How to Write a History Essay: Full Guide for Busy Students

Writing guide
Posted on January 10, 2019

A history essay has more or less the same distinctive characteristics as any other essay. The main feature of an essay is the relative ambiguity of the term. Depending on the preferences of the educational institution you attend and your teacher (tutor, professor), your age, academic level and the particular type of essay you’ve been assigned with, the task may be very different in size, purpose, style, accepted language choices, structure and many other aspects.

But from a classic five-paragraph type you’ve been dealing with since middle school to freeform university assignments, you are dealing with one and the same general type of writing, and they all follow more or less the same principles.

Choosing a Topic for Your History Essay

The choice of topic is, hands down, the most important aspect of the entire process. A poorly chosen topic can result in a lower grade, and the essay itself will be a pain to write.

  • First, check the amount of freedom you are given in the matter. If the topic has been assigned to you and you don’t like it, ask the teacher if you are allowed to make any changes. Sometimes even a small alteration of the original task can make your job much easier and more enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to ask – chances are, your teacher will be pleased to see somebody taking the job seriously for a change.
  • Ideally, you should choose a topic that is of personal interest for you. If you are interested in a topic, you are more likely to know more about it than is prescribed by the curriculum and will be able to use this additional knowledge. It is also just plain easier to write about something you are passionate about – or at least something that you have a definite point of view on.
  • If there is no chance of finding a topic you are interested in, try choosing one you just know some unusual additional information about or have an easy access to such information (for example, if your relative or friend works for a Civil War museum or collects Prohibition Era memorabilia). Having an unusual angle or insight can be a great advantage.
  • Study the existing body of research on the topic and get acquainted with basic facts and data concerning the facts, situations and events. Learn what has already been researched and in what detail, what are the most widespread viewpoints shared by the scholars. Judging by your findings you will get an idea of an area that has a lot of supporting information (or vice versa, the one that is mostly unstudied if you want a challenge). However, make sure you are going to have enough material.
  • Narrow down and refine the topic. Remember: academia is all about going deep, not covering as much as possible. An essay and a dissertation may cover the same, very narrow topic – the difference will be in how deep the study is going to be and how many sources will be used. Therefore, the more specific your topic is, the better. You cannot write “about Ancient Rome”. You have to choose a specific period of its history, an event, a person or an event in a person’s life. Think about what aspects of history you are interested in. Is it biographies? Battles? Parallels and contrasts of societies? Even if the topic is provided by your professor, you still should be able to refine it – at least try to change it if you think it will make it better.
  • Formulate your topic as a question. Make sure you keep returning to this question throughout the process of writing – it is all too easy to drift away from your initial goal. Once you’ve finished, discuss the question of your choice with your professor and find out if it is valid – if you are offered some suggestions on how to change your topic, it is usually better to agree, because your professor has most likely seen enough papers to have an idea which topics work and which don’t.

Here are some examples of topics that you can get using this approach:

  • The Role of Hannibal’s Crossing the Alps in the Development of Socio-economic Ties between Italy and Western Europe;
  • The Influence Of Puritanism on Modern American Culture;
  • Margaret Thatcher and Her Role in World History;
  • Anglo-zanzibar War: the Shortest Armed Conflict in Recorded History;
  • Homer: What Influence Does the Semi-legendary Author of The Iliad and The Odyssey Have on History and Literature?
  • Causes and Effects of China’s One-child Policy. Why Was It Finally Replaced by Two-child Policy?

Pre-Writing Tips

Gather up Your Sources

An essay, even a research-oriented one, doesn’t require an extensive bibliography – you simply won’t have enough space to use all the data you’ve gathered. However, you should have at least some books, articles and suchlike in your bibliography to demonstrate your work with sources. Make sure the few sources you use are recent, well-documented and have good reputation.

Do Your Research

Even if you know the topic well, you should dig a little bit deeper – who knows, perhaps things have changed since you last dealt with it? Study your source while making notes all the time. If you want to make a really good job, start ahead of time – thus you will be able to read more and approach the task better informed.

Don’t Neglect Facts that Disagree with You

If you find info that makes your point doubtful or outright refutes it, take it into account. Check the source’s credibility. You may want to change your topic or viewpoint based on how legitimate these facts are.

Analyze High-Quality Writing on the Topic

As you do your research, you will come upon well-written works by other authors on your topic. Take note of such pieces of work and try to analyze them. What makes them better than average? What tips and tricks can you learn from them?


Try to think about an original approach to the information you already have and places where you can get additional data.

Prepare an Outline

Outline what you are going to write about, in any form that is natural for you. It may be a list of ideas to mention in order of importance, a diagram, a mind map or something else entirely. The form is not important – what is important is making it self-explanatory. Make sure it contains everything you intend to cover in your essay so that you don’t forget anything.

History Essay Writing Prompts You Must Follow

great essay writing tips


It may be a little bit counter-intuitive, but in most cases, you shouldn’t start writing your essay with trying to think about a good title and an attention-grabbing introduction. 4 times out of 5, you will either encounter problems in the course of writing or find your writing drifting in an unusual direction, forcing you to rewrite the title later on.

First of all, remember that the body should constitute most of your essay, and you should judge by it when you estimate how much more you can write. Always remember about the word limit and don’t exceed it. However, it doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself while you write: if you feel that you have to say something, do so. You will have an opportunity to trim the fat later on.

Avoid using sweeping statements and overly generalized declarations, especially if you don’t intend to prove them. Try not to use personal pronouns or refer to yourself in general – you should try to look as objective and non-judgmental as possible.

Make sure you use proper transitions between paragraphs. Don’t start new thoughts out of the blue – make sure you complete dissecting one idea in one paragraph and provide logical connection with the following idea.

Don’t forget to address facts and ideas that don’t go hand in hand with yours – otherwise you may be asked to comment on them later on, and it is always better to deal with the opposition on your terms.

Title and Introduction

Now that the body of the essay is written, you can decide how best to lead the reader to the ideas you want to share.

The goal of the title is to get the reader interested in the contents of your essay, make them want to read it. Of course, if you write for class your teacher will read it anyway, but even so, a good title can create a valuable first impression.

Try to create a hook – a creative element to attract the reader. It may be an unusual juxtaposition of concepts, a catchy quote from your essay, a thought-provoking statement – it all depends on your topic.

Don’t be too general, avoid all-encompassing words like “life”, “society”, “world” and so on, they make you sound too grandiose. Try to be specific and stick to the concepts that are most important for the topic of your essay.

As for introduction, it should be consistent with the title, ideally – supporting or continuing the thought started there.

The first sentence is always the most important – it builds the first impression about the work in general and you as its author, and it is extremely difficult to get rid of it afterwards. If the reader isn’t obliged to read the essay, he may even stop doing it completely or simply look through the rest without actually reading it.

Thus, avoid beginnings like “this essay is about” or “N was born in”. Make it interesting, unusual, force the reader to read on. If you cannot jump to the topic of your essay directly from the first sentence, start with the necessary explanations, but don’t take too long or you risk boring your reader.


Just like the title and introduction, conclusion is best written when the rest of the work is done. In most cases you should align it with the introduction, mostly repeating all the statements or questions you’ve declared in the beginning and either finding them true or disproving them (although it heavily depends on the type of essay you are writing).

Try to answer questions like “What are the implications of my study of the subject?”, “Have I answered the question I stated in the beginning?”, “What problems remained unsolved?”.

Make sure your arguments and statements naturally lead the reader towards the conclusion you’ve made – don’t start proving things all over again now, the results should be obvious from the rest of the essay by this point. If they are not, you are doing something wrong.

The last sentence should be the emotional center of the essay – you should finish on a strong note, not leaving the reader any option but to agree with your point of view. The first sentence motivates the reader to read on and pay attention. The last sentence is what the essay is primarily remembered for.

Post-Writing History Essay Tips from Our Expert Writers

When you write the last word, your work is far from finished. Now it is time to revise, correct and edit your paper to perfection.


If you have time, leave the essay alone for a couple of days, don’t look at it and don’t think about it. This will allow you to see it in fresh light when you do so, and many of the mistakes you’ve missed before will become obvious.

Check Your Grammar, Syntax and Punctuation

Consult relevant textbooks if necessary, make sure you’ve correctly used symbols like semicolons and dashes. Check the definitions of all the words you are unsure about in a dictionary. If you find yourself using exclamation marks, better remove them – serious academic works aren’t well suited for emotional outbursts.

proofreading essay

Trim the Fat

Carefully reread the entire essay and eliminate every word or sentence that isn’t necessary for the understanding of the whole. Even if you fit in the word count, you may want to make the essay a bit slimmer – just to keep it more dynamic. Remove all the information that doesn’t directly relate to the topic, even if you think it to be really interesting.

Check Your Style

It should be consistent with academic work: no colloquial or slang words, abbreviations and overly emotional expressions. If you want your work to be taken seriously, be serious.

Check the Logic

See if your ideas naturally flow from one into another and add the necessary transitions if necessary.

Ask Other People

Give your essay to your friends or relatives to read and ask what they think. Ask somebody to read it to you aloud – when delivered in someone else’s voice, it may produce a different impression, making obvious the parts that are lacking.

Redo if Necessary

Don’t be afraid to rewrite the essay in parts or even in its entirety. Sometimes it is necessary to achieve good results.

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