AIS/HSTAA 332, Winter 2008
American Indian History since 1840


Why We Make You Write and How We Grade Your Writing

Reasons to write about history

No matter what you hope to do after college, you should be able to analyze human affairs, evaluate other people's analyses of human affairs, express your analyses clearly in writing, and produce a persuasive written argument. The study of history is a good way to develop all these skills.

The scholarly books and essays you read and the lectures you hear in a history class are not simply recitations of indisputable facts. They are arguments for particular interpretations of historical evidence. Historians look at a welter of disorganized details and try to discern patterns. They construct their narratives from incomplete and randomly preserved relics of the past. You should expect them to persuade you that they have relied on the best possible evidence and interpreted that evidence sensibly.

A good way to become an astute judge of historical argument is to write historical arguments yourself. In order to do this, you have to read diverse kinds of texts, become familiar with the varieties of historical evidence, assess the credibility of the evidence available to you, and think about the significance and relationship of established facts. You have to formulate a thesis and muster evidence and arguments to support that thesis. By doing these things, you can develop the ability to write coherently and persuasively about the past and about other issues as well. That ability will serve you well in many college courses and in a variety of situations beyond the university.

What makes a good history essay

A good history essay is clearly and consistently focused on the assigned topic. It provides a complete, unambiguous answer to a question or questions posed either by the writer or by an instructor. Its driving force is a thesis -- a central argument -- that the writer aims to explain and support. In other words, a good history essay is a persuasive argument for the soundness of a particular conclusion or set of conclusions about the past.

A good thesis statement provides a concise but comprehensive summary of the essay's central argument, preferably at the beginning of the essay. It sets out the principal elements of the argument in a way that indicates their relationship to each other. Most supporting evidence belongs in the body of the essay, where the writer explains each part of the argument further.

Good supporting evidence includes illustrative examples, pertinent data, and quotations that are drawn from credible sources, which the writer identifies. Although supporting evidence should be sufficient to justify generalizations and debatable inferences, it need not be voluminous. An essay's persuasiveness is not determined by the volume of sources it cites. A persuasive essay balances argument and evidence. It states the writer's reasons for including particular evidence.

A good essay presents arguments in a logical order, grouping all material on the same subject and articulating the relationship of the grouped material. Wherever the essay takes up a new subject, it signals the transition with a sentence that indicates how the ensuing discussion relates to preceding material and to the essay's central argument. Most good essays have the following structure: Introduction (thesis), body (successive explanations and defenses of the main elements of the thesis), conclusion.

Finally, precision and accuracy are important features of a good history essay, as are careful wording and well constructed sentences. Although you should strive first and foremost for focus, compelling analysis, and effective use of evidence, you will find these nearly impossible to achieve if you lack the vocabulary and the knowledge of syntax and grammar needed to express clear thoughts on your subject.

Tips for producing a good history essay

Read the essay assignment and/or question(s) posed very, very carefully. Highlight key words and get clear about their meaning.

With the assignment and/or question(s) fresh in your mind, read the text(s) you will draw on to make your argument. Note points and material that bear on your topic.

Based on your reading, formulate a tentative thesis or overall answer to the question(s) posed in the assignment. Then review the list of possible points and supporting material culled from your reading, asking yourself whether they make good arguments and evidence for the validity of that thesis. Adjust the proposed thesis to comport with the evidence available.

Choose only the most compelling arguments and evidence on your list.

Think about how your arguments and evidence relate to each other and determine the most logical, persuasive order to present them. Rewrite your thesis to reflect this logic.

Get right to the point. Make your first paragraph or two (depending on the limit on the length of your paper) a complete summary of the highlights of your argument.

Think of your thesis paragraph(s) as a set of signposts, showing the reader which way you will go and which "landmarks" you will reach first, second, third, etc.

As you come to a new "landmark" (a new place in your argument), signal your arrival with a transition sentence that reminds the reader of your overall argument and indicates how the next paragraph(s) will explain and support the next part of that argument.

Write as if your reader is familiar with this field of history but has not thought before about your specific topic.

Take care to quote and cite your sources accurately. Cite the sources of all ideas, specific data, and quotes that are not yours. Ask the instructor about the prescribed form for citations. Whatever the form prescribed, provide enough information for the instructor to locate the same data or passage.

If you find yourself struggling to express your thoughts in writing, try this: put your writing aside and say out loud, in ordinary, conversational English, "What I'm trying to say is...." If you like what you say, write it down. Polish the words and phrasing later.

Read your essay aloud, preferably to a willing friend, to see whether it is clear and flows easily.

Go over your draft carefully for syntactical problems and mechanical errors.

Keep a dictionary and a handbook of grammar and English usage at hand while you write. (Strunk and White, Elements of Style, is a good handbook.) Consult them whenever you have doubts about meaning, spelling, punctuation, etc.

Write a brief conclusion that sums up what you have actually covered in the body of your essay. Compare that conclusion to your introductory paragraph(s). If need be, rewrite your introduction (thesis paragraphs) to conform to what you have actually argued and proved.

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Last modified: 1/14/2008 2:41 PM