Essay Guide

I. Introduction

What is in this Essay Guide? This Essay Guide is designed to help you with the process of writing essays for history courses. It is a complement to the course outline and provides you with the information you need to succeed in this history course. You are responsible for understanding the material in this Essay Guide, which contains the following information:

  • An overview of topic selection, finding relevant sources, and interpreting texts
  • A few tips on note taking, making outlines, drafting thesis statements, and writing introductions
  • A practical review of proofreading, proper format, and essay submission

II. Essay Writing Tips

1. Research

a. Selecting a Topic

How do I choose a topic? If you have not been assigned a specific topic, you need to choose one on your own. To do this, you need to think about a subject of interest to you, especially one you are passionate about. When you choose a topic, it should be manageable according to the length of your paper. You would not attempt to provide a survey of Latin American or European history in a 10-page essay; instead, you could discuss one aspect of an important event, cultural movement, individual, organization, idea, or ethnic group. In most cases, you would concentrate on one country or region as a case study, but comparative approaches are not outside the realm of possibility. When you start brainstorming ideas, here are a few things you should consider:

  • Look over the course syllabus. Look over the syllabus for potential topics. Seeing what your instructor is focusing on in individual lectures or seminars is a good starting point.
  • Turn to reference materials. Tertiary sources are good tools for brainstorming a topic. Looking at encyclopedias and other handbooks are brief entry points into various historical themes.
  • Perform online searches. There are many problematic sources on the internet today, but several have merit and are useful in the initial stages of research. You can look at Wikipedia entries, popular websites, and even blogs to foster your interest in possible topics.
b. Finding Sources

How do I find sources for my paper? After you have chosen your topic, you need to perform research by looking for both primary and secondary sources. Here are a few ways in which you can find scholarly sources for your papers:

  • Perform word searches in the library search engine of your university library to explore the literature on your topic
  • Perform word searches in databases of scholarly journals on your topic
  • Perform word searches in Google Books for books related to your topic
  • Perform word searches in Google Scholar for scholarly journal articles
  • Perform word searches in WorldCat (the world’s largest library catalogue)
  • Look at topical Library Guides online for sources on your topic
  • Check the reference sections of Wikipedia articles related to your topic
  • Mine the footnotes and bibliographies of books and scholarly journal articles
  • Locate books in the stacks and then look at the other books around them
  • Check the select bibliographies on weekly lecture outlines
c. Interpreting Sources

How do I interpret my sources? Once you have located your primary and secondary sources, you need to examine them critically and carefully. You may want to read/view them more than once, because with each new reading/viewing you will most likely observe something you overlooked the first time. As you analyze your sources, you need to think about the biases of the authors/artists and how they viewed the world they were experiencing. Always keep in mind the personal history of the author, when and where they were writing, and their purpose of writing. Here are a few other things to consider as you read/view your sources:

  • Imaginative readings. Never take anything at face value and do not read your sources in a literal fashion. You need to understand the genre you are working, specifically its literary conventions.
  • Limitations. Recognize the limitations of a source, which means understanding that most sources in various time periods were written by elite males. Also, you would not go to a series of laws to understand the literary trends of a society. Don’t expect a given document to yield information on a given theme if its original purpose was for something else.
  • Generalizations. Be careful with generalizations because in many historical sources you will find authors using words and expressions such as “all,” “everyone,” “all the time,” “most,” and other related terms. You cannot build a solid argument based upon a generalization, especially when it is a negative or positive stereotype of a group of people.
  • Alternative meanings. Read between the lines by looking for meanings that are not directly stated in your sources. To uncover the experiences of peasants, impoverished people, and other marginalized groups, it is necessary to look for unintentional narratives.
d. Notetaking

How should I take notes? As you examine your sources, jot down notes to help you organize your essay when it comes time to craft an outline. It is important to understand the difference between various types of notetaking:

  • Word-for-word quotations/inscriptions. The first type of notetaking is copying down word-for-word quotations from texts or inscriptions from images that you find important. These quotations or inscriptions might be used in your paper, a decision you will need to make while drafting your outline. Remember to always dutifully record the page number(s) of your quotations and where you got your inscriptions from. You should also place quotation marks around your quotations so that you do not think these words are your own. If you own or have copies of your sources, you may want to highlight sections that you find important and then list the page numbers of these quotations and inscriptions on a separate sheet of paper. Never mark up books from the library. That’s disrespectful and quite frankly extremely self-centred and annoying.
  • Summaries. The second type of notetaking is summarizing certain sections of your sources in your own words so that you remember their content, order, and general logic. When you are dealing specifically with your visual sources, try to be as descriptive as possible so that with your own words you can mentally visualize the image. Sometimes it is helpful to write down, in point form, the various themes of your sources. Remember that even when you are using your own words to summarize, you still need to reference the corresponding page number(s) of your summaries.
  • Commentaries. The last type of notetaking is jotting down questions, doubts, and other comments about your sources as you read through or view them. If you have photocopies or your own original documents, you may want to write these comments in the margins throughout. These observations and criticisms will come in very handy once you start writing your essay; in fact, these notes are the most important because they reflect your own thoughts and engagement with your sources.

2. Composition

a. Making an Outline

How do I make an outline? All papers need to be organized properly in order to communicate ideas clearly. Before you sit down to write your essay, you should construct a general outline (in point form) of what your essay will look like. Make sure to include the following in your outline:

  • Introduction
    • Opening. Provide an attractive opening statement.
    • Thesis. State your thesis and what you hope to prove in your paper.
    • Signposts. List the ways you are going to substantiate your thesis.
  • Body
    • Sections. Depending on the length of your paper, you may want to create sections with separate titles to guide the reader.
    • Paragraphs. Outline the general content of each paragraph, which will be organized into the different sections you create.
    • Notes. Organize your quotations, summaries, and comments where they best fit into your paper.
  • Conclusion
    • Summary. Sketch a short summary to conclude your paper.
b. Developing a Thesis

How do I establish a thesis? After examining your sources critically and carefully, you need to establish a thesis about your general topic. A thesis is the main point you are trying to make in your essay based upon the conclusions you reached from your research. Throughout your essay, you need to employ sound arguments that persuade your reader of the validity of your thesis.

A THESIS IS NOT:

  • A review of the topic of your essay
  • A personal belief or preference
  • A statement of a “fact” or observation

A THESIS IS:

  • The main point of your essay
  • A statement supported by evidence
  • An assertion that sets up an argument
c. Drafting an Introduction

What should my introduction look like? An introduction needs to (1) provide an idea of what the paper is about, (2) draw the reader into the subject matter, (3) establish a clear thesis statement, and (4) provide brief signposts as to how the thesis is going to be proved. In history papers at the university level, it is always best to have a clear thesis statement at the beginning of your paper (usually in the opening paragraph). Compare these two opening paragraphs for an imaginary paper on the Columbian Exchange. The first is merely a series of statements while the second offers a thesis and a series of signposts to guide the reader.

  • Series of statements. The Columbian Exchange refers to the exchanges of plants, animals, diseases, and peoples in the Atlantic world. These exchanges took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, starting after Christopher Columbus’s initial voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. The Columbian Exchange had a major influence on the peoples of the Atlantic world in the early modern period, transforming their eating habits and the ethnic make-up of their communities. It also saw major fluctuations in population figures, specifically in the New World where the indigenous population significantly declined. Beyond this, the Columbian Exchange shaped what was traded between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, not to mention the fact that it saw numerous draft animals arriving to the New World. Indeed, the Columbian Exchange was a major turning point in world history.
  • Thesis statement (argument and signposts). The Columbian Exchange refers to the exchanges of plants, animals, diseases, and peoples in the Atlantic world. These exchanges took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, starting after Christopher Columbus’s initial voyage across the Atlantic in 1492. But how did the Columbian Exchange influence Spanish efforts to convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity? In this paper, I analyze the role of smallpox on Jesuit missions in northwestern New Spain in the early 1600s. I argue that more than Jesuit missionary strategies, the spread of smallpox was the primary reason why Indigenous peoples joined their missions. To demonstrate this, my paper is divided into two parts. In the first part, I provide a brief overview of Jesuit mission practices within the larger process of colonization in northwestern New Spain. The second part looks at the spread of smallpox in Indigenous communities and the reasons why they turned to Jesuits to help them deal with rising numbers of deaths among their peoples.
d. Writing the Paper

How should I write my paper? Writing is a creative process that should reflect your own ideas. You should never write an essay with only your sources in hand. It will be necessary to have access to them for proper citation and general reference, but you should first and foremost have your notes and outline before you. Consider the following as you write your papers:

  • Introduction. Your introduction needs to clearly state your thesis and what your paper is about.
  • Style. The body of your essay should be structured with proper sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, spelling, and grammar.
  • Language. Avoid informal language you would use on the street or in a text. It is okay to use statements such as “I argue” or “I contend” because the essay should reflect your own ideas. Do not be excessively personal, however, by starting every other sentence with “I.” Simple language is the best, so there is no need to show off your vocabulary.
  • Organization. Make sure that your paper is properly organized and that it carefully develops the topic under discussion. In other words, make sure it has a logical progression with paragraphs that are related to each other.
  • Quotations. Use your sources intelligently, which means quoting only when necessary. Avoid quoting excessively at all costs. At times, the person who uses numerous quotations demonstrates that they did not engage properly with their sources; it shows that they are simply seeking to fill up space.
  • Conclusion. After you have finished developing your thesis, you need to provide an informative conclusion that concisely sums up your essay.
e. Crafting a Title

How do I craft an interesting title? All essays need titles that are creative, attractive, and informative. The purpose of a title is to draw your reader into the general subject of your paper, so make sure you choose one that outlines your argument, geographical scope, and chronological focus. Do not use the title of the assignment as the title of your paper.

f. Referencing Sources

How do I reference my sources? All citations for historical essays need to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, so please consult the following resource for help: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17thed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017). Footnotes are the preferable method for citations and bibliographies need to properly appear at the end of all your essays and exams.

3. Submission

a. Proofreading

How do I make sure that my essay is free of grammatical errors and other typos? After you have written your essay and provided proper bibliographic information, you should proofread your essay for spelling and grammatical errors. You may also want to have someone else proofread your paper because different eyes always catch things you pass over.

b. Formatting

How do I format my essay? Your essay should have a title page that states the title of your work, name, course code, instructor, and the date. It should be double-spaced with letters using 12-font and Times New Roman. All pages of your essay should be numbered at the bottom or at the top of each page (excluding the title page). See the Sample Paper in the Marking Guide for more details.

c. Uploading

How do I submit my essay for grading?  You should always read over the course syllabus to make sure that you know the exact due date of your essay. In this course, all assignments will be submitted using the Learning Management System. It is extremely important that you save a copy of your essay in case the instructor is unable to access it. You will be responsible for providing a new copy.

d. Relaxing

What do I do when I am finished? After you have handed in your essay, make sure to take a little break before you start working on the next one. Go out for a drink, get some exercise, hang out with your friends, watch a good movie, get together with family, or just simply relax.

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