Your planning not only brings together your argument, but also helps to outline the structure of your essay. It may sound obvious, but generally speaking, a good essay has three parts:
- Introduction: think of this as a 'hook' to grab the reader's attention and show them why they need to read this important document
- The body: a well laid-out argument in paragraphs, leading the reader through your ideas in logical order
- Conclusion: a summary of the main points that will remain in the reader's mind as the essence of your argument.
The introduction has to grab the reader's attention. It has two related functions:
- to show that you have understood the implications of the question
- to indicate how you mean to engage with those implications
Note: opinions vary about whether or not your introduction should outline or summarise your argument; in more science-based essays, the introduction is often used almost as an 'abstract' similar to those you would find in journal articles, and students are encouraged early to get to grips with this difficult and important skill. In History, the introduction is usually NOT an abstract of the argument, but more of a statement of the implications inherent in the question and how they have been interpreted and will be dealt with.
Show what the issues are:
- Is there a historiographical debate lurking in the question; if so, what are the battle lines, why do opinions differ - and how are going to resolve the issue? What are you going to have to do to resolve these issues?
- Is there a disputed or contested definition, or radically different assumptions to which you can draw attention (and state your own interpretations of?)
- You might want to enter a caveat, for example the existence of massive regional variations or of change across the period concerned.
All of this must be touched on only briefly in your introduction; you are going to develop this much further in the body of the essay. One average-length paragraph should be enough to indicate the agenda for further discussion; this is not a detailed route map.
It may be appropriate to indicate where you stand, but you shouldn't be giving a preview of your conclusion. Of course you need to know already what that will be and that knowledge will inevitably colour the introduction and the development of the essay as you work towards it.
Don't treat the introduction as an excuse to tell the 'story so far'. If context is particularly important (perhaps your essay brings together several competing themes or needs to be situated in a particular debate), then you can flag it up but only develop it when you reach the body of the argument.
There are no special rules for the body of your essay, where your argument develops in full, apart from the obvious ones that apply to good writing in any situation:
- use paragraphs! These should follow on from each other in a logical way, taking your argument (and hence the reader) with them.
- make sure there are no abrupt breaks; the essay is answering a single question and so you shouldn't need to split your essay into distinct sections. A short paragraph should alert you that something has gone wrong with your structure - check the flow of your argument and try that again.
Your conclusion sums up what you think in a form that the reader can 'carry away' with them easily.
- be clear
- be decisive
- be fairly brief!
Don't introduce a whole new aspect of the question at this last minute. But do end on a high note - something the reader hasn't come across already in the rest of the essay. An indication of 'what happens next' or looking ahead to change can round things off nicely. But it must be self-contained i.e. said effectively in a sentence of two.
Your supervisors will be looking for your argument to be structured cohesively throughout.
- How easily can you summarise the main point of each paragraph into one sentence?
- Is the argument clearly structured? e.g. chronologically or thematically
- Do the paragraphs/ elements of the argument relate to one another and the essay question?
- What could this student do to improve the cohesion of their argument?
Try applying these questions to one of your own supervision essays!