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Understand Your Teacher’s Expectations

Paying careful attention to your teacher’s requirements is essential when seeking help with assignments. Make sure you understand their expectations and then deliver accordingly. While the guidance that follows is crucial, customizing your work to align with your teacher’s preferences is the key to earning a good grade. Teachers may have distinct preferences which you’ll need to comprehend, although you may only recognize these after receiving feedback on your initial essays. Engaging in discussions with senior students can be beneficial in this context.

Focus on Answering the Question

Typically, a history essay title is framed as a question. You can break down this question into smaller questions that need to be answered, providing a structure for your essay. Generally, every piece of information you include should aim to answer these questions. Hence, devote time to dissect the title and figure out what you need to articulate to provide answers. It’s crucial to stay focused and not be sidetracked by topics you might find more appealing. Your goal is not to flaunt your knowledge of the entire era but to demonstrate your analytical skills through source evaluation and knowledge of the specific area.

Read Extensively

While it’s essential to balance your reading with enough time for writing, the rule of thumb is that the more you read about a topic, the better you understand it, and the more effectively you can write about it. Even if your teacher has only referred to one textbook that seems to contain sufficient information, your knowledge, and paper will improve from broader reading. Different historians may offer varying perspectives and interpretations of the same subject. However, there’s a risk of straying off course and losing focus on your work, so be mindful.

Understand the Author as well as the Topic

When you’re familiar with a topic, you can critically analyze books or articles based on the content. However, if you’re new to the subject, like the history behind Independence Day, you may need assistance. Comprehensive book reviews, often found in academic journals, can provide insights into an author’s biases and strengths. Even Amazon reviews can be useful. While they might descend into ideological debates or biased opinions, they can give you a sense of the differing viewpoints a book evokes and the intellectual debates it sparks.

Take Detailed Notes

Usually, your access to sources – whether primary or secondary – will be limited due to library return policies. Even if you have copies available throughout the process, thorough note-taking is vital. This not only helps you understand and remember what each book or article discusses for easy reference when forming your ideas but also simplifies the referencing process if your notes are well-organized. If you’re working at the degree level, it’s crucial to write down page numbers next to every note you take. Regardless of your level of study, differentiate between your paraphrased notes and direct quotes by always using quotation marks for the latter.

Always Plan Before Writing

Never start writing without a plan. While spontaneous inspiration can occur, dedicating 5-10% of your writing time to planning each paragraph – outlining the point you’ll address – and mapping out your arguments will make the writing process smoother and provide a reference if you lose focus. A little flexibility in the plan is beneficial as your ideas might evolve during the writing process, but having a plan can guide you.

Choose Your Content Wisely and Adhere to Word Limit

If you’ve done extensive reading, you may have a wealth of information to include. However, it’s crucial to respect the word limit as some teachers deduct marks for exceeding it. Make thoughtful decisions about what to discuss in detail and what falls outside the scope of your essay. Although there’s some leeway (usually around 10% over the limit), this isn’t a hard rule. Teachers, after reading numerous papers each year, develop a sense of the ideal length of a paper.

Construct Arguments

Most educators seek more than just a straightforward narrative as historical research involves evaluating sources. Showcasing your analytical skills by formulating arguments and picking a side in your conclusion is one way to do this. Some essays might require you to debate a point, but it’s crucial to still mention (and refute) counterarguments. Identify historians with differing perspectives, summarize their viewpoints – ideally using quotes for authenticity – and then explain why you accept or reject their arguments.

This skill is essential in a history course and is one reason employers value history graduates. Fortunately, finding historians who disagree isn’t usually challenging! While it might not reflect your personal beliefs, sometimes agreeing with your teacher’s viewpoint can be advantageous. However, a good teacher will appreciate a well-constructed argument even if it challenges their perspective.

Link the Introduction and Conclusion

To present a cohesive set of thoughts, ensure your conclusion effectively addresses the issues raised in your introduction. One teacher suggested leaving the introduction blank until the end, then writing it specifically to introduce your essay once it’s complete and you know exactly where it’s headed. While I wouldn’t recommend this approach, it does illustrate the point. Your introduction should address the question posed in the essay title, demonstrate an understanding of the task at hand, and provide some context. Starting with a ‘hook’ or interesting fact to engage the reader can be helpful. Your conclusion should offer a clear summary of your answers, a definitive ending, and perhaps some broader relevance.

Avoid Plagiarism

While plagiarism is morally wrong, the practical reasons to avoid it are more compelling. The short-term benefits of copying others’ work are outweighed by a reduced understanding of the subject and the risk of being caught out in class or exams. Anyone can now Google parts of your essay to check for plagiarism, and experienced tutors will recognize key points from the books you’re likely to reference. The occasional success of others doesn’t make it worth the risk.

Use Footnotes and Quotes Correctly

While copying large sections of someone else’s work isn’t beneficial, incorporating properly quoted sections is not only acceptable but advisable. In a history essay, using a sentence or two from a reputable historian to support your work is a valid strategy, especially when the quote includes the historian’s interpretations or value judgments. Always use quotation marks for this, and if footnoting is required, do so meticulously. It’s better to overdo it than risk accusations of plagiarism.

Embrace Early Writing and Frequent Revisions

Some people can absorb all their reading, retain all the knowledge, and then put it all together in a single focused draft. However, most of us need to draft ideas while they’re fresh in our minds. Don’t hesitate to write paragraphs or even a complete draft after digesting only one or two key works, as long as you’re prepared to revise repeatedly as your reading and thinking progress. The risk is creating a disjointed piece, but careful revision can overcome this. The longer your essay or dissertation, the more you should write before your final draft.

Don’t Procrastinate

There are several reasons to aim to complete your work ahead of time. Rushing reduces thinking and editing time, and every piece of writing benefits from being reread the next day or after a few days of reflection. Procrastination can also prevent you from accessing necessary library books if others get there first. A high-quality essay requires sufficient time for research and planning. While some people thrive under stress and produce good work near deadlines, it’s a risky habit that can be derailed by unforeseen events.


Proofreading a document several times helps eliminate all mistakes, from major ones like contradicting yourself, to minor but still important errors in grammar, spelling, and dates. The best results often come when you proofread a document several days after writing it when you’ve had a chance to forget exactly what you wrote, forcing you to rely on what’s written rather than what you remember writing.

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