Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific "do"s and "don't"s.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis. What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish - something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept - together with grounds or justification for its acceptance.
Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you.
Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position. Sometimes this is called the "fortress approach." In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.
First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus.
In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic. Unfortunately, your reader (likely your marker or instructor) has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face. For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer's shoulders. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these.
THINGS TO AVOID IN YOUR PHILOSOPHY ESSAY
- Lengthy introductions. These are entirely unnecessary and of no interest to the informed reader. There is no need to point out that your topic is an important one, and one that has interested philosophers for hundreds of years. Introductions should be as brief as possible. In fact, I recommend that you think of your paper as not having an introduction at all. Go directly to your topic.
- Lengthy quotations. Inexperienced writers rely too heavily on quotations and paraphrases. Direct quotation is best restricted to those cases where it is essential to establish another writer's exact selection of words. Even paraphrasing should be kept to a minimum. After all, it is your paper. It is your thoughts that your instructor is concerned with. Keep that in mind, especially when your essay topic requires you to critically assess someone else's views.
- Fence sitting. Do not present a number of positions in your paper and then end by saying that you are not qualified to settle the matter. In particular, do not close by saying that philosophers have been divided over this issue for as long as humans have been keeping record and you cannot be expected to resolve the dispute in a few short pages. Your instructor knows that. But you can be expected to take a clear stand based on an evaluation of the argument(s) presented. Go out on a limb. If you have argued well, it will support you.
- Cuteness. Good philosophical writing usually has an air of simple dignity about it. Your topic is no joke. No writers whose views you have been asked to read are idiots. (If you think they are, then you have not understood them.) Name calling is inappropriate and could never substitute for careful argumentation anyway.
- Begging the question. You are guilty of begging the question (or circular reasoning) on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it. Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion - the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion - that abortion is morally wrong - will not accept Smith's premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
- When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct.
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR WRITING YOUR PHILOSOPHY PAPER
- Organize carefully. Before you start to write make an outline of how you want to argue. There should be a logical progression of ideas - one that will be easy for the reader to follow. If your paper is well organized, the reader will be led along in what seems a natural way. If you jump about in your essay, the reader will balk. It will take a real effort to follow you, and he or she may feel it not worthwhile. It is a good idea to let your outline simmer for a few days before you write your first draft. Does it still seem to flow smoothly when you come back to it? If not, the best prose in the world will not be enough to make it work.
- Use the right words. Once you have determined your outline, you must select the exact words that will convey your meaning to the reader. A dictionary is almost essential here. Do not settle for a word that (you think) comes close to capturing the sense you have in mind. Notice that "infer" does not mean "imply"; "disinterested" does not mean "uninterested"; and "reference" does not mean either "illusion" or "allusion." Make certain that you can use "its" and "it's" correctly. Notice that certain words such as "therefore," "hence," "since," and "follows from" are strong logical connectives. When you use such expressions you are asserting that certain tight logical relations hold between the claims in question. You had better be right. Finally, check the spelling of any word you are not sure of. There is no excuse for "existance" appearing in any philosophy essay.
- Support your claims. Assume that your reader is constantly asking such questions as "Why should I accept that?" If you presuppose that he or she is at least mildly skeptical of most of your claims, you are more likely to succeed in writing a paper that argues for a position. Most first attempts at writing philosophy essays fall down on this point. Substantiate your claims whenever there is reason to think that your critics would not grant them.
- Give credit. When quoting or paraphrasing, always give some citation. Indicate your indebtedness, whether it is for specific words, general ideas, or a particular line of argument. To use another writer's words, ideas, or arguments as if they were your own is to plagiarize. Plagiarism is against the rules of academic institutions and is dishonest. It can jeopardize or even terminate your academic career. Why run that risk when your paper is improved (it appears stronger not weaker) if you give credit where credit is due? That is because appropriately citing the works of others indicates an awareness of some of the relevant literature on the subject.
- Anticipate objections. If your position is worth arguing for, there are going to be reasons which have led some people to reject it. Such reasons will amount to criticisms of your stand. A good way to demonstrate the strength of your position is to consider one or two of the best of these objections and show how they can be overcome. This amounts to rejecting the grounds for rejecting your case, and is analogous to stealing your enemies' ammunition before they have a chance to fire it at you. The trick here is to anticipate the kinds of objections that your critics would actually raise against you if you did not disarm them first. The other challenge is to come to grips with the criticisms you have cited. You must argue that these criticisms miss the mark as far as your case is concerned, or that they are in some sense ill-conceived despite their plausibility. It takes considerable practice and exposure to philosophical writing to develop this engaging style of argumentation, but it is worth it.
- Edit boldly. I have never met a person whose first draft of a paper could not be improved significantly by rewriting. The secret to good writing is rewriting - often. Of course it will not do just to reproduce the same thing again. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts - not because ideas have been left out, but because words have been cut out as ideas have been clarified. Every word that is not needed only clutters. Clear sentences do not just happen. They are the result of tough-minded editing.
There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points. For help in these matters (and we all need reference works in these areas) I recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser's, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone through several editions. More advanced students might do well to read Philosophical Writing: An Introduction, by A.P. Martinich.
Some final words should be added about proofreading. Do it. Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out.
In general terms, do not be content simply to get your paper out of your hands. Take pride in it. Clear writing reflects clear thinking; and that, after all, is what you are really trying to show.
WRITING A PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAY
1. You want to start your paper off with a clear statement of the question at hand. Not only should the question be stated clearly, but it is a good idea in the first paragraph or two to give a good clear statement as to how you are going to answer the question, i.e., what approach to the question you intend to take.
2. State your position and defend your answer. The main core of your paper should consist of a defense of the answer you gave. You should carefully define your position (so as to avoid possible misunderstandings) and defend it with reasons, relevant information and arguments.
3. If the paper is in response to a prompt, you will want to use the prompt as your outline, as your guide. Be sure that you answer the question that is asked! A tightly focused paper is always preferable.
4. Identify and formulate the strongest potential objection(s) to your position. Respond to the objection(s) and show how it/they aren't strong enough to refute your position. (This applies primarily to papers of 4 or more pages.)
It is essential that your paper be well organized.
1. There should be a clear thesis statement at the beginning that serves as a road map through your paper.
2. Every paragraph should be directly related to your thesis and should follow the road map put forth in your thesis.
3. The paper should flow smoothly and each paragraph be logically linked to the previous. Guide the reader through as clearly and carefully as possible. BE KIND TO YOUR READER!
4. Each paragraph should be fully developed and deal with only one topic. Beware of anemic paragraphs of only one or two sentences. Chances are, these will be underdeveloped.
5. The conclusion should serve as a wrap up, in which you make it clear that the stated goals in the thesis have been met.
DEFINITION OF CONCEPTS
It is crucial that important concepts are clearly defined, especially when you are dealing with topics in which there is some disagreement as to what some term might mean. Just consider the disagreement over what it means to be a person in the abortion debate!
WRITING AND REWRITING
Revising your paper is the most important thing you can do in making it a better paper. Never turn in a first draft!! After writing your first draft, put it down for a day or two, then go back and read it again--critically. Revision should be done for more than just grammatical and spelling errors. Don't be afraid of massive revision. Sometimes it may be necessary to trash entire chunks of the paper, to rearrange paragraphs or to add new material. It is a good idea to let someone else read your paper critically to see if they understand it. If possible, it is a better idea to have your instructor read the paper and make suggestions.
It is often difficult to actually begin a paper with an outline. However, once a draft is actually written, it is quite easy to go back and outline it. Do this. It will give you a sketch of the paper and help you check the paper's organization. Here is an example of a very general outline. (The number of points/arguments may vary from paper to paper.)
I. Introduction. (Should include a clear statement of the problem and the approach to be taken in the essay.)
A. Reason/Argument 1 supporting your position.
B. Reason/Argument 2 supporting your position.
C. Reason/Argument 3 supporting your position.
III. Strongest challenge(s) to your position.
IV. Reasons/arguments that show why the strongest challenge doesn't show your position to be incorrect.
Academic integrity demands that whenever you utilize an idea or quotation that is not your own, you must acknowledge the source of that idea or quotation. Different instructors have different preferences for citing sources. Any generally acceptable method is okay with me. However, I will offer one simple method.
QUOTING FROM THE TEXT
When you are citing a text, it is acceptable, when quoting or paraphrasing, to cite the author and page number parenthetically. For example, if you were quoting Pojman's article on affirmative action from Beauchamp and Bowie, it might look like this:
As Pojman defines it, "Prejudice is a discrimination based on irrelevant grounds" (Pojman, 375).
Then on a separate bibliographical page at the end of your essay, you would have:
Pojman, Louis P., "The Moral Status of Affirmative Action" as it appears in Ethical Theory and Business, 5th edition, Tom L. Beauchamp and Norman E. Bowie, editors. Prentice Hall, 1997, pp. 374-379.
Then if you cite another article from Beauchamp and Bowie, say Nagel on affirmative action, your citation in the text might look like:
As Nagel says, "Affirmative action is not an end in itself, but a means of dealing with a social situation that should be intolerable to us all" (Nagel, 374).
Then on your bibliographical page, since this is the second citation (alphabetically by author of the article) from Beauchamp and Bowie you would have:
Nagel, Thomas, "A Defense of Affirmative Action", as it appears in Beauchamp and Bowie, pp. 370-374.
Here is another example that might appear on your bibliographical page:
Gutek, Barbara A. "Sexual Harassment: Rights and Responsibilities," as it appears in Ethics in the Workplace, Edward J. Ottensmeyer and Gerald D. McCarthy, eds. McGraw-Hill, 1996.
When citing this essay in the text, you would cite it parenthetically with the author's name just as you would do according to the previous example.
If you are citing a text written by one author as opposed to an anthology, an example of how your citation should look is as follows:
Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
Again, you would cite the author and page number parenthetically in the text.
Note: If you have two citations by the same author, you should include the year of publication in your parenthetical citation. For example, if you had two bibliographical references to works by Sissela Bok, you would cite the one above like this: (Bok 1978, 23).
Note again: When you cite a source, you must give sufficient information for the reader to go directly to the cited page. If the page you cite is a web page, then you should write the full URL of the document you are citing from. For example, if you were citing from an online copy of John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, your text would look like this:
The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. (Mill, Chapter 2)
Then on your bibliographical page, you might have:
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter Two, from: http://www.library.adelaide.edu.au/etext/m/m645u/util02.html
Remember, you must cite a source any time you use someone else's idea--even if you are paraphrasing that idea. Things that are considered "common knowledge" do not need to be cited.
GENERAL TIPS ON WRITING
In the real world, how you express yourself is as important as what you say. Careful expression is especially important in philosophy, where problems frequently arise because of imprecise language. I offer this handout as an aid to more effective philosophical writing.
Writing is always a struggle for people. In the real world, the way you write the things you say is just as important as what you have to say. It is an undeniable truth that this is especially important in philosophy, where, frequently, people have problems because you are not being precise enough. This handout is offered with this in mind.
1. Write with an ignorant (but not stupid) reading in mind. Ask yourself, "Would this paper be intelligible to someone outside of the course?" Keep clarifying what you've written until the answer is "yes."
2. Have a clear thesis in mind. Express it in one or two sentences, preferably at the beginning of your paper. Furthermore, have a definite plan in mind for the steps you will take to prove your thesis (preferably in the form of an outline).
3. Cut to the chase. Students tend to spend too much time "throat clearing"at the beginning of essays. Often, the first few paragraphs of an essay can be deleted without any loss in content (and with a corresponding gain in effectiveness). In other words, eliminate fluff for more effective writing.
4. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. Each paragraph should express one and only one main idea. Keep them short and simple.
5. Summarize your overall argument, even if you don't include the summary in your essay. If, after completing your essay, you can construct a clear outline of your overall argument (either in your head or on paper), chances are you reader can, too. If not, your argument is likely either confused or unclear. (This point relates to (1) and (2)).
6. Make your transitions clear. For example, consider the opening phrases of six successive paragraphs from Charles Landesman's Philosophy: An Introduction to the Central Issues: An argument against hedonism was developed by G. E. Moore.... The hedonist has two responses to Moore. First... Second....
Another argument against hedonism....
The hedonist replies....
Thus hedonism is not refuted....
Without even seeing the essay, we know where the author is going and how he is getting there. Your reader will appreciate similar clarity. (This example is taken from Martinich's Philosophical Writing (cited at end of handout), p. 97.
7. Don't write anything you yourself don't understand. Although this point seems obvious, consider the following sentence, which I once received in a student's paper:
Aquinas believed that God was omnipotent as Lao Tzu believed that the Tao was omnipotent as Aristotle believed that his Unmoved Mover was the purpose of all things, this in itself is a manifestation of the definition of infinity, for there is no limit to any of their power and energy.
When I asked the student what he meant by "manifestation of the definition of infinity," he couldn't tell me. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that fancy or obscure writing will sound more philosophical. It won't.
8. Avoid using "this" as a pronoun. This is confusing. "What is confusing?", you ask, and rightly so. This practice is confusing. See how much clearer it is to use "this" as an adjective? For another example, consider the student's sentence in (7). When he says "this in itself," does he mean Aquinas's belief, Lao Tzu's belief, Aristotle's belief, the coincidence of all of their beliefs, or something else? He doesn't tell us and we are left confused.
9. Make your pronouns agree with their antecedents. The problem of pronoun-antecedent agreement usually arises when people are trying to be gender inclusive. Consider the following sentences: (a) Everyone should proofread their writing. (b) Everyone should proofread his writing. (c) Everyone should proofread his or her writing. (d) One should proofread one's writing. (e) People should proofread their writing.
(a) is ungrammatical. (b) is grammatical, but gender-exclusive. (c) is both grammatical and gender-inclusive. In long sentences with many pronouns, however, the method employed in (c) can be cumbersome. (Consider: "Everyone should proofread his or her writing when he or she wants others to correctly understand him or her.") Moreover, the fact that the masculine pronoun always precedes the feminine pronoun makes it sound like an afterthought. (d) sounds awkward and pedantic; avoid it. (e) is preferred; it puts the entire construction in the plural, rendering the sentence grammatical, gender-inclusive, and natural-sounding. Another (and increasingly common) option is to alternate between the masculine and feminine; that is, to alternately use (b) and (f) Everyone should proofread her writing.
10. Ixnay on the colloquialisms; they just don't cut it in philosophical writing. Bad: Just what is Descartes smoking here? This guy's out of his tree. Better: I find several problems with Descartes' argument, including....
Also, remember that a calm, rational tone is almost always more effective than a polemical, sarcastic one.
11. Don't be afraid of the first person. One does not care what your fifth grade (or college) English teacher told you on this point. See how pedantic that last sentence sounds? It should read, "I do not care what your fifth grade English (or college) teacher told you on this point," because I don't. Students often write things like, "It will be argued that..." or "My argument will be that...." Such constructions are passive, awkward and wimpy. Own up to your position; say "I will argue that..."
12. Omit unnecessary words. This practice will make your writing more forceful, and will also help you to keep within the prescribed word limits. Less is more. Consider: Weak: From my perspective, it would seem to be the case that Descartes fails to... Better: Descartes fails to...
Weak: I feel that Hume's second premise is faulty. Better: Humes' second premise is faulty. The last example is a case where you should avoid the first person construction simply because of its superfluity. Moreover, stay away from "feel" in philosophical writing.
13. Observe the distinction between "that" and "which" clauses. "That" is restrictive; "which" is not. Consider: (a) The theory of forms that Plato expounds should be rejected. (b) The theory of forms, which Plato expounds, should be rejected.
(a) claims only that Plato's theory of forms should be rejected; it leaves open the possibility that someone else's might be acceptable. The use of the "that" clause in (a) restricts the scope of "theory of forms." (b), on the other hand, makes the general claim that any theory of forms should be rejected, adding the additional fact that Plato expounded this theory. People often use "which" when they want "that"; therefore, go which-hunting when you proofread. (If you find this rule confusing, try substituting "that" every time you write "which" and see if the substitution sounds right. If so, then you probably want "that").
14. Don't misuse the thesaurus. Ideally the thesaurus should remind you of words you already know, not provide you with words you've never heard of. If you are unsure of the precise meaning of a word, avoid it, or at least look it up in the dictionary. A student once intended to covey, "I saw the deer dance across the field," but thought that "dance" was too ordinary, so instead he borrowed "mazurka" from the thesaurus. As it turns out, a mazurka is a Polish folk dance.
15. Avoid category mistakes. Consider:
Berkeley ponders the truth of both his mind and the environment. The Meditations also believes in this position. He protested Bush's election for taking a strong stand on abortion.
"Minds" and "environments" cannot be true or false; propositions about them can. Books don't believe in positions, their authors do. Elections don't take stands; candidates do. Make sure your words fit together sensibly.
16. Proofread for cogency. Anticipate objections to your arguments, and deal with those objections in your essay. Your writing will be stronger as a result. When you proofread, constantly ask yourself, "Does this make sense" Is the argument airtight? What will my teacher say?" In other words, try to pre-grade your essay and then revise it in light of your own comments. Critiquing your own work often works best after putting the essay aside for a day or two. And, most importantly, be sure that your essay addresses the assigned topic.
17. Proofread for grammatical mistakes. (Notice that spell checkers aren't full proof (sic).) Have a friend read your essay to pick out typos and missing words. (If you make a mistake in the first place, there's a chance you will read over it during proofreading.)
18. Follow the specific instructions given by your teacher, even if you think they're nitpicky. Why needlessly annoy the person grading your essay? For the purposes of this class I expect the following: NUMBER your pages. STAPLE your pages. Leave reasonable MARGINS. NEVER use plastic report covers. Observe the required PAGE LIMITS. DON'T RIGHT JUSTIFY. Include your name only on a SEPARATE LAST PAGE. Keep a HARD COPY of all work handed in.
(Note: The "General Tips on Writing" are courtesy of John Corvino, The University of Texas at Austin.)
For more information, I recommend the following books:
A. P. Martinich, Philosophical Writing, (Prentice Hall, 1989)
William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style (Macmillan, 1979)
Kate Turabian, A Manual For Writing Term Papers (University of Chicago Press, 1996)