History is a written form of communication, and its foundation is the expository essay. Historians research the records of the past, interpret their results, and offer their conclusions in writing. Essay writing is thus one of the most essential skills associated with the profession of history.
For beginning college students, essay writing is considerably shortened from that of the historian, and the usual tasks assigned to pupils are either the writing of essays on tests or in short papers (three to ten pages). These writing assignments have the student answer a question as to how some major event or crisis originated, or provide an explanation for the sequencing of events. In doing these tasks, students should understand how they are duplicating the general practices of historians. Like the historian, the student has to determine the essential outline of events associated with the development or crisis. To give an answer as to why a development or crisis occurred or took the shape it did, the historian (or student) has to ask of the material a number of questions involving specifics, origins, and the power of different forces. In short, an answer does not automatically leap out from basic facts but has to be teased out of them. Students are fairly well restricted to the material provided in lectures and class readings. When an historian presents his or her conclusions about a phenomenon, he or she does so by organizing the answer in a logical manner so that the reader may grasp the reasons underlying the general answer. In their test answers, students must do the same.
There are some basic steps that a student should take to answer an essay question:
- Read the question twice in order to fully grasp what is being asked
- Do not answer some other question, do not make up one of your own, and make sure you use information t hat pertains to the question asked
- Collect information (facts and ideas) from lectures, books, and other assigned material
- Separate out the information most vital to answering the question; you do not have unlimited time and unlimited space to provide an answer an, therefore, you have to assess what information is more useful and what information is less useful
- Think about and create an answer; if you have to diagram out possible solutions, do so; if you need to put ideas on note cards and then shuffle them around, do so; if you have to wear headphones and listen to acid rock, do so; but spend time thinking about your answer beforehand
- Write an outline to organize your answer by collecting the information into common categories (called paragraphs), and then using evidence that supports the assertion in your paragraph