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The Art of Crafting the Perfect History Essay

By CHAR ADAMS

“Historical writing is a specific way of understanding the world,” says Queens College Professor Katherine Pickering Antonova.

In her new book, The Essential Guide to Writing History Essays, Antonova gives careful instruction on everything from reading academic history to citation. Her goal? To walk students, teachers, and even seasoned writers through the “often unspoken expectations of writing history essays” by trading in the standard do’s-and-don’ts approach for something more effective.

She begins the book with a note to instructors, writing: “History is as much a writing field as literature, yet few historians are trained in how to teach writing, as graduate students in literature usually are.”

Antonova adds that because most composition courses are taught by English departments, history instructors struggle to find ways to address writing in ways specific to their disciplines. However, the book doesn’t simply show instructors how to teach students to write. It provides in-depth direction on effective strategies for actually writing history essays.

With chapter and section titles like, “Writing an Abstract,” “Argument-Based Outlining,” and “What Is a Primary Source?” Antonova’s guide answers many questions that, she says, usually go left unaddressed in history writing.

“Beside the general point that academic writing is like learning a language — anyone can do it, it takes practice, but it’s not something some people are just born good at and others aren’t,” Antonova tells SUM.

Antonova says she began writing the book nearly 20 years ago as she worked as a teaching assistant at Columbia University. When her students “widely misunderstood” a midterm exam essay prompt, she held an emergency session on approaching exam questions.

Soon, Antonova teamed up with the English department to turn the discussion into a writing event held each semester. She says the experience made her “see writing in a whole new way, not as a series of tips or do’s and don’ts but as a learned skill that should be taught and practiced like picking up any other skill.”

The book stems from a collection of handouts Antonova put together over the years as she taught history writing. She tested her approach in the classroom and the book is a culmination of all she’s taught and learned herself about history writing over the years.

“You don’t write an essay to produce a product for your instructor,” she says. “You write about evidence to help you understand what it is, what it might mean, and what questions it might answer. History as a discipline is a set of questions and ways of handling evidence.”

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The Essential Guide to Writing History Essays
Oxford University Press, 2020

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Katherine Pickering Antonova (Associate Professor, History) | Profile 1

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Queens College