Chapter 3 The Historical Essay

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Chapter 3
The Historical Essay

3.1. The question

3.2. Searching for evidence OR doing the research

3.3. Taking notes

3.4. Correlating and analysing your data

3.5. Writing the essay

3.6. Thinking about style

3.7. History Department “House Style” for presentation of essays

3.8. Footnotes in the historical essay

3.8.1. When should I use footnotes?

3.8.2. Format of footnotes

3.9. Bibliography

3.10. Plagiarism and how to avoid it

The historical essay is a specialised genre of professional writing, which has an established set of "rules" to help you express your ideas in a clear and well-ordered form. Before examining these rules in detail, however, it is necessary to understand the PURPOSE of an historical essay.

The historical essay:
1. examines a specific question of historical interest;

2. presents evidence in a well-ordered and clear manner;

3. arrives at conclusions based on a critical analysis of the evidence used; and

4. demonstrates the writer's overall competence in and command of the subject chosen.

In order to write an essay that accomplishes all these aims you will need to follow a plan that will guide you from the beginning through to the completion of your essay. You should begin by considering the question that you have been asked to answer.
Hints on presenting your final version of the essay are contained in subchapter 3.7 at the end of this chapter outlining the “House Style” used in the History Department. You should observe this “house style” in order to ensure that you follow the recommended style required by the Department of History.

3.1. The question

Sometimes you will be assigned a question to answer, while at other times you will have the opportunity to choose a question that interests you. (Sometimes in advanced courses, you may even be allowed to write your own question.) Once that you have your question you must pause and THINK before you do any other preparatory work for the essay.

First, examine the question carefully. What exactly is it asking you to do? You must be sure of this before you begin your research, because misunderstanding the question at this early stage will lead you to answer it incorrectly. Many students go wrong because they just grab at the "topic" of the sentence (e.g., the Revolutions of 1848) and assume that they should write down everything they know about that topic. But this is NOT usually what is asked: "Tell Us Everything You Know About The Revolutions Of 1848"! Instead, you are customarily asked to consider the topic from a particular angle or perspective, and to SELECT from among "Everything You Know" those facts that are relevant to that particular perspective, fitted together in a logical argument.
The first thing to do is to look at the main words in the question. What are they asking you to do? These are some of the most commonly used operative words in historical essays:
- "Discuss", "Assess", "To what extent", and "Comment on"
are normally asking you to give a balanced presentation of the evidence on both sides of an issue.
- "How" and "Why"
are asking you to make a critical judgement about the cause of an event or movement.
- "Compare" and "Contrast"
are asking you to make comparisons or contrasts between two or more events or movements.
- "Describe"
asks you to provide basic, important information about the topic of the question.

Note that the operators may be COMBINED in a question, e.g., "Describe the major interpretations of the Spanish-American War, AND assess their validity”. In order to answer this question well, you must address BOTH parts: you must tell the reader what the major interpretations are, and then you must indicate which you find most convincing, and why.

Once you are sure you know what the question is asking you to do, you may begin to think about how you are going to answer it. The process of writing an historical essay may be divided into three parts:

1. The search for EVIDENCE and the extraction from it of the data (information) you need to answer the question

2. The correlation and critical analysis of these DATA and their application to the question
3. The presentation of RESULTS (as facts, interpretations, conclusions) in a clear and readable fashion

3.2. Searching for evidence OR doing the research

Once you are sure that you understand what the question is asking you to do, you can begin your research and collect the data you need. Quite often, you will be given a reading list to guide you in locating the most appropriate sources of evidence for your essay. Pay particular attention to the readings on such lists, but do not stop there. You should also try to read as widely as possible on the topic you have chosen. Usually you will want to begin with more general books before moving on to more detailed studies.

You may also search the Internet. If you do, you should be aware that using the Internet and the World Wide Web present special problems and challenges. These issues will be dealt with in Seminar 5.
As you begin reading through the evidence, you will quickly accumulate raw material from which you will ultimately construct your essay. You will probably begin to get ideas about how to answer the question while you are doing your research. Jot down these ideas as you take notes from your sources, but be sure to distinguish between YOUR ideas and the ideas that you are extracting from your sources.
Often you will find that the evidence for an event or idea is conflicting or even in total disagreement. It is your job to get to the bottom of such conflicting interpretations before choosing which approach to take in your essay. Eventually you will have to decide for yourself which of the arguments is the strongest or most consistent.
Try to consider both sides of an argument as you read. You should keep your mind open during the early stages of evidence collecting. Examine what the various authors have to say and weigh the evidence with which they back up their arguments. You may ultimately decide that several views or approaches are appropriate in answering your question. If so, you will have to explain the differences of opinion that your evidence presents. But if one argument is clearly wrong and another is correct, you must say so, remembering always to back up your statements with the relevant evidence.
3.3. Taking notes (also see Chapter 2 notes)
You must make sure to take thorough notes while you are doing your research. This should include an accurate record of where your information was found. You will need this information to cite your sources in footnotes. When taking notes from a book, article or document, you must remember to include the following:
a.) Identify the book, its author, the place and date of publication. It is best to do this at the top of each page. You will need this information for your footnotes and bibliography. You may wish to record the date you read the evidence and took your notes. The library's call number for the book will also help you to relocate it if you need to consult it again.
b.) Make a note of the page number from which you extract any piece of information. Once again, you will need this for your footnotes.
c.) Enclose any direct or verbatim quotations in inverted commas ('_') or quotation marks (" "). This will warn you that, when you come to use this information in your essay, you must first convert this material into your own words, or else use these marks to indicate that you are using someone else's words (see below under "Style").
Try to keep your notes as simple and as neat as possible. This will make them easier to use when you come to writing the essay. You may also find it helpful to adopt a system of highlighting the important points or ideas as you are taking down your notes. Various systems can be used. These include combinations of underlining, CAPITAL LETTERS, asterisks (*), indentation from the margin, etc. Work with a system that you find comfortable and simple to use, one that does not waste your valuable reading time.
Some people believe that only after you have completed your reading and note-taking should you begin to think about writing your essay. Most historians, however, are already formulating some tentative ideas as they read and take notes. Be careful, however, not to "fall in love" with your first thoughts on the topic. If after reading one source, you begin to develop a THESIS – a basic answer to the question – keep checking it as you read other sources, and be ready to change it, or even abandon it entirely, if it does not fit with the new evidence. Remember, there is no harm in getting something "wrong" in your first draft, so long as it's "right" in the final version!

3.4. Correlating and analysing your data

By the time you have finished your reading, you will have a good idea of the general structure of the thesis that you are going to present in your essay, and the arguments that you will be using to justify this thesis. Some people prefer to wait a couple of days to mull over their ideas while others find it better to get started on the writing of their essay without too much delay. Whichever approach you adopt, remember to allow yourself plenty of TIME to develop your thinking and make the most of your evidence. It is very hard to write a good "last minute" essay!

Before you begin writing, you must prepare a formal PLAN of attack, listing the principal points of your argument and the appropriate evidence to back up each of them. Your essay plan should be written with one point for each idea or paragraph of argument in the essay. Only when you have finished WRITING DOWN YOUR PLAN should you begin to write the essay, taking each point in its turn. Remember that in writing your essay you should observe the formal order in which an historical essay must be presented.

3.5. Writing the essay

Your essay must be presented in a clear and orderly fashion. For this reason, you should divide your essay into three sections:

Together, these three sections provide a straightforward organisational framework around which you should be able to construct any historical essay.
The INTRODUCTION should state your thesis (the main theme of your answer) and demonstrate to the reader that you have understood what the question is asking. You should also define any special terms that are open to more than one interpretation and you will normally also need to state the chronological limits of your essay – what period you are covering. It is important to have a strong opening, leaving your reader in no doubt that you are in command of the topic. The introduction should therefore state in a few lines the main argument and the conclusion of your essay. Your introduction should make your reader eager to read on.
The DEVELOPMENT represents the bulk of the essay. This is where you present the evidence to support the statements you have made in the introduction. This section of the essay must be well structured and concise. You should treat each point that you wish to make in a separate PARAGRAPH. Paragraphs often open with a short introductory sentence giving the main idea in that paragraph; continue with a number of longer sentences presenting the evidence in support of that point; and conclude with another shorter sentence summarising the point made in the preceding sentences.
There must be a thread of organised ARGUMENT running through the essay that has the effect of building up towards the conclusion. The idea expressed in one paragraph should lead naturally and smoothly into the idea presented in the next. It is often quite difficult to decide on the order in which individual points in the argument are presented, but an obvious structure should eventually become clear. This is one reason it is an advantage to write an early draft of your essay: so that you can re-read it later and see if your points make sense in the order you have chosen.
The CONCLUSION will form the last paragraph of your essay and should appear to come as a natural and obvious result of the reasoned argument that you have presented in the development of the essay. The conclusion should briefly summarise the whole argument: it should re-state your thesis. Make sure you include all the main points you have made in the development of your argument. The final sentence, like the first, should be a strong one to make sure that your reader is left with a clear idea of what your conclusions are.
Remember, an essay is an exercise in which you are trying to convince your reader of your thesis. The best way of doing this is to stick to your argument throughout the essay, avoid being sidetracked, and be as CLEAR, CONCISE, and PERSUASIVE as you can.

3.6. Thinking about style

Because an essay aims at presenting your arguments and evidence as clearly as possible, you should keep in mind the following points:-

LEGIBILITY: Your reader must be able to read the essay. Make sure that you use a word processor, type your essay (double-spaced), or write it out clearly and neatly. There is nothing more frustrating for your tutor than to mark an essay that is full of good material but is almost impossible to read.
ORIGINALITY: You are being asked to give your view (your opinion, your thesis) on a particular historical problem, so it defeats the purpose of the exercise if you copy from someone else's ideas. If you use someone else's ideas without giving them due credit, you will be guilty of PLAGIARISM. You can avoid plagiarising another author by following the advice below (under "References") and the material on citations in sub-chapters 3.8 and 3.10.
Another and much more serious form of PLAGIARISM is the copying of an essay written by someone else. You may be tempted to use other students' essays to help you answer your questions. Avoid this temptation at all costs. You are sure to be caught by your tutor, and this will mean automatic FAILURE. Plagiarism is perhaps the worst crime that you can commit as a University student, since it involves intellectual dishonesty. In extreme cases, it can lead to your expulsion from HKU.
Copying others' work, moreover, is a short-term solution to your problem and will not help you in the long run. Essay writing is a means towards the end of learning to think and write more critically and analytically. This will not happen if you take short cuts.
REFERENCES: If you do use someone else's work you MUST give them due credit. You must therefore cite the sources of your evidence wherever you are repeating something you have read in a book, and you must also cite the source of any verbatim quotation. You may be tempted to quote at length from the books you read for your essays. This is not a good idea, as it is your views expressed in your own words that we want to read, not someone else's. You will normally be penalised for excessive quotation, sometimes referred to as "scissors-and-paste" writing. Try to avoid using long verbatim quotations; instead you should PARAPHRASE (put the idea in YOUR OWN WORDS) as much as possible.
LANGUAGE: should be clear and concise. Do not 'waffle', 'ramble' or 'pad'. Say what you need to say in as few words as possible and then get on to the next point. Learn ECONOMY of language.
While these stylistic points are particularly applicable to writing an historical essay, you will find that they are also of enormous use in preparing you for a wide range of writing tasks. Writing skills are transferable across disciplines; developing these skills at University will assist you in finding rewarding employment after you have graduated.

3.7. History Department House Style for presentation of essays
You will soon be submitting an academic History paper for the first time but you may not be familiar with some of the basic elements of presentation expected by the Department of History. In private correspondence, or some kinds of commercial ventures, it is acceptable or even advisable to try to make your writing look different! This is not what we are looking for in academic papers. We expect your assignments to conform to a standard model of presentation, explained below. We look for “difference” in your ideas, not your typeface.
The following rules apply specifically to first-year History courses, but should probably serve as a good general guide to usage in other History and HKU courses:

  • Use unlined A4 white paper. No odd sizes, no colours.

  • Use one side of the page only.

  • Type or print (from a word processor) if possible. Seminar assignments may sometimes be handwritten.

  • The text should always be double-spaced, i.e., with a blank line between each printed line. (Footnotes may be single-spaced.)

  • Use “normal” fonts, such as Times New Roman, Courier, or Univers. Avoid exotic typefaces such as ARIAL BLACK, Coronet, Copperplate Gothic, Marigold, Matisse, or Westminster.

  • Do not use italics except in book titles and other specified usages. Do not use boldface except, if you choose, for the title of your essay.

  • Type size should be roughly 12 pitches, not much larger or smaller.

  • Margins should be approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) at top and bottom, 1.25” (3.16 cm) on left and right. We will not be measuring your margins, but we will notice if they are very much larger or smaller than these specifications.

  • Each page (after the first) should have a page number, which may appear either at the top or at the bottom of the page.

  • If it is more than one page long, your paper should either be stapled together in the upper left corner or fastened securely in a plastic binder. Do not use paper clips; they fall off and get lost.

  • Your name and student number should be clearly written in a visible location, such as the top right corner of the first page.

  • Formats for footnotes and bibliographic references will be provided in conjunction with Chapter 3.8.2. while electronic citations will be covered in Chapter 4.

3.8. Footnotes in the historical essay
The primary purpose of footnote citations in an essay is to acknowledge sources for quotations or ideas which are not your own. It is both a means of giving due credit for the ideas of others and also a way of protecting yourself from charges of plagiarism (stealing someone else's ideas). It is therefore important that you should acquaint yourself with the basic rules of footnoting at the beginning of your university studies.
In general, only two rules need to be kept in mind when trying to decide whether it is necessary to use a footnote:
1) When you make a direct or verbatim quotation (that is, a word-for-word quotation) from a document or a secondary source (a book or article) you MUST always acknowledge your source. These sorts of quotations should be made sparingly – you should generally try to put the ideas of other historians into your own words.
2) You must also acknowledge an author when you use any of his/her ideas, even when you are not making a direct quotation. Whenever you need to consult your notes while writing your essay, you should make sure that you insert a footnote to acknowledge your source for that information.
"Do I have to footnote every single thing I say?" you may be asking. No. When the information is a matter of general knowledge, which might be found in almost any book on the topic, you do not need to footnote it (see below). When in doubt, follow these rules; if you are still in doubt, acknowledge your source.

3.8.1. When should I use footnotes?
First-year students usually find it very difficult to decide exactly when they should use footnotes in their essays. This is a skill that takes a long time to develop, but it is one of the most important that historians have to learn. Remember, you do not have to footnote absolutely every piece of information you glean from your readings. Generally speaking, statements that are accepted by historians as basic factual information do not need citations. For example:
The liberal revolutions of 1848 occurred in several European countries.
Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States during the Civil War.
Henry Bessemer developed a new method for making steel in the 1850s.
Each of these statements would generally be regarded as simply true, not a matter for argument. The facts themselves are not DISPUTED or controversial; there is no ANALYSIS of the factual data in these statements; and no OPINIONS are expressed about the people and events. It is therefore not necessary to provide footnote citations acknowledging your sources of information.
Much of the information in your essays will fall into the category of basic factual data like these and you do not need to acknowledge the sources of this information, unless you are quoting particular data sets such as statistics. But there will also be much information in your essays based on the analyses and opinions of other historians whose books you have read. In these cases, when you repeat information that contains ANALYSIS or OPINIONS from someone else's writing, you must ALWAYS acknowledge your sources in footnotes. Compare the following statements with the three quoted ones above:
The liberal revolutions of 1848 were masterminded by middle-class bourgeois intellectuals who were determined to replace the old repressive political regimes of Europe with more liberal forms of government. These movements were particularly strong in Austria, Germany, and France.
Abraham Lincoln's policy of ‘saving the Union’ at all costs was the most important factor in the outbreak of the Civil War.
The process of steel making developed by Henry Bessemer was not only technologically superior to earlier processes; it also secured for Britain an unassailable leadership in world steel production.
In each of these statements, OPINIONS are being expressed, based on the ANALYSIS of historical data. If these opinions are your own, you do not need to provide footnote citations, but if you have read these opinions in your textbooks, you must provide references to those textbooks.
The sources of STATISTICAL DATA must always be acknowledged in your footnotes. These types of information include trade figures, population data, war casualties, government expenditure, immigration figures, and all other data that have been pre-analysed and put into a more readily usable format for you.

3.8.2. Format of footnotes
There are many different ways of writing footnotes. In general, however, you should remember that four things are necessary:
1) the name of the AUTHOR of the book or article,
2) the TITLE of the book or article,
3) the PLACE (city) and DATE (year) of publication, and
4) the PAGE NUMBER from which your information has come.
Titles of books should be underlined or put into italics, but the titles of articles in journals or collections of essays, or the titles of individual chapters within books, should be put in single inverted commas (' ') or quotation marks (" "). Titles of journals should, however, be underlined, or put in italics, as if they were book titles. Sometimes books do not show a place of publication, or a publisher, or a date. In this case, simply write the author and title with "n.d." (i.e., no date) after it.
Although different departments and different academic publishers have different rules for some of the details of how to cite sources, such as punctuation and capitalization, it is a good idea to get used to writing to a specific 'style sheet' rather than just making it up as you go along. The rules and examples that follow are part of the 'house style' for the first-year History courses, and should be acceptable for most other courses in the Department of History. You need not try to memorize them ("First name, last name, comma, title in italics, no comma, brackets . . . "), but please refer to this section again when you get to the final stages of typing your essay.
Cite page references using this form: p. 112 for a single page, or pp. 27-29 for a run of pages.
Remember that footnotes are so called because they are found at the foot of the page. Please therefore remember to place your footnotes at the bottom of the page to which they refer. Do not collect your citations at the end of the essay (endnotes), although you may be permitted to do this in other courses at this University. Also remember to number your footnotes from the beginning to the end of the essay and insert "call" numbers within the appropriate sections of the text of your essay. (In other words, there should be a number in the text corresponding to the number on each footnote at the bottom of the page.)
These are some examples of footnotes that you might find in an undergraduate essay:
1. Harry Hearder, Europe in the nineteenth century 1830-1880, 2d ed. (London, 1988), pp. 231-36.
2. Andreas K. Fahrmeir, 'Nineteenth-century German citizenships: a reconsideration', The Historical Journal, 40 (1997), p. 725.
3. James Sinclair, 'The role of British industry in imperial expansion 1851-97', in Essays on British Industrialization, ed. Mary Nantes and Karl Pole (London, 1994), pp. 78-81.
4. British Trade and Industrial Statistics for 1985 (London, 1986), p. 489.
5. Wang Gungwu, China and the Chinese Overseas (Singapore, 1991), pp. 99-101.
Often you will want to give a number of references to the same book in your footnotes. You do not have to repeat the full title of the book every time you refer to it. The author can be mentioned by surname only, with an abbreviated form of the title. For example:
6. Hearder, Europe in the nineteenth century, p. 321.
7. Fahrmeir, 'German citizenships', p. 729.
8. Sinclair, 'British industry in imperial expansion', p. 84.
You can abbreviate footnotes even further when you refer to the same source a number of times in a row (in succession). The Latin term 'ibid.' (meaning 'in the same place') and the page reference are all you need to use. For example:
9. Hearder, Europe in the nineteenth century, p. 321.
10. Ibid., pp. 289-93.
11. Ibid., p. 298.
12. Sinclair, 'British industry in imperial expansion', p. 84.
13. Ibid., pp. 88-92.
Make sure to underline or italicise the abbreviation ibid. whenever you use it.
The most important thing to remember about using footnotes is that they must always be CLEAR and PRECISE. The reader of your essay must be able to follow your footnotes easily, and must be able to identify your sources if he or she wishes to verify the statements you have made. It is therefore very important that, before you submit your essay, you check that all the footnote references are absolutely CORRECT. This may seem like a big job, but it is necessary if you want your essay to be accepted as a piece of professional writing. You will find that this type of scrutiny is very common in the world of work, where precision is a skill highly valued by employers.
If you use materials from the Internet, you may also have to provide proper footnotes for the same reasons as noted above. While the rules for what has to be footnoted remain the same, the methods of footnoting electronic media are somewhat different. These methods will be discussed in the next chapter.

3.9. Bibliography

At the end of your essay, you should provide an ALPHABETICAL LISTING – alphabetised by the FAMILY NAME of the author – of books and articles that you have used in your essay. This is called a bibliography. The format for individual entries in the bibliography is similar to that in footnotes, but please note that you should: (a) list the authors with their family name first, (b) only include page numbers when referring to articles from journals or edited volumes, and (c) you should include the publisher of a book as well as the place and date of publication. For example:

Department of Trade. British Trade and Industrial Statistics for 1985. London, HMSO, 1986.
Fahrmeir, A. K. 'Nineteenth-century German citizenships: a reconsideration', The Historical Journal, 40 (1997), pp. 721-52.
Hearder, H. Europe in the nineteenth century 1830-1880. London, 2nd ed., Longman, 1988.
Sinclair, J. 'The role of British industry in imperial expansion 1851-97', Essays on British Industrialization, ed. Mary Nantes and Karl Pole, London, Edward Arnold, 1994, pp. 72-89.
Wang Gungwu. China and the Chinese Overseas. Singapore, Straits Press, 1991.
Remember that the author's family name comes first, followed by his/her other names or initials. (Chinese names, in which the family name normally comes first, appear in the same order in both footnotes and bibliography; Western names are reversed, with the "surname" moved from the end to the beginning.) If you are not able to identify the author, you should use the body that is responsible for publishing the book (as in 'Department of Trade' above).

3.10. Plagiarism and how to avoid it
Plagiarism is a growing problem in schools and universities all over the world and you will no doubt have already heard something about it. Plagiarism is basically a failure to acknowledge your sources of information or trying to pass off someone else’s work as you own. It actually takes many different forms, some more serious than others, but ALL forms of plagiarism should be avoided at university level. Historians are particularly strict about citation and acknowledgment of sources and the more mechanical aspects of this will discussed in this subchapter. For those of you who are interested in exploring the history of this tradition within the historical discipline over the last 1500 years, you should read Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Harvard, 1997) and Gillian Evans, Breaking the Bounds (Cambridge, 2004)

On 13 July 2005, the Acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts issued the following note to all students in the Faculty, on plagiarism in assessments and examinations:

“All students are reminded that plagiarism is a serious academic offence. The Faculty of Arts upholds the principle that plagiarism in any form is unacceptable and any student found plagiarizing will be subject to disciplinary action. Plagiarism is defined in the Regulations Governing Conduct at Examinations – “as the unacknowledged use, as one’s own, of the work of another person, whether or not such work has been published”. Please read the following paragraphs carefully.
2. Coursework or dissertations submitted for assessment and examination purposes must be the student’s own work. Any passages quoted must be clearly marked as quotations and properly attributed to the authors concerned. Paraphrases or summaries of other people’s work or ideas must also be properly footnoted.
3. The standard practice regarding quotations is:

(a) Short quotations should be enclosed in quotation marks.

(b) Quotation in prose of more than about sixty words should be separated from the body of the text by extra space above and below.

(c) The author’s name, source, and page number of each quotation should be clearly stated.

4. The standard practice regarding summaries and paraphrasing is:

(a) The paraphrase or summary is clearly indicated as such, using phrases such as ‘x says that’, ‘x claims that’, ‘in x’s view’, etc.

(b) The author’s name, source of the idea and page number should be clearly stated in the form of footnotes.
5. Further information can be obtained from various handbooks on writing, such as Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations (which is available in the Main Library), or the Graduate School booklet, Plagiarism and How to Avoid It and Preparing and Submitting Your Thesis – A Guide for MPhil and PhD Students. The Graduate School Handbook also contains some useful sections on the offence of plagiarism. Copies of the last three documents are available for reference in the Faculty Office and departmental offices. Your department may also have some guidelines on this subject. If you have any questions about this subject, do not hesitate to consult your teachers or, if appropriate, your supervisor or members of your Departmental Research Postgraduate Committee, or the Graduate School.
6. Plagiarism is viewed seriously and the penalties cases where plagiarism is proved can be severe, up to and including the withholding of a degree and not in any case less than failure in the paper where plagiarism has occurred.”

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