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.
- examining important debates among historians
- demonstrating skills in finding, evaluating, and presenting analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources.
5 key steps to a successful history essay View
A clear response to the question or problem that you are addressing.
A convincing argument that explains why your response is valid.
A logically structured development of the argument in the main body of the essay.
Critical evaluation and skillful use of relevant primary sources.
Critical evaluation and skillful use of relevant and up-to-date 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).
Typically, primary sources are materials that were produced during the historical period that you are studying. These kinds of research materials are called primary sources because they were written or created by those who experienced or observed the events and conditions under analysis. However, primary sources can also include related autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories and other materials that were recorded after these events and conditions.
Primary sources take many different forms. The most common types used by historians are:
- texts, such as letters, diaries, official documents, newspaper reports, or fictional accounts (such as novels or poems)
- oral accounts, accessible through audio or audio-visual recordings and transcripts
- images, such as paintings, prints, photographs, maps and posters
- film from the period.
This is far from an exhaustive list! All surviving materials are potential primary sources. New scholarship in the discipline depends, to a significant extent, on exploring different kinds and combinations of primary sources.
Secondary sources are studies of the past written by historians or, occasionally, scholars in other disciplines. You should be relying on scholarly sources, which are secondary sources that have been reviewed by experts in the field and recommended for publication. These can be found in peer reviewed journals and books from scholarly publishers. They are the product of considerable research and contribute to ongoing academic discussions in the discipline.
Secondary sources generally come in the following forms:
- books written by a single author or co-written with other historians
- edited collections. These are books that focus on a particular period or theme that consist of separately authored chapters
- peer-reviewed journal articles. These are articles published in recognised academic journals that have gone through a referee process.
In your essay, you will be required to use these types of scholarly sources to support your argument. The quality of the sources you choose will influence the quality of your essay.
Non-scholarly sources can include newspaper articles, blog posts, popular (non-academic) books, and journals or magazines that are not peer reviewed. In most cases, these kinds of sources are not appropriate for a research essay in history unless they are used as primary source material.
Check your understanding View
Imagine that you are conducting research for an essay about the relations between Europeans and Native Americans during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).
Consider each of the sources below and decide whether or not it is a primary or a secondary source.
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.
- What do I know about the circumstances and context surrounding its creation? How does this impact the content and the views presented in the work?
- Whose voices are present in the text? Have important perspectives been left out? Why is this? What implications does this have for my ability to answer the question?
- What secondary sources or theories might be useful for contextualising, understanding and interpreting a source such as this?
- How is this type of source useful in exploring and answering my central question (in other words, how is it important for the development of my argument)?
- Does this source contradict my thinking on the topic? What does this mean for my overall argument?
- What argument is this scholar making?
- What evidence or theories have they used?
- Have they provided enough supporting evidence to support the argument?
- Is their reasoning sound? In other words, have they drawn conclusions that are a suitable match for the evidence that they have provided?
- How has this study changed or influenced my understanding of the topic and my approach to the essay question?
The table below offers an example of how you might construct a note taking template to help you critically analyse your sources. It will help you identify connections between sources, and will help you use the secondary sources to offer a perspective on your primary sources.
|Source||Letter from George Washington to John Stanwix dated 1758|
|Key content/quotes||“the Indians are mercenary; every service of theirs must be purchased.”|
|Relevant secondary source arguments/perspectives||Gregory Evans Dowd: gifts “embodied, for both peoples, relations of friendship, leaderships, power, and domination.”|
|Significance||The British perceived their gifts to the Cherokee as a form of payment. They thus positioned the Cherokee as mercenaries who should be treated as subordinates and whose loyalty was not guaranteed.|
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.
Check your understanding View
Read each paragraph and decide whether it is descriptive or analytical.