A thesis statement is generally a single sentence (The last sentence of Intro) within the introductory paragraph of the history (or thesis) essay, which makes a claim or tells the reader exactly what to expect from the rest of the text. It may be the writer's interpretation of what the author or teacher is saying or implying about the topic. It may also be a hypothesis statement (educated guess) which the writer intends to develop and prove in the course of the essay.
The thesis statement, which is in some cases underlined, is the heart of a history or thesis essay and is the most vital part of the introduction. The assignment may not ask for a thesis statement because it may be assumed that the writer will include one. If the history assignment asks for the student to take a position, to show the cause and effect, to interpret or to compare and contrast, then the student should develop and include a good thesis statement.
Following the introductory paragraph and its statement, the body of the essay presents the reader with organized evidence directly relating to the thesis and must support it.
Characteristics of a good thesis statement
- Is a strong statement or fact which ends with a period, not a question.
- Is not a cliché such as “fit as a fiddle”, “time after time”, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, “all in due time” or “what goes around comes around”.
- Is not a dictionary definition.
- Is not a generalization.
- Is not vague, narrow or broad.
- States an analytic argument or claim, not a personal opinion or emotion.
- Uses clear and meaningful words.
The History Essay Format
Essay is an old French word which means to “attempt”. An essay is the testing of an idea or hypothesis (theory). A history essay (sometimes referred to as a thesis essay) will describe an argument or claim about one or more historical events and will support that claim with evidence, arguments and references. The text must make it clear to the reader why the argument or claim is as such.
Unlike a persuasive essay where the writer captures the reader's attention with a leading question, quotation or story related to the topic, the introduction in a history essay announces a clear thesis statement and explains what to expect in the coming paragraphs. The Introduction includes the key facts that are going to be presented in each paragraph.
The following phrases are considered to be poor and are normally avoided in the introduction: “I will talk about”, “You will discover that”, “In this essay”, “You will learn” or other such statements.
Body (Supporting Paragraphs)
The paragraphs which make up the body of a history essay offers historical evidence to support the thesis statement. Typically, in a high school history essay, there will be as many supporting paragraphs as there are events or topics. The history teacher or assignment outline may ask for a specific number of paragraphs. Evidence such as dates, names, events and terms are provided to support the key thesis.
The topic sentence tells the reader exactly what the paragraph is about. Typically, the following phrases are never part of a topic sentence: “I will talk about”, “I will write about” or “You will see”. Instead, clear statements which reflect the content of the paragraph are written.
The last sentence of a supporting paragraph can either be a closing or linking sentence. A closing sentence summarizes the key elements that were presented. A linking sentence efficiently links the current paragraph to the next. Linking can also be done by using a transitional word or phrase at the beginning of the next paragraph.
In the closing paragraph, the claim or argument from the introduction is restated differently. The best evidence and facts are summarized without the use of any new information. This paragraph mainly reviews what has already been written. Writers don't use exactly the same words as in their introduction since this shows laziness. This is the author's last chance to present the reader with the facts which support their thesis statement.
Quotes, Footnotes and Bibliography
Quotations in a history essay are used in moderation and to address particulars of a given historical event. Students who tend to use too many quotes normally lose marks for doing so. The author of a history essay normally will read the text from a selected source, understand it, close the source (book for web site for example) and then condense it using their own words. Simply paraphrasing someone else’s work is still considered to be plagiarism. History essays may contain many short quotes.
Quotations of three or fewer lines are placed between double quotation marks. For longer quotes, the left and right margins are indented by an additional 0.5” or 1 cm, the text is single-spaced and no quotation marks are used. Footnotes are used to cite the source.
Single quotation marks are used for quotations within a quotation. Three ellipsis points (...) are used when leaving part of the quotation out. Ellipsis cannot be used at the start of a quotation.
Footnotes are used to cite quotation sources or to provide additional tidbits of information such as short comments.
Internet sources are treated in the same way printed sources are. Footnotes or endnotes are used in a history essay to document all quotations. Footnotes normally provide the author's name, the title of the work, the full title of the site (if the work is part of a larger site), the date of publication, and the full URL (Uniform Resource Locator) of the document being quoted. The date on which the web site was consulted is normally included in a footnote since websites are often short-lived.
Unless otherwise specified by the history teacher or assignment outline, a bibliography should always be included on a separate page which lists the sources used in preparing the essay.
The list is always sorted alphabetically according to the authors’ last name. The second and subsequent line of each entry of a bibliography is indented by about 1 inch, 2.5 cm or 10 spaces.
A bibliography is normally formatted according to the “Chicago Manual of Style” or “The MLA Style Manual”.
History and thesis essay writers are very careful to avoid plagiarism since it is considered to be a form of cheating in which part or all of someone else’s work is passed as one’s own. Useful guidelines to help avoid plagiarism can be found in the University of Ottawa document "Beware of Plagiarism".
- Letter-sized 8.5”x11” or A4 plain white paper
- Double-spaced text
- 1.5” (3 cm) left and right margins, 1” (2.5 cm) top and bottom margins
- Regular 12-point font such as Arial, Century Gothic, Helvetica, Times New Roman and Verdana
- A cover page with the course name, course number, group number, essay title, the teacher’s name, the author's name, the due date and optionally, the name of the author's school, its location and logo
- Page numbers (with the exception of the cover page)
- No underlined text with the exeception of the thesis statement
- No italicized text with the exception of foreign words
- No bolded characters
- No headings
- No bullets, numbered lists or point form
- No use of the these words: “Firstly”, “Secondly”, “Thirdly”, etc.
- Paragraph indentation of approximately 0.5 inch, 1 cm or 5 spaces
- Formatting according to the “Chicago Manual of Style” or the “MLA Style”.
Basic Essay Conventions
- Dates: a full date is formatted as August 20, 2009 or August 20, 2009. The comma and the “th” separate the day from the year.
- Dates: a span of years within the same century is written as 1939-45 (not 1939-1945).
- Dates: no apostrophe is used for 1600s, 1700s, etc.
- Diction: a formal tone (sophisticated language) is used to address an academic audience.
- Numbers: for essays written in countries where the metric system is used (e.g., Europe, Canada), no commas are used to separate groups of three digits (thousands). For example, ten thousand is written as 10 000 as opposed to 10,000.
- Numbers: numbers less than and equal to 100 are spelled out (e.g., fifteen).
- Numbers: round numbers are spelled out (e.g., 10 thousand, 5 million).
- Numbers: for successive numbers, digits are used (e.g., 11 women and 96 men).
- Percentages: the word “percent” is used instead of its symbol % unless listing successive figures. When listing many figures, the % symbol is also used.
- Pronouns: the pronoun “I” is not used since the writer does not need to refer to him/herself unless writing about “taking a position” or making a “citizenship” statement.
- Pronouns: the pronoun “you” is not used since the writer does not need to address the reader directly.
- Tone: in a history or thesis essay, the writer does not nag, preach or give advice.
Use of Capital Letters
A history or thesis essay will make use of capital letters where necessary.
- Brand names, trademarks or product names
- First word of a direct quotation
- First word of a sentence
- Name or title of a book, disc, movie or other literary works
- Names of distinctive historical periods (e.g., Middle Ages)
- Names of festivals and holidays
- Names of languages (e.g., English, French)
- Names of school subjects, disciplines or specialties are not capitalized unless they happen to be the names of languages
- Names of the days of the week and of the months of the year (e.g., Monday, January)
- Pronoun I (e.g., “Yesterday, I was very happy.”)
- Proper names (e.g., John Smith, Jacques Cartier)
- Religious terms (e.g., God, Sikhs)
- Roman numerals (e.g., XIV)
- Words that create a connection with a specific place (e.g., French is capitalized when it is used in the context of having to do with France)
- Words that identify nationalities, ethnic groups or social groups (e.g., Americans, Canadians, Loyalists)
- A word processor such as Microsoft Word or a free downloadable processor such as Open Office could be used to format and spell-check the text.
- An essay plan or a graphic organizer could be used to collect important facts before attempting to write the essay.
- Correct use of punctuation; periods, commas, semicolons and colons are used to break down or separate sentences.
- Paragraphs are not lengthy in nature.
- Street or Internet messaging jargon such as “a lot”, “:)”, “lol” or “bc” is not used.
- Text that remains consistent with the thesis statement.
- The essay has been verified by a peer and/or with the word processor's spell-check tool.
- The same verb tense is used throughout the essay.
- ↑A cliché is an expression or saying which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning; something repeated so often that has become stale or commonplace; "ready-made phrases".
- ↑“History and Classics: Essay Writing Guide” (on-line). Edmonton, Alberta: Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta. uofaweb.ualbert.ca (January 2009).
- ↑More information on the “Chicago Manual of Style” can be found at chicagomanualofstyle.org
- ↑More information on the “MLA Style Manual” and “Guide to Scholarly Publishing” can be found on the Modern Language Association web site at mla.org Guides can be ordered online.
What is it?
A three-activity lesson teaching students what thesis statements are and how to use them effectively in writing Document Based Questions (DBQs) and other history essays.
Students asked to write brief essays on historical topics often lack a clear sense that such essays have a distinct structure. That structure varies with the topic the student is asked to address, but it usually consists of three tasks:
- Using an introductory paragraph to pique interest and state clearly the essay's answer to the question it is addressing.
- Using the essay's internal paragraphs to make the case for that answer, hypothesis, or claim.
- Using a conclusion to sum up how well the body of the essay has addressed the question, along with any qualifications.
A clear thesis statement is crucial to managing these tasks. An effective thesis statement responds to all key components of the question posed. It provides an answer, or hypothesis, which the entire essay will support or explain. In a DBQ (Document-Based Question) essay, the thesis must also be one the primary sources can support. Finally, if the thesis is clear enough, it should suggest a structure for the entire essay, one that will deal with all key facets of the question or problem posed.
This lesson is based on the belief that students cannot master an essay component such as the thesis statement in the abstract, but will best learn its nature by studying it in the context of a concrete historical problem. Therefore, the lesson's activities are based on an introductory essay and a set of primary source documents on one historical topic—the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago in 1886. The Haymarket episode is a dramatic one that should also hold student interest well. A single DBQ on this topic and several alternate thesis statements are then used in three student activities. These illustrate what makes thesis statements effective, as well some common problems or mistakes in writing clear thesis statements. The lesson consists of the following handouts:
- A background essay on the Haymarket anarchists
- A set of seven primary sources
- Three student activity sheets—What a Thesis Statement Is, What a Thesis Statement Does, Putting the Thesis Statement to Use
- Teacher's Answer Key
- Ask students to read the one-page background essay provided for this lesson.
- If they are not already familiar with what a thesis statement and a DBQ essay are, discuss the brief explanation at the end of the background essay.
- Have students study the seven primary sources for this lesson, paying attention both to the content and the sourcing information for each source.
In the Classroom
- Briefly discuss with students the single DBQ used in all three activities for the lesson.
- Have students complete Activity 1 and Activity 2. In these activities they will make several choices among alternative thesis statements, all of which respond to the lesson's DBQ. If they have read the introductory essay and studied the sources, these activities will not take much time to complete.
- Discuss the choices students make for these two activities. The Teacher's Answer Key sheet for the lesson lists the correct choices and offers additional ideas to discuss.
- Ask students to complete Activity 3 by choosing several sources to use to back up or qualify one of the thesis statements. Either discuss student choices in class or ask students to use their notes and their thesis statement in a brief DBQ essay of their own.
- In writing history essays, students may think their task is simply to provide as much detail and information as they can, perhaps to prove how much they know. If they lack a sense of the overall purpose and structure of such essays, they will not see the central importance of the thesis statement within that structure.
- Students in a hurry often fail to tailor the thesis statement to the exact details and form of the DBQ or other essay prompt. They need to pay attention to the question's details, and also to its form (e.g. compare and contrast, explain and describe, assess the validity, etc.), which can guide the way they structure their thesis statement and the essay as a whole.
- Students may view the thesis statement as an absolute claim and may make sweeping assertions they can't possibly prove without qualification. They need to see a thesis as a tentative hypothesis, one they should qualify by referring to primary sources that seem to contradict it.
- Students need to see that a vague or overly broad thesis statement will make their task harder, not easier. A specific and divided, or segmented, thesis will delimit the task more effectively and make it easier for the student to organize the rest of the essay.
Averich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton University Press, 1984.
Burack, Jonathan. "History Unfolding." Four MindSparks DBQ and Essay Writing Programs. Social Studies School Service. This is a series of learning programs/exercises.
Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. The Dramas of Haymarket.
For more information
On the Haymarket Anarchists:
See more on this topic elsewhere on our website
On DBQ essays and thesis statements:
Further tips on writing thesis statements from the Indiana University. This list is typical of checklists on this topic, with much good advice, but without the practice activity that will help students apply the advice.
See more on this topic elsewhere on our website.