How to organise a history essay or dissertation
There are many ways of writing history and no fixed formula for a 'good' essay or dissertation. However, regardless of approach, there are some guidelines for presentation.
Some people may have a clear idea already of what they are going to write about. Others may find it more difficult to choose or focus on a topic. First of all, it is important that you choose an area in which you are interested – writing an essay on something you hate or are bored with is not a helpful start. Next, explore the subject a bit. Ask your supervisor for a list of appropriate readings. You will also find that you can pick up further helpful readings from the footnotes of the works that have been suggested to you, or you can go back to your supervisor for more help. From your readings you may get intrigued by some event or somebody's work. Or you may find that historians present conflicting interpretatons of the same event. In the latter case, you may decide to assess the validity of such views or come up with a better interpretation of your own. In the former case, you will probably have to find out more about particular people or incidents, and also ask yourself what aspect of the person/event/thing it is that interests you, and try to narrow down your focus. Try to define your topic as specifically as possible as soon as possible. Many dissertations and essays turn out to be overambitious in scope, but underambition is a rare defect!
Before you start you may want to have a look at some sample dissertations and essays from the past: ask the Librarian at the Whipple.
Both essays and dissertations have an introduction and a conclusion. Between the introduction and the conclusion there is an argument or narrative (or mixture of argument and narrative).
An introduction introduces your topic, giving reasons why it is interesting and anticipating (in order) the steps of your argument. Hence many find that it is a good idea to write the introduction last. A conclusion summarises your arguments and claims. This is also the place to draw out the implications of your claims; and remember that it is often appropriate to indicate in your conclusion further profitable lines of research, inquiry, speculation, etc.
An argument or narrative should be coherent and presented in order. It should also be easy to follow. Always give reasons for your assertions and assessments: simply stating that something or somebody is right or wrong does not constitute an argument.
Divide your text into paragraphs in which you make one or two points at a time; put in chapter or section headings whenever you make a major new step in your argument of narrative.
It is a very good idea to include relevant pictures and diagrams. These should be captioned, and their relevance should be fully explained.
The extent to which it is appropriate to use direct quotations varies according to topic and approach. Always make it clear why each quotation is pertinent to your argument. If you quote from non-English sources say if the translation is your own; if it isn't give the source. At least in the case of primary sources include the original in a note if it is your own translation, or if the precise details of wording are important. Check your quotations for accuracy. If there is archaic spelling make sure it isn't eliminated by a spell-check.
An essay or a dissertation has three components: the main text, the notes, and the bibliography.
The main text is where you put in the substance of your argument, and is meant to be longer than the notes. For quotes from elsewhere, up to about thirty words, use quotation marks ("...", or '...'). If you quote anything longer, it is better to indent the whole quotation without quotation marks.
Notes may either be at the bottom of the page (footnotes) or at the end of the main text, but before the bibliography (endnotes). Use notes for references and other supplementary material which does not constitute the substance of your argument. Whenever you quote directly from other works, you must give the exact reference in your notes. A reference means the exact location in a book or article, so that others can find it also; it should include author, title of the book, place and date of publication, page number. (There are many different ways to refer to scholarly works: see below.) Whenever you paraphrase material from somebody else's work, you must acknowledge that fact. Plagiarism is offensive.
Your bibliography must contain all the books and articles you have referred to. It lists works alphabetically by the last name of the author. There are different ways to set out a bibliography, but at the very least a bibliographic entry should include for a book the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title of the book in italics or underlined, and the place, (publisher optional) and date of publication; or, for an article, the last name and initials/first name of the author, the title in inverted commas, and the name of the journal in italics or underlined, followed by volume number, date of publication, and page numbers. Names of editors of volumes of collected articles and names of translators should also be included, whenever applicable.
- M. MacDonald, Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- William Clark, 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 1–72.
- M. F. Burnyeat, 'The Sceptic in His Place and Time', in R. Rorty, J. B. Schneewind and Q. Skinner (eds), Philosophy in History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 225–54.
Alternatively, if you have many works to refer to, it may be easier to use an author-date system in notes, e.g.:
- MacDonald , p. 89; Clark [1995a], p. 65; Clark [1995b], pp. 19–99.
In this case your bibliography should also start with the author-date, e.g.:
- MacDonald, Michael , Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth-Century England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Clark, William [1995a], 'Narratology and the History of Science', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26, 1–72.
This system has the advantage of making your foot- or endnotes shorter, and many choose it to save words (the bibliography is not included in the word limit). It is the system commonly used in scientific publications. Many feel however that something is historically amiss when you find in a footnote something like 'Plato [1996b]' or 'Locke '. In some fields of research there are standard systems of reference: you will find that this is the case if, for example, you write an essay/diss. on classical history or philosophy of science. In such cases it is a good idea to take a standard secondary source as your model (e.g. in the case of classics G.E.R. Lloyd's The Revolutions of Wisdom: Studies in the Claims and Practices of Ancient Greek Science, Berkeley 1987).
Whatever system you decide to follow for your footnotes, what matters most is that the end-product is consistent.
Keep accurate records of all the relevant bibliographic information as you do your reading for your essay/dissertation. (If you don't you may waste days trying to trace references when you are close to submission deadlines.)
Consistency of style throughout the essay/dissertation is encouraged. There are many professional guides to thesis writing which give you more information on the style and format of theses – for example the MLS handbook (British) and the Chicago Manual of Style (American), both in the Whipple, and a booklet, H. Teitelbaum, How to Write a Thesis: A Guide to the Research Paper, 3rd ed., 126 pp., New York: Macmillan (& Arco), 1994 (in the UL: 1996.8.2620). But don't try to follow everything they say!
Every now and then you should read through a printout of your whole essay/dissertation, to ensure that your argument flows throughout the piece: otherwise there is a danger that your arguments become compartmentalised to the size of the screen. When reading drafts ask yourself if it would be comprehensible to an intelligent reader who was not an expert on the specific topic.
It is IMPERATIVE that you save your work on disk regularly – NEVER be caught without a back-up. It is also strongly advisable that you keep a hard copy of the latest draft.
Before you submit:
- remember to run a spell-check (and remember that a spell check will not notice if you have written, for example, 'pheasant' instead of 'peasant', or, even trickier, 'for' instead of 'from', 'it' instead of 'is', etc.);
- prepare a table of contents, with titles for each chapter of your essay/dissertation, page numbers and all;
- prepare a cover page with the title, your name and college;
- prepare a page with the required statement about length, originality etc.