Writing Philosophy Papers

HOW TO WRITE A GOOD PAPER

1. SLOW DOWN.

2. BREATHE.

3. THINK (about what you are writing, please).

4. Write clearly. Use well formed English sentences and check your spelling. Use your spell checker, but don't depend on it. Spell checkers can't make subtle distinctions between homonyms or homophones. If you have a college level vocabulary, your spell checker won't know every word you want to use either. Get a good dictionary and use it.

5. Part of what it means to write well is to find your own "voice" as a writer. Written English is different from spoken English in that when you communicate in written English, you do not have the benefit of having the person with whom you are communicating right before you. In conversation, because of interpersonal dynamics and non-verbal communication, one can get away with a lot more vagueness and ambiguity in what one says. Clues like gestures and tone of voice can tip off your partner as to what you mean. In written English things are not so easy. You are not present, so you cannot rely on implication and nonverbal methods of communication to get your point across. You must write clearly and concisely, and choose your words very carefully to convey the full sense of what you want to say and how you want to say it. You cannot take your reader's understanding for granted. If you write English the way that you speak English, you are doing just that. Your paper will be vague and hard to follow. When you write, be aware of the difference between spoken and written English.

6. Avoid excessively flowery language and rhetorical flourish. Everybody loves the icing on birthday cakes but who wants an entire cake made of icing? Style is great but substance is much more important.

7. Be sure to define any technical terms you use so that the reader has an idea what you mean by them when you use them. Don't take your reader's understanding for granted. This does NOT mean that dictionaries and encyclopedias should be used as substantive sources for your paper. Although they are easy to use, dictionary and encyclopedia entries are quite frequently too shallow to be of any real use. Dependence upon dictionaries and encyclopedias looks amateurish and shallow too. Use real sources produced by professionals in the relevant field whenever you write a scholarly paper.

8. Avoid vagueness in all aspects of your paper. Overdependence on similes and metaphors and improper use of pronouns will cloud your points and make your chain of reasoning hard to follow. Sometimes ideas are hard to put into words but this doesn't mean that you should not try. If you don't even attempt to explain your ideas then the reader (the instructor) will assume that you don't know what you're talking about.

9. Support your positions well. Organize your paper in such a way that the reader can follow the pattern of reasoning you give for your case without having to read between the lines. Make your points in a clear and unambiguous way and be thorough. Leave no holes in your arguments for others to exploit. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good guide to the basics of argument that may be helpful to you. For more information on how to write a philosophy paper— in particular for information on how to write arguments— see UC Boulder philosopher Michael Tooley's excellent web page on the topic. Other good online resources for the philosophical novice include the web pages of Peter Horban (Simon Fraser University) and James Pryor (Princeton).

For citations, I prefer Chicago/Turabian. You can find a good guide here at the Purdue writing lab website

10. Plan your paper carefully. The use of outlines and other methods of organization will help you stay on track and make your points without wandering off on tangents. Organization and clarity go hand in hand.

11. Take the topic head on. Do not talk around or B.S. the topic. Make sure that you read the topic carefully and follow the instructions completely. The only thing trying to B.S. a professor will accomplish is to make him or her laugh while they drip the red ink on your paper. Try to turn in something that you can be proud of.

12. Start working on the paper as soon as you can. DO NOT wait until the night and/or the morning before the paper is due to begin writing. When you are rushed you will write badly and you will make mistakes. This goes for everyone, including those who say that they need the pressure to work. Pressure may motivate you to work but quality takes time. Give yourself enough time to reread your paper the whole way through, at least once, AND correct any errors that you find. If you are not in the habit of doing this when you write you will be surprised at how many errors you catch, and at how much your paper grades will improve as a result.

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