I. What to Look For
The first step in the successful writing of a history essay is to
read the question carefully and understand what is being asked.
Many writers spend their time writing "around" a question
because, by failing to grasp immediately the essence of a
question, they fail to perceive what the professor wants
For example: "Without the contributions of George Washington, the
rebelling Colonials would never have won the Revolutionary War.
Discuss." In this question you are not being asked to recite a
memorized factual summary of the contributions of George
Washington to the revolutionary effort, nor are you being asked
to spit back the major battle" of the War. Rather, you are being
asked for an evaluation of George's contributions--a critical
assessment made by yourself and based upon the knowledge which
you have acquired, not memorized, from the lectures and
readings--with references to the indispensability of such
II. Types of Questions
You may be called upon to "discuss", "trace", "compare and
contrast", "write and essay", "evaluate", etc. Do not be taken
off guard by the imperative verb because all you are being asked
to do is deal with an historical problem, usually one in which
scores of scholars already have written thousands of pages, no
five of the "experts" in total agreement. The verb within the
questions is the professor's method of channelling your answer in
a certain direction. Note the following examples, all treating a
single problem, yet each a little different because of the
- "Discuss the role of sea power in gaining the eventual victory
over the British in the Revolutionary War."
- "Compare and contrast American and British sea power
accomplishments during the Revolutionary War."
- "Trace the development of American sea power showing how it
proved decisive during the Revolutionary War."
- "Write an essay on the effectiveness of American sea power
during the Revolutionary War."
- "Evaluate American sea power during the Revolutionary War."
A second type of question begins with "what", "why", "how", etc.
Example: "How did American sea power facilitate the victory over
the British in the Revolutionary War?" and "What accounts for the
effectiveness of American sea power during the Revolutionary
A third type of question, the "What if you were", or "Let's
pretend" type, is less frequently used by professors. An example
of this sort is: "If you were John Paul Jones writing during the
Revolutionary War, how would you phrase a note to the Continental
Congress requesting appropriations for further naval supplies?"
This kind of question calls for an understanding of the
historical period, an imaginative mind, and a good deal of
III. Method of Answering
To the historian (and that means you by reason of your major or
simply because you are enrolled in a history course) the most
important part of his writing, be it an examination, book, or
polemic, is the thesis. To the ordinary world (non-historians)
what the historian calls a thesis is nothing more than "the point
he's trying to make." But to us of the in-group a thesis is a
thesis. For instance, in answering the question about George
Washington's contributions to the war effort, you may have
contended that he was not indispensable. To you, that was a
statement of your opinion, interpretation, point of view, etc.
But to the historian that was your thesis! Consequently, from now
on you will not write an opinion in an essay, you will write a
Every essay should have a thesis, a consistent and logical
arrangement which runs throughout your entire essay. Some
questions lend themselves more readily to theses. Nevertheless,
if your essay is going to say anything worth reading, there
should be a thesis consistently developed within. Most of you are
familiar with the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony,
but if you listen closely to the Symphony, and the First Movement
in particular, you will notice that Beethoven continually returns
with those original four notes as if to remind his listeners of
the boldness of the introduction. You too, in writing an essay,
must present a bold first four notes, in this case your thesis,
and develop throughout the essay the proof of those four notes
In presenting your answer use this standard format:
A. The Introduction to your essay should be
bold, direct, and assertive - it should present in general (or
specific) terms the point that you intend to prove in your essay.
This, to the historian (and you), is the presentation of the
thesis. (Remember Beethoven's first four notes!) An example of
such a presentation in answer to the George Washington question
"Throughout the Revolutionary ware period George Washington, as
Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, waged a war against
great odds in attempting to evict from North America the legions
of British troops intent upon quashing a pesky colonial uprising.
From l776 until eventual victory in 1783, Washington played a
decisive role in prosecuting the war, a role which in the long
run appears to have been indispensable."
"No man is ever indispensable, least of all George Washington in
his role as Commander-in-chief of the Colonial Army during the
Revolutionary War. Certainly Washington made contributions to the
Colonial effort, but in the long run others in the Army could
have performed at 1east equally as well as the Father of his
B. The Body of your essay is where you use the
facts you have learned to prove the validity of your opening
position - your thesis.
There are three general ways in which the body of an essay can be
1) the chronological,
2) the categorical, and
3) the stages-of development.
others may be used, but these three are the most common.
l) Using the chronological approach you simply present
the factual proof of your thesis in chronological order. With
reference to our George Washington example, proof of Washington's
indispensability might be structured something like:
"In 1776 George Washington who played an indispensable role when
he . . ." (and here would follow detail of Washington's actions
in that year).
"Again in 1778 one can discern the indispensable character of
Washington when he . . ." (more specifics).
"Finally, in 1783 at Yorktown, Washington's indispensable action
in the securing of . . ." (more).
(Note carefully that in each paragraph in which fresh,
chronologically-arranged information was presented to prove my
thesis, I included a direct or indirect reference back to that
thesis--i.e., the indispensable role played by George Washington
during the war. This is what Beethoven does, too.)
2) In the categorical approach the proof within the Body
of your essay is ordered according to categories of action rather
than by dates. Here are the general categories historians use,
with the acronym, STAMPIERE to help you remember them.
S = social
T = technological
A = administrative
M = military
P = political
I = intellectual
E = economic
R = religious
E = external (foreign policy)
Very seldom, if ever, are all of these categories applicable to a
single question. This method is especially useful ln answering
broad general questions such as: "What changes took place ln
America during the Jacksonian era?" Here you might discuss the
era with reference to the social, administrative, political,
intellectual, economic, religious and external developments.
3) In the stages-of-development approach you are usually
being asked to treat complex developments over a long period of
time. By using the stagesof development approach you are able to
simplify questions and deal with recognizable smaller spans of
time within the overall period under study. For instance, this
approach is most appropriate for a question such as "Discuss the
course of American foreign policy from 1920 until the
present."Here you could break down the period 1920-1966 into the
smaller stages of development:
1942-1945: World war II
1945-1947: Years of Indecision
C. The Conclusion of your essay examination can
be a time for ramifications upon your thesis, a time for
corollaries, or a time for simple reiteration of the points
presented ln the Introduction and proven ln the Body. Whatever it
is, the Conclusion will baffle you only if you do not know what
you have been writing. In general, the Conclusion need be nothing
more than a space in which you say in so many words: "I said
such-and-such ln the beginning, I have proven with facts the
rectitude of my assessment, therefore what I have contended is
Revised/Shirley Henderson 10/90