How To Start Writing a Documentary Essay

Updated March 23, 2017

A documentary-based question essay, otherwise known as a "documentary essay," poses a theoretical question regarding a historical event or happening and analyses the merit of the question by creating a two-sided debate based on actual facts. For many students, documentary-based question essays are fairly challenging due to the amount of time and research that is required to complete the essay. The form of this assignment type can leave many students feeling overwhelmed and wondering where and how to start working on their documentary essay assignment.

Pick your topic. It is not necessary to have a perfectly worded title picked out before you can move on to the next step of preparing your documentary essay; however, this type of assignment necessarily requires you to perform a significant amount of research. Therefore, having an idea of the specific subject matter that you want to write about will save you from aimlessly wandering around the library and Internet for hours without direction. You may choose any topic as long as it is a true historical fact. Your topic does not need to address a famous person or major historical event; however, finding information on well-known people and facts is much easier than working with obscure topics that have little or no documented history.

Create you title by asking a question about your topic. For example, if your topic is "World War II" your question might be, "Did World War II change the global economy?" or "Was World War II the catalyst for the Cold War?" The question/subject phrase that you come up with can be used as the title of your documentary essay.

Research your topic to find facts that support and refute your title question. You will need to read historical books, text materials and scholarly articles to gather as many facts about your topic as possible. For example, if you are writing about "How WWII changed the global economy" you would need to do research on the state of the global economy before and after WWII. Make sure that you focus your research to relevant points and facts. If you're writing on WWII economic effects, you will not need information on specific military strategies that were utilised during the war.

Create an outline of "neutral facts", "positive facts" and "negative facts." Neutral facts are points that are fairly indisputable, such as the year a certain event occurred or the people that were involved. Positive facts are those that support your title question or tend to make it appear "more true." Negative facts have the opposite effect and refute your title question. The best way to create this outline is to create a header for each section in your word processing software and type in facts under the appropriate header as you find them. It is also good practice to label the source of the information next to the fact in your outline. Continue adding to your outline until you have enough information to give an overview of your topic and two well-reasoned arguments (one in favour and one opposed) to your title question statement.

Set up the structure for your documentary essay. Place headings in your document first (as opposed to "as-you-go") to guide you through the writing process. You should have headings for your "Introduction" or "Overview" of your topic, an argumentative statement in favour of your topic question, an argumentative statement opposing your topic question, an analysis section to break down the debate and a "conclusion."

Use your outline to fill in the sections that you created in step 5. When you get to your "analysis" section, you will need to rely on your own logic and reasoning to deal with the facts that you have obtained. However, a solid outline will get you started on your documentary essay.

Things You'll Need

  • Computer with word processing software
  • Library and/or Internet access
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About the Author

Krystal Wascher has been writing online content since 2008. She received her Bachelor of Arts in political science and philosophy from Thiel College and a Juris Doctor from Duquesne University School of Law. She was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 2009.