Tips on Writing a Critical Essay
(with No Outside Research Required)


The verb "to essay" means "to attempt", and that's what your purpose should be in this assignment. Though your prose should be carefully crafted, your sources properly documented, and your submission rigorously proofread, you need not offer up a bit of historical interpretation so magnificent in its sophistication that it would get a standing ovation at a convention of professional historians. Rather, consider the assignment to be something between the relatively informal jottings in your reflections and the kind of formal work you might prepare if you wanted to write a senior thesis or a short article for publication somewhere.

Do not confuse an essay with a research paper. Though you may choose to read a little beyond the assigned readings in the course, you are not required to do so. That is, there is no need for you to become an authority on your subject; a little bit of hand-waving in the essay in areas where you are weak is to be expected. The idea is for you to attempt to write something approximating a coherent interpretive argument about a significant topic from the course. Rigorous thought is far better than mastery of mere facts. Also, note that it may be far more valuable not to play to your strengths by writing on something you already know well. Consider using the essay assignment to work through an issue you don't understand well, or for developing fully a position you disagree with, as a way of enriching your capabilities.

The topics assigned in class are your starting point, but only your starting point, as you try to focus your work. You should not write aimlessly within one of them. Rather, within whichever one you choose, you should work up a thesis, some kind of historically significant contention related to that topic, and it is that contention that should be the focus of your essay (and of its title). Let us consider an example. If the course is a survey of the recent history of the USA, and your assigned topic is "boss politics", then you may want to work up the contention that "progressive" attacks on political machines derived most of their support not from any selfless "reform" impulse from those with impeccable morals but instead from the desire of affluent suburbanites to keep down their property taxes following the absorption of their suburban districts within the city limits.

Don't fool yourself. Coming up with a significant, yet doable, thesis is not easy. Be sure to allow yourself a chunk of time to do that. It can't be done easily in one sitting. Chat it up with classmates, and feel free to call me or drop in on me for assistance. And if you're really keen to work on a topic other than the ones assigned in class, it won't hurt you to ask me for a dispensation to do that; I won't grant one frivolously, but I also won't restrict you to the topics on the list if that would compromise the benefit you'd derive from this assignment.

Though you do not need to eliminate all the speculating and other loose ends from your paper, you do need to be careful about documenting what you do. If you do decide to consult more than just the assigned texts, you need to provide full bibliographic information for such sources. Whether the sources are assigned readings or not, you need to acknowledge them, giving exact page references for quotations. Full scholarly apparatus isn't necessary for the assigned readings, though; for example, if you quote from page 116 of What Is History?, you can indicate that simply by inserting "(Carr, p. 116)" at the end of the quotation.

Regarding mechanics, the syllabus indicates that the essays are to be four typed, double-spaced pages long. A `page' means one letter-size (8.5" X 11") page, typed, double-spaced, single-sided, with roughly one inch margins on all sides, in standard font sizes (roughly 11 point type). The title page, if there is a separate one, does not count as a page, nor does a page with a line or two of text on it. Please submit both the draft copy, marked up by your editor, and the final copy, incorporating your revisions following the editor's critique. Please don't bother with plastic covers or cardboard binders; just staple your pages together (no paper clips, loose sheets, or corners folded over and torn, please), including both the final copy and the edited draft in one bundle. Save a tree rather than adding spare blank sheets for aesthetic effect. Unless you think instructors and TAs are infallible, do not submit the only copy of your essay known to exist anywhere in the world. Finally, as the syllabus makes clear, "recycled" papers--that is, papers written for another course and handed in a second time for this course--are not acceptable. If you want to write a joint paper for this course and another one, that may be arranged, but you must consult with me and get my explicit approval before doing it.

Finally, have fun with the writing. That's an order. Your grader may not be inspired to give you a good grade if the text is D-U-L-L.