The History Research Essay

Writing essays is among the most important skills you will learn in studying history.  It is the means by which academics communicate ideas, opinions and discoveries to each other. Indeed, it is the basis for the way that just about everyone, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, politicians, communicate with each other.

The word essay derives from the French word which means "to try," which originated in the Latin word for weighing, balancing or examining.  That's pretty much what you do in an essay: try out ideas, weigh evidence, balance opinions and examine conclusions. A research essay is a sub-category in which the opinions expressed are grounded in and illustrated by evidence from outside the essay itself. Depending on the discipline, such evidence can be eyewitness accounts of an event, critical opinions, paintings, texts, interpretations, facts, dates, songs, plays... just about anything.

A good essay must communicate ideas clearly, effectively, convincingly and efficiently. A great essay will do this elegantly and provocatively.  The easiest way to ensure a good essay is to follow a few well-established rules about form and content:

Overall Structure

The structure of a classic, three-part essay is straightforward: Introduction, Body, Conclusion.  the Introduction, well, introduces the topic, provides the background necessary to understand the thesis argument, and then lays out the argument itself, in abbreviated form.  The Body is where the action is, breaking the thesis argument into smaller topics that can be arranged in a logical order and proven with analytical arguments, both original and borrowed, and historical evidence. The Conclusion permits a more sophisticated restatement of the thesis and an opportunity to expand upon the thesis, to suggest the general relevance and importance of your argument and to answer the "so what?" question.

The Introduction

The introduction should engage your reader, set out the general topic, and provide the core argument, or thesis, of your essay. In a legal trial, the introduction would be the equivalent of the opening statement.  It is composed of three parts:

The opening line or "zinger":   The "zinger" should engage the reader with a catchy phrase that relates to your topic. For example, a paper on Lincoln and the Civil War might begin: "Abraham Lincoln may not have actually built a log cabin with his bare hands, but he re- built the divided house that was America"

Background:   Move directly from your opening into the background necessary to understand you argument. Supply the who, what, when, and where as succinctly as possible.  Introduce your topic and provide a smooth segu? (transition) to your thesis statement.

Thesis:   A good thesis is invaluable.  Your thesis should conclude your introduction by setting out the argument you will make, the point you will prove, in the body of your essay.  A thesis must be an argument that can be proved or disproved. "Washington was our first president" is not a thesis because it cannot be disproved.  "Washington was a good president" is better, although "good" is too vague to be argued. "Washington was among our most effective presidents because he saw the advantages of consolidating presidential power, yet avoided the trappings of monarchy" is even better, as it is arguable, provable, and specific.  The thesis should not only set out a point to be proven, but also lay out a "road map" for how you will go about proving it. If your essay topic were "the French and American Revolutions," a good thesis might be,

The American Revolution succeeded in establishing a sound democratic republic, while the French Revolution failed, because the social, economic and political "soil" in America permitted democracy to take root, while that in France was infertile. The English colonies were characterized by social mobility, economic opportunity, and a tradition of political liberty, but the revolutionaries in France inherited a feudal social structure, widespread poverty and absolutist politics.  Thus , despite their ostensible similarities, the two revolutions were predestined by history to take divergent paths.

Such a thesis would have required background that described the two revolutions, in brief, and identified some similarities (who, what, when, etc...) In providing the "because" or the "how and why"  you should set up, or preview, the topic sentences of the major sections of your essay.  The body is laid out in the thesis itself.

The Body

The body of your essay is where you make your case.  To continue the trial analogy, the body would be where you provide evidence by interrogating witnesses and putting exhibits into the record.  The classic essay has three body sections, organized from weakest to strongest (with variations), or chronologically, or thematically, or comparatively, depending upon the needs of the topic.  You may want to begin your body section with a counter-argument that you refute, so as to convince your audience that you have addressed all sides of the issue.  Each section may have more than one paragraph. Each paragraph should contain a topic sentence, evidence, discussion and analysis, and a transition:

The topic sentence:   is like a mini-thesis, setting out the point of the paragraph by exploring one part of the overall thesis.  If your thesis involved a comparison of the French and American Revolutions, one paragraph might begin with a topic sentence on the perceived absence of social distinctions in America, as opposed to the hierarchical structure of French society.

Evidence/ Support:  The biggest job of your essay is research, collecting the historical material to help make your case.  These could include "facts:"such as dates, events, periods, movements, philosophies. You will find these in reference works, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, biographical encyclopedias, etc.  But to really learn about a period or event you will have to explore both primary and secondary sources. The former could include: newspaper accounts, diaries, paintings, photos, advertisements, speeches, letters, minutes, declarations, manifestos, songs, poems, contemporary books, tracts, etc.  Such primary sources are key, as they provide the historical legitimacy for your argument. They are the "eyewitness testimony" of your case. Secondary sources are like "expert testimony," giving your own original argument credibility by showing that some really experienced eggheads agree with you.  Such sources could include: academic books, monographs, dissertations, articles, latter fiction, etc.  When you find a source that is very compelling or useful, you should quote it directly, otherwise you should paraphrase. In any case, footnote (see footnote section, below).

Discussion/ Analysis:   The evidence needs you help!  Don't leave it hanging out there in the cold. Discuss and explain the significance of the evidence you have chosen.  How does the "Declaration of Independence" illustrate the Commonwealth tradition of Great Britain? Pretend (as hard as it might be) that your reader is a bit dim and needs to be walked through the evidence. Connect the dots between the evidence and your thesis. Remember the trial analogy and never overestimate the jury.

The transition sentence:   should sum up the paragraphs point and provide a smooth transition to the topic sentence of the next paragraph or section.

The Conclusion

Your audience (or jury) has travelled with you through at least three body sections in which you have laid out a cogent argument supported by facts and convincingly supported opinions.  In your conclusion you provide the "summation" or "closing arguments" that restate your thesis argument in more sophisticated terms.  Then you are free to expand upon the thesis to show its relevance to today or its usefulness in answering other important historical questions.

Thesis restatement:   You can now offer a more subtle and nuanced, or more provocative, version of your thesis, because the jury now knows what you knew when you devised your thesis in the first place.  Include a very succinct summary of your evidence.

Expansion:   While avoiding excessive hyperbole (exaggeration), you should permit yourself to go a bit wild in the expansion.  Here is where you can directly address the "so what" question. So, Washington was an effective president, "so what?"  The American revolution succeeded, while the French failed, "who gives?"  Tell us why your answer to the thesis question is significant for subsequent history, and/or for today.  What does it tell us about current society? The political process? The human condition? Here is your chance to editorialize, a bit. Go for it.

Some Random Suggestions for Your Essays

These are suggestions I have culled from comments I frequently make on students' work:

Cover Page should have title of essay that encapsulates thesis (centered). Your name, your teacher's, the course title, and the date should be listed in a column several lines below the title and offset to the right.

Openers should have "zingers" or "teasers" that catch your reader, (see "Awards" below)

General Practical Hints (in no particular order):
 - a research essay is neither a report nor a list, but " a composition on a particular theme or subject...   generally analytic, speculative or interpretive." (Random House Dictionary)
 - have fun and make your own voice audible, but do not use the first person  ("I")
 - avoid using the passive voice ("the Mona Lisa was made by Leonardo")
 - avoid double negatives, colloquialisms, and listing ideas without discussing them
 - avoid choppy sentences. Use clauses to vary your sentence structure and create "flow"
 - do not use section headings (your topic sentences should be enough) but do provide extra spaces   between sections ("section breaks')
 - be sure to double space
 - you paper should be no more than eight pages of text (does not include end notes or bibliography)
 - please put page numbers at the bottom of the text pages
 - when you cite a book in the text, please italicize it
 - pleas turn in your rough draft with your final draft

 - each paragraph (¦) should cover one idea, stated in the topic sentence at or near the start of the ¦
 - test each sentence in your head. Does it belong in this ¦?
 - when you switch ¦'s ask yourself: is there a reason for switching? Am I moving on to another idea?
 - be sure that each ¦ is complete. think of a ¦ as a mini essay: its topic sentence is an "intro," the   ideas, examples, quotes and specific analyses constitute the "body," and the transition is a   "conclusion" (but one that points toward the next topic).
 - be sure that your ¦ flows, that your sentences are not choppy or list-like

 - primary source quotes (ie. from the period you are discussing) should always be introduced and   discussed. Who said it, when and why? What is its significance?
 - secondary source quotes (ie. from historians or later observers) should only be used if you cannot   say what they say as well as they do. Otherwise paraphrase concisely and footnote the idea.
 - if the quote is more than three lines then indent the whole quote and remove the quotation marks
 - always introduce, analyze, discuss, and/or explain your quotes (do not end a ¦ with a quote)

Use of Specifics:
 - when you see comments such as "vague," specify," "explain,"" evidence," etc. please add the who,   what, when, where, and especially why of your idea.
 - choose a city, person, work of art, or event from history that supports your idea
 - as a famous architect once said: "God is in the details"

Citations, Footnotes and Bibliography
 - if you have an easy footnote program then you may use it
 - if not then include citations in parentheses immediately following the quote or paraphrase
 - the form for both of the above should be: author's first name and last name, book title, p. [page #]
 - bibliographic form: author's last name, first name. book title, date of publication
 - the bibliography should list the books alphabetically by author's last name

 - this should not be torture. Think of it as a game, or as "brain-ups" to build mind muscle

 (the winner of each gets a certificate and my undying appreciation)

The Sesquipedalian Award for Purple Prose:
The winner will be the person who can include as many of the foot long words below in his/her essay without changing the meaning of the sentence within which the word appears (please put the word in bold in your final draft)

sententious, inference, insidious, machinate, transmogrify, appertain, amalgamate, clientage, benefaction, precipitate, ramification, puissance, empyreal, sycophant, erudition, inscrutable, approbation, countenance, repudiate, eradicate, decimate, irreconcilable, manifest.

(hints: Do not use the word if it is inappropriate. I have chosen words based upon reading your essays so look closely at the comments on word usage.)

The "Best of Times" Award for Best Opening Line:
The winner will be the person with the best opening "zinger" that grabs the reader while advancing your argument

Monty Python's "Meaning of Life" Award for Most Ambitious Concluding Thought:
The winner will be the person who composes the most provocative expansion in his conclusion showing the relevance and import of the topic

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