On Writing a Research Essay
The research essay consists of several parts. There is no hard-and-fast rule about the order in which these sections should appear, with the exception of the Introduction, which appears at the beginning, and the Conclusion, which appears at the end. In addition, there is no rule as to how long each part should be, the amount of space that each should take up within the essay, or whether or not each needs to be in the text or merely included within the footnotes. These decisions will be governed by the topic and approach of each essay; part of what an historian does is figuring out how to weight and construct an historical essay to fit the topic he or she has chosen to address. A successful research essay will normally include all of the following items: Introduction, Statement of Thesis, Discussion of Historiography, Argument and Documentation, Discussion of Sources, and Conclusion.
- Introduction: This section of the essay introduces the reader to the topic and to your particular
historical take on the topic. Some historians like to "set the scene" with an anecdote that illustrates something important or interesting, or which catches the interest of the reader and focuses it on the essay's topic. Others prefer to state vital data and background to the topic (one example of this would be a biographical essay which starts with information about when and where a
person was born, etc.) The way you begin your essay is very much a matter of personal taste. One way to get started is to think about other historians whose work you have admired, and emulate them. Many find it easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of the essay; others like to write it first thing. Again, follow your own instincts.
- Statement of Thesis: This commonly appears within the introduction, or else very early in the essay. Your thesis should be clear and straightforward, and if it is complex, it is often successful to state a general thesis in one simple sentence, followed by additional sentences which clarify, detail, and build upon the general thesis. However, it's a good rule to remember that if you cannot state your thesis statement succinctly, you may need to think more carefully about what you are
trying to argue in your essay.
- Historiography: Research essays usually contain at least a cursory overview of the other historical literature which addresses the topic, or in the context of which the historian has approached the topic. This often appears only in footnotes, although in many cases, a straightforward summary of a topic's historiography is an important enough part of the essay's argument that it should appear in the text of the essay. Where the discussion of the historiography appears--whether in the text or in the footnotes--depends largely on the topic of the essay and the particular historical approach
and argument that the author uses. Nonetheless, historical research must be placed in historiographical context in order to make a contribution as research.
- Argument and Documentation: Once the historian has made a thesis statement, then he or she must support that statement. The historian does so with an argument, a logical explanation of the reasons why the historian believes the thesis statement to be true. In order to prove the argument, historians document their statements with research in primary (first-hand) and secondary (second-hand) sources. Many disciplines other than history also engage in research and documentation of research, and as a result, many styles of documenting research have developed. Historians tend to
adhere to the documentation style set forth in the Chicago Manual of Style, or the Turabian Manual of Style which has been derived from the Chicago Manual of Style. This requires historians to use footnotes or endnotes with notation which adheres to the style manual. Further, historians must also provide full documentation of sources, meaning they must list publication (or production) date, as well as the place the historian found the document if it is unpublished. If you use a letter from an archival collection, you need to state what archive holds the letter in what collection; consider that you should provide enough information that another scholar looking for the document would be able to find it with the information in your notation. In the case of sources online, you need to provide documentation of the author of the document, date when you viewed it, its location (including its URL or other locative information), and the sources cited in the online document. Because the documentation of online resources is very complex, you should ask your professor about its admissibility and proper documentation on a case-by-case basis. For more information about documentation and footnoting, see Professor Lavender's guide to footnoting.
- Sources: At some point in your essay--most commonly in footnotes--you should discuss the sources consulted in the research process. This may include sources from which you will not quote. You should also document the biases, strengths, and weaknesses of the sources on which you depend. You may wish to address this on a case-by-case basis, or you may wish to provide a general note (in a footnote) on sources consulted.
- Conclusion: This will draw your essay to a close. Commonly, conclusions restate the thesis
statement and recap the argument made to support it. In addition, you may wish to point out other directions for further research on the issue, or state the significance of the topic historically or for present-day concerns. The conclusion may also provide you with the sole appropriate place (with the exception of footnotes) to express your personal opinion.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for courses taught in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com. Last modified: Monday 4 June 2001.