Essaying The Past: How To Read, Write And Think About History by Jim Cullen

The Blurb On The Back:

Learn to craft the perfect historical research paper with this approachable and practical guide

Essaying The Past: How To Read, Write And Think About History, Fourth Edition continues the tradition of excellence established by the previous editions.  Equal parts research manual, study guide, and introduction to the study of history, this book teaches readers how to write excellent historical prose with approachable strategies and actionable tips.

Noted teacher and writer Jim Cullen has created an invaluable resource for novices and experts in the field of historical study, offering practical insights into determining how questions should be framed, developing strong introductions and topic sentences, choosing evidence, and effectively revising your work.

Essaying The Past includes seven appendices covering the major issues facing students today, including the pitfalls and temptations of plagiarism and the role of the internet.  It also contains an annotated case study outlining one student’s process of writing an essay and demonstrating the application of the concepts contained within the book.  Essaying The Past covers topics including:

– How to think and read about history and ask the right questions about what you’re reading

– The three components of crafting a compelling argument

– How to deal with counterarguments and counter-evidence

– How to properly construct a bibliography and insert footnotes

– How to assess the credibility of online resources

Perfect for students taking surveys or courses in methods or historiography.  Essaying The Past also belongs on the bookshelf with even a passing interest in studying, researching, consuming, or writing about history.  

You can buy ESSAYING THE PAST: HOW TO READ, WRITE AND THINK ABOUT HISTORY by Jim Cullen from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Jim Cullen has a PhD in American Studies, taught at Harvard University and Sarah Lawrence College is now a teacher at Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut.  Aimed at history students, this excellent book clearly sets out broad essay writing techniques that can be used by students of any humanity or anyone in work who needs to write for their job.  Clearly written and easy to follow, it contains lots of examples to illustrate its points.

First published in 2008, this is the fourth edition of Cullen’s book and he’s included a set of prefaces from each of the previous editions, which track how he has changed it.  This edition is mainly corrections and updated references together with additional examples of student writing.  I have to say that including real student essays really adds a great deal to this book because it allows Cullen to illustrate his points in a way that makes his tips clear without coming across as artificial.

The purpose of the book is to assist in preparing history essays and Cullen begins with a section about what history is, appropriate sources and how to think about writing history essays.  He then moves onto the process of writing the essay, from coming up with a question and premise to looking at structure, sourcing and how to form paragraphs and arguments and then producing a conclusion.  Notwithstanding that this is about history, much of the advice here is transferable to other subjects as well and Cullen does a really good job of breaking down his points in a way that makes them very easy to follow without being patronising.  The book ends with a set of appendices covering topics including a summary of the steps in producing and reviewing an essay, how to footnote your essay, use of internet resources and the problems of plagiarism.

The book is aimed at US students but I think the skills can be used by anyone – certainly as someone who has to produce written advice as part of my day job, I found Cullen’s suggestions to be very useful in thinking about how I structure and support my arguments.  Cullen also pulls off the difficult trick of making this book very easy to read – it’s not dry or too academic, even though it is dealing with a very academic subject and because he touches on different historical topics and uses real examples, it remains very engaging.

I was genuinely very impressed with this book.  It’s useful, insightful and actually enjoyable to read.  On that basis, if you have to do any kind of writing – whether as a student or for work – then this is worth a few hours of your time.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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