Once you have evaluated the question, you need to draw up an essay plan. This is a great opportunity to organise your notes and start developing the structure which you will use for your essay. When drawing up the plan you can assess the quality and depth of the evidence you have gathered and consider whether your thesis statement is adequately supported. Pick out some key quotes that make your argument precisely and persuasively.
Distinguish between primary and secondary sources. A history essay will require a strong argument that is backed up by solid evidence. The two main types of evidence you can draw on are known as primary and secondary sources.
Depending on the essay you are writing, you might be expected to include both of these. If you are uncertain about what is expected be sure to ask your teacher well in advance of the essay due date. Primary source material refers to any texts, films, pictures, or any other kind of evidence that was produced in the historical period, or by someone who participated in the events of the period, that you are writing about. Secondary material is the work by historians or other writers analysing events in the past.
The body of historical work on a period or event is known as the historiography. Typically a research essay would need significant primary material. It can be difficult to get going with your research. There may be an enormous number of texts which makes it hard to know where to start, or maybe you are really struggling to find relevant material.
In either case, there are some tried and tested ways to find reliable source material for your essay. Start with the core texts in your reading list or course bibliography.
Your teacher will have carefully selected these so you should start there. Look in footnotes and bibliographies. When you are reading be sure to pay attention to the footnotes and bibliographies which can guide you to further sources a give you a clear picture of the important texts.
If you have access to a library at your school or college, be sure to make the most of it. Search online catalogues and speak to librarians. Access online journal databases. If you are in college it is likely that you will have access to academic journals online. These are an excellent and easy to navigate resources. Try using free scholarly databases, like Google Scholar, which offer quality academic sources, but avoid using the non-trustworthy websites that come up when you simply search your topic online.
Avoid using crowd-sourced sites like Wikipedia as sources. However, you can look at the sources cited on a Wikipedia page and use them instead, if they seem credible. Evaluate your secondary sources. It's very important that you critically evaluate your sources. For a strong academic essay you should be using and engaging with scholarly material that is of a demonstrable quality. It's very easy to find information on the internet, or in popular histories, but you should be using academic texts by historians.
If you are early on in your studies you might not be sure how to identify scholarly sources, so when you find a text ask yourself the following questions: Who is the author?
Is it written by an academic with a position at a University? Search for the author online. Who is the publisher? Is the book published by an established academic press? Look in the cover to check the publisher, if it is published by a University Press that is a good sign. If it's an article, where is published? If you are using an article check that it has been published in an academic journal.
Once you found some good sources, you need to take good notes and read the texts critically. Try not to let your mind drift along as you read a book or article, instead keep asking questions about what you are reading. Think about what exactly the author is saying, and how well the argument is supported by the evidence. Ask yourself why the author is making this argument. Evaluate the text by placing it into a broader intellectual context.
Is it part of a certain tradition in historiography? Is it a response to a particular idea? Consider where there are weaknesses and limitations to the argument. Always keep a critical mindset and try to identify areas where you think the argument is overly stretched or the evidence doesn't match the author's claims.
When you are taking notes you should be wary of writing incomplete notes or misquoting a text. It's better to write down more in your notes than you think you will need than not have enough and find yourself frantically looking back through a book. Label all your notes with the page numbers and precise bibliographic information on the source.
If you have a quote but can't remember where you found it, imagine trying to skip back through everything you have read to find that one line. If you use something and don't reference it fully you risk plagiarism. Start with a strong first sentence. Read more about our writers.
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