Fall 1998. Revised January 2006.
I read a lot of essays. As a college instructor, in a typical semester I may be asked to read and grade hundreds of papers and exam essays. So when I hope that my students write the best essays they can, there is a strong element of self-interest, for I would much rather read a stack good essays than a stack poor ones. And while there is no magic formula for becoming a brilliant writer overnight, many undergraduates would benefit from following a few simple rules. In particular, they must remember that an essay has a single function: to present a clear, interesting thesis statement, and to support it with evidence and logic.
The purpose of an essay is to answer a question. In a history research paper, that will usually be a why question. Why did northern states abolish slavery in the decades after the Revolution? Why did midwestern farmers decide to buy McCormick”s reaper? Why did the United States use nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945? In a review essay (see “How to Write a Review”), your argument will generally explain the strengths and weaknesses of a historian”s approach to her subject. What is the historian”s goal in writing her book? Does she achieve that goal? If so, how? If not, what choices would have yielded better results? Was the goal appropriate in the first place? What does this work tell us about how to think about and write about history? These are the same questions I will ask about your papers. In either case, it may help to state your question in the paper itself. For example, in the introduction to his book, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse, Michael Katz writes, “Diffused through every layer of government; parly public, partly private, partly mixed; incomplete and still not universal; defeating its own objectives, American welfare practice is incoherent and irrational. Still, this crazy system resists fundamental change. What is the source of its resilience? How are we to understand the persistence of a welfare system so thoroughly disliked and so often and authoritatively criticized?”1 In four sentences he has made perfectly clear the goal of his book.
Naturally, having posed the question, you must answer it. The hardest but most important task is presenting your answer in a strong thesis statement, a one-sentence summation of the argument you want your reader to believe by the end of the paper. A thesis statement is to an essay what a bid is to a hand of bridge. First you proclaim what you are going to do, then you try to make good on your boast. The larger the bid–the more surprising or daring the thesis–the higher the payoff at the end. Your thesis should be the most interesting, explanatory, shocking idea that you can defend. (For more discussion of what makes a good or bad thesis statement, see “Elements of a Thesis Statement”). But whether you are writing about primary or secondary sources, you must be sure to make an argument.
The strongest position for your statement is usually at the end of one or two introductory paragraphs. Stating your thesis in your first sentence leaves you no room to warm the reader to your subject. It is better, then, to begin your essay with a vignette, or a description of a historiographical debate, or some other device to set up the question that you will answer, and then follow with that answer. On the other hand, you may want to use your title to suggest your thesis. See my notes on “How to Read a History Book” for some well chosen titles.
Once you have stated your thesis statement, your job is to convince your reader that you are right, and to resolve the conflict you have established. Every paragraph in the body of your paper should have a topic sentence, usually at the beginning, that supports your thesis statement. And every sentence in every paragraph should support the topic sentence. Follow this rule, and you will pull your reader through your essay, from beginning to end, and not leave him stuck, reading one paragraph over and over, trying to understand why it is there.
Of course, one of your tasks in an essay, especially one based on primary research, is to present facts, many facts. Your commentary will make no sense unless you supply your reader with enough narrative, plot summaries, and examples to allow her to judge its validity. But do choose those facts that support your argument. Engineering is not building a bridge that will span a river; it is building a bridge that will span a river using the least amount of material possible. Likewise, the historian must not tell everything that happened, only what is relevant. By including some facts and not others, you are making an argument that some facts are more important than others. Be sure that that argument is the same one expressed in your thesis statement.2
Read critically. Use secondary sources to find topics and provide context, but do not let them blind you to what you find in your primary research. Not everything written by a professional historian is true or persuasive. See How to Read a Book.Read primary sources critically as well. Ask who created them, and for what reason. If there are special reasons why you do or do not believe what you read, say so in your paper.
As with creative writing, it is better to show than to tell. Quote from your sources and, if they are visual, provide photocopies. Use evidence to support the topic sentence of each paragraph. And back up generalities with specific examples, the more vivid, the better. Do not just write that the settlers of Illinois were cruel to animals if what you really mean is that they skinned wolves alive to watch them writhe, or that Amelia Earhardt was a great flyer without explaining the difficulties she faced. Your examples should support your topic sentences by making them convincing, while your topic sentences should explain the significance of your examples.
By now you should have noticed that you are reading an essay, one in which I have tried to follow the same rules I have presented. I have done so not because I consider myself a model writer whose essay can be used as a pattern for yours.3 Rather, I have written these guidelines in essay form because at the end of the day, I do think that the essay is an excellent way to express complex thought. Powerpoint presentations have their uses, as do maps, graphs, and dirty limericks. But essays are particularly well suited to ideas about change over time, to history.
And this brings me to my conclusion, for having written an essay, I must write a conclusion. Your conclusion should answer the question, “so what?” That is, assume that you have convinced your reader of your thesis statement, and tell her why it is important. I have argued that the key to writing a clear essay is to structure it around a clear thesis statement, and now, trusting that I have made my case, I suggest that learning the essay form should be just the beginning of learning how to write. Real writing is about ideas. Real history writing is about events. As an instructor, I am happy to work with students on issues of form, but my vocation is to grapple with content. If you write a poor essay, with no central thesis statement, with rambling paragraphs, with shaky grammar, all we can talk about is improving your writing style. If you write a good essay, one that expresses your ideas clearly, we can skip all that and work together to understand the past. And that is what I would prefer to do.
3 If you would like to read some model essays, I recommend Richard Hofstadter, George Orwell, or the writers in The New York Review of Books.They will not state their theses quite as baldly as I have recommended, but they did not write their essays to be read in a stack of twenty-five, and once you have learned the rules you can break them.
Note: For more tips on clarifying your writing, please take a look at my Style Guidelines.