Essay writing is a crucial part of any student’s historical training. You may be asked to write on different topics and themes in a wide range of formats. Because we can approach historical problems from many perspectives, the types of questions that direct your essays will vary. Nevertheless, all historical essays share some basic structural factors:

  • an introduction with a clear thesis statement
  • the body of the essay
  • a conclusion
  • outside of tests and exams, footnotes or endnotes

The outline: Before starting to write the essay, it is best to have at minimum a rudimentary outline to guide you. Your outline should identify your thesis statement and the main points and evidence that will support it, organized logically.

The introduction: Your introduction should usually be no longer than one paragraph and should attempt to guide the reader into the question at hand by doing the following:

  • Focus your attention on the topic at hand, either through a general comment about its relevance, or a specific example designed to draw the interest of the reader. Regardless, the point is to draw the reader into the topic.
  • Narrow the introduction into the question that will be discussed in your essay
  • Provide the argument—also known as a thesis statement— you will be developing in the rest of the essay. The thesis statement should almost invariably be the last one or two sentences in your introduction.

The body of the essay: The body will consist of as many paragraphs as there are main points supporting the thesis statement. You should think of each paragraph as a building block in the argument supporting your thesis. Even if you have multiple sub theses, these building blocks should be logically sound and support your larger thesis. Follow these steps:

  • Begin with a topic sentence stating the major premise the paragraph will discuss. Although it might seem counterintuitive to write with topic sentences, they provide a signpost to the reader and are crucial in ensuring that you stay on topic.
  • Expound the specific evidence supporting the premise. For evidence, you may draw from well-known facts, secondary, and primary sources. If you come across evidence in your readings that appears to contradict your argument, you still need to pay attention to it. In fact, it is a sign of a strong essay if the writer discusses and refutes secondary material, interpretations, and even primary source material that pose views and opinions that might originally appear to contradict or weaken the author’s thesis.
  • Continue by demonstrating the validity of the thesis through various premises supported with primary and secondary evidence.

The conclusion: This conclusion should briefly recap the arguments and provide the reader with a sense of the implications that the study presents.

  • Start with a narrow focus on the essay’s main arguments

Move into a wider focus that may include historiographical and/or methodological implications.


Historians generally use Chicago style citations. Citations and bibliographies must consist of all works used in the essay. Those from which you have quoted obviously must be included, but so must other titles that you have consulted in preparation for the essay. The proper bibliographic style is given in the following examples. Titles may be underlined or italicized.


For a book:
McNeill, William. Plagues and Peoples New York: Anchor 1976.

For an article in a scholarly journal:
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “The Myth of the English Reformation” Journal of British Studies. XXX:1 (Spring, 1991): 1-19.

For an article/chapter in a collection of essays:
Furet, Francois. “The French Revolution is Over” In The French Revolution and Intellectual History, edited by J.R. Censer.  Chicago: The Dorsey Press 1989

For a website:
Miller, Geoffrey. “The Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele)” <> (November 1993)


Consecutively numbered footnotes at the bottom of each page or endnotes at the end of the text and before the bibliography must be used in essays. Because historians generally use Chicago style, brackets within the text, e.g. (Smith, 1990, p. 45) are NOT ACCEPTABLE.

For the first use of a work, complete author/title/publication place and date/page number(s) are furnished, e.g.:

3W. Bruce Lincoln, Passage through Armageddon: the Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918 (New York, 1986), p. 338.

If the VERY NEXT reference is to the same work:

4Ibid., pp. 342-343.

If, however, the work is cited more than once, but with another title intervening, one uses a “short title” format for the second reference, and for subsequent references if they do not immediately follow, in which case Ibid. is used once more:

7Lincoln, Passage through Armageddon, p. 356.

Citations for articles in scholarly journals and for chapters in an edited work follow similar styles:

11Barbara Engel, “Peasant Morality and Pre-Marital Relations in Late 19th Century Russia”, Journal of Social History XXIII: 4 (Summer, 1990), pp. 698-699.

“Short title” format:

15Engel, “Peasant Morality”, p. 701.

For a chapter in a collection of essays:

17Perez Zagorin, “The Leveller Theorists: Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn”, in W. Owens, ed., Seventeenth-Century Studies (New York, 1981), p. 169.

“Short title” format:

21Zagorin, “Leveller Theorists”, pp. 172-173.

For a website:

26Geoffrey Miller, “The Battle of Third Ypres (Passchendaele)”, <> (November 1993).

“Short title” format:

29Miller, “Battle of Third Ypres”.

For any questions, please consult the Chicago Manual of Style. The library has the 15th edition (2003) in the reference section. The call number is Z 253 .C48 2003. You can also use the online citation guide:

Term Paper Checklist

Use this checklist to ensure the format and style of your paper conforms to departmental standards. ALWAYS proofread the entire document for grammar, spelling, and appropriate word choices. Failure to conform to these format guidelines may result in grade penalties.


  • Separate title page that includes a title that alludes to the thesis of the paper. Name of student should also be included in the title page.
  • Do no repeat the information on the title page on the first page of the essay.
  • Pages should be numbered, and pagination should not include the title page.
  • Paper should be typed and double spaced, with 12 point font.
  • Margins should be set at 1″ on the left, right, top and bottom. There should be no extra spaces between paragraphs.

Clarity and Citations

  • Use the past tense when writing about past events.
  • The introduction should cover all the “journalistic questions”: who, what, where, when, why, how?
  • Do not confuse there/their; were/where; then/than; led/lead; its/it’s; whether/weather.
  • Attribute each quote in the text so that the reader can consider the source of the quotation. An example of this: Gerald of Wales noted that “x, y, and z” instead of simply “x, y, and z.”
  • Failure to cite sources such as texts, document extracts, secondary materials, or any others may result in a failing mark for the assignment.
  • Use footnotes to show where evidence and ideas originate. Every example has a footnote.

Do not plagiarize. Do not simply read a section of text and change a few words to make it your own. If a paraphrase does not include a citation, it is considered plagiarism.