Hey everyone! It’s Week 6, and by now most of you will have completed the GAT – best of luck! As we go into the final term of the year – and your final term of high school! – try to keep a level head. Enjoy these final moments of high school but don’t let yourself be completely carried away by them. Balance!
This week’s topic is essays. Essays are the bane of the existence of every History: Revolutions student. Worth 20 marks, written in 30 minutes, and spanning more than 2 pages, the essay is a non-stop writing hysteria for most students. But to be fair, that’s the History exam for you.
Today I’ll be giving you some of my personal tips on how to write the best History essays, based on the techniques and strategies that worked for me.
Above is the assessment criteria for the Section B essay, taken straight from the VCAA 2019 exam. Interestingly, the essay is the only text type for which students are told how they will be assessed. This means you should pay careful attention to each of the dot points given, as you are expected to know them.
This is probably the single-most important element of the essay to master. An essay is guided absolutely by its contention and argument, which is usually expressed explicitly in the first sentence of its introduction. You cannot write a high-achieving essay without a high-achieving argument, so let’s talk about how to plan a high-achieving argument.
Below is the VCAA 2019 essay prompt for the Russian Revolution (emphasis mine):
'From 1896, long-term causes in Tsarist Russia so weakened the government of Nicholas II that it simply collapsed in February 1917’ To what extent do you agree with this view?
During an exam, I would dedicate most of my reading time to planning my essay contention. It’s that important. First it’s important to identify the bounds of the question and its theme.
The bounds are the limitations placed upon the question that narrow down its scope. Here, we are bound by the date range given – “From 1896…. In February 1917”. This means our ideas and contention must be centred on this period and must not go outside of it.
The theme is the type of ideas that the prompt wants you to discuss. Generally these will cover events, key individuals, groups of people, or ideological concepts. In this case, “long-term causes … weakened the government” gives our theme. Our ideas should relate to the causes of the collapse of the Tsarist regime.
Once these two have been identified, it’s time to plan out the three key ideas that will make up our contention. The History essay is distinct in its allowance of alternatives. What I mean by this is that the historical argument you construct needs to be informed by your own knowledge, introducing elements outside of the essay question itself. These must be thematically related (i.e. relate to causes of the February Revolution) and bounded by the question (i.e. from 1896 to Feb 1917).
For example, I might agree that long-term causes such as the Great Spurt of Industrialisation weakened the government due to the strain on infrastructure and urban living. That could make up one paragraph in my essay, but certainly not the whole thing. So then I’ll need to find alternatives – other causes that caused the fall of the Tsarist regime. I might go with another long-term cause, such as the Tsarist regime’s commitment to autocracy, to further agree with the question. But then I might disagree that this caused it to “simply collapse”, and cite the February marches as the short-term spark that ultimately caused the government to collapse.
And with these three ideas, I finally have my contention, which may look something like this:
'Although long-term causes such as rapid industrialisation and Tsar Nicholas II’s commitment to autocracy weakened the Tsarist regime, it was ultimately the people’s civil discontent that collapsed the government in February.'
What I’ve done here is weave the three ideas together into a holistic argument that draws upon the interplay between each of the ideas. That’s the kind of nuance you want to work towards having in your essay contentions.
Sources as Evidence
In my opinion, quotes are the other crucial element of essay-writing. More than in any other text type, quotes are vital for constructing a considered historical argument that engages with existing perspectives.
In your essay, you should analyse both primary and secondary sources. Including them as evidence is fine, but for those high-scoring responses you’ll want to be doing more.
Primary quotes do serve mainly as evidence, but this is evidence you should carefully tailor to your argument. Simply including the quote and saying it supports your point is good, but better is detailing what specific aspect of the quote supports what you’re saying and how it does so. Here I recommend using smaller quotes and really analysing the words being used – what are the implications and connotations? What is being said or left unsaid? What is the context of the quote?
Secondary quotes are what make responses really stand out. Here you want to not only include historians’ perspectives, but engage with them. Do you agree with their assessment? What have they failed to consider? Does another historian offer an opposing view? Which do you agree with more? Structures along the lines of ‘While Historian 1 argues X, Historian 2 acknowledges Y’ should allow you to evaluate different perspectives and identify which suits your argument best.
Have a question?
In the final weeks before exams Diego will be hosting 2 Live Q&A sessions to help everyone get fully prepared for exams. If you have a question on how to best get prepared, have been stuck on an exam question or want to clarify an area of content send it through here, and Diego might answer it live!