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About this book

To write history successfully, it is essential to understand the nuts and bolts of technique as well as the underlying principles which govern the whole process. Writing History Essays takes you step by step through the process of writing an assignment, breaking it down into a series of manageable tasks, including:

• selecting sources
• reading critically
• taking notes
• planning and drafting your essay
• referencing correctly and avoiding plagiarism

This book also takes you beyond the essay, with practical advice on writing book reviews, reports and dissertations, as well as guidance on sitting examinations. This new edition includes reflective questions at the end of each chapter and discussion of visual and web-based sources, making it an indispensable guide for history students.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. A History Essay is History

Abstract
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.1
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 2. A History Essay is More than Just History

Abstract
The real nature of history essays can be summed up by just four fundamental principles. Chapter 1 was concerned with the first of these: a history essay is history. This seems obvious, but, as the chapter showed, there are subtleties. This chapter will introduce the other three. It is a bird’s-eye view of the terrain to be explored further in later chapters. The four fundamental principles of the history essay are as follows:
1
It is history.
 
2
It is academic.
 
3
It is an essay.
 
4
It is literature.
 
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 3. The History Essay as a Process

Abstract
Any historical enquiry must begin with a carefully expressed question. One dangerous mistake is to suppose that the wording of the essay title is unimportant — that it is just a springboard from which to leap into a particular topic, find out what you can, and report on it. But an essay is not a report. It is a statement of what you think. This thought is good or bad only through its success in responding to a particular question. Your essay is no essay at all except insofar as it does this.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 4. Knowing your Sources

Abstract
What makes a good history essay? Many things are involved, starting with skill in the critical appraisal of recorded words. The medium of these words may be newspaper, parchment, stone, celluloid film or anything else; but it still consists of recorded words. These are the objects of study, just as music, human behaviour, the structure of organisms, stars and planets, or anything else may be the objects of study in other academic disciplines. The places where the recorded words are found are the historian’s sources. Some sources need to be read with different purposes and questions in mind from others.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 5. Using Online Sources

Abstract
Internet sources are a special category of source material. In recent years, people have been spending more and more of their time looking at internet sources for all sorts of purposes. Their use in serious historical study requires the utmost care and discrimination. Above all, the fact that they are so easy to use carries with it an often unseen danger.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 6. Reading Critically

Abstract
It is often said that being ‘critical’ is essential to effective study and writing. What is this ‘criticism’? Reading critically does not mean disagreeing with everything. It means not taking what you read for granted. As you read, think what is significant about every point advanced and why the author makes it. How does it fit into the plan of the chapter? Is it presented as factual evidence, or as a judgment representing the writer’s conclusions? Has the writer given good enough evidence for his judgments?
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 7. Taking Notes

Abstract
There are two reasons why this chapter should not be very long. One is that note-taking in historical study is not very different from note-taking in other disciplines, except that there should be more of it to do. The other is that note-taking is, after all, very much a matter of personal taste and experience. Some people use little notebooks, some large sheets; some use note cards (good for breaking your notes into compact and manageable units) and some prefer flimsy airmail sheets (reducing bulk and weight of accumulated notes); some like lined paper and some prefer plain; some (with laudable economy) use the backs of scrap paper, and some like clean crisp pages.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 8. Explanation, Judgment and Historical Imagination

Abstract
Chapters 1–7 have generally been about the studying that comes before writing an essay. Chapters 9–16 generally concern the writing itself. Here, we are at a point of transition. This chapter is essentially a pause for reflection on the nature of this transition. What happens when you turn from studying to writing?
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 9. Planning

Abstract
An essay expresses what the writer thinks about a certain topic. It must show plainly what the topic is and what the writer thinks. How do you set about planning your essay so as to achieve these goals?
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 10. Writing and Independent Thought

Abstract
Deciding what to write can be difficult. The problem may be expressed in words like these: ‘The authors of the books I have read know vastly more than I do. I cannot improve on what they say, and I would feel ridiculous trying. How can I say anything new and independent?’
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 11. Writing and Organizing your Essay

Abstract
After all the planning, the time comes to start the actual writing. Do not lose sight of the big picture, because every sentence of the essay must play a deliberate part in the shape of the whole. But the details are also important; every sentence must give the right message. A carelessly written sentence may tell the reader something completely wrong!
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 12. Citing the Sources

Abstract
Academic writing needs verifiability. For verification, there must be documentation — proper citations. The first section here concerns the question of which statements need support by the citation of sources. The following sections concern the details of citations.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 13. The Importance of Good English Expression

Abstract
Before an essay is submitted, it needs to be checked carefully for style and expression as well as content and documentation. This chapter is concerned especially with accuracy in written English. Many of the statements that follow may look somewhat arbitrary and dogmatic, but in matters of accuracy there is a thin line between what is right and what is wrong. English expression has to be accurate to make your prose easy to read. Careful learning in the early stages yields benefits later.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 14. Revision and Correction

Abstract
The final preparation of an essay requires certain steps, especially the following:
  • Ensuring that the essay is of appropriate length and fulfils the formal requirements laid down.
  • Careful checking of all the information that must go into footnotes and bibliography, with missing details hunted down and included.
  • Rereading to make sure that the argument is clear and economically presented.
  • Word-by-word scanning of the entire contents to eliminate all errors, especially errors in English.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 15. Beyond the History Essay

Abstract
There is more to studying history than writing essays, and in this chapter we shall look at the most important other types of exercise likely to be met. Particularly worth discussion here are the examinations which are set, usually at the end of a course, to test achievement and contribute, partly or wholly, to the final mark. The merits of examinations are often debated, and it is important to understand their real significance in the process of learning — methods and interpretations as well as facts. Further, a type of exercise hugely important in the discipline of history is the document criticism exercise, which requires the student to focus narrowly on the appraisal of a specific piece of documentary text; we shall look at an example of such an exercise to demonstrate what can be learned from it. Briefer comments on other sorts of assignments and classroom exercises will follow.
Ian Mabbett

Chapter 16. From Essay to Thesis

Abstract
A standard undergraduate history essay is at one end of a scale. At the other end is the full-blown PhD thesis. In the course of your studies, you may move step-by-step up the scale, being asked to write progressively longer and more scholarly essays. How do these later progressions compare with the ordinary undergraduate essay which begins the series? What really makes them different? At each advance, what new set of techniques or facts needs to be learned?
Ian Mabbett
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