This guide is intended to provide you with information about the skills of essay writing, including how and when to use footnotes or endnotes, presentation requirements and how to reference different kinds of sources (books, articles or web pages, for instance) and with more general advice about planning, introducing and developing your essays as coherent and effective arguments.
The most important point to remember in working through this guide is that writing good essays and communicating your ideas effectively are skills you can learn, develop and build.
1. The purpose of essay writing
One of the most important skills developed in an Arts degree is the ability to communicate your ideas in writing clearly and effectively. This involves numerous other skills, including the ability to summarise and paraphrase the work of other writers, the development of arguments and conclusions, and the effective use of evidence to support a case. Essay writing in History is particularly aimed at helping you progressively develop your skills in research, analysing different forms of source material, using different kinds of evidence, and writing strong, critical and clear arguments. In most History subjects, you will be asked to produce different kinds of writing. Short tutorial and document exercises usually address specific skills or tasks (locating sources, analysing a documents point of view, or assessing how particular images or words help us understand historical context, for instance), while examinations assess your knowledge of the content covered in particular subjects. Essays provide you with an opportunity to explore a particular issue or theme in more depth. In general, the functions of an essay are:
- to introduce an argument, or contention, based upon the question or problem you choose to tackle;
- to develop and defend that argument or contention by discussing and analysing a range of appropriate evidence, and by critically assessing the
- interpretations of other historians; and
- to propose conclusions.
The best essays have a clear line of argument, and they present a thesis. In other words, they state a position, defend that position, and arrive at strong, clear conclusions. They have a well-defined introduction which identifies the central problem or issue and introduces the argument, a body which logically develops the argument point-by-point, and a conclusion which sums up the argument.
There are no simple instructions for good essay writing. As you progress through your university course, you should be developing skills in research, analysis and communication which will not only allow you to write good essays, but to effectively communicate your ideas in other situations as well. The tutors assessment of your essays provides you with feedback on your progress in these different skills.
The desired outcomes of essays in third-year subjects include formulating research projects and acquiring independent research skills; presenting a sustained argument, based mainly on substantial primary sources; placing secondary sources in their cultural, ideological and epistemological context by showing where they fit into the current state of historical knowledge; and greater awareness of the ongoing debates about the philosophy and practice of history.
The desired outcomes of essays in second-year subjects include developing skills in the use of bibliographies and other reference material, critical reading, putting more independent thought and reflection into essays; greater understanding of documentary criticism and interpretation, and the critical analysis of secondary interpretations by other historians.
The desired outcomes of essays in first-year subjects include: helping you learn to argue your own position against other points of view; development of the conventions of good historical essay writing, such as rigorous documentation and footnoting; awareness of the variety of representations of the past; familiarity with the different ways historians use evidence; and the ability to recognise, analyse and summarise an historical argument.
2. Who is an essay written for?
Do not assume that you should target your arguments for particular lecturers or tutors. For a start, your predictions may be inaccurate. Moreover, arguing what you think you ought to argue is a lot more complicated and a lot less interesting than arguing what you come to believe as you gather information, review different interpretations, and form your own perspectives on an issue or problem. Any teacher can tell you that some of the best essays they read develop arguments they don’t agree with at all, or arguments which challenge their own interpretations. Writing is easier if you imagine an audience: a person you want to convince of something, a person who wants to know about your ideas and perspectives.
Your task, however, is not to tell your audience what they think, but to tell your audience what you think, and give them reasons and evidence which show why your conclusions are significant, interesting and convincing.
3. Choosing and comprehending the question or topic
Choose a topic or question you find interesting and challenging: it is easier and much more enjoyable to develop and defend a strong argument on something which interests and intrigues you than on something you find boring or simple. Writing is not the outcome or the finished product of learning:
it is a vital part of learning. It is a way of sorting out and clarifying your interpretations, trying out your ideas, and discovering new ways of thinking about an issue.
Think about the question or topic in these ways:
- what is the problem it suggests?
- what is the ‘angle’, the issue, which makes it interesting?
- what is my first reaction to the question: yes, no, maybe?
- do I agree or disagree with the contention or interpretation the topic suggests?
- what ideas and issues can I explore by answering this question?
- is there a simple answer, or might it be more complex than it looks?
- what kinds of information is the question asking me to use?
- what themes can I explore?
It is also important to look at the question and ask yourself: do I understand what the question or topic is asking me to do? Have I interpreted the question correctly? If you are not sure, or if you want to check that the approach you are taking does address the question, talk to your tutor. Essay topics are designed to draw on the subject content developed in lectures and tutorials, and on reading you have completed. Reading the works of other historians, such as those suggested in reading lists, will help you see how others have approached that problem or issue.
Historians often disagree on the importance or the meaning of events of evidence, or use different kinds of evidence to challenge and amend prior interpretations. They will take different approaches to the same question, and suggest different ways of examining an issue, be it gender relations in medieval Europe or the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union or the impact of colonial rule in India. What you will see, however, is that all of these writers state a position. They address a problem. They answer a real or implied question. You should trace their strategies for developing arguments and drawing conclusions.
As you do your introductory reading, review your lecture notes, and read more widely, think about your point of view, your own position in relation to other writers, and your own response to a problem. Examine and evaluate the evidence: what conclusions can you draw? Which interpretations do you think best fit the available evidence? Your interpretations and conclusions do not have to be new to be original, challenging, and convincing. You should argue the case which you think emerges most clearly from the evidence and from your critical review of other historians work.
4. Coming up with an argument
You’ve read the books and articles recommended in the handbook or by your tutor. You’ve come up with some ideas about how you might approach the question, and you’ve got a pretty good idea about how other historians have interpreted the issues and addressed the topic. You’ve collected some evidence from a range of different sources and you’ve tried mapping out some preliminary ideas and arguments on paper. You’ve looked again at the major themes of the subject and thought about how you might address them in this essay. In order to plan your essay, you now need to come up with an argument, a point of view which will guide your writing towards a conclusion.
Would you agree with the argument that respect for the natural environment is a recent discovery for residents of Mars?
Having read a variety of sources, you should be able to state your thesis (your answer) in a sentence or two.
Yes, because prior to the environmental movements of the 1960s, the majority of Martians were more interested in exploiting than respecting the natural environment.
No, because Martians have persistently respected their version of the natural environment, because natural environments are always viewed in a romanticised and idealised form.
No, it is difficult to draw a simple, general conclusion on this issue, as the evidence suggests that different groups of Martians have interpreted and viewed the environment very differently over time, and no clear trend is visible even now.
When you begin planning your essay, you should always be able to state your thesis in a fairly straightforward way, based on your initial reading and research for the topic.
This sentence or two states your case. Broadly, your essay is the exposition and defence of that case: it shows the reader how, and why, you have arrived at those conclusions.
5. Planning the draft
To write a good essay, you must first decide what your central argument is going to be, and then plan your essay to develop that argument. Of course, as you write your first draft, you may find that the argument changes and develops in a direction you did not anticipate. Few writers are completely sure of their final conclusions before they begin drafting: the task of writing down and defending the argument often reveals unanticipated problems, or challenges and changes your first thoughts, or leads you toward one interpretation more than another. Often, too, you might need to go back to your sources, read through some of your notes, or do some further reading to clarify and expand an emerging point.
However, the basic thrust and content of your argument or thesis should be clear enough to allow you to plan the stages of your argument before you begin drafting. Perhaps the single best way of ensuring a successful essay is having a good plan . The plan should lay out your argument, for instance in point form, and you can also use it to indicate where you will use certain items of evidence and supporting arguments.
- introduction: state the case for no: Martians have persistently respected their version of the natural environment, because natural environments are always viewed in a romanticised and idealised form
- explain the thrust of the argument: dispute recent discovery, my essay focuses on previous century to show that respect for environment is always based on historically variable assumptions and preconceptions about beauty, usefulness and worth of nature
- explain idealisation/romanticisation of the natural environment (summarise Smith’s theory of idealisation, discuss paintings, use examples from Connor and Jones)
- list and give examples of different idealisations of natural environment in the nineteenth century and show different assumptions about beauty and usefulness behind each one (use examples from Green and Brown)
- show how these different ideals were sometimes contradictory or came into conflict (use example of forestry in Mars Forest)
- case study: the Martian garden legend (discuss the garden stories); argue that an environment under exploitation also increasingly romanticised (review the different interpretations of Green and Red, show why I think Green fits better with the evidence)
- summarise above points about previous century; what is respected in the recent past: argue that this is another idealisation (evidence: Martian tourist brochures); conclusion: restate the case, and argue that understanding respect for natural environment always means analysing the idealisation of natural environments
In the short essays common in first year, your plan is likely to be less complex, and may only have four or five main points. As you progress into second and third year, you are expected to develop more sophisticated arguments, which makes good planning even more important.
6. Writing the draft
6a. Introducing and developing the argument
In your introduction, you should state your case and, as in the example above, set out the basic structure of your argument. You might also briefly summarise two or three of your main points. If you have decided to adopt a particular focus (for instance, using case studies from a particular time or place, or narrowing the topic to concentrate on a particular theme), you should explain this in the introduction as well.
Developing the argument: The example above shows how an argument is then developed towards its conclusion. Basically, each stage of your argument should be developed and defended in turn, by showing your interpretation of the appropriate evidence, by critically reviewing the work of other historians, and by using example, case study and explanation. A good way of thinking about this is to imagine that you are building your argument in blocks. Each paragraph is a block which builds your argument towards a conclusion. Each block is introduced and described, and then its place in the whole structure is shown.
Block 1: stage of the argument
On Mars in the 1850s, the beauty of nature was usually associated with wild, untouched landscapes. Painters rarely drew human figures. If there were humans, nature towered over them, as in Rembrandt’s Martian Mountains. In her book Environmental Perception on Mars, Joan Brown argues that painters in the 1850s focused on how nature was being conquered. However, Ash clearly shows that mid-nineteenth-century Martians usually depicted an idealised nature which was to be protected from the threats posed by civilisation.
Block 2: next stage of the argument
The most crucial changes occurred after the Martian titanium rushes of the 1870s showed the potentially lucrative returns of mineral exploration and exploitation. Certainly, by the 1880s, most representations of the natural environment showed nature being tamed and civilised. Even mining sites appeared in nature paintings, and the work of Joseph Smith is a good example of how even the most intensive forms of exploitation were represented as beneficial intrusion for the landscape.
Block 3: brief summary, and introducing the next stage of the argument
By the 1880s, therefore, the idealised untouched nature of the 1850s had been invaded by humans, and an ideal natural landscape was now represented as one which was productive and bountiful. Humans did not threaten nature; they unleashed its potential. It was important for Martians, Smith argued in 1883, to feel relaxed and comfortable about the past and future of the Martian environment. Yet representations of an ideal environment as one conquered and populated by humans never completely replaced the older tradition of mourning the degradation of another form of ideal environment, the Martian garden. This alternative version became popular again in the 1890s.
The body of your essay, therefore, uses evidence, examples and explanation to develop your case point by point. Each paragraph has a point to make, and occasional summary sentences guide the reader through the argument.
6b. Using different kinds of evidence
In developing your case, you will need to make decisions about the kinds of sources you will refer to, and the best ways to use them. Sources can generally be defined into two broad types: primary or documentary sources (usually written at the time by an eyewitness, direct participant or close observer) secondary or scholarly sources (usually interpretations and explanations written after the fact by someone analysing the primary or documentary sources)
For example, a book containing the collected speeches of Charles de Gaulle is a primary source; an analysis of them by a political scientist or historian is a secondary source. An article in the Age of 30 June 1900 about the bubonic plague epidemic which affected Sydney during that year is a primary source; an article in the Age on 30 June 1990 discussing the impact of the epidemic on public health policy in Australia is a secondary source. Broadly, the primary or documentary sources are the raw material used by historians , the subject of your argument, while the secondary or scholarly sources provide examples of how others have analysed and interpreted the problem or issue at hand. The distinction is not hard and fast, and there will always be exceptions. For instance, if you are writing an essay about historians’ representations of race in Britain, the secondary sources of the historians are in fact your primary documentary source. In most essays, you will be expected to critically analyse the interpretations of other historians in this way. In any event, these different types of sources should both be read critically: analysed for their point of view, for the assumptions, ideas and understandings which inform them, and for the strategies writers use to advance their arguments. Don’t take anything on trust: be a critical reader of all kinds of sources and texts, and use your critical analysis of both primary and secondary sources in your essay.
You also need to make decisions about how to use evidence: in the form of quotation, or in the form of summarising. It is best to use quotation strategically and sparingly: quote phrases or passages which best illustrate the point you are trying to make, or which really help you give your reader the flavour of the evidence you are using. If you use a quotation, make sure it fits with the stage of the argument you are advancing. Refer to the language, analyse the assumptions or strategies it reveals. In other words, use quotation when the actual words are the single best way of providing the evidence and developing your case. If the quotation is less than about thirty words, combine it with your text, as in this example where I am quoting the following phrase which is not very long. “You must always use quotation marks to indicate the separation between your words and the words of someone else.” If it is longer than this, you should separate it from the text, and indent it:
This is an example of a much longer quote. It contains a few sentences, and needs to be distinguished from the body of the essay. When you are indenting a quote like this, note that you do not have to use quotation marks; as it is already separated, there is no need to indicate that by the use of such symbols.
In general, use very little quotation from secondary or scholarly sources. It is better to say what you mean in your own words, quoting another historian or interpreter only where the phrase is particularly wonderful or where you need to show precisely how that writer made their point in order to criticise, defend or develop it. In all other cases, it is best to summarise. Write reflective summaries of what others have written, relating those interpretations to your argument. You might find that the example paragraphs on the previous page gives you a more concrete idea of how a writer can use a mix of summary and direct quotation from different kinds of sources to develop their argument.
6c. Concluding the argument
In your conclusion, you should restate your case strongly and clearly by summarising your main points. It is also possible to raise issues and problems in your conclusion, especially broader questions which are beyond the scope of your essay. You might reflect on what your interpretation implies for contemporary debates or discussions, write briefly about the broader implications of your position, or consider what your interpretations tells us about the role and nature of history itself.
Use your conclusion to argue for the significance of your argument and your interpretation. Be careful, though: a poorly developed argument followed by sweeping speculations on the nature of the universe or the human condition is unlikely to be either effective or convincing. Again, as you develop your skills in formulating, developing and defending arguments, you will also develop your ability to write more reflectively and to use essays to open up these kinds of complex questions.
7. Writing clearly and effectively
The best single rule is to always use clear expression: write simply and with clarity and avoid complex sentence constructions. Use definite, specific and concrete language. Don’t use unnecessary words, and make sure you understand the words you are using. Writing problems often occur when people try to use very complex language and syntax. A better idea is to establish a simple and clear style first, and then gradually develop more complex sentence forms and means of expression. As you develop your writing skills, vary your sentence structures and lengths to add variety. Short sentences often add emphasis to a particularly important point. Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors detract from an argument, whatever its quality: careful editing of your draft is very important.
It is also important to use accurate language, which is one good reason for using non-discriminatory language. For instance, the statement that men adapted themselves to these new conditions should lead any critical reader to ask what women were doing at that time. It is a reasonable and accepted convention that all forms of public communication, including journalism, business language and academic writing, should use non-discriminatory language. There are at least five effective ways of improving your writing. Always read your own work.
Always ask yourself:
- what is my main idea, my contention, my argument?
- am I getting it across to the reader?
Take responsibility for critically assessing your own writing. Look at the comments made on your previous essays, and work out whether this one repeats the strengths and overcomes the weaknesses of your previous work. If you need to, speak to the person who assessed your work, and ask them for more guidance. Reading other writers. As you read, evaluate the styles of different writers. What makes them more or less effective? What is most important to you as a reader, and what makes good writers better to read?
Practice. Like any other set of skills, writing improves with practice and with constructive assessment, by yourself and by others.
Read your own work out loud. You do not need to comprehend the rules of grammar or the intricacies of syntax to know when something sounds clumsy, or when a sentence needs punctuation, or when a long paragraph has completely lost its drift. Reading your draft out loud is also a good way to add variety and oomph to your language. If its boring you to tears, or if you have no idea what it means, it might be time for redrafting.
Let other people read what you write. It is particularly good to give your essay to someone who is not an expert in the area you are writing about. If it doesn’t make sense to them, your argument might need clarification. If they struggle to read it, you might need to edit more carefully. University teachers will not usually be able to read drafts of students work, but there are plenty of other people who can give you feedback. Swap essays with fellow students. Get the people you live with to read them. Distribute them on buses.
8. Referencing Instructions for Essays
8a. When to cite sources
Decisions about when to cite sources can be difficult. Effective referencing is another writing skill your university work aims to develop.
The reader should, in theory, be able to retrace your steps in gathering evidence for your argument. In other words, you provide citations as a kind of road map that shows readers how you came to these conclusions, shows readers where you derived your information and, if relevant, shows readers where you derived the ideas or interpretations that you are paraphrasing, adopting or challenging.
Therefore, you need to provide citations in the following instances:
- where you directly quote someone else’s words;
- where you are directly summarising someone else’s argument and ideas;
- where you are summarising arguments and ideas derived from a number of sources;
- to point your readers to the source of information;
- to translate words or phrase in a foreign language that a reader cannot reasonably be presumed to understand.
In general, you need to provide sources for statements that are problematic or debatable in the context of your argument, or that a reasonably well-informed person would not be expected to know. Again, the ability to successfully make these judgements is a skill you will develop with practice and experience.
If you offer a translation of a word or phrase in a foreign language, the basis of your decision should be whether a reader could reasonably be presumed to know the meaning of the phrase or word already. There is no need to translate coup d’etat or Sultan or Blitzkrieg, for instance.
The use of citation to refer readers to the work of other writers is occasionally useful, but for the most part, your citations refer only to books, articles and other material you have used directly. Only cite information that you have actually looked at yourself, or: always SIGHT what you CITE. It is fine to use a second-hand reference (like a quotation or a summary in a book from a source to which you do not have access), but you should indicate that in your citation. An example of how to do this is provided in the next section. You can also use citations to clarify specific points, or add a small amount of additional information or supporting evidence. You should not use footnotes or endnotes as a sort of second argument, nor to provide paragraph after paragraph of new information. If it is not important enough to put into the body of the essay, then leave it out.
8b. Numbering and placement of footnote and endnote numbers
When providing footnotes or endnotes, number notes consecutively throughout the text. Put these numbers at the end of sentences, if at all possible, and distinguish them from the text either by superscripting (raising above the line) or placing them in brackets. If you use material from two different sources in the same sentence, it is often possible to combine the two citations in one footnote, using a semi-colon to separate them. Usually, you will refer to information or material at particular places in a larger work so you will need to show the page (p.) or pages (pp.) on which the material is located.
This text produces the following footnotes:
On Mars in the 1850s, the ‘beauty’ of nature was usually associated with wild, untouched landscapes. Painters rarely drew human figures. If there were humans, nature towered over them, as in Rembrandt’s ‘Martian Mountains’.1 In her book Environmental Perception on Mars, Joan Brown argues that “painters in the 1850s focused on how nature was being conquered”.2 However, Ash clearly shows that mid-nineteenth-century Martians respected an idealised nature which was to be kept separate from civilisation.3
1 K. Float (ed.), The Magical World of Ken Rembrandt, New York, 1965, p. 68.
2 Joan Brown, Environmental Perception on Mars, Sydney, 1995, p. 13.
3 Ann Ash, Joan Brown is Wrong, Sydney, 1996, pp. 1-23.
8c. Citing different kinds of sources
The following rules should help you through most situations. The absolute rule is to be consistent. Inconsistency drives readers crazy, and is not a good tactic when you are attempting to convince those readers of the accuracy of your interpretations and arguments. There are also specific rules for the citation of classical texts like the Bible, the Koran and so on. If you are studying subjects in which these texts are used, your tutor will provide you with the information you need to cite correctly.
Please note: Some areas of history, especially those published by European and English publishing houses (and now more often Australian publishers), follow the conventions set out in the MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association’s) Style Guide (available electronically at http://www.mhra.org.uk/Publications/Books/StyleGuide/download.shtml, see section 10.2.2).
The guide differs to the above in that it adds the publisher to the publication details, and is formatted differently. For example:
Peter Burke, The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries(Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 54-56.
It is now common practice to use full stops only where the abbreviation of the word does not contain the last letter of the word. So, editor becomes ed., but editors becomes eds. Doctor is Dr, but Professor is Prof.. Also, where an abbreviated title is used very commonly, you do not need to put in full stops: for instance, ALP, ACTU or .
Primary or documentary material cited by another author
If you need to refer to a quote or to a piece of evidence which you accessed in a secondary or scholarly source rather than the original source, use these examples as a guide:
R. G. Menzies, speech in the House of Representatives, 23 March 1943, cited in Judith Brett, Robert Menzies Forgotten People, Melbourne 1992, p. 47. Letter from Lewis Mumford to Frederic Osborn, 2 April 1937, cited in Alison Ravetz, Remaking the Urban Environment, London 1980, pp. 148-9.
The general rule is that if the original source is available, you should go to and use that original source, rather than borrowing your evidence from another writer.
Documents in printed collections
Author of document (first name, last name), name of document (use italic or underline), in editor (ed.) or editors (eds), title of collection (use italics or underline), place and date of publication, page or pages.
John of Salisbury, Policraticus , trans. J. Dickinson, in J.B. Ross and M.M. McLaughlin (eds), The Portable Medieval Reader, Harmondsworth, 1977, pp. 251-2.
(Note: ‘trans.’ is the abbreviation for ‘translated by’.)
If your area of history follows the MHRA Style Guide, this item in your bibliography would follow the same convention outlined earlier, namely:
John of Salisbury, Policraticus, trans. J. Dickinson, in The Portable Medieval Reader, ed. by J.B. Ross and M.M. McLaughlin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp. 251- 2.
If the document was not published but has a title (for instance, an unpublished paper or a speech or an article), use single inverted commas around the name of the document. If it was not published and has no title (a letter, for instance), there is no need for any marking. For instance:
Friederich Engels, ‘The evils of capitalism’, in K. Kharkov (ed.), The Collected Speeches of Engels, Moscow, 1954, pp. 23-8.
Yves of Narbonne, letter to Gerald of Mallemort, c. 1241, in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds), Heresies of the High Middle Ages, New York, 1991, pp. 185-7.
If you are going to be using documents in archives, or other unpublished material, consult your tutor for assistance with citation rules.
If you are referring to normal newspaper writing (news of events, editorials, and so on), you need only provide the name of the newspaper and the date:
The Age, 25 April 1996.
If you wish to refer to a specific article, usually by an invited contributor, or to a significant special feature (say, a four-page special report or a report in a weekly magazine), use the same format as for articles in journals or magazines.
Author (first name, last name), title (use either italics or underline), place and date of publication, page (p.) or pages (pp.) of the information to which you are referring.
So: Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, Melbourne, 2000, p. 13.
These publication details are always on one of the first pages of the book (and usually on the page after the main title page): these details list the publisher and the place of publication, and give other information, most of which you don’t need to provide (though see the note below). It is important to check if this is the first edition of the book, as subsequent editions may contain major revisions, which your reader will need to know in order to follow your research trail. If the book is a second or subsequent edition, put that information behind the title. Some further examples:
Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, London, 1996, pp. 98-104.
John Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the perfect man: the white male body and the challenge of modernity in America, New York, 2001, p. 231.
Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 2nd ed., Oxford, 1988, pp. 53-76.
Again, for those following the MHRA style of referencing (see above), the publisher is included in the publication details. For example:
Peter Burke, The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 54-56.
Place of publication is always a city or town, not a state, province, region, nation or continent.
Chapters in edited collections
Author (first name, last name), title of chapter (use single inverted commas around title, lower case), in editor (ed.) (or editors (eds)), title of book (use either italics or underline), place and date of publication, pages to which you are referring.
Roger Cooter, ‘War and Modern Medicine’, in W. F. Bynum & Roy Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, London, 1993, p. 156.
E. Zinkhan, ‘Louisa Albury Lawson: feminist and patriot’, in D. Adelaide (ed.), A Bright and Fiery Troop, Melbourne, 1988, 27-8.
Estelle Freedman, ‘”Uncontrolled Desires”: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960’, in Kathy Peiss & Christina Simmons (eds), Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pp. 187-99.
Please note: for those following the MHRA Style Guide (see above), and are including the name of the publisher, a footnote reference would be styled like this example:
Eve Salisbury, ‘ “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”: Proverbial Speech Acts, Boy Bishop Sermons, and Pedagogical Violence’, in Speculum Sermonis, ed. by Georgiana Donavin, Cary J. Nederman, and Richard Utz (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 141-55 (p. 153).
(Here ‘pp. 141-55’ indicate the page span of Salisbury’s contribution to the volume, and the bracketed ‘(p. 153)’ indicates the specific page reference.)
Articles in journals or magazines
Author (first name, last name), title of article (use single inverted commas around title, lower case), title of journal or magazine (use either italics or underline), volume or number, year of publication, pages covered by the article, specific page(s) to which you are referring.
Phil Scraton, ‘Policing with Contempt: The Degrading of Truth and Denial of Justice in the Aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster”, Journal of Law and Society, vol. 26, 1999, pp. 273-97, p. 275.
Emily K. Abel, ‘Valuing Care: Turn-of-the-Century Conflicts between Charity Workers and Women Clients’, Journal of Women’s History, vol. 10, 1998, pp. 32-52, pp. 34-5.
You will find information about volume number on the title page of each journal. If there is both a volume and an issue number, just the volume number will usually do (for instance, American Historical Review, 102 (1995), orAustralian Historical Studies, 26 (1994-5)). Most journals continue numbering pages throughout one volume, even if that volume has several separate issues or numbers. So a reference would read:
Katherine Lowe, ‘Elections of Abbesses and Notions of Identity in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Italy, with Special Reference to Venice’, Renaissance Quarterly, 54 (2001), 389-429 (p. 390).
Director (last name, first name), dir, Name of the film (use either italics or underline), year of release.
Hicks, Scott, dir, Shine, 1996.
Hitchcock, Alfred, dir, The Birds, 1963.
Television and radio
Name of the program (in single inverted commas) and, if this program is part of a series, the specific title of the program and the name of the series (use either italics or underline), location of the program, date of the program.
Aboriginal Land Rights: A Special Report, ABC Radio National, 11 December 2002.
Interview with John Howard, 3LO, 8 February 2003.
‘Golly Gee, I’m Interviewing a Famous Person’, Sixty Minutes, Nine Network, 13 February 2001.
‘The Reckoning’, The Frontier House, ABC Television, 27 April 2003.
Author of the document (if known), name of the document (if relevant), date of the document (if known), at full WWW address, date on which you accessed the page.
‘Social Conditions in Seventeenth-Century France’, at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/17france-soc.html, accessed 31 March 2003.
‘Suffragists Picketing the White House, January 1917’ (photograph), at http://teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer_pol_hist/thumbnail291.html, access 17 April 2003.
Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828 (1850), at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/truth50/truth50.html, accessed 16 April 2003.
Using Resources From the Internet and WWW
While there are some very useful sites for historians, including homepages describing research, or containing documents, photographs and interpretive materials, or providing primary documents like speeches, transcripts or debates, you need to be as critical and careful in your use of WWW resources as in your use of any other kind of evidence.
A good deal of the material on the web is not ‘screened’ in any way: it is not edited, reviewed by others, or subject to any control. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness as a medium, and makes the task of critically assessing and using sources even more important.
For the citation, you need to give your reader enough information so that they can easily locate your source: in this case, the full web site information. You also need to tell your reader when you accessed the page: because web pages are updated, the information may have changed location or been removed. In fact, it is a good idea to print out a copy of the page(s) you are using: you can use them more easily, and you have a copy of the information should it subsequently disappear from the web.
Citing something for the second time: use of abbreviations and short titles
Once you have given full information in the first footnote, you should use abbreviations and short titles to refer to the same source again. What will usually suffice is the authors last name and a short title (i.e. the first few significant words of the title, as below). Ibidem (always abbreviate as Ibid.) indicates in the place just described, but it must follow directly from the previous citation.
1 Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, London, 1996, pp. 98-104.
2 Ibid., p. 126.
3 Roger Cooter, ‘War and Modern Medicine’, in W. F. Bynum & Roy Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, London, 1993, p. 156.
4 Bourke, Dismembering the Male, pp. 126-9.
5 Cooter, ‘War and Modern Medicine’, p. 158.
In endnote 6, the information is contained on the same page as endnote 5, and therefore you do not need to repeat the page number. Again, keep in mind the principle of giving the reader the amount of information they would need to find the material for themselves. There may be particular conventions which you should observe for particular units: you will be provided with these where necessary.
Harvard referencing system
In general, historians do not use the Harvard referencing system. Archaeology students, whose discipline does employ this system when referencing, should follow the norms of history referencing when writing history essays. Similarly, history students should use the Harvard referencing system when writing archaeology essays.
Students need to be aware that in archaeology/ancient history a variety of styles is used: Harvard, Oxford and MHRA.Students in the Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History must be able to use all of them correctly; they also use unpublished materials of the types outlined for history and reference them in footnotes. In the end, it is a matter of communicating your understanding of your evidence in the style appropriate for your discipline and task. Unit coordinators will advise you if you are unsure.
9. Forming a bibliography and an annotated bibliography
Your essay should include a bibliography of all sources. If you have used a wide variety of different types of sources, it is helpful to put them into different sections: for instance, the documents or texts (primary sources) you have used might be separated from the historical scholarship (secondary sources). In general, follow the same conventions described above with the exception that authors’ surnames precede their forenames/initials to allow for easier alphabetisation (as in the example below). List your sources alphabetically within each section. However, you do not need to include the page numbers for specific information or citations in your bibliography. Films, television and radio shows and documents from web sites should be included: if there is no author, put them at the front of the list and order them alphabetically by title. Newspapers should be listed, but you do not need to provide the dates.
Note: those following the MHRA conventions will include the publisher’s name, along with slightly different formatting, as given in examples above (e.g. Burke, Peter, The European Renaissance: Centres and Peripheries(Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)).
Contemporary documents and texts
John of Salisbury, Policraticus, trans. J. Dickinson, in J.B. Ross and M.M. McLaughlin (eds), The Portable Medieval Reader, Harmondsworth, 1977.
Truth, Sojourner, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828 (1850), at http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/truth50/truth50.html, accessed 16 April 2003.
Films, television and radio
The Birds, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963.
‘The Reckoning’, The Frontier House, ABC Television, 27 April 2003.
Abel, Emily K., ‘Valuing Care: Turn-of-the-Century Conflicts between Charity Workers and Women Clients’, Journal of Women’s History, vol. 10, 1998, pp. 32-52.
Kasson, John, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America, New York, 2001.
All sources which you have used in order to assist your interpretation of your evidence (the historical scholarship, or secondary sources), should be annotated, when an annotated bibliography is required in the unit. Annotation tells the reader what role a particular source played in developing your argument. A statement of two or three sentences is usually ample. For instance:
Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain and the Great War, London, 1996.
Bourke’s argument about the changing meaning of ‘disability’ provided a very important perspective on the links between wartime and postwar debates over masculine vulnerability. Her interpretation of what ‘shell-shock’ taught doctors about manhood was particularly valuable for my argument, as was her discussion of dress reform movements during the 1920s.
10. Format and presentation
One of the most important skills in effective communication is formatting and presenting your work in ways which help rather than hinder your reader.
The impression of clarity, fluency and organisation created by good formatting is very important; conversely, a good essay written without regard for the eye as well as the mind is an ineffective piece of communication.
Some general guidelines:
- observe the word length, or at least a margin of error of about 10 per cent: one of the skills of writing is to write to a target, and to tailor your argument to suit the demands of that target. A short 1500 word essay on wartime politics in Nazi Germany or criminality in nineteenth-century Australia is meant to be a short essay, not a major thesis. Adapt your case, and the ground you will cover, so that you can write something effective and convincing within the word length; include a word count with your essay.
- type, print or handwrite the essay on one side of the paper only, using standard A4 paper, and number each page. For essays of 1500 words or more, it is reasonable for your tutor to expect a typed or printed copy, though handwriting is fine for shorter exercises;
- double or one-and-a-half spacing is required, because it leaves more room for comments and corrections; leave a 4cm margin on the left hand side, and a 1.5cm margin on the right, again for comments and ease of reading. Ensure that you use at least a 12-point font.
- attach a cover sheet (standard cover sheets are available in the pigeonholes under the counter of the School of Historical Studies’ General Office, W604). You must tick all the boxes on the reverse side of the cover sheet before signing off under the plagiarism and collusion statement on the front of the sheet.
- ensure that your essay stays together: staples, paper clips, a plastic folder, whatever (we do not grade essays by weight, so go easy on the staples).
Sample Medical School Essays
This section contains two sample medical school essays
- Medical School Sample Essay One
- Medical School Sample Essay Two
Medical School Essay One
Prompt: What makes you an excellent candidate for medical school? Why do you want to become a physician?
When I was twelve years old, a drunk driver hit the car my mother was driving while I was in the backseat. I have very few memories of the accident, but I do faintly recall a serious but calming face as I was gently lifted out of the car. The paramedic held my hand as we traveled to the hospital. I was in the hospital for several weeks and that same paramedic came to visit me almost every day. During my stay, I also got to know the various doctors and nurses in the hospital on a personal level. I remember feeling anxiety about my condition, but not sadness or even fear. It seemed to me that those around me, particularly my family, were more fearful of what might happen to me than I was. I don’t believe it was innocence or ignorance, but rather a trust in the abilities of my doctors. It was as if my doctors and I had a silent bond. Now that I’m older I fear death and sickness in a more intense way than I remember experiencing it as a child. My experience as a child sparked a keen interest in how we approach pediatric care, especially as it relates to our psychological and emotional support of children facing serious medical conditions. It was here that I experienced first-hand the power and compassion of medicine, not only in healing but also in bringing unlikely individuals together, such as adults and children, in uncommon yet profound ways. And it was here that I began to take seriously the possibility of becoming a pediatric surgeon.
My interest was sparked even more when, as an undergraduate, I was asked to assist in a study one of my professors was conducting on how children experience and process fear and the prospect of death. This professor was not in the medical field; rather, her background is in cultural anthropology. I was very honored to be part of this project at such an early stage of my career. During the study, we discovered that children face death in extremely different ways than adults do. We found that children facing fatal illnesses are very aware of their condition, even when it hasn’t been fully explained to them, and on the whole were willing to fight their illnesses, but were also more accepting of their potential fate than many adults facing similar diagnoses. We concluded our study by asking whether and to what extent this discovery should impact the type of care given to children in contrast to adults. I am eager to continue this sort of research as I pursue my medical career. The intersection of medicine, psychology, and socialization or culture (in this case, the social variables differentiating adults from children) is quite fascinating and is a field that is in need of better research.
Although much headway has been made in this area in the past twenty or so years, I feel there is a still a tendency in medicine to treat diseases the same way no matter who the patient is. We are slowly learning that procedures and drugs are not always universally effective. Not only must we alter our care of patients depending upon these cultural and social factors, we may also need to alter our entire emotional and psychological approach to them as well.
It is for this reason that I’m applying to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as it has one of the top programs for pediatric surgery in the country, as well as several renowned researchers delving into the social, generational, and cultural questions in which I’m interested. My approach to medicine will be multidisciplinary, which is evidenced by the fact that I’m already double-majoring in early childhood psychology and pre-med, with a minor in cultural anthropology. This is the type of extraordinary care that I received as a child—care that seemed to approach my injuries with a much larger and deeper picture than that which pure medicine cannot offer—and it is this sort of care I want to provide my future patients. I turned what might have been a debilitating event in my life—a devastating car accident—into the inspiration that has shaped my life since. I am driven and passionate. And while I know that the pediatric surgery program at Johns Hopkins will likely be the second biggest challenge I will face in my life, I know that I am up for it. I am ready to be challenged and prove to myself what I’ve been telling myself since that fateful car accident: I will be a doctor.
Medical School Essay Two
Prompt: Where do you hope to be in ten years’ time?
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be writing this essay and planning for yet another ten years into the future, part of me would have been surprised. I am a planner and a maker of to-do lists, and it has always been my plan to follow in the steps of my father and become a physician. This plan was derailed when I was called to active duty to serve in Iraq as part of the War on Terror.
I joined the National Guard before graduating high school and continued my service when I began college. My goal was to receive training that would be valuable for my future medical career, as I was working in the field of emergency health care. It was also a way to help me pay for college. When I was called to active duty in Iraq for my first deployment, I was forced to withdraw from school, and my deployment was subsequently extended. I spent a total of 24 months deployed overseas, where I provided in-the-field medical support to our combat troops. While the experience was invaluable not only in terms of my future medical career but also in terms of developing leadership and creative thinking skills, it put my undergraduate studies on hold for over two years. Consequently, my carefully-planned journey towards medical school and a medical career was thrown off course. Thus, while ten-year plans are valuable, I have learned from experience how easily such plans can dissolve in situations that are beyond one’s control, as well as the value of perseverance and flexibility.
Eventually, I returned to school. Despite my best efforts to graduate within two years, it took me another three years, as I suffered greatly from post-traumatic stress disorder following my time in Iraq. I considered abandoning my dream of becoming a physician altogether, since I was several years behind my peers with whom I had taken biology and chemistry classes before my deployment. Thanks to the unceasing encouragement of my academic advisor, who even stayed in contact with me when I was overseas, I gathered my strength and courage and began studying for the MCAT. To my surprise, my score was beyond satisfactory and while I am several years behind my original ten-year plan, I am now applying to Brown University’s School of Medicine.
I can describe my new ten-year plan, but I will do so with both optimism and also caution, knowing that I will inevitably face unforeseen complications and will need to adapt appropriately. One of the many insights I gained as a member of the National Guard and by serving in war-time was the incredible creativity medical specialists in the Armed Forces employ to deliver health care services to our wounded soldiers on the ground. I was part of a team that was saving lives under incredibly difficult circumstances—sometimes while under heavy fire and with only the most basic of resources. I am now interested in how I can use these skills to deliver health care in similar circumstances where basic medical infrastructure is lacking. While there is seemingly little in common between the deserts of Fallujah and rural Wyoming, where I’m currently working as a volunteer first responder in a small town located more than 60 miles from the nearest hospital, I see a lot of potential uses for the skills that I gained as a National Guardsman. As I learned from my father, who worked with Doctors Without Borders for a number of years, there is quite a bit in common between my field of knowledge from the military and working in post-conflict zones. I feel I have a unique experience from which to draw as I embark on my medical school journey, experiences that can be applied both here and abroad.
In ten years’ time, I hope to be trained in the field of emergency medicine, which, surprisingly, is a specialization that is actually lacking here in the United States as compared to similarly developed countries. I hope to conduct research in the field of health care infrastructure and work with government agencies and legislators to find creative solutions to improving access to emergency facilities in currently underserved areas of the United States, with an aim towards providing comprehensive policy reports and recommendations on how the US can once again be the world leader in health outcomes. While the problems inherent in our health care system are not one-dimensional and require a dynamic approach, one of the solutions as I see it is to think less in terms of state-of-the-art facilities and more in terms of access to primary care. Much of the care that I provide as a first responder and volunteer is extremely effective and also relatively cheap. More money is always helpful when facing a complex social and political problem, but we must think of solutions above and beyond more money and more taxes. In ten years I want to be a key player in the health care debate in this country and offering innovative solutions to delivering high quality and cost-effective health care to all our nation’s citizens, especially to those in rural and otherwise underserved areas.
Of course, my policy interests do not replace my passion for helping others and delivering emergency medicine. As a doctor, I hope to continue serving in areas of the country that, for one reason or another, are lagging behind in basic health care infrastructure. Eventually, I would also like to take my knowledge and talents abroad and serve in the Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders.
In short, I see the role of physicians in society as multifunctional: they are not only doctors who heal, they are also leaders, innovators, social scientists, and patriots. Although my path to medical school has not always been the most direct, my varied and circuitous journey has given me a set of skills and experiences that many otherwise qualified applicants lack. I have no doubt that the next ten years will be similarly unpredictable, but I can assure you that no matter what obstacles I face, my goal will remain the same. I sincerely hope to begin the next phase of my journey at Brown University. Thank you for your kind attention.
To learn more about what to expect from the study of medicine, check out our Study Medicine in the US section.
Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay
- If you’re applying through AMCAS, remember to keep your essay more general rather than tailored to a specific medical school, because your essay will be seen by multiple schools.
- AMCAS essays are limited to 5300 characters—not words! This includes spaces.
- Make sure the information you include in your essay doesn't conflict with the information in your other application materials.
- In general, provide additional information that isn’t found in your other application materials. Look at the essay as an opportunity to tell your story rather than a burden.
- Keep the interview in mind as you write. You will most likely be asked questions regarding your essay during the interview, so think about the experiences you want to talk about.
- When you are copying and pasting from a word processor to the AMCAS application online, formatting and font will be lost. Don’t waste your time making it look nice. Be sure to look through the essay once you’ve copied it into AMCAS and edit appropriately for any odd characters that result from pasting.
- Avoid overly controversial topics. While it is fine to take a position and back up your position with evidence, you don’t want to sound narrow-minded.
- Revise, revise, revise. Have multiple readers look at your essay and make suggestions. Go over your essay yourself many times and rewrite it several times until you feel that it communicates your message effectively and creatively.
- Make the opening sentence memorable. Admissions officers will read dozens of personal statements in a day. You must say something at the very beginning to catch their attention, encourage them to read the essay in detail, and make yourself stand out from the crowd.
- Character traits to portray in your essay include: maturity, intellect, critical thinking skills, leadership, tolerance, perseverance, and sincerity.
Additional Tips for a Successful Medical School Essay
- Regardless of the prompt, you should always address the question of why you want to go to medical school in your essay.
- Try to always give concrete examples rather than make general statements. If you say that you have perseverance, describe an event in your life that demonstrates perseverance.
- There should be an overall message or theme in your essay. In the example above, the theme is overcoming unexpected obstacles.
- Make sure you check and recheck for spelling and grammar!
- Unless you’re very sure you can pull it off, it is usually not a good idea to use humor or to employ the skills you learned in creative writing class in your personal statement. While you want to paint a picture, you don’t want to be too poetic or literary.
- Turn potential weaknesses into positives. As in the example above, address any potential weaknesses in your application and make them strengths, if possible. If you have low MCAT scores or something else that can’t be easily explained or turned into a positive, simply don’t mention it.