Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates
The following document was prepared by Professors Matt Matsuda and John Gillis. The authors gratefully acknowledge the following for their aid:
- Ziva Galili, Rutgers University Department of History
- Mark Wasserman, Rutgers University Department of History
- Professor Kurt Spellmeyer and the Rutgers Writing Center Program
- Professor Scott Waugh and the UCLA Department of History for their Guide to Writing Historical Essays
- Professors Ronald R. Butters and George D. Gopen at Duke University for their GUIDELINES for the Use of Students Submitting Papers for University Writing Courses and Other Classes in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Department of English, 1992).
The purpose of this guide is to provide you with the basics for writing undergraduate history essays and papers. It is a guide only, and its step by step approach is only one possible model; it does not replace consultation with your professor, TA, or instructor about writing questions and getting feedback, nor the excellent tutoring services provided by the Rutgers Writing Center program (room 304, Murray Hall, College Avenue Campus) and the Douglass Writing Center (room 101, Speech and Hearing Building, Douglass Campus).
Writing is a craft. All serious writing is done in drafts with many hesitations, revisions, and new inspirations. Remember always that there is nothing natural about being able to write (we all have to be taught—over many years), and writing well is a matter of application, discipline, and effort. You may already write well. Just remember that our subject here—critical, scholarly writing—has special requirements.
In what follows we will briefly discuss the nature of historical writing, lay out a step by step model for constructing an essay, and provide a set of useful observations from our experience as instructors regarding problems that most frequently crop up in student writing.
Section 1: What Is Historical Writing?
The basic elements of academic essay writing are two: a thesis and evidence, divided into three parts: an introduction, the systematic development of an argument, and a conclusion. All scholarly writing, from the most concise paper to the longest book, follows these basic guidlines.
Historical essay writing is based upon the thesis. A thesis is a statement, an argument which will be presented by the writer. The thesis is in effect, your position, your particular interpretation, your way of seeing a problem. Resist the temptation, which many students have, to think of a thesis as simply "restating" an instructor's question. The writer should demonstrate originality and critical thinking by showing what the question is asking, and why it is important rather than merely repeating it. Your own informed perspective is what matters. Many first-year students ask whether the "thesis" is not just their "opinion" of a historical question. A thesis is indeed a "point of view," or "perspective," but of a particular sort: it is based not only on belief, but on a logical and systematic argument supported by evidence. The truism that we each have "our own" opinions misses the point. A good critical essay acknowledges that many perspectives are possible on any question, yet demonstrates the validity or correctness of the writer's own view.
Thesis and Evidence
To make a good argument you must have both a strong central thesis and plausible evidence; the two are interdependent and support each other. Some historians have compared the historian's craft to assembling and presenting a case before a jury. A strong statement of thesis needs evidence or it will convince no one. Equally, quotes, dates, and lists of details mean nothing by themselves. Your task is both to select the important "facts" and to present them in a reasonable, persuasive, and systematic manner which defends your position. To support your argument, you should also be competent in using footnotes and creating bibliographies for your work; neither is difficult, and both are requirements for truly professional scholarship. The footnote is a way of demonstrating the author's thesis against the evidence. In effect, it is a way of saying: "If you don't accept my thesis, you can check the evidence yourself." If your instructor is unclear about your argument, he or she may very well go back and check how you are using your original sources. By keeping your notes accurate your argument will always be rooted in concrete evidence of the past which the reader can verify. See below for standard footnote forms.
Be aware also that "historical" writing is not exactly the same as writing in other social sciences, in literature, or in the natural sciences. Though all follow the general thesis and evidence model, historical writing also depends a great deal on situating evidence and arguments correctly in time and space in narratives about the past. Historians are particularly sensitive to errors of anachronism—that is, putting events in an "incorrect" order, or having historical characters speak, think, and act in ways inappropriate for the time in which they were living. Reading the past principally in terms of your own present experience can also create problems in your arguments. Avoid grand statements about humanity in general, and be careful of theories which fit all cases. Make a point of using evidence with attention to specificity of time and place, i.e. "context."
Section 2: Steps in Preparing an Historical Essay
1. Understand the question being asked.
Pay attention to the way it is worded and presented. Be aware, for example, that "evaluate" does not mean the same thing as "describe," and neither is the same as "compare/contrast," or "analyze." What are the key words? Can you properly define them? What sort of evidence is required to respond effectively? If you are developing your own topic, what are the important issues and what questions can you pose yourself?
2. Prepare the material.
Begin reading (or re-reading) your texts or documents. Students often ask: "How can I give you a thesis (or write an introduction) before I have done all the reading?" Obviously, you cannot write a good paper if you haven't done the readings, so be sure to keep up. Remember however that merely "reading everything" doesn't guarantee you'll do good writing. Some students rush through assignments, others highlight every line, both thinking that by counting pages or words they are doing well. As you read the important point is to identify critical arguments in the texts. Don't just read for "information." Do a "strong reading" of your materials—critically examine or reexamine your sources with questions in mind. What is the author saying? What are his or her stated and unstated assumptions? What kind of evidence supports the arguments and how is it used? What do particular documents or texts tell you about the time in which they were written? Your questions will be the beginning of your own thesis.
3. First Draft
As noted above, all serious writing is done in drafts, and not the night before. Even if you are pressed for time (as, of course, you will be) give yourself enough time to review and revise your own writing. Students will sometimes turn in papers they have never actually read themselves; this is a mistake which shows. Think of the first or "preliminary" draft as a detailed outline. Establish your thesis and see how it looks in writing. Is it too general or specific? Does it address the questions asked by the instructor? Because the thesis is so critical, small changes in it will have a big impact. Don't be afraid to refine it as often as necessary as you continue reading and writing.
As you write, pay attention to the following points:
- Organize your ideas on paper. Order your arguments and connect them to the relevant supporting evidence. If the evidence contradicts your thesis, you will have to rethink your thesis. Obviously you must not alter the evidence, but always look for some citation or text which makes your point better, clearer, more precise, more persuasive. Avoid needlessly long quotes which only fill up space, and be sure what you select actually makes the point you think it does. All citations must be integrated logically and systematically into your argument. Remember that no quote "speaks for itself." Your job is not only to select evidence, but to explain and analyze what you cite, to demonstrate the meaning and importance of what you choose.
- Be attentive to paragraph construction and order. Paragraphs should have strong topic sentences and be several sentences long. Try to show development in your argument. Point one should lead logically to point two in paragraph after paragraph, section after section. Avoid simply listing and detailing your arguments in the order which they occur to you. Though there may be no absolutely correct sequence in presenting an argument, a thoughtful ordering and systematic development of points is more convincing than ideas randomly thrown together.
- Pay attention to transitions: when you switch to a new argument, let the reader know with a new topic sentence. Resist the temptation of thinking, "they'll know what I mean." Don't make your reader guess where you are going or what you are trying to say; the purpose of an essay is to communicate and to convince.
- Take time with your conclusion, which should close and summarize your arguments. Remember that conclusions can have a big impact on the reader, as closing statements do to a jury. You are of course not being judged, but—as part of the scholarly process—your work is being evaluated, so try to make the best presentation possible.
4. Drafts and Final Draft
Now you have completed your draft. Return to your introduction. Is the thesis clearly stated? Have you established the argument and evidence you will present? Rephrase your thesis if necessary. You may not even be clear about the final thesis until you have written much of the paper itself and seen how the argument holds together. Add examples or delete non-relevant materials and make sure paragraphs connect with transitions and topic sentences. Proofread the work: set it aside for some time and come back to it, or try reading it aloud to yourself (if your roommates are tolerant). Some classes, such as the History Seminar, have students critique each others' research drafts, often several times. Such exercises are invaluable opportunities to learn how other people read you, and how to be fair, judicious, and helpful in your own critiques. Whenever possible try to have someone else read your work and comment on it. Finally, check for sense, grammar, spelling, and mechanical and typographical errors. Common mistakes can be avoided by consulting such aids as the Writing Program Proofreading Guide available for $1 in the English section of the University Bookstore. Show respect for your reader by not making him or her wade through a sloppy manuscript. Details may not make or break a work, but they make a definite impression about how much you care.
Section 3: Grading, Originality & General Observations
A Note on Grading
Every professor or instructor has his or her own standards for excellent, good, average, and unacceptable work. "Standards" means that some papers will receive higher marks than others. A common grading misunderstanding arises from a student belief that answering a question "correctly" in essay form means an automatic "A." From an instructor's point of view, you do not get credit for excellence by doing what you are supposed to be able to do: write coherently and intelligently with a thesis, introduction, argument, and conclusion. This is only "competent" work. How well you write is what makes the difference. Do you detail your arguments, define terms, make logical connections, expand points, develop ideas, read sources in original and imaginative ways? The difference between competent and excellent work is difficult to define. Read your own work critically. Are you making the easy points most students would make? Are you really citing and examining the texts? Have you developed original interpretations? Have you given careful thought to argument and presentation, and the logic of your conclusions? Excellent work begins when you challenge yourself.
Originality and Plagiarism
Students are sometimes overwhelmed when asked to produce original, critical work. What could they say which has not already been said by an expert? No one asks you to be an expert. Your originality lies in your talent as a critical reader and a thoughtful writer. Whether you are studying many sources for a research paper or a few passages from one text for a book review, what matters is how you select, present, and interpret materials. "Originality" is this ability to communicate fresh perspectives and new insights. "Originality" also means speaking in your own words. You must at all costs avoid plagiarism, which is a crime and means automatic failure. Plagiarism means taking credit for work which is not your own, and can involve: 1) copying directly or paraphrasing without acknowledgment from published sources; 2) purchasing essays and term papers; 3) having someone else do the assignment for you; 4) turning in a paper previously submitted for another (or the same) class. Pay attention to point 1: changing the wording of a passage is still plagiarism if you don't credit the author for the ideas you are borrowing. Points 2-4 are obvious cases of cheating. A strict definition of plagiarism is as follows:
"The appropriation of ideas, language, or work of another without sufficient acknowledgment that the material is not one's own. Although it is generally recognized that everything an individual has thought has probably been influenced to some degree by the previously expressed thoughts and actions of others, such influences are general. Plagiarism involves the deliberate taking of specific words and ideas of others without proper acknowledgment." (Ronald R. Butters and George D. Gopen, GUIDELINES for the use of students submitting papers for University Writing Courses and other classes in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Department of English, 1992, p. 15]).
Avoid plagiarism by preparing well, relying on your own words and judgments, and—when citing evidence—using proper bibliographic and footnote forms. Attention to plagiarism should not discourage you from using sources to the fullest; on the contrary it should challenge you to think critically about how you make ideas your own, what debts you owe to others, and how you put the two together to do intellectually honest and original writing.
When turning in papers, always keep a copy for yourself; papers do on occasion disappear. Standard format is double-spaced with wide enough margins for reader's comments. Don't forget to put your name, the class name, and the title of the paper on the first page. Always number the pages for easy reference.
For questions on the stylistic, grammatical, or technical points of preparation, familiarize yourself with the standard reference guides used by all professional writers, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (now in a 14th edition), or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, available at the library. There you will find information on such topics as proper footnote style. We have included some of the standard forms below:
For a book: Jack Horner, The History of Corners in the Modern Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 36-9.
For an article: Mary Contrary, "How Gardens Grow: Things in a Row," The Journal of Earthly Delights, vol. 26, nr. 3 (1995), p. 123.
As noted in the introduction, this guide is a very general formula for writing essays. The goal—and the goal of university education in general—is for you to develop your own methods, strategies, and style. In writing, follow the guidelines, but do not be formulaic. Originality, creativity, and personal style are not crimes if done well. Make use of this guide, but remember that your greatest resources will be your teachers, fellow students, and the other academic programs of the university.
A critical lens essay is a type of essay aimed at providing a personal interpretation and analysis of a certain quotation or statement, proving one's opinion with the help of literature references. Though it contains a word “critical” in its name, it is not meant to be a critical piece. As a matter of fact, a critical lens essay is focused on highlighting strong and weak points of a given quote. Thus, the word “critical” stands for the demonstration of critical thinking skills of the author by means of supporting his claim with certain arguments taken from literary works. Linking one's opinion to reputable sources makes a convincing effect on the reader, proving your ideas to be true.
How is a critical lens essay used?
Writing such type of essay appears to be quite a challenging assignment for students. First, while studying at high school, college, or university, one has to obtain and develop such essential skills as critical and analytical thinking; ability to compare facts, theses, quotes, and ideas, make one's own statements and prove them, draw right conclusions. Second, a profound research on the given topic should be done, as it determines the further direction of your writing. Finally, a student needs to have an excellent command of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in order to express his/her thoughts clearly and academically correctly.
Thus, critical lens essays are perfect opportunities for professors to check students' skills and abilities. No wonder this specific type of essay is often one of the tasks on the Regents, a New York State set of exams required for graduation. For this reason, one should know how to write a critical lens essay at the high academic level, because it reflects the general level of education of a student. Hence, the student is evaluated accordingly.
What is a critical lens essay format?
Typically, a critical lens essay follows a standard essay format pattern. Therefore, it consists of five paragraphs, including introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion, so it should not be long like a research paper. In order to develop the critical analysis, a student has to use examples from two literature pieces, each one discussed in a separate paragraph. The book titles need to be underlined and capitalized, written in accordance with the capitalization and punctuation rules. As for the language and general tone of writing, it should be objective, without revealing any of the author's personal beliefs. All the claims need to be referred to reputable literature sources that would support the author's thesis and present the evidence of its validation. In order for the tone to sound objective, one should avoid using personal pronouns, for example, "I", "me", "my", "you", "your", "we", "our". On the contrary, it is recommended to replace them with third person pronouns or general words like "people", "readers", "audience".
Tips to make a critical lens essay outline
As it was mentioned above, a critical lens essay template coincides with the fixed classic essay pattern.
The first part of an essay is the introduction. This is the first thing that makes an impression upon the reader. So, the intro part should be captivating enough to get the reader really interested in what you have to say. The introduction starts with the quote, which is not just an ordinary sentence from the text, but a significant statement that holds considerable value. It should be universally acknowledged and meaningful; the author's name should also be provided.
After introducing the quote, a writer has to interpret it in one sentence using his/her own words. Such an interpretation is called the thesis. It plays a role of the foundation of the entire essay, which makes it a crucial part of the paper. Therefore, a key to a high-quality critical lens essay is arranging the thesis in a wise and profound way, as it presents the criteria for the further analysis.
Having provided the thesis, the writer needs to support or refute it. Though, the decision whether to agree or disagree is based not on his personal opinion, but on two literature references related to the quote. Connecting the essay with relevant references affirms the objective approach. The titles and authors of the chosen literature works have to be underlined. The intro part ends with adding a few words about the chosen reference texts topics.
There should be two body paragraphs introducing two literature works mentioned in the introduction. The writer needs to use the references as the means for supporting his thesis. Both topic and concluding sentences demonstrate and prove the connection between the reference examples and the thesis. There should not be any summarizing; just highlighting and analysis of the main points of both literary texts explaining their relevance to the core statement. Moreover, there is no need to retell the plot of the chosen texts. On the contrary, the writing should be laconic, but clear. To convey the arguments in the most appropriate way, some literary elements from the reference texts should be chosen, such as the following:
- Characterization (direct or indirect way to describe the character);
- Conflict (opposition of the ideas, forces, views);
- Figurative language (metaphor, simile, hyperbole, alliteration, personification);
- Flashback (describing the past event that is necessary to know at present);
- Foreshadowing (hints on the events to come);
- Setting (describing time and place of action);
- Symbolism (representing something through another thing);
- Theme (main idea, message of the text);
- Tone (author's attitude towards the audience or subject).
The last essay part summarizes the arguments and proves the initial thesis right or wrong. The quote and the thesis should be restated here, but the thesis has to be rephrased, not taken from the intro part word by word. If the essay is written in a right manner, then the conclusion would follow in the most logical way and the readers would totally agree to it. While body paragraphs persuade the reader of the correctness of the thesis, the conclusion just states the fact: the thesis is true and it is absolutely confirmed. So, the reader is satisfied, though intrigued to investigate the topic more.
How to choose the right quote?
This is not an easy task to do. The quote determines the quality of the essay, depending on whether it's relevant or not. Below there is a list of possible quotes that are approved to be used for critical lens essays as they are widely applied at the English Regents.
English Regents critical lens quotes list:
- “Courage is never to let your actions be influenced by your fears” (Arthur Koestler);
- “Individuality is freedom lived” (John Dos Passos);
- “Obedience is the mother of success and is wedded to safety” (Aeschylus);
- “Nobody can acquire honor by doing what is wrong” (Thomas Jefferson);
- “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are” (Theodore Roosevelt);
- “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get” (Warren Buffet);
- “Some books leave us free and some books make us free” (Ralph Waldo Emerson);
- “The final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands” (Anne Frank);
- “Prejudice is the child of ignorance” (William Hazlitt);
- “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” (Frederick Douglas);
- “It is impossible to go through life without trust” (Graham Green);
- “Fear is simply the consequence of every lie” (Fyodor Dostoevsky);
- “No two persons regard the world in exactly the same way” (J. W. von Goethe);
- “We pay a price for everything we get or take in this world” (L. M. Montgomery);
- “Men are at the mercy of events and cannot control them” (Herodotus);
- “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it” (Helen Keller);
- “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it” (Rene Descartes);
- “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened” (Dr. Seuss);
- “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (Mae West);
- “In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on” (Robert Frost);
- “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results” (Albert Einstein);
- “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans” (John Lennon);
- “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not” (André Gide);
- “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” (Albert Einstein);
- “The real hero is always a hero by mistake” (Umberto Eco);
- “It is the human lot to try and fail” (David Mamet);
- “You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it” (Yann Martel);
- “The human heart has ever dreamed of a fairer world than the one it knows” (Carleton Noyes);
- “To gain that which is worth having, it may be necessary to lose everything else” (Bernadette Devlin);
- “All that is literature seeks to communicate power” (Thomas De Quincey);
- “It is not what an author says, but what he or she whispers, that is important” (Logan Pearsall Smith);
- “What lasts is what is written. We look to literature to find the essence of an age” (Peter Brodie);
- “Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure” (William Saroyan);
- “All literature is protest. You can't name a single literary work that isn't protest” (Richard Wright);
- “The bravest of individuals is the one who obeys his or her conscience” (J. F. Clarke);
- “We do not read novels for improvement or instruction” (Oliver Wendell Holmes);
- “In a dark time, the eye begins to see” (Theodore Roethke);
- “A person is a person through other persons” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu);
- The right good book is always a book of travel; it is about a life's journey” (H.M. Tomlinson).
The quotations listed above serve as appropriate examples of the NYS English Regents critical lens essay quotes. Thus, they might be widely used during the preparation for the Regents or any other type of exam where a critical lens essay is one of the tasks.
How to write a critical lens essay step by step?
Below there are detailed steps that may serve as an instruction for writing this type of essay. Each step will be followed by the relevant part of a critical lens essay example to make the guideline even more clear.
Step 1. Choose a meaningful quote and introduce it, indicating its author. Add a few sentences before it to get the readers involved and let them follow the logical flow of your thoughts.
Step 2. Interpret the quote, rewrite it using your own words. That would be your thesis.
Step 3. Agree or disagree with the thesis.
Step 4. Introduce two literary references that prove your thesis. Express in a few words how they support the thesis.
Step 5. Start writing the first body paragraph focusing on the first literary reference mentioned in the intro part. Choose the literary element, through which the text and thesis would be connected. Prove that the text example supports the quote.
Step 6. Do the same thing focusing on the other literary work while writing the second body paragraph.
Step 7. Summarize everything you have written. State the quote and thesis again, the latter should be rephrased, though. The conclusion has to prove the coherence between the thesis and arguments written above.
Below there is a sample of a critical lens essay that may be referred to during the preparation for the English Regents.
Critical lens essay example for English Regents
Human life is a constant alternating between success and failure. Today one may enjoy the abundance of money and opportunities, while tomorrow may bring something totally different. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are.” One's duty in life is to do one's best, strive to survive and get moving using all the skills and resources available, regardless of the circumstances. Life indeed often forces people to keep trying even in the most unfavorable conditions and teaches that doing this is the only key to win. Both Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Love of Life by Jack London support the idea that all the problems can be solved if the person is well motivated and wise enough to direct all the efforts and chances towards one's goal.
The novel Robinson Crusoe illustrates a strong will of an ordinary man who faced unpredictable circumstances after a shipwreck. He has lost everything and everyone just in a moment. The fate left him alone on the desert island in total despair. Daniel Defoe uses the direct method of characterization showing main hero's desire to survive. He was not expecting such a fatal failure. Robinson got a tremendous challenge that let him acknowledge himself as a miserable creature but also created perfect conditions for self-discovery. On the unknown out-of-the-way patch of the Earth, he found himself completely helpless and alone in his struggle for life. Nevertheless, Crusoe realized the real value of human life and gathered all the possible means he could ever find on the island, which combined with his brilliant intellect and willpower saved him afterwards. The story is narrated in the form of his own diary, which pictures the hero in the most veritable way. He kept trying over and over again while building his refuge place, acquiring hunting and farming skills. The long twenty-eight years way through failures to victory taught him that the main thing in life is the ability to pull oneself together when there seems like nothing can be done. Robinson proved that it is not the setting and opportunities that matter, but a strong goal-oriented approach to the problem.
Love of Life demonstrates another example of overcoming hardships in life. Gold seekers are lost in the White Desert. While one of them leaves his comrade in trouble, he succeeded to survive. Through the tone of the novel, it is evident that Jack London supports his hero picturing him as a symbol of a victorious will power. Physical exhaustion, freezing cold of the White Desert, pain from the betrayal of the only friend, fear of loneliness, hunger, which is not eased with the miserable stuff that cannot even be called food. Moreover, he suffers from the pain in legs, being severely injured. Torturing body ache is combined with the despair of useless attempts to gain food and unbearable exhaustion, which leads to hallucinations. Yet, in spite of all he has encountered, despite being frightened and despaired, the man found enough courage not to give up but went on with a great passion for life, which helped him during struggles with a bear and a wolf. His irresistible desire to live, tranquility, and patience is what removed the fear and saved him from death. The hero was doing what he could: he was able to walk, he walked; he could only crawl, he crawled; he was obliged to fight with wild animals, so he did. As long as there were those primitive means for survival, no matter how adverse the setting, the man continued his difficult path and, finally, he succeeded.
All things considered, it seems sensible to assume that in order to lead the life to the full and survive despite all the troubles, one needs to use each little thing around, notwithstanding the limits. The core of success is human mind and will that dominates over poor conditions, situations that seem to be impossible, fears, and desperate obstacles. Thus, the saying “Do what you can, with what you have, and where you are” serves as the right motto for the general life philosophy.