Writing

Writing Letter

Writing flawless essays is one of the most difficult concepts for young students to master. Students often ask for a specific set of rules to guide them in their writings instead of seeing writing as an art that is meant to inspire. This section will try to find a way to give students the rules that they want while not taking away from the creative side of writing that is a necessity for all great writers. It is our hope that this helps them on their way towards truly great writing.

Below is an overview of the basics of writing for a history class. Most of this information is based on the specific needs of AP World and AP US History essays. This process is highly regimented and will prepare students for essays in college in a way that few other high school classes will. Unfortunately there is a ton of information out there on how to write essays. What you will find is that this information is different than much of the available information in the internet. Please make sure that you are VERY clear about what is on THIS site. What you find here will help you in both your grade for this class, and the essays you will have to write for the AP test. 

Writing Overview

This Is Not An English Class

Understand that the rules you follow in your English class may be slightly different than those of this class. The focus of English class if often on the beauty of language and therefor is focused on concepts that are nearly irrelevant to a history essay. We focus solely on what you can PROVE using facts and the organization that you use to do so. I fully expect each essay to be an example of organizational perfection! This uses a clear, logical format that is similar to proofs you do in geometry because of the focus on logical steps.

One of the most difficult aspects of this for students to remember is that the readers have absolutely no interest in your personal beliefs or your ability to talk about your life experiences that relate to the subject. You are submitting these essays to a group of teachers who spend 8 hours a day reading essays for a week straight. They have no interest in any information that is not an important piece of the puzzle in PROVING your thesis correct. For this reason, any information that doesn’t add to that proof is irrelevant and should be cut. You obviously want to stand out from the crowd, but this MUST be done using your intellect and solid grasp on history. You are given no points for your ability to ramble aimlessly on topics somewhat associated with the question.

The Good News

There is no length requirement for any of my essays. You must do your best to fully answer the question in a logical format. For this reason, you should have a 4 or 5 paragraph essay at least. How you accomplish answering the question within those constraints is completely up to you. If you get to the point where you can answer the question fully in a shorter amount of time than your peers then you will be given the grade (assuming it still fully answers the question).

Rules For Essays

  1. Pack your essay with facts: The more facts you can use in proving your essay, the better. No matter how long winded you are, you will not receive points if you can’t prove the point.
  2. Write as if the reader is intelligent but uninformed on this topic: You need to find a middle ground between boring them with ridiculous details and leaving out too much with the thoughts they should know things. When in doubt, always choose more facts.
  3.  Write only in past tense: Things can get messy if you start to use other options.
  4.  Use transition words often: Make sure that all paragraphs use transitions to smooth the change.
  5. Never refer to yourself or the reader: When you speak of yourself (using words like I, my, we, you, etc.) it takes away from the strength of the essay. State your opinion as if it were an irrefutable fact.
  6. Try to avoid making absolute statement: Don’t make statements like “The Renaissance TOTALLY transformed European culture” because history is rarely that clear. Try to find close synonyms like significantly, decisively, irrevocably, etc.
  7. Avoid abstract nouns: Always try to be as specific as possible. Using words like mankind, the world, man, or humanity takes away from the specifics that you could use.
  8. Don’t overshare: Do not give a narrative of everything you know about the topic. Focus on what you can prove using facts.

Answering The Question

The 3 Coordinates

When you talk to any AP World History Reader they will tell you the #1 problem they find every year is that the students don’t answer the question. The most important thing that students don’t realize is that each question has 3 coordinates of specificity. 1) Time – the when of the question. 2) Place – the where of the question. 3) Topic – what each question asks. If students don’t have all 3 of these coordinate characteristics, their essay will be irrelevant to the question. 

Example Prompt:

If the prompt that you are given is “Analyze the religious and economic effects of the Bubonic Plague along the Silk Routes in the 14th century” then you must ask yourself what it is asking you in terms of the 3 coordinates. In this case, the 3 coordinates tell you the following: 1) Time – the 14th century. 2) Place – Along the Silk Routes. 3) Topic – Religious and economic effects of the Bubonic Plague. From this moment on, it is vital to remember that each paragraph of your essay must cover ALL THREE of these characteristics. Anything that is not directly relevant to these 3 characteristics does not belong in your essay. 

Process Of Analyzing The Question

  1. Read the WHOLE question. Do not mess up and assume you know what it is saying before you read.
  2. What is the essence of the question: What judgement is it asking you to make? Does it have more than one part? Is there a choice of responses? You must truly understand the question before continuing.
  3. What key terms need to be defined: If it is asking you to compare, it will be a different essay than one in which you must analyze.
  4. Are they asking for parameters in the dates used: If it does then you must stick to those parameters, if not, you have the flexibility to choose your own. Make a list of context events and the culture of the period during your prewriting process.
  5. Construct a database of what you know: This gives you the opportunity to create a reminder list for yourself when you are writing. If you are writing a DBQ you should do this before you read the documents. This way you can balance the outside information you know with what you learn from the documents.
  6. Analyze the documents (if it’s a DBQ): Remember a document is NOT a fact but a piece of evidence to interpret. The point of view (POV) of the sources is crucial to its credibility. Even when people agree in the facts they may interpret those facts differently.
  7. Highlight the complexity of the question: Do your best to impress the reader with your analysis of the question in your first paragraph. You cannot receive high scores without showing complexity, but this cannot be done in the body paragraphs because it would distract from the point you are proving. So refuting strong points of those who disagree with your position is important to do in the first paragraph.
  8. Write a thesis that answers the question in one sentence: This is a clear answer to a question about which reasonable men/women can disagree.
  9. Provide abundant facts to support your thesis: All facts should clearly support your thesis! After you finish a paragraph, it should be crystal clear how those paragraphs, and all the facts in them, support your thesis.

Commonly Used Verbs & Phrases

  1. Analyze: Explain how and why something occurred. Separate into component parts and determine their interrelationships. It may mean looking at all sides of an event or issue, determining causes, key factors, and consequences; comparing and contrasting. Any question that uses the terms how, why, discuss or consider are analysis questions.
  2. Assess the validity: To make judgement or evaluation as to the veracity or accuracy of a statement; to agree or disagree. They are basically asking you how true the statement is. Judge the value of something, appraise, evaluate. The statement doesn’t have to be all true; it can be true in one instance or circumstance and false in another.
  3. Evaluate: Which factor was most important? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the topic. You usually need to rank several events or factors and specify which is most and which is least significant.
  4. To what extent: How much, to what degree is a statement true or accurate. Requires you to specify a cause and effect relationship and then state which causes were more important.
  5. Compare: To draw out or stress points of similarity, but to include points of difference.
  6. Contrast: To draw out or stress points of difference.
  7. Compare and Contrast: To do this correctly you need to discuss BOTH similarities AND differences between two events or periods. It is important to do both in a balanced way without shortchanging either.
  8. Interpret: Give an educated opinion or meaning.

Opening Paragraph

Opening Paragraph Skeleton

Often AP students want a specific skeleton that they can use when writing an essay. Many AP caliber students dislike the uncertainty of essays and simply want a fool proof way to write the essay. In this class I highly recommend that you use this skeleton unless you are VERY comfortable in doing things the other way (and get great scores on essays for my class).

  1. Hook the reader
  2. Give background and analysis
  3. Explain the ideas of those who disagree with you
  4. Briefly explain why this is incorrect (without using facts you will use later)
  5. Thesis – tell what really happened

How To Start?

This is your time to show the reader that you have a broad understanding of history. It is a good time to give some background history that might not be valid to write about in the body, but is good information to know before covering the issue at hand. Any historical connections that can be made here is a good idea. It is important to remember that we are NOT proving the thesis in this paragraph though; all material that proves your thesis should be kept for the body paragraph. If it related to the topic, especially if it provides important background information, but does not PROVE your thesis correct, it can be used here.

Examples

One thing I have found in my time teaching is that students will do their best to make this paragraph as easy as possible and leave very few facts in this area. What they don't realize is that this area is vital in making the type of broad historical connections that the rubrics are looking for. Students MUST learn to put the topic of the essay in the context of the time and place they are referring to. This process requires them to use actual facts instead of simply writing this paragraph in the easiest way possible. Below are some examples of opening paragraphs done on the Renaissance that give examples of the type of factual analysis they should be shooting for. 

Example 1

The Renaissance gave the world so much.  We will forever be grateful for the contributions made during the Renaissance.  Europe before was so much different but due to the changes made during this time period, the world looks a lot different today.  They had amazing art that was totally different than before.  Some famous painters made works that you can still see in museums today.  Not only can you see them in museums, you can go to a park and walk by them also.  In conclusion, the Renaissance was one of the most important things to happen to the history of Western Civilization.

  1. Notice this paragraph has very few solid facts. It simply bumbles through vague comments that have very little actual meaning. This tells the teacher that you have no real idea what you are talking about and are just trying to act like you have knowledge.

Example 2

The Renaissance in Italy eventually spread over Europe.  It started in Florence and it was a rebirth of Greek and Roman ideas.  People started painting human beings that actually looked like humans.  They were three-dimensional and you could see their muscles.  The sculptures of David and other religious figures looked a lot like the sculptures of the gods during the Greek times.  Leonardo da Vinci was a famous Renaissance artist and he made the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.  You can see emotions in the Mona Lisa and you can see perspective in The Last Supper.  Overall, art during the Renaissance began looking again at styles from Greece and Rome.

  1. This example has numerous facts on the era and for that reason it is much better. It is, however, very boring and doesn’t take a stand on anything (very neutral).

Example 3

During the Church-dominated Middle Ages, artistic expression took a huge step backwards and was finally saved with the rebirth of Classical ideas during the Renaissance.  From the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century, Europe fell into a Dark Era where artistic freedom was stifled by the overbearing nature of the Church.  Almost all works had a religious overtone and the figures included rarely looked realistic.  Then Europe entered the Renaissance.  Financed by patrons in Florence and the religious hierarchy in Rome, a new generation of artists began exploring the beauty of the human form.  Motivated by the ideals of humanism, a secular movement initiated by Petrarch that rediscovered the civilizations of Greece and Rome, artists again began prioritizing the human form and implemented perspective.  Though the works continued to have a religious theme (the patrons usually demanded this), artists such as Michelangelo, Rafael, Donatello, and Leonardo da Vinci were free to explore their interpretation of the human story.  From Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling where the Bible stories unfold using characters with near-perfect bodies, to Raphael’s School of Athens where the greatest thinkers of all time mingle, Renaissance works showed a refocus on the glories of humans.  With these two pieces and the hundreds of others that graced the walls of merchant’s homes and the Church’s property, Europe finally emerged from an era of mundane art and entered a period of artistic freedom.

  1. This paragraph takes a stand and shows solid understanding of history through facts. It is written with complex writing and shows upper level knowledge. I would immediately smile if given this and it would be a reminder of why I teach. 

Thesis

A thesis sentence is a single sentence that answers the prompt with a clearly and simply stated opinion. It absolutely HAS to be the last sentence of the first paragraph (don’t ever start the essay with it). As opposed to a math class, there are multiple possible answers to any prompt you get in this class. Your job is to create a thesis as an informed interpretation of the facts that support your belief. It is important to note that you are not simply restating the prompt; you are showing your reasoned judgement on the topic. A good thesis makes the reader feel that you have thoroughly explored the evidence and discovered an answer that can be backed up with facts.

Basic Examples:

Bad: George Washington set many important precedents as president. (This is a fact and not a position)

Weak: The Revolutionary War brought about change in American society. (This is, technically, a position. But, it is vague and not really debatable)

Good: The precedents that Washington set as America’s first president greatly benefited the American political system. (This is a clear position that can be supported or opposed)

Strong: The Revolutionary War ushered in a slew of wide-ranging and permanent social changes in American society. (This is a clear, strong, and debatable thesis)

Remember: A thesis must be expressed in ONE sentence and MUST be the last sentence of the first paragraph. Do not ever attempt to play both sides.

Connection To The Organization

The thesis is the single most important sentence of your essay. It is the controlling idea around which you construct the rest of your paper. Every paragraph and fact that you use in the essay MUST be clearly connected to this sentence, so it must cover everything you want to prove. Information you do not directly relate to your thesis will appear irrelevant. This means, of course, that in a paper with a weak or no thesis, much of the paper will appear to be irrelevant and unguided. 

Example:

If the DBQ prompt that you are given is:

How successful was organized labor in improving the position of workers in the period from 1875 to 1900?  Analyze the factors that contributed to the level of success achieved.

There are two different ways that you could view this essay. You could say that the time period of 1875 to 1900 a period of labor success or that it was a time of extreme hardship and struggle for organized labor. You must have a clear opinion on this matter and take a side (no playing both sides). So if you believe that this time period was not a period of labor success you want to write a thesis that answers the prompt with your opinion. You could say that “the last 30 years of the 1900’s nearly destroyed organized labor” or “These years were a period of extreme struggle for organized labor.” Notice that in the answers they use “the last 30 years of the 1900’s” instead of “the period of 1875 to 1900.” Rewording the question is a must; however, adding further detail is one solid way of showing how knowledgeable you are. For this reason, writing something like “in the 3 decades after the Civil War” could help your score more than simple restating. 

Addressing The Complexity Of The Question

Now you must write a sentence that is both complex and specific in order to get the full points on the essay. The way I expect students to do this is through using the words although, while, or despite. This allows you to address the complexity of the question without making it seem as though you aren’t taking a stand. To do this, you start with knowledge that is at least partially at odds with your opinion, and then you write your opinion in a way that shows it is superior to the previous thought. So your thesis is placed in the second half of the sentence written this way.

An example of this (based on the prompt above) would be “Although the last decades of the 19th century were periods of intense labor organization, they nearly destroyed the labor unions” or “Although the post-Civil War period saw increased labor organization, it was also a time of government persecution of labor unions.” This type of thesis is called “complex-split” and can be found in the below examples.

Type Of Thesis Statement To Use

Sample Prompt: Jacksonian Democrats viewed themselves as the guardians of the United States Constitution, political democracy, individual liberty, and equality of economic opportunity. In light of your knowledge of the following documents and your knowledge of the 1820’s and 1830’s, to what extent do you agree with the Jacksonians’ view of themselves?

Complex-Split Thesis: This approach splits the thesis into several categories, acknowledges that contrary evidence exists and tackles the complexity inherent in most AP World & APUSH essays.

  • Even though Jacksonian Democrats failed in their self-appointed roles as the guardians of the United States Constitution and individual liberty, they achieved great success in strengthening political democracy and the equality of economic opportunity.
  • Despite a few notable lapses, in general, Jacksonian Democrats were good stewards of the United States Constitution, and oversaw an expansion of individual liberty, political democracy, and economic opportunity.

How To Tell A Strong Thesis From A Weak One

A strong thesis takes some sort of stand.

Your thesis should indicate the point of the discussion. If your assignment is to write a paper on kinship systems, using your own family as an example, you might come up with either of these two thesis statements:

“There are some negative and positive aspects to the Banana Herb Tea Supplement.”

This is a weak thesis. First, it fails to take a stand. Second, the phrase “negative and positive aspects” is vague.

“Because Banana Herb Tea Supplement promotes rapid weight loss that results in the loss of muscle and lean body mass, it poses a potential danger to customers.”

This is a strong thesis because it takes a stand.

A strong thesis justifies discussion.

Your thesis should indicate the point of the discussion. If your assignment is to write a paper on kinship systems, using your own family as an example, you might come up with either of these two thesis statements:

“My family is an extended family.”

This is a weak thesis because it states an observation. Your reader won’t be able to tell the point of the statement, and will probably stop reading.

“While most American families would view consanguineal marriage as a threat to the nuclear family structure, many Iranian families, like my own, believe that these marriages help reinforce kinship ties in an extended family.”

This is a strong thesis because it shows how your experience contradicts a widely-accepted view. A good strategy for creating a strong thesis is to show that the topic is controversial. Readers will be interested in reading the rest of the essay to see how you support your point. The only major problem is that it speaks of the writers’ family. Don’t ever refer to yourself or the reader in an essay.

A strong thesis expresses one main idea.

Readers need to be able to see that your paper has one main point. If your thesis expresses more than one idea, then you might confuse your readers about the subject of your paper. For example:

“Companies need to exploit the marketing potential of the Internet, and web pages can provide both advertising and customer support.”

This is a weak thesis statement because the reader can’t decide whether the paper is about marketing on the Internet or web pages. To revise the thesis, the relationship between the two ideas needs to become more clear. One way to revise the thesis would be to write:

“Because the Internet is filled with tremendous marketing potential, companies should exploit this potential by using web pages that offer both advertising and customer support.”

This is a strong thesis because it shows that the two ideas are related. Hint: a great many clear and engaging thesis statements contain words like “because,” “since,” “so,” “although,” “unless,” and “however.”

A strong thesis statement is specific.

A thesis statement should show exactly what your paper will be about, and will help you keep your paper to a manageable topic. For example, if you write a paper on hunger, you might say:

“World hunger has many causes and effects.”

This is a weak thesis statement for two major reasons. First, “world hunger” can’t be discussed thoroughly in five or ten pages. Second, “many causes and effects” is vague. You should be able to identify specific causes and effects. A revised thesis might look like this:

“Hunger persists in Appalachia because jobs are scarce and farming in the infertile soil is rarely profitable.”

This is a strong thesis because it narrows the subject to a more specific and manageable topic and it also identifies the specific causes for the existence of hunger.

Body Paragraphs

The organization of the body of your essay is an aspect of writing that is often ignored, but needs to be developed for great essays. These paragraphs have a specific order that must be adhered to in essays for this class. A small amount of practice in this manner of writing will make a huge difference for an essay and make future essays easy and formulaic. It is important to use this formula at all times so that your essay doesn’t sound like you are rambling aimlessly about a topic. It is VITAL to remember that ALL information in the body MUST help prove your thesis. Any information that doesn’t clearly and specifically prove your thesis does not belong in your essay. It is also very important to remember that each paragraph MUST have a single main idea you are trying to prove. Do not try to condense concepts that are different just because you are too lazy to make a new paragraph.

Conclusion Paragraph

The conclusion is often overlooked by students, but this is a mistake and should never be done. The reason for this is that a conclusion can function as a thesis (and receive thesis points) if your thesis is missing or doesn’t meet the criteria for points on the rubric. This becomes a bit of a backup plan for you in this regard. 

This paragraph should be about 5-6 sentences and should summarize the main points of your essay. Do not just restate them! Instead, connect your best points to the larger global context. This is similar to the opening paragraph, except you are connecting the facts from your essay to the larger picture as well as reminding people of the best points of your essay. Please remember that you should not be introducing new information in this paragraph. This is a time to summarize and connect to larger concepts only. Also do not contradict a point you have made or apologize for a lack of knowledge or resources. Act as though this was the most comprehensive essay ever done on the topic, even if it wasn’t.

Try not to use obvious transition words or phrases such as ‘in conclusion’, ‘in summary’, or ‘as I have attempted to show.’ This come off as corny or cliché in a serious essay. It is permissible to use less obvious transition words like therefore, finally, and consequently.

Example

If this was your opening paragraph:

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, initiating a religious conflict which ultimately engulfed Europe for 150 years. Possibly Luther’s cloistered training blinded him from recognizing the complex economic, social, and political forces at work which would transform and intensify his initial religious dispute into a revolution that irrevocably buried the Medieval world. The late Medieval Church must also take some of the blame, for its increased preoccupation with materialism and worldly power likewise blinded it to the spiritual needs of a troubled era. In response, Protestantism aspired to re-spiritualize Catholicism by simplifying its structure, doctrine, and practices. Ironically, however, the religious conflicts both sides bred would finally produce a Europe less interested in either faith.

This would be a good example of a conclusion paragraph.

The Peace of Westphalia brought the religious struggle, hence the Reformation to an end. Luther’s reforms had been successful in creating an alternative form of Christian practice, and half of Europe followed his cause. But his protest had also bred political chaos, religious fanaticism, and socio-economic upheaval without precedent in early modern history. Exhausted by civil war and international conflict, Europe would increasingly search for a new principal of authority guided by a more secular outlook. Hence, ironically, Luther’s program for re-spiritualizing a decadent Medieval Church brought neither ministers or priests into political dominance; instead kings and princes would shape Europe’s future destiny, and do so by largely ignoring the faith.”

  • Notice that this conclusion fits closely with the introduction and brought the essay full circle by the end.