Holistic Rubric for History Essays

By Richard W. Slatta

How to write a superior history essay, from top to bottom: Students vary in their learning styles. My Writing Help Page offers instruction in another format for writing successful history essays. This page offers a holistic (overall) vision—a more general step-by-step approach to what a good history essay should include.

  1. In thinking about an essay, reread the question several times. In fact, I suggest cutting and pasting it onto the top of your essay (the words won't count against your total). Don't stray away from what the question asks. Make certain that all information and commentary relates directly to what the question asks. Stay focused. Do not waste valuable words that do not build and support your main arguments—always focused directly on what the question asks. If you're uncertain, simply paraphrase the question and email it to me, asking “Is this what the question means?” See Rubric Area 1 for details.
  2. Begin the essay with a well crafted introductory paragraph. Your intro should identify the major interpretive topics/points that you will develop in the essay. After the intro, move immediately to historical specifics: explain and illustrate those points in the body of the essay. Within our word limits, we don't have time to spend a page or more just introducing or providing background on the topics. Thus don't waste precious words on “deep background” or “setting the scene.” Focus on the question and get right to it.
  3. Work on clear, logical organization of your ideas. Use an outline to arrange your major points in a clear, logical progression. Build a general argument for the paper out of specific points that flow logically one to the other. Use transitions between paragraphs to show the intellectual links between ideas. Avoid “shopping list” paragraphs that simply list a number of relevant elements, without explaining or illustrating any of them. (Rubric Area 3 on the Writing Help Page)
  4. "Thinking and arguing like a historian:" A historical argument requires generalizations as well as specifics. You have three important tasks to perform in each paragraph. First, state a general topic, usually summarized in the first (topic) sentence. Next, define, describe, or analyze that topic, indicating its importance and relevance to the question asked. Finally, and necessarily, illustrate the general point with specific historical evidence. This evidence should be the words and/or actions of historical figures that demonstrate the general point. Every paragraph in the body of the essay should have these three components: main point, analysis, evidence.
  5. Provide specific supporting evidence for every assertion in every paragraph. In no field of knowledge can we simply make assertions. All scholars develop interpretations based on data (well, OK, philosophers and arty types may be exceptions). As a historian, you must provide concrete historical events, actions, or words to illustrate and support all generalizations. History is founded in the specific actions of people in the past. Primary source quotations—voices from the past-- make effective evidence. For economic issues, statistical data are often the clearest and most compelling. Review every paragraph. ALL should link your interpretation to actual events of the past. (See Rubric Area 2 on the Writing Help Page for details.)
  6. People make history. Historical writing should be crawling with them! Yes, we describe general conditions, laws, events, and processes. But ultimately history is the story of people. Review every paragraph and look for real people. No people? Whoops, you're not writing history. We should have a bunch if you're truly telling the reader about history—the story of human actions of the past.
  7. Quote primary, not secondary sources. You, not Brad Burns nor Rich Slatta, are the author of your essay, so use your words, not theirs. Quote only from primary sources—people who lived and experienced the time and place you are exploring. Let the reader hear eyewitness accounts of the historical events that you describe. Your printed (secondary) texts as well as the online essays often include primary source quotations, so quote them. These, not things written much later, are what should appear as evidence in your essays.
  8. Historians always acknowledge where their information comes from. We do this <a> to prove we have not just made things up, as some second-rate journalists have been caught doing; and <b> so that other investigators can return to our sources and check our work if they choose. We also use citations to pay our intellectual debts. We don't plagiarize [steal] the ideas and words of others. For this class, you do not have to provide full bibliographies of your sources, because you are reading assigned texts and documents. However, if you quote directly or draw heavily on one of the assigned sources, simply indicate that in parentheses (Slatta, Gauchos, p. 33, online essay 3, etc.)
  9. Do not overuse passive voice sentences. In fact, avoid passives completely, if you can. The passive masks causation [“mistakes were made”] and drags down the pace of your narrative. Do a global search for was and were to locate these problems. Also check for is and are to find passive voice sentences written in the present tense. I have done a search and replace, replacing was and were with the same words highlighted. Notice how the problems jump out at you for easy correction. Having located the perpetrators, rewrite the sentence into the more vigorous active voice. Use simple past tense verbs. For the revision procedure, see the link on “Killing the passive voice” from your online “Writing Help Page (also accessible from Dr. Slatta's home range.)
  10. Write short, clear, simple sentences. An average sentence length of 15 or more words is too long. Why? Long sentences tend to lump together concepts and information that don't belong together--sort of a "shotgun wedding of ideas." Long sentences also impose an unacceptable burden on the reader, who must hold too much information in mind to complete and understand the sentence. Simplify for clarity. William Strunk, Jr. offered excellent advice in 1918 “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
  11. Reality Check: Am I demanding a new, radical, questionable, postmodernist type of writing? NO. NO. NO. When it comes to writing, I'm an arch conservative. I follow one of the oldest basic texts of “modern” English writing, William Strunk, Jr., “Elements of Style.” Published in 1918, this little handbook remains an essential guide to clear, grammatical expression. Please review Strunk's ideas. Note his abhorrence of the passive voice. Note his emphasis on clarity and brevity. Yes, I understand that much of what you read in your university classes violates Strunk's tenets. Just because “everybody does it” does not make it right. Forget the idiotic blatherings that you read in business prose (bottom of the prose chain), lawyer-speak, politician-speak, and most textbooks. You can do better. It just takes intelligence and work—and you're capable of both! Express yourself clearly, grammatically, accurately, and you'll be in a league by yourself! You can read Strunk's great ideas online.

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