How to Write a History Essay, According to a History Professor
A history professor breaks down how to write a successful history essay, from choosing a topic to polishing your argument.
- History classes almost always include an essay assignment.
- Focus your paper by asking a historical question and then answering it.
- Your introduction can make or break your essay.
- When in doubt, reach out to your history professor for guidance.
I've written over 100 history papers between my undergraduate education and grad school — and I've graded more than 1,500 history essays, supervised over 100 capstone research papers, and sat on more than 10 graduate thesis committees.
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Ready to start your journey?
Here's my best advice on how to write a history paper.
How to Write a History Essay in 6 Simple Steps
You have the prompt or assignment ready to go, but you're stuck thinking, "How do I start a history essay?" Before you start typing, take a few steps to make the process easier.
Whether you're writing a three-page source analysis or a 15-page research paper, understanding how to start a history essay can set you up for success.
Step 1: Understand the History Paper Format
You may be assigned one of several types of history papers. The most common are persuasive essays and research papers. History professors might also ask you to write an analytical paper focused on a particular source or an essay that reviews secondary sources.
Spend some time reading the assignment. If it's unclear what type of history paper format your professor wants, ask.
Regardless of the type of paper you're writing, it will need an argument. A strong argument can save a mediocre paper — and a weak argument can harm an otherwise solid paper.
Step 2: Choose a History Paper Topic
If you're lucky, the professor will give you a list of history paper topics for your essay. If not, you'll need to come up with your own.
What's the best way to choose a topic? Start by asking your professor for recommendations. They'll have the best ideas, and doing this can save you a lot of time.
Alternatively, start with your sources. Most history papers require a solid group of primary sources. Decide which sources you want to use and craft a topic around the sources.
Finally, consider starting with a debate. Is there a pressing question your paper can address?
Before continuing, run your topic by your professor for feedback. Most students either choose a topic so broad it could be a doctoral dissertation or so narrow it won't hit the page limit. Your professor can help you craft a focused, successful topic. This step can also save you a ton of time later on.
Step 3: Write Your History Essay Outline
It's time to start writing, right? Not yet. You'll want to create a history essay outline before you jump into the first draft.
You might have learned how to outline an essay back in high school. If that format works for you, use it. I found it easier to draft outlines based on the primary source quotations I planned to incorporate in my paper. As a result, my outlines looked more like a list of quotes, organized roughly into sections.
As you work on your outline, think about your argument. You don't need your finished argument yet — that might wait until revisions. But consider your perspective on the sources and topic.
Jot down general thoughts about the topic, and formulate a central question your paper will answer. This planning step can also help to ensure you aren't leaving out key material.
Step 4: Start Your Rough Draft
It's finally time to start drafting! Some students prefer starting with the body paragraphs of their essay, while others like writing the introduction first. Find what works best for you.
Use your outline to incorporate quotes into the body paragraphs, and make sure you analyze the quotes as well.
When drafting, think of your history essay as a lawyer would a case: The introduction is your opening statement, the body paragraphs are your evidence, and the conclusion is your closing statement.
When writing a conclusion for a history essay, make sure to tie the evidence back to your central argument, or thesis statement.
Don't stress too much about finding the perfect words for your first draft — you'll have time later to polish it during revisions. Some people call this draft the "sloppy copy."
Step 5: Revise, Revise, Revise
Once you have a first draft, begin working on the second draft. Revising your paper will make it much stronger and more engaging to read.
During revisions, look for any errors or incomplete sentences. Track down missing footnotes, and pay attention to your argument and evidence. This is the time to make sure all your body paragraphs have topic sentences and that your paper meets the requirements of the assignment.
If you have time, take a day off from the paper and come back to it with fresh eyes. Then, keep revising.
Step 6: Spend Extra Time on the Introduction
No matter the length of your paper, one paragraph will determine your final grade: the introduction.
The intro sets up the scope of your paper, the central question you'll answer, your approach, and your argument.
In a short paper, the intro might only be a single paragraph. In a longer paper, it's usually several paragraphs. The introduction for my doctoral dissertation, for example, was 28 pages!
Use your introduction wisely. Make a strong statement of your argument. Then, write and rewrite your argument until it's as clear as possible.
If you're struggling, consider this approach: Figure out the central question your paper addresses and write a one-sentence answer to the question. In a typical 3-to-5-page paper, my shortcut argument was to say "X happened because of A, B, and C." Then, use body paragraphs to discuss and analyze A, B, and C.
Tips for Taking Your History Essay to the Next Level
You've gone through every step of how to write a history essay and, somehow, you still have time before the due date. How can you take your essay to the next level? Here are some tips.
- Talk to Your Professor: Each professor looks for something different in papers. Some prioritize the argument, while others want to see engagement with the sources. Ask your professor what elements they prioritize. Also, get feedback on your topic, your argument, or a draft. If your professor will read a draft, take them up on the offer.
- Write a Question — and Answer It: A strong history essay starts with a question. "Why did Rome fall?" "What caused the Protestant Reformation?" "What factors shaped the civil rights movement?" Your question can be broad, but work on narrowing it. Some examples: "What role did the Vandal invasions play in the fall of Rome?" "How did the Lollard movement influence the Reformation?" "How successful was the NAACP legal strategy?"
- Hone Your Argument: In a history paper, the argument is generally about why or how historical events (or historical changes) took place. Your argument should state your answer to a historical question. How do you know if you have a strong argument? A reasonable person should be able to disagree. Your goal is to persuade the reader that your interpretation has the strongest evidence.
- Address Counterarguments: Every argument has holes — and every history paper has counterarguments. Is there evidence that doesn't fit your argument? Address it. Your professor knows the counterarguments, so it's better to address them head-on. Take your typical five-paragraph essay and add a paragraph before the conclusion that addresses these counterarguments.
- Ask Someone to Read Your Essay: If you have time, asking a friend or peer to read your essay can help tremendously, especially when you can ask someone in the class. Ask your reader to point out anything that doesn't make sense, and get feedback on your argument. See whether they notice any counterarguments you don't address. You can later repay the favor by reading one of their papers.
Congratulations — you finished your history essay! When your professor hands back your paper, be sure to read their comments closely. Pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses in your paper. And use this experience to write an even stronger essay next time.
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