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How to Write Essays

All your written work will involve attempts to answer questions about the past. Markers are looking for answers that are as convincing and as carefully argued as they can be, given the time and evidence available to you. The skills you must mobilise are as much those of a debater as of a researcher.

General Advice

1. Relevance

Try to answer the question that is set. Quite a few essays manage to miss the main point entirely. Consider very carefully what the question or problem means, then organise your evidence as an answer.

Every point of your answer must bear directly on the subject, and you must say in so many words how it helps to answer the question. It is no good leaving it to the reader to make the connection. This is YOUR job, not the reader's.

Try giving your essay to a friend to see if he or she can work out the question simply by looking at your answer. If you have done the job properly - linking each point explicitly to the question - your friend will have no trouble.

These are the sort of questions we will ask when marking a piece of work:

  • Has the question been understood?
  • Have the terms of the question been defined? (Use a dictionary; or, even better, an encyclopaedia or a book such as Raymond Williams' Keywords. See also Appendix A – Key terms.)
  • Have the hidden assumptions of the question been winkled out? Does the question assume things that are not necessarily true
  • Has the significance of the question been understood? What other questions can be tackled once this one has been understood? Is the question important?

2. Construct your own argument:

Never simply repeat sections from books or lectures. At best, this is lazy; at worst, it is a dishonest attempt to pass off others' ideas as your own. It will also lose you marks, because we want to see how you can argue. Occasionally, you may experience the thrill of working out and defending a truly novel conclusion. More often, you will end up largely agreeing with one historian or another. This is fine, but you must support that historian with your own synthesis of the evidence.

We will ask:

  • Is the argument convincing?
  • Is the argument logically organised?
  • Have alternative answers been considered?
  • Does the conclusion follow from the premises and evidence?

3. Read as much as possible but read wisely:

Concentrate on material relevant to the question. You should normally start with a general book, to get an overview of your topic, but then you must move to more specialised works. While encyclopedias and survey textbooks can be useful for gaining a general knowledge about your topic, such reading is not citable research. The bulk of your research should be from specialised scholarly books and articles.

Try to read critically. Historians must be sceptical. History students should start weighing up the evidence used by scholars, comparing one person’s work with another’s. This is why it is always important to read several books and articles. You should understand the historical debate before deciding which viewpoint you support. Second, third and fourth opinions help to inform and enliven a debate.

4. Note-taking:

See the section ‘Study Methods’ for advice on note-taking. Always record full details of each source that you use. For books this means the author, title, place of publication, year of publication and of course the page numbers. For articles, note the author, title, name of the journal, volume number, date of the issue and page numbers. Some of these details will save you much needless effort if you wish to consult the source again; and all of them are needed when later you cite sources in footnotes or the bibliography of your essay. It is often useful to note the library’s call number for the item as well. Try to organise the material that you are collecting for your essay. This can be done by following a series of points or themes, or dividing your evidence for and against a particular argument. Try to be logical, systematic, and coherent. Phrases copied word for word from your readings should be enclosed in quotation marks in your notes; this will prevent inadvertent plagiarism.

5. Argue from evidence:

We are less interested in your conclusion than in the skill with which you support it. Avoid vague, unsupported or sweeping statements. Always argue from evidence, backing up your generalisations with relevant facts. If your statements of fact are contentious, support them with evidence too. It is best not to turn a blind eye to evidence which favours your opponents. You should devise an argument which as far as possible does justice to all the information available.

We will ask:

  • Is the argument soundly based on supporting evidence?
  • Has the evidence been evaluated critically or merely accepted at face value?
  • Have alternative answers been considered?

6. Analyse your evidence:

It is not enough to present the facts and arguments you have gathered in your research. You must evaluate the evidence. How reliable is it? Are the sources biased? Is material downplayed in some accounts because it casts doubt on the most comfortable explanation? What does the evidence actually mean? Most quotations, for example, should be followed by your interpretation: if you recount that Louis XIV said "I am the State," you should then explain that he meant that his power as the king of France was absolute. If you fail to interpret your evidence, or your analysis is unconvincing, your overall essay will be weaker.

7. Beware narrative:

As a general rule, if you find yourself telling a story, you have probably drifted from the point. Ensure your writing is relevant to the question asked. Our questions require direct answers, and they require you to construct clear arguments in favour of your answers. (See the example of Tom and Jerry.) This means that you have to arrange your material in the best logical order. This will rarely coincide with the chronological order in which events occurred.

8. Quote sparingly:

Quotations should be brief and relevant. Used well, they can add colour and drive a point home. When they are over-used, they may make your essay disjointed and prevent you from developing your argument. Quotations should never dominate your essay

Locating Source Material


  1. Identify books on your topic: If key readings are suggested either in class or in course bibliographies, read these first. Books that your lecturer has placed on reserve are often major sources that should not be ignored. Refer to your textbook or assigned readings to begin to compile a list of key authors and works – check both for works referred to in the text and those in the footnotes and bibliographies. If your list of books is still thin, or you are unclear about the basic events of your topic, read encyclopedia articles on your topic. Carefully note the major people involved and the names of key events; use this list to conduct searches in the library catalogue for further books.
  2. Locate scarce or high-demand books: Books unavailable at Otago may be available from another library in New Zealand. Ask a librarian about interloaning books from another library. If a book you require is owned by Otago but is checked out to another borrower, you have two options. You can place a hold on the book which will let you be the next person to borrow it once it is returned, or you can recall a book, shortening the borrowing period for the current borrower. In general, books with due dates at the end of the semester should be recalled.
  3. Evaluate the books: When you find books, quickly assess their usefulness: does the table of contents suggest the author addresses your topic substantively? Is the writing and presentation professional, or is the book mainly a pictorial or juvenile light overview? Quickly glance through the footnotes: the more substantial the footnotes, the more likely it is that the work is credible. Review the bibliographies: the more often a work is referred to in the various bibliographies, the more likely it is a key work for investigating your topic. As you evaluate books, you may also identify further works you will want to use in your research.


History students ignore journal articles at their peril. The Central Library has multiple electronic databases online and on searchable CD-ROMs that will allow you to search for articles relevant to your topic. Search terms can be identified just as for books. Some of the databases will present the full text of articles to you electronically. Other articles can be found on the library shelves in the journals section. If the article you want is not available at Otago, you can order a copy, free, through the library.

If you are unsure how to proceed, where to locate the databases, how to use the CD-ROMs, or even how to recall a book, please ask a member of the library staff. A request for help is never regarded as an intrusion. Even if you have already had something explained, but have forgotten or are still uncertain, don’t hesitate to ask again. The library is there for you to use, and the staff are there to help you.


Materials found through searches on the World Wide Web are less reliable than books and articles – they can be posted by highly biased or ill-informed sources and contain errors and distortions. For this reason, the History Department has the following policy on the Web as a source for research:

  • 100-level refer to your individual course books.
  • 200-level up may cite from web addresses (URLs) containing the suffixes:

.gov - these are government sites (.govt in NZ)

.ac - academic institution

.edu - tertiary institution in U.S. and Australia.

  • 300-level and above may cite from any website, but the information used must be critically evaluated as any other source would be.

All levels may cite from websites listed in the syllabus or specifically approved in lecture; also websites indicated on the course’s Blackboard Courseinfo page.

Note that articles found through the library’s electronic databases are journal articles – they exist primarily in print form and have been made available electronically as a convenience. If you are unsure whether you have located an article or a webpage, ask a tutor or your lecturer.

Writing and Expression

You are marked not only on what you know but on how well you express it. You should have an introduction, development, and a conclusion. Your work should meet the word limit of the assignment. Remove unnecessary, overly complex, or unworkable arguments. In your writing you should aim at clear, concise, exact expression. Remember that dictionaries are writers’ friends, and you should get in the habit of using them frequently. Too many students misuse words because they do not understand their exact meanings.

What’s in a word? Consider the difference between wise guy and wise man. - anonymous

Carefully re-read your essay, checking that you have observed the SEVEN COMMANDMENTS:

1. Check your spelling carefully.
2. Check to see if you left any words out.
3. Punctuate appropriately, with special care in the use of full stops.
4. Avoid using unnecessary words.
5. Learn the correct use of apostrophes.
6. Keep your sentences clear. Avoid overlong sentences with many subclauses and parentheses.
7. Avoid contractions (don’t, can’t) and abbreviations (NZ).

Note that the spellcheck feature available with word processing programs will not catch mis-used words. You should always check spelling and grammar personally.

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC
It clearly marks four my review
Miss steaks eye ken knot

Common Errors

1. Misplaced apostrophes

Its = possessive form, for example its meaning, its life span, its courtyard

It’s = It is; this contraction has no place in a history essay
Proper use of possessives

Peasant’s revolt = one peasant, one revolt

Peasant’s revolts = one peasant, multiple revolts

Peasants’ revolt = multiple peasants, one revolt

Peasants’ revolts = multiple peasants, multiple revolts

2. Misused commas

Instead of full stops: Students frequently use commas when full stops are called for.

Poor: King Henry VIII smelled terrible, this was because he never bathed.

Better: King Henry VIII smelled terrible. This was because he never bathed.

Even better: King Henry VIII smelled terrible because he never bathed.

Excess: Students also sometimes sprinkle extra commas through their writing.

Poor: The treaty, which was signed by Jackson’s government and the Cherokee Indians, was not, in fact, rigorously, upheld by the U.S.

Better: The treaty which was signed by Jackson’s government and the Cherokee Indians was not, in fact, rigorously upheld by the U.S.

3. Wrong word

Sight refers to vision; you cite a reference; a site is a place.

Sight - cite - site.

You can have too much, or go to a place, or have two of something.

Too - to - two.

The populace are the people; a populous place has many people

Populace - populous.

4. Punctuating quotations

In general the punctuation at the end of the quote goes inside the quotation mark (sometimes called inverted comma). The footnote mark goes outside the quote mark. Thus Norman Kirk’s saying:

‘Let us have a sense of pride in being New Zealanders. Let us recognise the value of the unique way of life we have built here – a humane, non-violent society, free from the social and economic injustices that plague so many societies.’1

If you cut short a quotation, put in three dots – an ellipsis – to indicate the change:

‘Let us have a sense of pride in being New Zealanders. Let us recognise the value of the unique way of life we have built here…’2

Long quotes, such as the first quote above, are called block quotes and should be indented on both the right and left margins. Use block quotes only sparingly: readers tend to skip over them. Shorter quotes – those of two lines or less – go in the text. Very short quotes, usually three words or less, can have punctuation outside the quote marks.

If you add anything to a quote, enclose it in square brackets:

‘We have stood on Maungakawa [the hill of bitterness] and we have looked down on Horotiu [the land fallen to pieces at the blow of a weapon] and shed tears, and now the pain is constantly gnawing in our hearts.’3

If a quote contains an error and you want to clarify that the error is in the original, insert the word sic in brackets:

‘Cortez conquered the Naïve [sic] Americans.’

Referencing & Bibliography

A guide to the Department's referencing & bibliography requirements can be downloaded here.

Presentation of Essays

  1. Essays must be typed or written legibly on one side of the paper only. It will be a great advantage to you if you learn how to wordprocess. A wordprocessor makes it much easier to rewrite and improve your essay, and will also make it much easier for markers to read. Wordprocessing is also a valuable job skill you can learn for next to nothing at the university computer labs.
  2. Number your pages, and write your name and course number on every page in case the pages are separated.
  3. You should leave a wide margin on the left for the marker's comments. Double space your text (leave a blank line between each line of text).
  4. Separate paragraphs either with a blank line OR by indenting the first line of each new paragraph.
  5. Pages must be fastened together securely, preferably stapled at the top left corner.
  6. Ensure your name, course, and tutor's name is written on the front page.
  7. Essays must be placed in the assignment boxes in the corridor. Do not give essays to lecturers or to tutors directly.
  8. 8. It is your responsibility to keep a copy of your essay as a precaution against loss or theft.

Remember that the easier it is to mark your essay, the more likely you are to get full credit for your ideas and your work. If we have difficulty reading your work, either because of poor writing or poor presentation, it is easy to miss some of your points.


Many students may be unsure of what plagiarism is, or why it is penalised heavily. Here is an explanation (and a warning!).

1. Definition:

Plagiarism means copying or paraphrasing someone else’s work and presenting it as one’s own. Plagiarism is a form of cheating. It may involve copying or paraphrasing without sufficient acknowledgment another student’s work, a tutor’s comments, or published works or websites.

Copying from textbooks, articles, or the internet is plagiarism. Paraphrasing a textbook or other work without sufficient acknowledgment is plagiarism. Even if sufficient attribution is given, i.e. acknowledgment through footnotes, the proportion of paraphrased text in work presented as one’s own may be so great as to attract a charge of plagiarism.

Students are encouraged to discuss course work and assignments but any assignment or research paper you present must be your own work.

2. How to avoid the charge of plagiarism:

  • If you take a fact or idea directly from someone else, you must give a footnote reference. Use your common sense about this. You do not footnote everything. The basic rule is to give a footnote for any information which is not easily available, or is contentious, or is particularly important for your argument. An insight that is explained by another author should be cited. In each case, the purpose of the footnote is to allow the reader to assess the validity and originality of your argument.
  • If you also use the exact words of your source, that is, you quote from your source, then you must enclose the whole quotation in inverted commas. Key phrases or even single words may require quotation, e.g. "bowling alone," Robert Putnam’s shorthand term for loss of a sense of community. More commonly, if you use three or more words in a row from a source, it is considered a quotation.

3. Why not plagiarise?

  • Plagiarism of facts. If you do not explain where your information comes from, your reader can have no idea of how trustworthy your information is, and will, quite rightly, refuse to take your conclusions seriously.
  • Plagiarism of words and ideas. This is dishonest. But, equally important, plagiarism stunts your own intellectual development by encouraging habits of mechanical, imitative thinking. Finding the right language is an essential part of the construction of a historical argument. Relying on the language or ideas of others prevents you from developing a creative, independent approach to intellectual problems. If you continually rely on the ideas and arguments of others, and even on their way of expressing those ideas, you will never develop the capacity to think things through independently, and to express the results of your own thinking in the only appropriate language, which is your own.
  • Intellectual property is an increasingly litigious category of knowledge. It is essential you develop the ability to recognise and respect intellectual property now, while still a student, so you can avoid potentially expensive and very damaging consequences of infractions in future.

Further information is available here:

Academic Integrity and Academic Misconduct Information for Students