The decisive first paragraph
Every part of an essay is important, but the first paragraph is crucial. This is the first chance to impress – or depress – an examiner – and the first impression is often crucial. You might try to write a striking first sentence. (“Start with an earthquake and work to a climax,” suggested filmmaker Cecil B. De Mille.) More importantly, you’ll demonstrate your understanding of the set of questions. Here you specify your carefully thought out definitions of the key words, and here you set the relevant time frame and the relevant topics – in other words, the parameters of the question. You also divide the whole question into clearer subsections or smaller questions, and then write each paragraph one at a time. You formulate an argument or express alternative lines of reasoning, which you will explain later in the essay. Therefore, the first paragraph – or perhaps you are distributing this opening section in two paragraphs – is the key to a good essay.
When reviewers read a good first paragraph, they can rely on the author to be on the right path, relevant, analytical and rigorous. You will probably feel a sense of relief that there is at least one student avoiding the two common pitfalls. The first is to ignore the question altogether. The second is to write a narrative of events – often beginning with the birth of an individual – with a halfhearted attempt to answer the question in the last paragraph.
Philip Larkin once said that the modern novel consists of a beginning, a mess and an end. The same unfortunately applies to many historical essays. However, if you’ve written a good opening section where you’ve divided the whole question into separate and manageable sections, your essay will not be confused. it will be coherent.
From your middle paragraphs it should be clear which question you answer. In fact, it is a good test for an essay that the reader can guess the question even if the title is hushed up. So start each middle paragraph with a generalization relevant to the question. Then you can develop this idea and substantiate it with evidence. You must provide a reasonable set of evidence (ie facts and citations) to support the argument you have put forward. You have a limited amount of space or time, so think about how many details you need to give. Relatively unimportant background problems can be summarized with a broad brush. Their most important areas need to be better embellished. (Do not be one of the misguided candidates who inexplicably go to the outskirts of the city and gloss over key areas.)
The regulations often state that students in the A2 year should be familiar with the main interpretations of historians. Do not ignore this advice. On the other hand, you should not push historiography to the extreme, so that the past itself is practically ignored. In particular, you should never fall into the trap of simply requiring a range of historians’ opinions. In essays, students often indicate a generalization and corroborate it with the opinion of a historian – and since they formulated the generalization of the opinion, the argument is completely circular and therefore meaningless and unconvincing. It also requires laboriously that historians are infallible and omniscient gods. A generalization is simply an assertion, unless you provide real evidence to support your view – as historians do. In the middle paragraphs is the actual content of an essay, which you neglect at your own risk.
If you have argued a case in an essay, you should explain this case in the last paragraph. If you’ve looked at several alternative suggestions, it’s time to say which one is right. In the middle paragraph, you are related to a lawyer who argues a case. Now, in the last paragraph, you are the judge summarizing and proclaiming the verdict.
Also, remember what you should not do. Do not introduce much new evidence at this point, though you can certainly bring in the curious additional fact that confirms your case. Do not continue with the next issue. When it comes to Hitler’s takeover, you should not end up giving a summary of what he once did in power