Essay Writing Guidelines for History Essays
Dr. Joseph Tohill
In writing your essays, you will earn marks for following these guidelines.
I. Thesis and Organization
A good essay has one main argument, called a thesis, and a solid organization to
support the argument. Make sure every essay you write makes a clear argument on
a point that is debatable.
a) Formulating the thesis
The thesis is the organizing argument for your paper. As you research your
topic, you will come up with a number of tentative ideas about your subject. At first, your
ideas and assertions may seem random and unconnected. But eventually they will point
toward a larger conclusion. This broad, encompassing idea is your composition's central
argument. It links up all the smaller ideas and unifies the essay. All paragraphs and
sentences in your paper must help advance this message.
It is important to remember that a statement of the paper’s purpose is not the
same as a thesis. A paper’s purpose is to examine a particular topic or issue, but the
paper’s thesis/argument is the specific position of the writer on that issue. Your thesis
will often follow directly after your statement of purpose.
A well-constructed thesis should satisfy all four criteria below. This checklist will
help you formulate and test your organizing statement.
1. The thesis should be a single sentence. If your message consists of two or more
sentences, than your essay will be fragmented. Your arguments will point to several
2. The words in your thesis should be clear and precise. Ambiguous language will
make your argument hard to follow. Be certain that every word in your thesis is needed.
3. The thesis should be grammatical. Grammar is the architecture of a sentence. It
shows the reader how the different parts relate to each other. Errors in sentence
structure will make your message confusing.
4. The thesis should be on topic. Double-check the assignment. Make sure that your
argument is properly focused and relates to the question or topic at hand.
Example: Let’s say you were answering the question, “Which makes better pets, dogs
Statement of Purpose: “This paper will examine the reasons why dogs make better pets
Thesis Statement: “Dogs make better pets than cats because they are easier to train,
bond better with children and adults, and are less likely to cause allergic
reactions in people.”
b) Placing the thesis
Your argument will appear twice in the essay. Place it at the end of your introduction (i.e. first paragraph), and reiterate it using different words at the
beginning of your conclusion (i.e. last paragraph).
If you examine scholarly writing, you will see that most authors follow these
guidelines in a general way.
II. Structural Statements/Organization
a) Main division statements
Your essay should also have a structure, organized around main division
statements. These are the main points of the paper. The first main division
statement appears immediately after the thesis. The next main division statement
begins the group of paragraphs that form the next points in your paper.
Using the above example, your first main division statement that would begin the
section after your intro and thesis might be something like this: “The main reason that
dogs are better than cats is that they are easier to train.” This section of your paper
would then elaborate on this idea in a number of paragraphs. Your next main division
statement should provide a smooth transition from one point to the next and introduce
your next major point. For example, you might write, “In addition to being easier to train,
dogs are also better companions because they bond well with humans.” And so on…
The best way to draft your structural statements is to create an outline using
sentences, not just points. An outline allows you to arrange your essay’s points in a
logical order before you begin writing.
b) Topic Sentences
In addition to main division statements, every paragraph should have its own
point, called a topic sentence, which is normally the first sentence in a paragraph—
except when the paragraph opens with a main division statement, in which case it
follows the main division statement.
Again using the above example, you might write something along these lines:
“The main reason that dogs are better than cats is that they are easier to train. Dogs are
easier to train because of their superior intelligence.” Then your paragraph would
elaborate on this point. The next paragraph might start with a topic sentence that read,
“A dog’s eagerness to please its people also makes a dog easy to train.” And so on…
When writing a paragraph you should continue to think structurally. Keep in mind
that every paragraph is a miniature composition. Begin with your topic sentence, which
states the point the paragraph is making, followed by the evidence that proves or
substantiates that point.
III. Citing Evidence
In your paragraphs, you should use the evidence you have gathered to prove
your thesis. You can quote directly from books or articles (but not the lecture tapes,
which provide you with the basic course information). More often, however, you should
paraphrase other people’s work, as long as you always cite using proper footnotes
or endnotes. It is essential that you cite sources, otherwise this constitutes
plagiarism. Introduce direct quotations so that they are integrated smoothly into your paragraphs. (e.g. As historian John Smith argues, “the sky is definitely blue.”)
You must provide a footnote or endnote for any item that is not your own.
This includes not only direct quotations, but also any factual information that is not
common knowledge, and any the ideas or arguments that you take from someone else.
A footnote should be placed at the end of the passage to which it refers. If several
sentences or an entire paragraph use information or points from a source, the footnote
should come at the end of the passage or paragraph (i.e. it is not necessary to put a
footnote at the end of every sentence). Other than your introduction and conclusion,
where you introduce and summarize your arguments, you should generally have at
least one footnote per paragraph. Be very meticulous about documentation. When
in doubt, always cite.
If all the information in the paragraph comes from one source, you can just
a) Footnote and Bibliographical style:
This course is a humanities course, so you are required to use the referencing
style used in the humanities: Chicago style. This means that you provide references in
footnotes (which appear at the bottom of a page) or endnotes (which appear at the
end of a document).
Footnotes are numbered sequentially (i.e. each footnote has its own number).
Place your note at the end of the sentence, passage, or paragraph in which you have
used the ideas, arguments, or quotations of another author. A footnote or endnote
number in the text of your paper looks like this. You can easily insert footnotes or
endnotes into your essay if you are using word-processing software.
You can used either footnotes or endnotes. You can NOT use the
parenthetical style of referencing. At the end of your essay you must also provide a
bibliography, which is an alphabetical listing of sources used. Alphabetize your
bibliography by the author's last name