The Preparation of Historical Essays

Collection of Material

The student should make certain of the exact meaning and scope of the topic assigned. A quick survey of the field in a recommended text-book or general work, should follow. This will help in maintaining the right proportion and emphasis later, especially if, as often happens, too much material has been gathered. But the essay must not be based on text-books.

The student is advised to turn next to more specialized books, guided by the reading-list provided for the year’s work in the course. As many of these books as possible should be consulted. No essay should be written without consulting at least four or five of them. Encyclopaedias, dictionaries of national biography, atlases and similar reference works are found in a separate reference section in the library, and there are now several on-line databases and bibliographies that are accessible and easy to use. Articles in Periodicals are often extremely useful.

Your reading-list is merely a selection of titles. Further books relating to the particular topic assigned may be found in: (a) the online library catalogues, (b) the bibliographies appended to general histories. In selecting additional books, time may be saved by consulting your lecturer. A book by a well-known author is usually preferable. All historians are bound to write from some point of view or another, yet the honest historian must not ignore any of the facts that bear on his theme even when they do not suit his thesis. To this extent the student should seek objectivity in his own writing and should place the greatest reliance on those historians who appear to possess this quality. Sometimes, however, he will find an historian deficient in this respect who is still well worth consulting because of the general brilliance of his insight or the breadth of his vision. Indications of the worth of a book may be gained by reading two or three reviews of it in scholarly journals.

Research does not mean hunting for books. It means reading them with questions in mind. Use of both Table of Contents and Index in a book may save time. Essays should not be written from open books, as many students assume, but from notes made while reading your sources. Orderly arrangement is imperative. When taking notes many writers use small (5" X 8") cards or pieces of paper, and when reading make one note on each card, placing at the top of the card the book and page and the subject of the note; for example:

Read, The Tudors, 91 Henry VIII’s foreign policy



When your reading is finished it will be advisable to make a rough draft of the essay. Once this is completed, your notes can be arranged in their proper order and used as you write. You will probably have to discard some of your notes at this point for you are bound to find that you hae collected some material which does not seem suitable for inclusion.

Writing the Essay

Plan your paper carefully before you begin to write. An essay generally involves the discussion of an historical problem; it is not simply a factual presentation. Consequently your approach should be an analytical one. Ask yourself what questions the subject (or title) raises and consider what are the answers that your research suggests. The books you have read will not always bear precisely on these same questions nor give you the precise answers. Therefore you will have to adapt to your own purpose the information and the ideas contained in them. Your task is to integrate your material, not to paraphrase any one of your authorities. State the thesis of your essay to the reader at the beginning, develop it in the course of the essay, and come to some meaningful conclusion. Do not be afraid to venture ideas and opinions. Nothing is more desirable than sound judgements; nothing is worse than hasty, ill-considered generalizations and conclusions.

A good essay will be worked over several times. In the first draft concentrate on structure and content. Leave yourself a wide margin for changes and additions. In the final draft polish off the rough edges and seek to perfect your style that is both lucid and grammatically correct. Badly written essays can and will be returned for re-writing. The following points should be noted in this connection:

  1. The student’s own, natural style is preferable. The essay should not be too “bookish”.
  2. Quotations when used should be short, selected with care, and indicated by quotation marks. To show that part of a quotation is omitted (for brevity or as being irrelevant), three spaced periods may be used (...). A quotation should reproduce the original exactly; it should never be “corrected”. If it contains an obvious error, the word sic (thus) in a square bracket may be inserted at the appropriate place [sic]. Long quotations should be indented and set single-space (when typewriting) without quotation marks.
  3. To copy or nearly copy is plagiarism and destroys the validity of the essay.


Footnotes will be used to show the origin of material used in the essay. They should be used to:

  • indicate the exact source of every quotation used;
  • acknowledge indebtedness to others for opinions or ideas;
  • give authority for a fact which the reader might be inclined to doubt (this does not mean matters of common knowledge which are generally accepted as true);
  • call attention to other interpretations, additional authorities or more extended treatments of the subject;
  • give further information of a detailed kind, such as brief biographical sketches or supporting statistics, or refer to the sources of such information.

Rules for Footnote Reference

The first time a work is cited the full name of the author (initials are sufficient) and the full title should be used, followed by the place and date of publication in brackets and, if necessary, the volume number in Roman numerals, and finally the page number in Arabic figures.


Egon Friedell, A Cultural History of the Modern Age (New York, 1928), II, 50.

In late references to the same book a shorter version should be used:

Friedell, Modern Age, II, 50.

Italics, indicated in manuscript or typescript by underlining, are used for the title of any published series of volumes, volume, pamphlet, newspaper or periodical journals:

The Cambridge Modern History
A. de Tocquevelle, L’Ancien Regime
Mercure de France
The American Historical Review

The titles of articles in periodicals, composite histories and Encyclopaedias, etc. are put in quotation marks with the title of the journal in italics.

J. Bailville, “Napoleon I”, Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed. 1943), XVI, 84-96.
Emile Bourgeois, “The Orleans Monarchy”, The Cambridge Modern History, X, XV.
Conyers Read, “The Social Responsibilities of the Historian”, The American Historical Review, LV (1950), 275-85.

The abbreviations “vol.”, “chap.”, and “p.” (or “pp”) may be used where it seems necessary to avoid confusion.

The Latin abbreviation ibid. (the same) may be used where a second reference to the same book or article immediately follows the first, but it cannot be used if a reference to another as illustrated above. As a general rule avoid Latin abbreviations such as op.cit., loc.cit., idem.

Care should be taken to follow the customary rules regarding capitalization of proper names. Historical periods should be capitalized (the Middle Ages; the French Revolution). The best form for dates is in figures (July 14,1789). A Century should be expressed in words, i.e. “nineteenth century”. Foreign words or phrases (except whole quotations) should be underlined, indicating italics.

For many more details and examples, and for citing internet and film sources, go to the Citing your Sources Page of the HIL. Most Historians prefer the MLA or Chicago Manual styles.

List of Books Consulted

Every essay must be accompanied by a list of the books and articles consulted. This list should include only the books actually used and not merely a series of titled. It is a good idea to comment briefly upon the books used, assessing their value in the preparation of the essay. The form to be observed in listing the books consulted will be substantially the same as the first footnote citation of a book or article except that the author’s surname should appear before his initials.

The Final Draft

Paper of standard size should be used. Write on one side only, and leave a margin at top, side and bottom, especially on the left side. If the essay is typed, use double spacing except for long quotations and footnotes. If written in longhand make sure it is easily legible. Essays on topics involving territorial changes should include sketch maps. The student should read over this final draft carefully and number pages. Essays must be handed in on the date specified.