"When you face writer's block, just lower your standards and keep going." Atlantic Magazine, April 2011, 88-90.
Writing a History Essay, step-by-step
ORGANIZING BEFORE YOU START: When writing a history essay, start by reading the question carefully. Look for key words in the question – how, why, define, explain, etc. Carefully consider the question, but before you do any research, think about any relevant information – issues, names, historical terms, or events. Write these down, trying to find a way of categorizing or grouping them. Leave space between the categories.
RESEARCH: Research the question, using your text and any appropriate documents. Take notes on how the events and ideas in your research relate to the essay question. As you read, add the new information to the appropriate category. What you are doing here is developing the body of your essay – the supporting paragraphs that you will use to present your evidence in support of your thesis. Each of these categories will be a sub-topic of your thesis. At some point, when you think you have enough information, go back and read the question carefully one more time, and then check over your categories and your evidence. You may want to rearrange the categories in some way other than how you originally started, or you may want to move evidence from one category to another. You may find that your evidence is deficient in a certain area, and that you have to go and dig for some more evidence.
ROUGH THESIS: You are now ready to write a rough thesis. The thesis should be a one sentence answer to the question, as specific, accurate, complete and concise as you can make it. Considering all the evidence you have, rough out this sentence.
OUTLINE: Go back to the categories list, and work with it until you have several different categories, or sub-topics, that each contain several different pieces of evidence that can be used to support your thesis. You may end up deleting some information, or moving ideas/facts from one list to another. Remember that you are developing the middle of your essay. Develop and write down as complete an outline as you can for the body of your essay. The more specific and detailed the outline, the easier it will be to write your essay. If possible, write your topic sentence for each paragraph. In your outline, include any quotes you might use, as well as their sources. Check to make sure that you have used the appropriate evidence to support your generalizations, and that you have enough evidence for each paragraph.
WRITE THE ROUGH DRAFT: Write your opening paragraph. This paragraph should introduce the topic to the reader, include appropriate background information to "set the stage," and contain your thesis sentence explaining what you will prove. You should also include three or four sub-topics – the categories – that you will use to support your thesis.
Write the body paragraphs. Each one should include:
A topic sentence (a generalization) that reintroduces the sub-topic.
Support your topic sentence with information from your categories list, from both the text and your documents.
Quote only where necessary to complete the meaning of your ideas. You should footnote any and all ideas that are not your own, such as whenever you summarize or paraphrase ideas that are unique to a particular author or document, or when you quote directly.
Write a concluding sentence, or a transitional sentence, that will lead to the next paragraph. Sometimes, this transitional sentence will be the topic sentence of the next paragraph.
Write your concluding paragraph. Do not introduce new evidence in the conclusion. Analyze the information and conclude it by drawing all the information together in support of your thesis. What is important about this question and the issue? How does this relate to other events/ideas of the time?
PROOF READ: When you have completed all of the above steps, put your essay aside, and do something completely different; without taking time away from your essay, being tired of the project and in the same frame of mind, you run the risk of missing many mistakes. After spending time doing something else, go back and check your work. Make sure your thesis answers the question. Make sure your opening paragraph introduces your sub-topics, and that all of the information in each paragraph is connected to and introduced by the topic sentence. Make sure you have included enough evidence to support your generalizations, and that you have not tried to "shoe horn" irrelevant information into the essay. Check spelling, grammar and syntax; try reading your essay aloud, pausing after each sentence. When you are pleased with the results, polish up your final copy and hand in your work.