Arts: History essay

What is the purpose of a history essay?

As with many other scholars, historians learn their craft through researching and writing essays. The main purpose of a history essay is to formulate and defend a logical and convincing argument about a key problem or question in the discipline.

This involves:

  • examining important debates among historians
  • demonstrating skills in finding, evaluating, and presenting analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources.

Sources in a history essay

The research materials required for a history essay will generally fit into one of two categories: primary sources (first hand evidence) and secondary sources (scholarly writings on the topic).

How to analyse your sources

Analytical writing relies on a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources. In order to generate this kind of engagement, many historians and other scholars compile a list of questions, or make up a note taking template, that encourages them to think critically and write down their thoughts.

The difference between descriptive and analytical writing

When writing a history essay, you will be required to both describe and analyse your sources and your topic. While description and analysis are both essential features of academic writing, remember that the purpose of your essay is not to merely describe past events or the material contained in your sources. For a strong critical argument, you must also analyse them.

Descriptive writing is necessary in order to outline a past event or set of conditions, or to summarise the content or argument of a text. While descriptive writing may be necessary, it does not demonstrate a deep understanding of your sources or the topic. Descriptive writing is there to support your analysis.

Analytical writing involves a critical engagement with your primary and secondary sources.