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How to write a history essay

History essays focus more on demonstrating that you have an understanding of the issues to a set question than to finding the correct answer to the set question.

How to write a history essay

It is rather difficult to arrive at a definite answer with most historical problems. In general for each historical question there will be a body of evidence that will be relevant to it. This body of evidence typically will explain about the events and phenomena under discussion. A good answer will need to bring together all of this evidence and explain why particular items have been dismissed as having no bearing on the problem.

Analyse the Question

You must have a thorough understanding of the question by identifying the exact nature of the question; what are you being asked, this will help in giving an adequate answer that is the kind of information you will need to answer the question. Historical essays do not involve simply reporting information, rather it requires you to understand the question and make a judgment on the issue. Paying keen attention to keywords in the question is also important; words such as: discuss, explain, compare, evaluate and so on.

Here we explain how to write a history essay and expand on some of the keywords that are so important to understand:

'Explain' and 'why' questions:

These type of questions demand a list of reasons or one big reason; each reason will have to be explained - that is, clarified, expanded upon, and illustrated.


This is to break-down something. To determine the nature and relationship of the parts of; say "how" or "why" something happened. This could be likened to "cause and effect".

'Assess' and 'evaluate':

This is how true or false something is. To judge value of its character; this should be supported by explanations and evidence. Evaluate discuss merits and de-merits, it is giving an opinion regarding the value of it.


This demands the purpose of identifying similarities and differences. When the question calls for comparisons, they expect you to include differences as well. One way of going about such an essay would be to distinguish areas of similarity and differences; furthermore give a section in which you would assess the degree of similarity and reach a sub-conclusion.


Give an account of; tell about; give a word picture of.


Show the different sides of, and argue from various points of views.


Make known in detail, to make clear or plain.

'What-role-did-X-play-in-Y' questions:

This requires you to identify the function of some group or institution within some specific system. This is the functionalist approach. The subject of the question is the 'Y' rather than the 'X' element. This question requires a discussion of the system as a whole and the consideration of alternative explanations of how 'X' worked within it.

To What Extent and In What Ways:

Involves measure of, that is, how much? For instance, Examine five spheres which cast light on the extent of Jewish influence in high medieval France: namely, their role in the commercial life of the towns, the role of Jewish banking in the agrarian economy, their influence on Christian intellectual life and so on. It has been seen that the Jews exerted a profound influence on the intellectual life of the universities but almost none on that of the established monastic orders.

In what ways should show how an event or condition relates to another. Understand what was done and what was left to be done. In this you should expect counter-arguments, did an event or condition relate to another?

Knowing how to write a history essay is not just about knowing facts and figures. It's also about how you structure your writing so it flows.


The introduction:

It is usually one paragraph and its purpose is to clearly set out the problem to be discussed in the paper, define key terms that will be used, outline the structure of the argument and to clearly state the thesis. The thesis statement is the version of your argument. The thesis thus presents new information to your reader, however, for it to be a good thesis it will require you to introduce the concepts in it before presenting the thesis itself. That is the task of the introductory paragraph and that's how the thesis fits in the introductory paragraph.

For instance, "The nature of slave rights had a dual character. On the one hand, in order to maintain the total dominance of the white master class, the law denied any rights to slaves. Publicly, the slave was merely property, and not human at all. Yet the personal records of many planters suggest that slaves often proved able to demand customary "rights" from their masters. In the privacy of the master-slave relationship, the black man did indeed have rights which the white man was bound to respect, on pain of losing his labor or subjecting himself to violence. This conflict between slaves' lack of "public" rights and masters' "private" acknowledgment of slaves' rights undermined planters' informal rule and permitted slaves a degree of freedom within an oppressive system." The thesis is clearly structured between two concepts public and private rights which are included into the thesis. This gives the reader a clear idea of what the paper will need to argue to prove its thesis.

The body:

You need an organising scheme for your paper, which most often will be suggested by your thesis. Let's take this thesis: "In the 1950s, American auto workers developed their identities as laborers in the home as well as the workplace." This thesis suggests a structure: at the very least, you will have to divide things up into "home" and "workplace." The general flow in the body is from the general to the specific. Start with general statements, such as "Federal policy towards native peoples aimed at either assimilating Indians or exterminating them." Then move on to specific statements which support your general statement, such as "The origins of the policy of assimilation can be traced back to Puritan missionaries of the 1650s."

The use of paragraphs is essential and must start with a topic sentence. Each paragraph should have a main point with a small argument to support the paragraph. The paragraphs of the paper must flow from one idea to the next. Arguing in the body need not be heated emotions and raised voices rather it should be intended to convince the reader through reason. One must anticipate counter-arguments which one can either: refute by proving it is false, as in, "While the federal census of 1890 seems to suggest an increase in black mortality, that census was infamous for recording specious data". Or you may accept certain true statements which refute your argument but explain why they do not harm your arguments, as in, "It was indeed true that Latino youth were incarcerated at a rate three to four times greater than Anglo youth, yet this may suggest the iniquitous workings of the local justice system rather than a Latino propensity towards crime."

This kind of arguing in the body will give more credibility to the paper and make it more persuasive.


This usually gives a brief explanation on your thesis, and pulls all your arguments together. The conclusion should show why the argument is important in the bigger picture of things, or suggest areas for further research. Or it could raise a bigger question.

We hope you gained a lot from reading our free 'how to write a history essay' guide.

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