Read the Question
This sounds too obvious to mention. But every year some students see a word or phrase in the title and proceed to reel off a prepared answer without considering whether what they are writing actually addresses the question asked. This will be immediately obvious to anyone reading the essay and gain you few marks. Read the question several times to make sure you understand what it is asking.
Analyze the Question
When you have read the question, you should then analyze it. This is vital -- many people do not make the distinction between what the question is asking and what the question is about. By breaking down the title into key words (the issue to be considered) and topic words (the subject matter), you can ensure that you actually answer the question rather than provide a simple narrative of events.
These are fairly straightforward examples, but you will come across titles that are much more difficult to analyze so get into the habit of doing it now. Once you have analysed the question, you are ready to write your plan.
This is without doubt the most vital part of writing an essay. It is your plan that determines what approach you take to answering the question. If you have written your plan properly, you will know exactly what your answer is going to be -- this is not something that should be decided while you are writing your essay! More importantly, your plan will ensure that you actually answer the question. Everything you write must be related to the question, and without a plan it is all too easy to lose focus and write irrelevant nonsense. Not answering the question is the most common failing in A level essays, and there is nothing a teacher likes doing more than crossing out huge chunks of an essay with the word `irrelevant'! Write a good plan and this won't happen to you.
Once you have made your plan, you are ready to begin. How do you start an essay? Unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule -- it will depend very much on each individual title. However, one thing is certain: your introduction must make a good impression. It is the first thing anyone will read: if it fails to grip, the rest of the essay will have to be very good to retrieve the situation. Ideally your introduction should sparkle, leaving the impression `Wow, this girl knows what she's talking about: I want to read more'. At the very least it must be competent. Preferably, it should also be short -- if your introduction lasts much more than a third of a page, you have missed the point. So, faced with a blank piece of paper, what do you actually write?
The main body of the essay is where you prove your case. Once you have planned your essay, this section will almost write itself. It is just a question of filling in the gaps. You will know what paragraphs you are going to write and what information you are going to use. However, remember that you are making an argument, not narrating a story. You have already identified the key words in the question -- now is the time to use them. Every paragraph must refer in some way to the key words or it will be irrelevant. Be ruthless -- you will have far more information than you need and must select carefully only that which you need to support your argument.
However, you must equally avoid an essay consisting only of argument -- you must not make unsubstantiated claims. For everything you say you must have a supporting fact or example -- otherwise your essay will be just so much hot air. This balance between analysis and supporting detail is what makes up the skill of essay writing, and takes time to learn. Once you have done so, success will be yours
After all your efforts making notes, you will naturally want to use some of them in your essay -- that is why you made them. However, you must be very careful how you use quotes. They can only be used in a discussion of various historians' points of view, i.e. `Wilkinson says.... but Shennan says...', or to sum up an argument you have already proved. What they absolutely 100% can never be used for is to prove a point. The most common use of quotes is `Wilkinson says that with no further information. This does not prove your point. A quote from an historian, however well respected, is not proof. Saying that Wilkinson has said something does not prove that what he has said is true. If you are going to use a quote you must support it with the relevant facts or examples, just as if it was your own words, or you will gain no marks for your carefully memorized notes.
The conclusion is where you sum up what you have said in your essay. It is absolutely vital -- never fail to write one. This is the last thing an examiner reads and counts for a great deal: a good conclusion can rescue an indifferent essay and set the seal on a good one. It is here that you draw together the threads of your argument and hammer home your points, leaving the reader in no doubt as to your answer. You should refer explicitly to the key words of the question and reinforce the points you made in the main body. Above all it should contain nothing new -- it is simply a restatement of your argument. If there is anything you have not already said it is too late now!