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How to structure a History essay
Structuring an essay can seem a daunting task, but it is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that your argument is strong. Once you become confident with it you will be able to apply this structural formula to many different types of essay questions, which will be invaluable to you when under time limited exam conditions.
This is the opening paragraph of your essay. It should outline clearly your thesis/argument, followed by a summary of your main points or factors (e.g. economic, political, social, etc.) Although it is nice to set the scene with some contextual information, this is not vital to an introduction, and context is put to much better use throughout the body of the essay to support your argument. Instead of beginning with some vague contextual information, SIGNPOST THE QUESTION! By this I mean show that you understand what the question is asking. Not only does this demonstrate your understanding to the examiner, in a tense exam situtation it helps you to focus your mind on what the question is asking and gets you into the swing of using the terms of the question.
Always use the terms of the question consistently. A high level answer might query the terms of the question, and integrate this challenge into their argument.
If the question is an 'evaluate' or 'assess' question, you will be expected to express an opinion as to which factor or point is the most significant and important one. However, if the question is a 'discuss' question, it is enough simply to explore the issues raised by the question or statement, or for a high level answer, to reformulate the question in your mind as 'what does X mean when they say Y?' or 'what does this statement imply and is it a valid statement?'
Each paragraph focuses on each of the main point or factors mentioned in your introduction. They should be clearly defined points or factors that are signposted by concise topic sentences.
Paragraphs should not be narratives (i.e. chronlogical accounts of what happened), but should use the relevant evidence to support the point of the paragraph, and ultimately, your overall argument.
When planning your essay, think about how you want to prioritise the points or factors to create the most convincing argument. You might want to start with the strongest or most important point or factor first, or you may wish to build up to a climatic ending. For a high level answer, the paragraphs should flow smoothly into one another with connecting phrases, however this is particularly advanced, and you should aim to successfully order paragraphs first.
Exam boards provide their own mark schemes but commonly award candidates for following a P.E.E structure...
P- Point. State your point, relate it to your argument and relate it to the question. E.g. The main reason for X was Y because Z.
E- Explain. Unpack the point clearly using terms consistently. E.g. Z was a result of A, B, C and culminated in Y.
E- Evidence. Support your claims with facts, statistic, sources, or case studies. E.g. A is exemplified in D... B is evident in E... C can be seen in F. Proving therefore that A, B, C resulted in Z which culminted in Y.
Make sure to ALWAYS LINK BACK TO THE QUESTION/ YOUR ARGUMENT at the end of every paragraph. Although this may seem contrived, it makes it very easy for the examiner to give you the marks that you deserve. Once you have mastered a successful structure you can present it in a more sophisticated way.
For a high level answer, use inter-comparative points. That is, use the less important points or factors as comparisons for your most significant point or factor, to constantly demonstrate why that is the most significant point or factor. E.g. Z was a minor cause of X when compared to the extent to which Y heightened X.
This should be an opinionated summary of your argument and should reflect the contents of your introduction. Make your argument clear and supplment it with what you think is the most important piece of supporting evidence.
Coursework: Often historians will rewrite their introductions because their conclusions differ to what they expected them to be. If you are completing a coursework exercise and have time to do this, it can vastly improve the consistency of your argument. Another tip is to copy and paste your introduction, each paragraph's topic sentence and closing sentence, and your conclusion into a separate document to check that, 1) you can understand your argument just by reading these passages of text, and 2) your argument flows smoothly and logically from one paragraph to the next.
Often people struggle with how to end the essay. A clever way of doing this in an exam (but perhaps not in coursework) is to pose a further question or an afterthought which has not featured strongly in your essay. E.g. taking issue with the terms of the question (e.g. are they anachronistic?), or for a particularly high level, commenting briefly on the topic from a historigraphical perspective (e.g. is there some difficulty with viewing this historical event in this certain way?)
Do not forget to re-read your essays! For coursework essays it would be ideal to leave at least a day (preferably more) between writing and editing so that you can view the essay with fresh eyes. When doing this you will often find confusing sentences, unexplained concepts and typos, that you had completely overlooked before.
Following this structural formula you should find that you essays are more persuasive and clearer, allowing you to answer a veriety of different types of questions much more confidently, and ensuring that the examiner can clearly see how you are meeting the marking criteria.
Remember: practice makes perfect and the more confident you are, the more enjoyable it will be!see more