Section V: How to Write an Essay for History

Learning to write a proper historical essay is one of the more important skills you will develop at St. Albans. In Form V US History you will write an extended essay based upon original research, but developing your skills of historical writing begin in Form III (and earlier). Each course and instructor will have slightly different assignments and guidelines for writing essays. Here are a few general points to keep in mind:

Get Started Early

Once you have been assigned an essay you should begin work as soon as possible. Don’t procrastinate! There’s a reason instructors assign some work two weeks in advance of a due date; they expect you to spend more than a single evening writing. As with any written work, the more time you give yourself to write, edit, and proof-read, the more coherent and polished your final product. A common element in poor writing at St. Albans is waiting to the last minute to throw something together. Like any work of art, an essay is the product of your mind and demands skill, thought, and time to shape properly. You should be proud of your written work and feel good to have someone read it.

Selecting a Topic

Make certain that you clearly understand what your instructor expects from the assignment before you begin writing. Have you been asked to answer a specific question? Write a book review? Research a specific topic? If you are unsure of what has been asked or how to start, sit down with your instructor and discuss the assignment.

Thesis Statement

History is NOT simply a compilation of random facts, but the selection, arrangement, an interpretation of facts to make a point, that is, to craft an historical argument. Almost every essay you will be asked to write in history courses at St. Albans will demand a thesis of some sort. The thesis statement, usually a single sentence, serves as your argument. It is the controlling idea around which you construct your essay. A thesis is a conclusion, and in a history essay you will begin by stating your conclusion (thesis). A successful thesis should 1) provide an answer to the question posed, and 2) give some indication of why you think this to be the case. A simple way of thinking about how to construct a thesis involves two points to make with regard to your reader: 1) I want to convince you that…, and 2) the reasons why you should believe me are….  Therefore, the following is not a particularly good thesis: Sparta and Athens didn’t like each other and finally went to war in 431 BC.  A proper thesis explains and provides direction. Much better would be: Due to concerns over the economic expansion of Athens and the military recklessness of the Athenian-controlled Delian League, Sparta and its allies felt compelled to go to war in 431 BC to check the power of an over-might state. The second thesis wants to convince you that Sparta declared war because of its fears over the increasing power of Athens (a debatable point, that is, an historical argument) and provides direction by indicating that economic and military concerns will be discussed as integral to your argument (that is, they are reasons to believe you). The six question words might also help guide you in constructing a strong thesis: Who? What? How? When? Where? And WHY?

Supporting Your Thesis

Every sentence you write should SUPPORT YOUR THESIS. Information not directly related to it will appear irrelevant. Therefore, a history essay without a thesis will appear irrelevant or unguided. When you organize any essay for history, be it a simple exam answer or a twenty-page research paper, you should always keep your thesis in mind. Make certain that the material you include supports the objective established by your thesis. Do not simply write down every fact you know on the subject. You will need to select the facts that support your point. Every paragraph you write should have its own point of argument that relates to your thesis. For example, to support the thesis on Sparta above, even in a short essay, there should appear a paragraph covering the economic expansion of Athens and another on the military recklessness of the Delian League.

Essays on Exams

Yes, you still need to provide a thesis. The thesis statement on an exam essay will answer the question; the rest of your essay will prove your thesis (argument).

Use of Quotations

A good historical writer does not simply string together the words of other writers. Effective writing should communicate your ideas and your understanding of the issues and events that are the focus of your essay. “Quotations are effective in research papers when used selectively. Quote only words, phrases, lines, and passages that are particularly interesting, vivid, unusual, or apt, and keep all quotations as brief as possible. Over-quotations can bore your readers and might lead them to conclude that you are neither an original thinker nor a skillful writer.”[2]


Always strive to write in clear, concise English. Always write in the past tense. The events you are writing about have already occurred and should be treated as such. Short sentences are easier to control and help make your point more clearly and forcefully. Paragraph divisions help separate ideas and points of argument.


Of course the more time to allow for proper revision the better your writing will become. Once you have written your essay, read it aloud. Does it make sense? Your eye may not pick up the inconsistencies and grammatical errors that will appear when you attempt to speak your essay. Is your argument clear and persuasive? Can someone else understand it?


Plagiarism – taking the words or ideas of another and presenting them as your own without acknowledgment – is a serious academic offense. Of course we all work under the conditions set forth by the St. Albans honor code and should carry on our studies with the highest personal integrity. You are encouraged to use your peers to discuss material and study for tests. However, work is not to be purchased, revised or copied from another student, neither should it be otherwise received, edited, or engineered from any source and then submitted as your own unless that source is specifically cited. It is important that you adhere to the spirit as well as the letter of the law here. Rearranging words, using synonyms, or chopping and mixing sentences to distort the actual words of an author while retaining the idea conveyed IS STILL CONSIDERED PLAGIARISM. Violation of this policy will result in an honor offense.


[2] See Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, fifth edition (1999)

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