The Preparation of History Essays
form an integral part of your history courses. They can also be one of the most rewarding aspects of a
course, giving you a chance to research the raw material of history (primary sources) and to analyze other
historians' interpretations of the past (secondary sources).
writing is an opportunity to develop your research and writing skills. It is ultimately a lesson in
communication. No matter how comprehensive your research or how brilliant your ideas, the essay will
flounder if it is not well-organized and presented in clear and grammatically correct English. Obviously,
good essay writing requires time. Pay attention to deadlines and give yourself sufficient time to research,
write and revise your essay.
following guidelines are geared to the writing of History essays, but many of these
tips may apply to essays in any discipline.
2. DEFINING THE TOPIC
many classes, you will be given a list of essay topics from which to choose. It is wise to do some
preliminary research to determine what topics really interest you and it is also advisable to clarify
your chosen topic with your instructor. If you are allowed to select your own topic or wish to
substantially modify a given topic, be sure you have your topic approved by your instructor.
3. COMPILING A BIBLIOGRAPHY
and researching appropriate and adequate sources for your essay will be a critical part of its success.
No essay should be attempted on the basis of text books or one or two sources. Be sure to familiarize
yourself with the LSUS library homepage and Libguides. All holdings can be searched on-line using SIRSI, the libraryís
on-line catalog; knowing how to use it is an essential research tool. It can also be helpful to do an
actual shelf search; several hours spent browsing through library shelves on areas indicated in your
first sources often lead to valuable discoveries.
addition to books, don't neglect articles on your subject. Articles in periodicals are too often overlooked
by students, although they may contain new approaches to and concise sources of information. Discuss research
problems with librarians and do employ all available aids for use of the library system. Don't be afraid to
ask for help.
research should also include primary sources. Primary sources on many topics in Louisiana history,
particularly north Louisiana history, may be found in LSUS Archives and Special Collections.
Of course, since primary sources originate with individuals or entities, they may be found in many
places such as local libraries, the National Archives and Library of Congress (on-line), museums,
or personal interviews. Research in primary sources takes more time than looking up articles and
books, so plan ahead.
Students often turn to rapidly-proliferating websites for sources for essays.
Sometimes these can be helpful, especially if they are archival websites which can give you direct
access to primary documents. However, websites should be used with caution. In some fields, websites
can be the source of much inaccurate information and controversial and/or ill-founded opinion. If you
want to use a website in your essay writing, you should adhere to the following procedure.
Get the approval of your instructor in advance for websites that you are planning to use.
Websites must be listed accurately in your bibliography and if you use material from them,
must be properly footnoted.
4. RESEARCH TECHNIQUES
does not mean hunting for books, or just reading them. It means reading your sources with definite
questions in mind. Essays should not be written from open books, but from notes made while
reading sources. Orderly arrangement of these is imperative, including the author, title,
and page number of the source. Whether you are taking notes by hand or by computer, be sure
your are systematic and accurate.
are a number of methods for organizing your notes. One traditional way is to use two different types
of notes, "bibliography" (author-title) notes and "research" (subject-information) notes. Bibliography
notes give relevant information about the sources used. They include the name of the author, the full
title, and the location and date of the edition used. This note should include your evaluation of the
usefulness of the source for your topic and relevant details about the author and his/her method.
You will need this summation if you are asked to do an annotated bibliography.
Elton, Tudor Rev.
G. R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government Administrative
Changes in the Reign of Henry VIII.
(Cambridge, 1962) (first published 1953)
Monograph based upon primary sources (mostly manuscript). Sees 1530s as crucial
decade in Tudor history.
Argues that Thomas Cromwell created the privy council. Good
on differentiation between privy council and
Valuable for development of household.
research note contains your notes on the topic, with a separate card for each important idea or piece
of information. If you are copying material that you might wish to quote, be sure that it is copied
accurately, that you have the exact source including page numbers, and that you have separated
"quotes" from summaries in your own words.
Marshall, 18th C. Eng.
Sum of Pitt's Role
M. see P. as a key influence. Suggests P.'s influence overrated by some historians but
affirms that P. set strategy, organizes and pushes other to act, chooses good
"His contribution was a threefold one... [He] had gathered information from many sources
and welded it into a coherent strategy. It was his meticulous attention to details of supply
which not only collected transports and troops but saw that they had the necessary
equipment and stores. Often imperious and unreasonable over other people's difficulties,
he forced men to do and provide things which hitherto they had considered impossible
and impracticable. Thirdly, he had  chosen his commanders with skill, though
considerably hampered by George II's intense personal interest in this field."
by computer should be an adaptation of these basic procedures. You should keep all your research notes.
In some courses, you may be required to submit them with your essay.
5. PLANNING THE PAPER
should make and revise outlines while researching the paper, emphasizing your developing perception
of the major issues. Research notes are your main tools. They should be filed under topic headings,
reviewed, and rearranged frequently in order to fill in gaps in information or analysis. This enables
you to determine what is of value as you research the paper; to return to an orderly collection of
material if you have to leave it for any reason; and to organize your thoughts when you finally sit
down to write the paper.
6. WRITING THE PAPER
it must be emphasized that you should leave sufficient time for at least one draft. Work from an outline,
coordinating your research notes, but leaving yourself enough flexibility to make changes. The first draft
can be written quickly, as it is for substance and arguments, which can be refined with each succeeding
draft. In later drafts you can concentrate on polishing your style. You should make sure:
The introduction is clear, indicating the historical context and the problem under discussion
The narrative and argument are presented logically and concisely in the body of the essay
The conclusion summarizes and unifies the arguments presented
should be carefully proofread and checked for correct spelling and grammar. Academic essays are usually
written in formal style. Thus you should generally avoid contractions and colloquialisms unless the
subject matter particularly calls for such usage. On the other hand "formal" does not mean verbose,
stodgy or vague. Long Latinate words, passive constructions, and sentences that begin "it is" or
"there are" are common patterns which result in obscure or boring writing. Good academic writing
is formal, but also lively and direct. As a general rule, it is better to aspire to clarity and
economy; few students find difficulty meeting the suggested length of the essay. Verbosity is
demonstrated more often than brevity.
writing is also precise. Try to choose words that express
your intention exactly. Modern academic style requires care and precision in the use of
language regarding race and gender. Just as you would avoid racist slurs and words that
convey old-fashioned racial stereotypes, it is important to avoid phrases and words
that are gender exclusive, unless you consciously intend them to be so. Do not use
phrases such as "the history of mankind" when you really mean humanity. Avoid using the
pronoun "he" when you are referring to subjects of both genders. Beware of false
universals; for example, do not say "the inhabitants" when you mean the adult male
residents, or "universal suffrage" when you really mean "white adult male suffrage".
instructor may already have given you instructions with regard to format. If so you should follow
those. If not, here are some standard guidelines. The final draft should be typed on standard size
8 1/2" x 11" paper. Use double spacing, except for long quotations (over twenty-five words) and
footnotes which should be single spaced. Remember to number all pages. The essay should have a
title page which includes your name, student number and course number (and tutorial section if
appropriate). Be sure you keep a copy of your paper.
9. DOCUMENTATION AND FOOTNOTES
is obvious that most ideas presented in an undergraduate essay will derive from other sources, so
it is necessary that these be acknowledged. In general, footnotes should be used to make clear
to the reader on what authorities you are basing your statements. History papers are usually
documented using Chicago Manual of Style, which is available in the library and electronically
via the link on the Noel Library homepage. If your instructor has given you specific instructions
about which system of reference to use, you should follow those instructions. In lieu of
specific instructions, the traditional system of footnotes and endnotes, as illustrated
particular, footnotes should:
Indicate the exact source of every quotation used
Acknowledge indebtedness to others for opinions and ideas
Give authority for a fact which the reader might question
Call attention to other interpretations, additional authorities or more extended treatment of the
a "substantive" footnote should be used with restraint.
can appear either at the bottom of the page or collected together at the end of the essay where
they are referred to as endnotes. The numeral indicating the footnotes should come at the end
of the quotation or the sentence, usually as a superscript. Think of a footnote as conveying
four pieces of information which are set off by commas in the following order:
name (in normal order)
The title of a book is underlined or written in
The title of an article is put within quotation marks, followed by the
or in italics
Place, publisher, and date of publication in parentheses ( ),
Article citations do not include the place of publication and publisher.
(including volume and issue number if applicable)
1Gilbert C. Din, The Canary Islanders of Louisiana
(Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1988), p.207.
2Basil Davidson, "Questions about Nationalism", African Affairs 76 no. 302 (Jan. 1977),
subsequent references, a shorter reference should be used. It should include the author's last name,
a meaningful short title, and page numbers. For example:
3Din, Canary Islanders, 179-206
the reference is exactly the same as the preceding one, the Latin abbreviation ibid.
can be used; where it is the same, but the page number is different, use ibid., followed
by the relevant page number. However, the short title form is preferable for subsequent references
and the use of other Latin abbreviations such as op.cit. is not recommended.
Chicago Manual or Style or the Turabian Manual for Writers for examples of citations
for articles and unpublished materials (such as archives).
works consulted, not just those cited in the footnotes, should be indicated in the bibliography.
You may be required to prepare an annotated bibliography, wherein you comment on the contents,
utility, or worth of each source. If so, make sure you understand what the instructor expects,
in particular the length as well as the nature of each annotation.
list the sources in alphabetical order, by author. In some assignments, you may be required to
subdivide the bibliography into primary and secondary sources. The format for a bibliography
is similar to that for footnotes, except that the author's surname precedes the other names
and initials, periods instead of commas are used to divide the constituent parts, publication
data is not put in brackets, and page numbers are not included except in the case of articles
where the full page reference is necessary. For example:
Din, Gilbert C., The Canary Islanders of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: LSU Press,
Davidson, Basil. "Questions about Nationalism". African Affairs 76, no. 302 (Jan. 1977): 39-46.
Documentation is crucial to a good paper. It demonstrates good scholarship and lends credibility
to your points. It enables your readers to delve more into the subject by consulting the same
sources (just think how helpful the bibliography in a book you used was in finding other books
and articles on your own topic). It is also a matter of personal and academic integrity.
If you incorporate the ideas or words of someone else into your own writing, even if itís not
a direct quotation, you should document your source with notes and bibliography.