Students are often disappointed by the mark they receive for their History essay. Not always. Sometimes they get a grade above what they were expecting – underestimating the nuance of their own work. Equally, poor marks are not always a surprise. Disinterest, poor time management and stress can all lead to rushed assignments that students entirely expect to receive a lower mark. However, there is unfortunately nothing rare in an essay coming back with a poor mark that comes as a real shock.
When this happens, it’s not only because they’ve worked hard but also because there’s reason to be really pleased in one way or another with what’s been produced. It might be based on some fascinating wider reading. Perhaps it passionately presents a strong argument. It might be a beautifully written essay. It’s the pride taken that makes for disappointment. And it might be the attention paid to this aspect of writing the assignment that means they’ve overlooked something important.
Over recent years I seem to have developed two mottoes about writing. The first is that the key to good academic writing is to say complicated things as simply as possible. The second is that the better part of writing is rewriting. But both of these tips are about using the right words. How do you make sure you’re using those words to worthwhile ends? It’s worth bearing in mind that in an essay the writing needs not only to be elegant or thoughtful, but the words need to serve a purpose – they must be functional.
I would say there are five core functions that a sentence can serve in a History essay. These are also features that will be found in any really strong History essay. Including each of these does not automatically mean the essay will be good, but it will be held back if one or more is missing. Therefore, it would be possible to produce a solid History essay with every paragraph five sentences long – one serving each function. Although it would do the job in a formulaic fashion, the analysis would undoubtedly be stunted. In practice, a single sentence can serve more than one of these functions or most of a paragraph could easily be dedicated to just one.
A more intelligent use of this list of sentence functions than using it as a template would be to use it as a checklist. Has each of these things been done in this essay? On this page? In this paragraph? If one of them is missing, is that a problem or does it work regardless? After all, no rule should be followed so strictly it gets in the way of what you’re trying to say. More often than not, however, the absence will weaken the point being made.
At the same time, knowing which one (or more) of these functions a sentence is fulfilling is an indicator of whether or not there should be a reference – this will be necessary for two of the five. One of the biggest difficulties undergraduates have in their first year (and sometimes beyond) is figuring out when a reference is needed and when it’s not. If there are no references in a paragraph, it’s either because one or both of the two is there with no reference or because it’s missing altogether. Either way, it is worth spotting and fixing before submitting the essay.
So, what are these five functions?
1. Topic sentence: Near the start of the essay and at the beginning of every section or paragraph it’s important to clearly state what is to be discussed. An essay is not a novel. Start by making it clear, to yourself when writing and the tutor when marking, what is coming up.
2. Historiography: What do historians (and, indeed, other academics and theorists) say on this issue? Is there some debate? Is one particular approach or interpretation dominant here? A sentence that addresses these questions will always require a reference, whether it includes a direct quotation or not.
3. Argument: Make your point. This is the crux of the paragraph and really the crux of the essay. It is almost always the part the student cares about most. But it needs the others to support it, otherwise it is an opinion piece, not an essay.
4. Supporting evidence: Back up your point with a statistic, quotation or historical example. These can be taken from the reading or from primary sources, but they must be directly relevant to and support the point you are making. Again, this will always need a reference.
5. Conclusion: Wrap up the point and tie it back to the overarching argument being made in relation to the essay question. The relevance of what is said should not only be made explicit at the end of the essay, link it back repeatedly. Of course, ideally this does not become too repetitive. However, if it is a choice between this being done in a clumsy manner or not at all, I personally see the former as the least bad option.
It’s worth acknowledging that different tutors have different things they’re particularly looking for. For example, some are more keen on seeing historiography feature prominently than others. But I’d be surprised if any History tutor actually advised a student not to include one of these. Therefore, ensuring they’re all in there to some extent is the best way of guarding against the sometimes seemingly random differences in focus between markers. It’s also a good starting point for students usually working in another subject, feeling one step behind their classmates in knowing what’s expected.
Ultimately, a good History essay should do all these things. They provide a solid platform on which to present an intelligent analysis and a thoughtful argument – although, of course, they do not guarantee either. Still, the writing problems we talk about most often are the spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and poor syntax that obscure the point. But the proof-reading stage before submitting an essay shouldn’t just be about corrections. It should also be about fine-tuning and strengthening the case being made. This is where using this checklist can be helpful. If reading back over your essay (either as a whole or a certain section of it) any of these things are unclear or missing, then it needs a little more work.