How to Write Your First Undergraduate Essay
Jeremy Black prepares readers for the rigours of university history.
Well done! You have got into university to read history, one of the most interesting subjects on offer. One reason it is very interesting is that there is a clear progression from the challenges at A level to the requirements of a degree. And that is your problem. You have been set your first essay and you are not clear about these requirements.
The first rule is a simple one. The questions may look the same but your answers must be different. One can be set the identical question, say ‘Why did the French Revolution occur?’, at ages 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 or, if you are an academic writing a paper, 50 or 60, but a different type of answer is required.
In what way different? Not primarily in terms of more facts, because university history degrees are not essentially a test of knowledge, not a question of remembering dates or quotes. It is certainly appropriate to support arguments with relevant information, the emphasis being on relevant not information, and, when you deploy facts, do get them right. To get your facts wrong risks undermining the impression you create because it suggests that you do not really know the subject.
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But history is what you remember when you forget the facts. It is a habit of thought, an attitude of critical scrutiny and exposition, a method of enquiry. These should underlie your reading for your essay and should guide your preparation, and it is in their light that facts are to be assessed. They must contribute to the critical argument, and that requires an ability to engage with three elements if the essay is to be a good one:
I will go through all three, but do not worry. At this stage, for most students, these are an aspiration and not an achievement; but the aspiration is important as it shows you, first, how your degree course is different from A level and, secondly, what you will be expected to be able to do by the end of your university career. To do well, you should make an effort to begin including each of these elements in your essays.
Many questions relate to key concepts in history. For example, if you are asked ‘What were the causes of the French Revolution?’, the key concepts are causes and revolution. What do you mean by the French Revolution? Is it primarily the violent challenge to royal authority in 1789, the creation of a new political order, a marked ideological discontinuity, the process of socio-economic change, or, if a combination of all of these, which takes precedence and requires most explanation? What do you understand by causes? Are we talking primarily about long-term, ‘structural’ factors that caused problems, or about precipitants that led to a breakdown of the existing situation? These issues need discussing explicitly, out-in-the-open. That is key to a good essay at university level. They should not be left unspoken and unaddressed; and your discussion of them should reflect your awareness that issues are involved in the analysis, and that you are capable of addressing them. You also need to be aware that there will be different answers and this should guide your handling of the concepts. This leads into Methodology.
In this section, you should explicitly address the issue of how scholars, including yourself, can handle the conceptual questions. This follows the previous point closely. What sources should scholars use and how should they use them? Do you put a preference in studying the French Revolution on the declarations made by revolutionaries, on their public debates, or on what happened ‘on the ground’, including the violent opposition they aroused? If you discuss the latter, you underline the fact that the Revolution led to civil war, and that the causes of what you present as the Revolution were not a mass rejection of the existing system. You also point out that in 1789 few people envisaged what they were expected to support in 1792 (a republic and the trial of the king) let alone 1793 (the Reign of Terror). The Revolution is thus presented and studied as a dynamic, changing process, which requires different explanations at particular stages.
A key feature of university work is that you need to address explicitly the degree to which historians hold different views, and why, and to show that you understand that these views change, and can locate your own essay in their debates. For the French Revolution, we see a tendency among French scholars to stress socio-economic causes, among American academics to emphasise the conceptual inconsistencies of the French ancien régime, and among British writers to underline short-term political issues.
Ten Key Things To Do
- Read the question and understand what it is asking.
- Work out your approach.
- Write a detailed essay plan, with different points per paragraph.
- Have an introduction in which you reveal your understanding of the current debate in interpretations.
- Remember to handle the concepts in the question and in your answer clearly.
- Remember to introduce the relevant historical methods explicitly.
- Engage with the historiography, the views of different historians.
- In doing so, show how your work is part of the debate.
- Have a clear conclusion that brings out the relevance of the topic and your answer for wider historical issues.
- Include a reading list and a word count.
Sounds difficult? Well, these approaches add interest and understanding, and help make your degree a worthwhile process of education and exposition.