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How To Write An Essay

By Gareth Affleck | Published in History Review
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Gareth Affleck looks at beginnings, middles and ends.

A-level history is all about writing essays. No matter how much you know, if you can't: write a good essay you will not do well. Unfortunately, a good essay does not just consist of writing all you know about a given topic; at A-level examiners tend to insist on tricky things like answering the question, analysis rather than narrative and including information to support your point of view. Unless you are particularly gifted, these skills take time to learn and poor marks are common early on. Fortunately, however, these skills can be learnt. Although every essay will demand a unique answer, there are techniques common to all essays which will ensure that you don't go too far wrong. First some general points.

Read the question

This sounds too obvious to mention. But every year some students see a word or phrase in the title and proceed to reel off an a prepared answer without considering whether what they are writing actually addresses the question asked. This will be immediately obvious to anyone reading the essay and gain you a few marks. Read the question several times to make sure you understand what it is asking.

Analyse the question

When you have read the question should then analyse it. This is vital – many people do not make the distinction between what the question is asking and what the question is about. By breaking down the title into key words (the issue to be considered) and topic words (the subject matter), you can ensure that you actually answer the question rather than provide a simple narrative of events. A look at a couple of examples will show what I mean: 

  • Examine the motives that influenced the religious policies of Louis XIV
  • Main topic – religious policies of Louis XIV
  • Key word – motives
  • How far was Henry VII’s foreign policy successful?
  • Main topic – Henry VII’s foreign policy
  • Key word – successful?

Planning

This is without doubt the most vital part of writing an essay. It is your plan that determines what approach you take to answering the question. If you have written your plan properly, you will know exactly what your answer is going to be – this is not something that should be decided while you are writing your essay. More importantly, your plan will ensure that you actually answer the question. Everything you write must be related to the question, and without a plan it is all too easy to lose focus and write irrelevant nonsense. Not answering the question is the most common failing in A-level essays, and there is nothing a teacher likes doing more than crossing out huge chunks of an essay with the word 'irrelevant'! Write a good plan and this won't happen to you.

 

Once you have made your plan, you are ready to begin. How do you start an essay? Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule – it will depend very much on each individual title. However, one thing is certain: your introduction must make a good impression. It is the first thing anyone will read: if it fails to grip, the rest of the essay will have to be very good to retrieve the situation. Ideally your introduction should sparkle, leaving the impression 'Wow, this girl knows what she's talking about: I want to read more'. At the very least it must be competent. Preferably, it should also be short – if your introduction lasts much more than a third of a page, you have missed the point. So, faced with a blank piece of paper, what do you actually write?

Let's consider the title 'In 1680 Louis XIV was awarded the title 'Great'. Considering his reign as a whole, did he merit it?' The safe way to begin is simply to state what you are going to do: sum up in a few sentences what the question is asking and say how you are going to answer it. This approach will not excite an examiner, but as long as you have identified the key areas for investigation (which you will have worked out in your plan), you will have made a satisfactory start.

Another approach is actually to state your answer in the introduction and then go on to prove your case in the essay. This approach is far mare exciting because it shows that you have a definite point of view, and are prepared to argue it. It shows an examiner that you have planned your essay, know what you are going to say and in all probability will support it with good evidence.

The final type of introduction is far more individual You might use an interesting quote, describe a significant event, take issue with the question or otherwise set the scene It is hard to define, but the effect will be to show that you have complete mastery of the subject, understand the issues at stake and will be dealing with them thoroughly.

This kind of introduction will grip readers, impress them and make them want to know more. It’s also very difficult to write! Not everyone can do this but, as long as you follow some of the guidelines above, you will avoid shooting yourself in the foot before you have even begun.

The Middle

The main body of the essay is where you prove your case. Once you have planned your essay, this section will almost write itself It is just a question of filling in the gaps. You will know what paragraphs you are going to write and what information you are going to use. However, remember that you are making an argument, not narrating a story. You have already identified the key words in the question – now is the time to use them. Every paragraph must refer in some way to the key words or it will be irrelevant. Be ruthless – you will have far more information than you need and must select carefully only that which you need to support your argument.

However, you must equally avoid an essay consisting only of argument – you must not make unsubstantiated claims. For everything you say you must have a supporting fact or example – otherwise your essay will be just so much hot air. This balance between analysis and supporting detail is what makes up the skill of' essay writing, and takes time to learn. Once you have done so, success will be yours.

Quotes

After all your efforts making notes, you will naturally want to use some of them in your essay – that is why you made them. However, you must be very careful how you use quotes. They can only be used in a discussion of various historians' paints of view, i.e. 'Wilkinson says..., but Shennan says...', or to sum up an argument you have already proved. What they absolutely 100% can never be used for is to prove a point. The most common use of quotes is 'Wilkinson says that...', with no further information. This does not prove your point. A quote from an historian, however well respected, is not proof. Saying that Wilkinson has said something does not prove that what he has said is true. If you are going to use a quote you must support it with the relevant facts or examples, just as if' it was your own words, or you will gain no marks for your carefully memorised notes.

Conclusions

The conclusion is where you sum up what you have said in your essay. It is absolutely vital – never fail to write one. This is the last thing an examiner reads and counts for a great deal: a good conclusion can rescue an indifferent essay and set the seal on a good one. It is here that you draw together the threads of your argument and hammer home your points, leaving the reader in no doubt as to your answer. You should refer explicitly to the key words of the question and reinforce the points you made in the main body. Above all it should contain nothing new – it is simply a restatement of your argument. If there is anything you have not already said it is too late now!

Gareth Affleck taught History at Stockport Grammar School



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