Ingredients of the Ideal Body Paragraph of a History Essay

By Adam Stengel

(AP/IB History, English Literature, English Language, History tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

In no academic subject do students tend to mystify the processes of argumentative composition than History. Many of my students tell me that they like learning and thinking and talking about continuity and change over time, but they HATE writing about it.

The problem is, for IB History HL kids, written essays—the Paper 2 and Paper 3 exams, in particular—are worth a whopping 60% of the course grade. If you add in the Question 4 “mini essay” for Paper 1 and the long-term IA assignment, pretty much the entire curriculum is assessment via argumentative essay, and much of that is timed, high pressure exam writing.

Given the reality IB History students face, in today’s blog I’ll provide a list of ingredients for the ideal body paragraph of a Paper 2 or Paper 3 response. If used correctly and efficiently, this outline should be a building block to a high mark overall response and, perhaps, in the long run, the demystification of historical composition forevermore.

> Read more on Adam’s previous blog “The US Constitution: Convention and Ratification”

Ingredient #1: Structure the paragraph as a developing argument beginning with an effective Topic Sentence and wrapped up with a Conclusion

A body for Paragraph for History

Whether this goes without saying or not, a body for a paragraph for history, like a body paragraph for any academic argument, must follow a logical structure and contribute to the overarching thesis statement, which in turn should be a direct answer to the Paper 2 or 3 essay question.

Let’s say you’re responding to this past Paper 3 question: With reference to the period up to 1868, examine the political impact of Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan.

Firstly, your direct answer—meaning your thesis, which should be the final sentence of your introductory paragraph—should be written as a 3 to 4 point argument. For instance: Commodore Perry’s arrival had a profound political impactment on Japan in that it further exacerbated internal and external conflicts already challenging the Tokugawa Shogunate, directly led to the unequal treaties that redefined the nation’s foreign policy and relationship with the West, and ignited the forces of dissension that paved the way for the Meiji Restoration.

Thence, each body paragraph should take a point from the main argument, restate in a consolidated and developing way, and support it with historical evidence. For example, this would be a valid topic sentence for the second body paragraph: The unequal treaties—the Kanagawa Treaty, the Treat for Amity and Commerce, and the Ansei Treaties, in particular—which immediately sprung from the Perry Mission, completely transformed Japan’s political climate. 

After that, you start hitting them with old Point, Evidence, Explanation process. Use people, places, events, quotes, historiography, and statistics from the topic that support both your thesis and sub-point, explaining with every evidence drop why the info backs up your claim. Then wrap it up with a short and sweet conclusion: Politically, the treaties signed in the wake of Perry’s expedition weakened Tokugawa authority and advanced Western imperialism.

Ingredient #2: Quantitive data

Quantitive data

From primary school onward, we’re taught that in history you have to memorize dates. For better or worse, this is true in IB Paper 2 and 3 exams. Moreover, in an ideal body paragraph, you should include AT LEAST one piece—though you should aim for as many as possible—of numerical based information. Yes, this material can and should include the dates historical events took place—specifically, in reference to the model paragraph topic above, the dates of the various treaties would be apropos—but it is not limited to years or days of the month. In fact, number-based statistics (the amount of warships Commodore Perry had in his fleet, the results of Abe Masahiro’s poll in the wake of the Kanagawa treaty) can be just as effective. The point is, though history is more than just a number’s game, historical arguments require numbers to provide context and measure impact.

Ingredient #3: Historical Terms

Dictionary of Historical Terms

Though not necessarily technical jargon, a historical term is a word or short phrase designating people, institutions, and phenomena related and/or tied to given historical subject areas. To be able to talk the talk of a pro historian, you’ll need to incorporate AT LEAST a few into your ideal body paragraph. Doing so makes the exam marker aware that you are familiar with the language of the topic. In our model body, for instance, all the specific treaties would be historical terms, as would “Tokugawa Shogunate,” “treaty ports,” “Western imperialism,” and “Meiji Restoration.” In fact, if you’re paragraph is not chock full of such language then you’re probably not making a precise—or any way on the mark—historical argument.

Ingredient #4: Names and Places

History is situated geographically, meaning it involves people doing things in specific physical and cultural settings. Therefore, for an ideal body paragraph, you’re going to need AT LEAST ONE proper name of a historic figure (Commodore Matthew Perry, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, Abe Masahiro) AND AT LEAST ONE specific locale (Edo Bay, Yokohama, Nagasaki). Without this crucial content, your argument will be unmoored and under-populated, and that’s not a good thing. Remember, proper nouns are historians’ bread and butter.

Ingredient #5: Direct Quote and Historiography

Direct quote and Historiography

Actually, Direct Quote and Historiography are technically two separate ingredients of an ideal body paragraph. An effective strategy, however, is to kill two birds with one stone: Directly quote a historian writing about the subject/event.

Direct quoting is part of every argumentative essay. For instance, when you’re writing a poetry analysis and investigating the text’s use of metaphor, it’s best to quote the phrase directly from the poem that includes the metaphorical content. With history, there are primary sources to directly evidence, but it might be asking too much for an IB history kid to memorize the content of numerous primary sources relevant to the vast Paper 2 and 3 subject areas. Historical figures that help define events do have sound bites that could be applied. If you’re studying twentieth-century China, you can quote Mao, who has plenty of things to say, but strong silent types like Commodore Perry might leave us wanting.

That’s where historiography comes in. Essentially, historiography is the study of historical writing and how historical sources have been synthesized over time. A good IB History instructor will devote consideration to the various historiographical viewpoints on given subjects/topics/events.

Hence, in picking a Paper 2 or Paper 3 question to answer, in theory you’ll be guided by what you already know regarding how historians explain and contextualize the historical situation at hand. Moreover, if you’re really on the ball, you’ll have in your brain bank a direct quote from a historian that can support or back up your claim in any given body paragraph. See, two birds with one stone! If not, you can always paraphrase the claim, though of course you have to be able to name-check the historian (“Edmund Wilson argues…”).

In conclusion, these ingredients should help you produce an effective body paragraph for a Paper 2 or Paper 3 IB History essay. Remember to read your course books, study the content, and come to The Edge for tutoring!

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