What is an essay?

The word 'essay' comes from a medieval French word meaning to weigh or to test (cf. 'assay'). An essay is exactly what the term implies: the weighing or testing of an idea or hypothesis. A history essay will set forth an argument about an historical event or problem, and will support the argument with reference to sources, both primary and secondary. An essay will often insert the problem within its historiographical context, though it should not take a great deal of space to do so.

Essays are a major part of your written work in most history subjects. This section provides basic information to help you in writing essays; for further information you should consult one of the guides mentioned below.

Beginning an essay

Choosing a topic is the first problem you will confront. Make certain that you can sustain an interest in it and that you can obtain the required materials.

In many subjects, you may be given only broad indications of suggested areas for work, together with bibliographies. In this case, the topic should be formulated as a question, hypothesis, problem, or tentative argument.

In first-year subjects, in particular, you will usually be given a bibliography to accompany the question you have chosen. You are expected to do all of this reading. At other times, you will be asked to construct your own reading list. In this case, you should get the habit of using as many reference books and bibliographies as possible to be sure that you have also combed secondary works for further sources, both secondary and primary,and for a better understanding of your topic. You will then turn to primary sources  with a better idea of what you are seeking in them.

Citation style guide: The recommended referencing style of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies is set out in The Chicago Manual of Style. The latest edition is the 16th edition. There is a step-by-step guide on the Chicago Manual of Style Online web page. Please use the tabs towards the top of the page.

Taking notes

Taking notes is an art in itself. A good essay cannot be written from scrappy or unsystematic notes. Each writer, according to his or her subject, purpose and temperament will evolve an appropriate system of note-taking, but the following principles apply to most undergraduate essays.

A note is always taken for a purpose and the organisation of a set of notes should reflect the purpose for which they are taken. From the beginning of a project you should be selecting the information relevant to your question and indicating, by headings, marginal notes or a simple filing system, how each piece of information relates to the general topic. It is important to make your own notes, for in doing so you begin to think actively about the material, while piles of photocopies remain undigested. Well-organised notes in which you write out what you found useful in each text will put you half way to a good essay! Be selective about what you do photocopy and annotate your copies as soon as possible after copying.

Before you begin to take notes, you should spend a few moments sizing up the book or article: scanning the table of contents, index and preface, and making a preliminary assessment of its relevance to your topic. Whatever other notes you take from the source, be sure first to take the full bibliographical details - author, full title, number of volumes, date and place of publication, publisher, etc. - and to label each sheet or card of your notes with a short title. Above all, don't forget to note down the relevant page numbers as you make notes; there is nothing more annoying than to finish writing your essay and then to discover that you forgot to note the date or the page number of one of your references.

Learn to vary your reading speed and the detail of your note-taking. Some books merit only scanning; some have chapters that deserve closer study; some important texts will need to be read attentively more than once. You may read an introductory text to familiarise yourself with a subject and take no notes beyond the title and a brief summary. Another source may have just a nugget or two of useful information that you will carefully record. Remember that if you own a book yourself, or can easily retrieve it for further study, it may be sensible to summarise only the main points and note the location of quotations or detailed information for possible later reference.

You will usually need to take four main kinds of notes:

An outline or précis of the writer's main argument and of the sub-arguments or evidence by which it is supported

No piece of information can be considered apart from its context, and the purpose of making such a summary of a book or article is to provide a clear record of the writer's.

Overall design

Because such a summary is likely to run beyond a paragraph or two, many researchers find it easiest to make this kind of note either in a notebook or, preferably, on separate sheets of paper which can be held in a simple filing system.

Specific fragments of information relevant to your topic

Sometimes these will consist of quotations or summaries from primary sources or passages of primary source material quoted in secondary sources. With most research essays you will find it useful to take notes on separate cards or pieces of paper, so that each new source, idea, or fact may be consulted independently of all others. In this way, you will be able to digest the information yourself and not blindly copy the authors you are reading.

Your own criticism, questions, reflections, and hunches

Note-taking should be an active and critical task. Develop the habit of writing down the ideas that come to you in the course of your reading. Either use 'reminder cards' which may be inserted at the relevant place in your file of notes (being sure, of course, to distinguish your own thoughts clearly from those of your sources) or use a separate 'ideas' notebook. These will include suggestions about how your argument might be developed and documented.