Essay Writing

Student Guides

By Melanie Jones, published 20th June 2010

This resource is free to everyone. For access to a wealth of other online resources from podcasts to articles and publications, plus support and advice though our “How To”, examination and transition to university guides and careers resources, join the Historical Association today

History is not just about writing lots of essays! It is also about discussion, debate and evidence. However, there will be, as with many other subjects at A-Level, some essays to write - but it is not as tough as it looks. Essay writing is a skill that you will get better at over time, but you might find the guide below useful to help you along.

How to Write a History Essay

  • Are you new to the 6th form?
  • Are you already in the 6th form but worried about your essay writing skills?
  • Are you moving on to study history at university?

Then this could be just what you need! This guide will not help you to get outstanding grades - that is up to you, but it will prepare you with the skills that you need to produce that masterpiece!

Key Features: The Must Haves

A-Level/Undergraduate essays should contain the following features; although it depends on the type of essay you are writing as to how far you go; for example, a personal study or dissertation will require a great deal of historiography and referencing, whereas class essays may require less. If you are unsure as to how much your teacher will expect, it is best to ask! 

  1. A well considered argument - This is VERY important to get right. It means that you will need to make sure that you clearly state your line of argument and do it convincingly. At the same time, you will also need to give full coverage to other factors/opinions/arguments that are at play - even if it is to rubbish them!

  2. Reference to the question

  3. An introduction

  4. A middle - the substantive part of the essay, where you present the evidence and arguments

  5. A conclusion

  6. Footnotes and bibliography

Before You Start...

The key to success in any history essay is preparation. This not only includes focussed and wide reading around the topic, but also your preparation of your thoughts and arguments. Richard Harris, experienced history teacher and now lecturer in education at Southampton University provides a very good starting point for essay writing. His plan is designed to get you thinking and planning your structure before you write. You can find a copy of this planning sheet at the end of the guide. 

1) Considered Argument

The key to providing a considered argument is to read widely! What is the historiography (views of different historians) surrounding the topic? What evidence is there to support different lines of argument? Your job is firstly to present these lines of argument.

Secondly, you should critically evaluate these views and evidence as you explain them. Is there evidence to counteract? By providing a considered argument - what we don't mean is that you sit on the fence! Every essay MUST have an argument, but by considered, we simply mean that you should be prepared to consider other arguments/factors, other than your own view, even if it is to critically evaluate them and dismiss their importance! But you must be convincing and be prepared to examine them fully.

At A level, the mark-schemes tend to be stepped into 5 different levels; you cannot progress beyond level 2/3 if you do not provide a well considered argument! The examiner wants to see what your opinion is, but they also want to know that you have not just "plucked" this opinion from nowhere - they want to see that you have considered the topic fully, taken account of all of the views and arguments before making your judgement. Therefore, you should stick to your line of argument throughout, but you should clearly evaluate other points of view, showing your reader how and why they are less valuable arguments than your own. 

2) Reference to the question

Where possible you should show how the evidence you are presenting links back to the question. You should refer back to the question wherever a link or piece of evidence provides some clues to help formulate an answer. This should help you to avoid going off track. Always think as you are writing "does this paragraph help to present the evidence to support my line of argument or help me to answer the question?" 

The Essay - three steps to success:

Step 1: Tell them what you are going to tell them (the beginning)

Step 2: The substance. Tell them what you've got to tell them (the middle)

Step 3: The conclusions. Tell them what you've told them (the end)


3) The Introduction

The introduction should set the scene. It should be short and snappy, no more than a few lines, but they are very important as you need to hook your reader in. There should be some very brief background detail to the question. You should also include some brief historiography - what is the main debate among historians about this issue? Who is saying what? You should also at this point wish to state what YOUR argument is going to be.

You should then refer back to the question by stating how you are going to measure/argue your case; a good way to do this is by referring back to the question itself. It should help you to get the question straight in your own mind too and give you some direction. For example, if you have a question asking you how significant an event was, you need to explain what is meant by significance and how you will measure this.

E.g. 'How significant was the Reichstag Fire in the Nazi revolution?'

When this question is analysed, bit by bit it helps us to explain to our reader what the essay intends to cover. 

4) The Middle

This is the substantive part of the essay. This is the bit where you have to present the evidence and arguments. It should predominantly contain your analysis/argument but you must also look at the counter-arguments and the views of historians.


  • Present evidence in a balanced way: You should present your argument/response to the question clearly and effectively, using the views of historians and other evidence to back up the points you make. On the other side, you should also consider the arguments against your own and critically evaluate them in order to show why they are less important/plausible than your own.
  • Present your evidence in a logical order: Try to avoid jumping around. Make a plan before you write that organizes your evidence logically. This could either be in themes or in chronological order.
  • Include analysis: You must make sure that you don't just fall into the trap of presenting evidence without analysis. This reads more like a list! When presenting a piece of evidence or the view of a historian, don't forget to critically analyse. Is the evidence reliable? Is the view of the historian reliable or are they writing from a specific viewpoint? Are there different interpretations? What do you think? Is it a valid point?
  • Refer often to the title: Don't forget to link your points back to the question where possible. It will help your essay and your reader stay focused on the answer to the question!

How to Structure Paragraphs:

It is important to structure your points within the scaffolding of the paragraph well. A good way to do this is to PEE all over your paragraphs!!!

Of course, don't take this literally and ruin your essay - what we mean is to use the PEE formula:

P - Point

E - Example

E - Explanation.

This is a good habit to get into and a good way to provide structure. Simply make your point, give an example or piece of evidence to back it up, then explain it. What is the context? How or why is it significant/insignificant? How does it fit into the topic? How does it help to answer the question? 

Test yourself:

See if you can spot the PEE on this paragraph which forms part of an answer to the question "Was Edward IV a new monarch?"

"Edward's power did not increase at the expense of the nobility; a key criteria for new monarch status. Edward continued the tradition of letting powerful magnates rule the peripheral regions of the country, such as the North and Wales. This resulted in the creation of a number of large power bases including the Herberts in Wales, Gloucester in the North, the Percys in the eastern marshes and the Woodvilles in London. This was largely due to the small number of noble creations in his reign - he only made nine promotions to high nobility. On the one hand this shows that he was in form control as he had sufficient power and stability without having to make lots of noble creations to gain support, yet on the other hand he was creating a volatile situation as rivalries built up between powerful factions and Edward was cresting a potentially explosive situation which only he could control." 

5) Conclusion

This is the end of the essay. This is the bit where you are expected to answer the question! Here you should sum up in a couple of sentences what your argument is, and why it is the most plausible explanation, being careful to remind the reader of supportive evidence. Finally, you should put the essay in context. Explain the wider context to the question. It might be that there are longer-term or under the surface issues that need further exploration, or it may be that there is a bigger picture in play. By putting your answer in context, we don't mean just adding some extra facts about the period at the end - your setting in context should display your broader understanding of the period. A good example of this is when a student was writing about the Golden Age of Spain:

"In conclusion, the extent to whether this period can be deemed as a "Golden Age" ultimately rests on the context of the time. Although it is true to say that Spain was making advances in several areas, in terms of power, unity, wealth, economy, culture, empire and discovery. The extent of religious and racial persecution however, could be deemed as less golden in terms of morality, even if both policies were successful in terms of strengthening Spain's power base. In the wider context of the time, Spain's achievements seem less golden than they may at first appear. We have to remember that this period saw the Renaissance. The Renaissance affected practically every area of life at the time, and was a new dawn of discovery and thinking -  Leonardo Da Vinci, William Harvey, Martin Luther, Copernicus and Galileo were but a few of the characters that shaped the time;  therefore, if Spain had a golden age, so too did many other countries." 


  • Re-state your argument using the key words from the title
  • Be confident in your argument
  • Hint at a broader context
  • What other issues would you explore, given more time? 

6) Footnotes and Bibliography

At A-Level and undergraduate level, you will be expected to footnote your essays. Because you are not expected to do this at GCSE, this may be a new skill for you, but it is very easy! 

What are footnotes?

When you quote evidence or the views of a historian from a book or periodical, you are expected to let your reader know where you got this evidence from, so that if they wished (very few would) they could go and check your evidence. You can do this by including citations or footnotes.     

How to Footnote

The process of footnoting is slightly different on different computer programs and may differ again if you are using a MAC, but the process is the same, even if you are handwriting.

Footnotes should be numbered and should either appear at the bottom of the page on which they are cited or in a list at the end of the essay. They should include the following information:

1.) Author's name (surname first)

2.) Date and place of publication (found on the first page of the book usually)

3.) Title of book (in italics)

4.) Page reference. 

How to footnote on the computer

If you have Microsoft Office, the simplest way to insert a footnote is by going to the references section on the tool-bar and then following the instructions above. If you are using an earlier version of Office, you should click on insert and then select footnote from the list.

Below is an example to illustrate what a footnote should look like:

"Leo, the holy pope in Rome, passed away; and in this year there was a great pestilence among cattle than man could remember for many years..."[1]  

Footnote extras

  • If the book is a collection of articles or a reproduction of primary source material, it will not have an author, but an editor instead. If the main name on the book is an editor, you need to write the letters (ed.) next to the name.
  • If your next footnote in the sequence is from the same book, but a different page, you do not need to write out all of the information again, you can simply write the word "Ibid" which means same source and then cite the page number. However, you should only do this once in any given sequence. If you have 3 quotes in a row from the same book, the third time, you should write out the information again. 

What is a bibliography?

A bibliography is the list of books that you have used to help you write your essay. This may include books that you have quoted from or used as part of your reading.

You should always include a bibliography at the end of your essay which lists the books that you have used. You can use the same format as you would for footnotes. Below is a sample to show you how it should look.

1.) Campbell, J (ed) Cambridge 1982 - The Anglo-Saxons

2.) Swanton, M (ed) J.M Dent 1997 - The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle                                                

The Harvard Footnote System

Another option to make sure you have referenced correctly is to use the simpler Harvard system. This may be a preferred method for the writing of normal class essays, although for a personal study, the use of traditional footnoting is still recommended. Harvard referencing uses the author and the date of the work in the main body of the text, and then has a reference list at the end of the essay which contains the references cited in alphabetical order by author. The reference list contains the full details of the book or journal cited. Because you only refer to a shortened form of works in the main essay (author, date) your essay doesn't get filled with too much reference material. The use of the author/date shorthand does make it easy to locate works in the reference list.

An example from the main body of a text:

Within the last ten years, teachers who have attended INSET courses have reported that the courses have helped to increase their competence and confidence in using IT (see, for example, Higham and Morris, 1993; ESRC 1990), yet despite the fact that the passing years have presented opportunities for more teachers to increase their skills in IT, weaknesses identified by McCoy (1992) seem to be still evident (Gillmon, 1998; Goldstein 1997). This suggests that we need to look for explanations other than attendance at INSET courses for the reasons for the apparently poor state of teachers' competence and confidence in IT.

In this text the author is citing entire works by other researchers to support her argument. Notice the use of brackets and the author/s and dates of all works.

Another example from the main body of a text:

One resource provided in the secondary speech genre is the "posited author" (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 312).

Here the quotation is a direct one so a page number has been added.
Quotations of no more than two sentences can be incorporated into the main text and marked off with quotation marks, but if you quote a longer passage it must be placed in a separate paragraph and indented from the left and right margins of the main text.


[1] Swanton, Michael (ed), J.M Dent 1997, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, pg. 185

Attached files: