Philip Larkin once said that the modern novel consists of a beginning, a and an end.The same is, alas, all too true of many history essays.First of all we ought to ask, What constitutes a good history essay?
Here you give your carefully thought out definitions of the key terms, and here you establish the relevant time-frame and issues – in other words, the parameters of the question.
Also, you divide the overall question into more manageable sub-divisions, or smaller questions, on each of which you will subsequently write a paragraph.
If you get into the habit of thinking about the key issues in your course, rather than just absorbing whatever you are told or read, you will probably find you’ve already considered whatever issues examiners pinpoint in exams.
Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is vital.
What follows, therefore, skips philosophical issues and instead offers practical advice on how to write an essay that will get top marks.
Witnesses in court promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.You have to think and think hard – and then you should think again, trying to find loopholes in your reasoning.Eventually you will almost certainly become confused.But unfortunately there’s no substitute if you want to get the top grade.So think as hard as you can about the meaning of the question, about the issues it raises and the ways you can answer it.Be certain to avoid the besetting sin of those weaker students who, fatally, answer the question the examiners should have set – but unfortunately didn’t.Take your time, look carefully at the wording of the question, and be certain in your own mind that you have thoroughly understood all its terms.On reading a good first paragraph, examiners will be profoundly reassured that its author is on the right lines, being relevant, analytical and rigorous.They will probably breathe a sign of relief that here is one student at least who is avoiding the two common pitfalls. The second is to write a narrative of events – often beginning with the birth of an individual – with a half-hearted attempt at answering the question in the final paragraph.Or if you are asked to explain the successes of a particular individual, again avoid writing the first thing that comes into your head. In so doing, you will automatically be presented with the problem of defining ‘success’. Do we have to consider short-term and long-term successes?If the person benefits from extraordinary good luck, is that still a success?