better off turning to the essay writing service for help.

Note: Don’t Mention too Many Dates

Do not overuse dates in your essay. Why? Oh, because the requirements, as a rule, do not say anything about the dates, but a couple of points can be removed for a mistake. Therefore, before writing a year-month-do-hour-minute of the events that you taught so meticulously, think – are you sure of its correctness? Of course, such significant dates as, for example, the establishment of America’s independence or the dates of the First World War should still be indicated, but you must be responsible for their correctness.

Structure and Content

A well-written history essay will include the following points:

* Introduction;

* Main part;

* Conclusion.

Each item should contain information that will maximise the chosen topic. At the same time, you should not supply your essay with empty, meaningless sentences. If you want to know an outside opinion about what you wrote, then ask a friend to give you a review. Speaking of reviews, if you have any doubts about the quality of an essay site, you can also read the reviews of satisfied customers.

Write an Introduction

Very little is required of you here: just indicate 2 events/processes (preferably with reference to a specific date) that fit into the framework of the period, without detailed disclosure. Also, this paragraph should contain a disclosure of the roles of two historical figures associated with the above events. The algorithm is as follows: 1 person – a role in 1 event; 2nd person – a role in 2nd event. At this step, students very often face the difficulty of interpreting the very concept of “role in an event”. In fact, everything is very simple: the role of an individual in an event is basically his/her specific actions (orders, command of troops, negotiations , etc.) that influenced this event and are directly related to it.

Write the Main Part

Most often, here you are required to indicate two cause-and-effect relationships within the selected period. Also, the main part should contain a historical assessment of the significance of the period based on facts or an authoritative opinion.

Write a Conclusion

With the last paragraph, you conclude the entire essay with the classic “the significance of this period for the history of America / the world cannot be overemphasised because of …”. Congratulations, your essay on history is written! Now … put it all into practice.

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A Level History Essay Structure – A Guide

  • Post author By admin
  • Post date December 1, 2022
  • No Comments on A Level History Essay Structure – A Guide

Getting an A Level History essay structure right is by no means an easy task. In this post we will look at how we can build a structure from which our essay can develop.

A level History Essay Structure - Simple

Here you can see the most simplified essay structure for tackling A level History essays. All students should be familiar with this structure. We have broken the essay down into an introduction and conclusion as well as 3 separate parts of content. Running through the entire essay at the side is our line of argument. Whilst this may seem fairly simple, many students still fail to adequately follow this structure, when writing essay answers under exam conditions.

The reasons this structure works well is that it enables you to cover 3 different factors of content. These can be aligned 2-1 or 1-2 on either side of the argument. Your essay is now balanced (covering both sides of the argument), whilst at the same time being decisive in terms of your line of argument and judgement. It is also consistent with the amount you can write in the exam time given for (20-25) mark essay questions.

Expanded A level History Essay Structure

structure for a history essay

Let’s look at an expanded essay structure. Again, we have our introduction and conclusion as well as 3 separate parts of content. Now we can see that we have added whether or not each of our parts of content agrees or disagrees with the question premise. In order to have a balanced essay we can see on this example that; Content 1 agrees, Content 2 disagrees, and Content 3 can go either way. This overall A Level History essay structure ensures a balanced essay that also reaches judgement.

Furthermore, we have now broken down each individual part of Content/Factor. This can be seen as a mini essay in its own right. The Content/Factor is introduced and linked to the question as well as being concluded and linked to the question. Then we write 2 to 3 separate points within the body of the Content/Factor. We have 2 points that agree with the overall argument of this section of content. This strongly backs up our argument.

Then we can also potentially (this doesn’t have to be done always, but when done right creates a more nuanced analysis) add a third point that balances that particular section of content. However, it doesn’t detract from the overall argument of this factor/content. E.g. In the short term ‘point 3’ occurred but of much greater significance was ‘point 1’ and ‘point 2.’

How To Improve Further at A Level History

Pass A Level History – is our sister site, which shows you step by step, how to most effectively answer any A Level History extract, source or essay question. Please click the following link to visit the site and get access to your free preview lesson.

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How to get away with AI-generated essays

Prof Paul Kleiman on putting ChatGPT to the test on his work. Plus letters from Michael Bulley and Dr Paul Flewers

No wonder Robert Topinka found himself in a quandary ( The software says my student cheated using AI. They say they’re innocent. Who do I believe?, 13 February ). To test ChatGPT’s abilities and weaknesses, I asked it to write a short essay on a particular topic that I specialised in. Before looking at what it produced, I wrote my own 100% original short essay on the same topic. I then submitted both pieces to ChatGPT and asked it to identify whether they were written by AI or a human. It immediately identified the first piece as AI-generated. But then it also said that my essay “was probably generated by AI”.

I concluded that if you write well, in logical, appropriate and grammatically correct English, then the chances are that it will be deemed to be AI-generated. To avoid detection, write badly. Prof Paul Kleiman Truro, Cornwall

Robert Topinka gets into a twist about whether his student’s essay was genuine or produced by AI. The obvious solution is for such work not to contribute to the final degree qualification. Then there would be no point in cheating.

Let there be real chat between teachers and students rather than ChatGPT , and let the degree be decided only by exams, with surprise questions, done in an exam room with pen and paper, and not a computer in sight. Michael Bulley Chalon-sur-Saône, France

Dr Robert Topinka overlooks a crucial factor with respect to student cheating – so long as a degree is a requirement to obtain a reasonable job, then chicanery is inevitable. When I left school at 16 in the early 1970s, an administrative job could be had with a few O-levels; when I finished my PhD two decades ago and was looking for that sort of job, each one required A-levels, and often a degree. I was a mature student, studying for my own edification, and so cheating was self-defeating. Cheating will stop being a major problem only when students attend university primarily to learn for the sake of learning and not as a means of gaining employment. Dr Paul Flewers London

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