Understand what your Teacher wantsRead carefully what your teacher wants from you and make sure you understand it, and then produce it. It might seem cynical, but the following advice is secondary to producing work targeted to your teacher and getting a good mark. Individual teachers can have their own idiosyncrasies which you need to understand, although you might only realise once your class has their first essays back. Speaking to older students can help here.
Aim to Answer the QuestionA history essay title is usually in the form of a question, and you can normally break this down into a series of further questions to be answered, giving you a structure. As a general rule, everything you include should be targeted to answering the questions, so spend time really breaking the title down and working out what you need to say to answer. It’s important to keep focused, keep on target and not get distracted by things you might find more interesting. You’re not aiming to show off your knowledge of the whole era, but display the ability to be analytical by weighing sources, as well as knowledge of the target area.
Read as Widely as PossibleWhile you have to balance reading with giving yourself enough time to write, it’s a general rule that the more you read about a subject, the better versed in it you become, and the better able you are to write on it. Even if your teacher has only ever referred to one textbook, and it seems to contain enough information, your knowledge and paper will benefit from wider reading. Different historians can give different nuances to the same subject, and often outright different interpretations. The danger is going down side alleys and missing the focus of your work, so keep an eye out.
Research the Author as well as the SubjectWhen you’re well versed in a subject you’ll be able to analyse books or articles based on what’s written, but if you’re starting out you need some help. Good book reviews - often found in journals of different levels of academic study – will fill you in on an author’s bias and strong points. Even the reviews on Amazon can be helpful because, while they tend to descend into ideological battles with the possiblity of friends saying things are good, you’ll get an idea of the differences of opinion a book creates and the battleground of ideas.
Make Careful NotesNormally you will only have access to your sources – secondary or primary – for a short while, because they have to go back to a library. Even if you do have copies nearby for the whole process, careful note taking is important. Firstly because it helps you distil what each book or article is saying down for easy reference when forming your ideas, and partly because it’s much easier to do your references if your notes are good. If you’re working at degree level, you must, must, write down the page numbers next to everything you note, and at any level make sure you know what you’ve rephrased in your own words, and what you’ve quoted, by always using quotation marks.
Always Plan before you StartNever sit down intending to write something off the top of your head. While inspiration can strike, and some people can do it, spending 5 – 10% of your writing time planning out each paragraph – what point you will address in it – and tracing your arguments through will help the writing go smoother and give you something to refer to if you feel you’re getting sidetracked. Of course a little flexibility in the plan helps because you might develop an idea while you’re writing, but planning can really assist you.
Select Material Carefully and Keep to the Word LimitIf you’ve read widely, there’s a danger you have a lot to include, but it’s important to keep the word limit as some teachers deduct marks. Carefully make a judgement on what you want to discuss in detail and what you feel is outside the scope of your essay. I was once told you can get away with being 10% longer, but this isn’t a hard rule and teachers have a feeling for how long the ideal document should be just by reading a class load many times each year.
Form ArgumentsMany teachers want to see more than a simple narrative, as historical research is about weighing sources. One key way to show off your analytical skills is to explain arguments and use your conclusion to pick a side. Some essays will ask you to argue a point, but it’s important to still mention (and refute) counter arguments. Find historians with different points of view, summarise them - ideally using quotes to give flavour - and then explain why you accept or reject them. This is one of the skills you need to develop over a history course, and one reason why employers like history graduates. Luckily, it isn’t usually hard to find historians who disagree! Of course, while it might not be true to yourself, it’s sometimes a good idea to agree with your teacher’s point of view, but hopefully you’ve good one who can be challenged, and who will accept a good argument from you if you disagree with them.