Tips for writing a philosophy paper

Over on Twitter, Helen de Cruz asked: “Can anyone give me examples of philosophers (preferably recently) who have argued that philosophy’s all about argument–that stuff like emotions, moods, the beauty of writing, doesn’t matter to philosophical work and might even be distracting?”

I suggested that this comes out more in teaching than in written philosophy. It’s almost— but not quite— something I say in the page of writing advice that I hand out along with the first paper assignment in courses that I teach.1

This advice has been through lots of revisions.2

  1. Be as clear as possible. It is fine to try to write beautifully, persuasively, and concisely. If these ever conflict with clarity, though, let clarity win.
  2. Your paper should hang together as a unified whole.
    It should not be a variety-pack of ideas and arguments that end up stapled together by coincidence. The direction of discussion in the paper should flow from the beginning, where you say clearly what you are doing; to the middle, where you consider arguments for and against the position you are advancing; to the end, where you summarize the action. (You might find it easier to do this if you write the introduction last!)
  3. Provide a roadmap.
    The reader should always be able to tell what a given point or paragraph is doing in your paper. It may seem unsubtle to say, for instance, “There are two possible objections to this position. First… Second…” Nevertheless, clarity should win out over subtlety.
  4. Avoid overblown rhetoric.
    Do not say that “everyone has always worried about such-and-so” or that it “has plagued man since the beginning of time.”
  5. Make arguments and give reasons.
    Do not just assert that something is such-and-so if someone might disagree with you. Offer reasons for thinking that it is such-and-so. Similarly, try to imagine why a person might disagree with you. Are there weaknesses in your claims or obvious objections to your arguments? If so, do not try to cover it up. Consider how you might answer the objection.
  6. Expect your paper to need revision.
    After writing it, read it to yourself. Reading aloud can be helpful. If a passage seems tortured, ask yourself how you might say the same thing in different words. When you clear up your prose, you are refining your ideas at the same time.
  7. Do not forget to spell-check, but do not use it as an excuse not to edit. The squiggly red lines will not save you from using the wrong word.
  8. Use quotations.
    Quotations are a potent tool for just those points where you are attributing a contentious claim to an author. They are best used where the reader might disagree or misunderstand.
  9. Do not use quotations just to bulk up your paper.
    You do not need quotations for every point you make.
    A succession of long quotations with little or no explanation does not explain the author’s views— it merely repeats them. You should explain what you take to be the meaning of each substantial quotation, either before or after quoting it. As a rule of thumb, your discussion of something in your own words should be at least as long as a quotation you use to underscore the same point.
  10. Acknowledge sources.
    Include references to works that you quote, paraphrase, or otherwise reference. This means giving both a citation for the book or article and also referring to specific page numbers or sections as appropriate.
    If your thinking is sparked by someone or something else, either include it among the references or in an `acknowledgements’ section at the end of the paper.
    Do not cite class as an authority about what is said in the text. Instead, refer to the text itself.
  11. Be conscious of gendered language.
    It’s the 21st-century. If you use “man” or “mankind” to mean everybody, you’ll sound both pompous and sexist. If you make up an example to illustrate a point, it’s OK for the person in the example to be “he” — but if you have two people in your examples, at least consider making one “she”.
  12. In philosophy, it is OK to use the first person.
    Some disciplines adopt a third-person style so as to sound objective. In philosophy, it is sometimes just clearer to say “I argue…”. Writing in the third person (“One my argue…”) can make it unclear to the reader whether the argument is being endorsed in the paper or only entertained for a moment.
  1. I suppose I don’t actually argue that philosophy should privilege argument over beautiful writing. Rather, I just assert it.
  2. My first version, 16 years ago, was based on writing advice that was used in the Bowdoin College department where I had my first job after grad school. I had just three subheads then, one of which was Make Arguments, Give Reasons. Five years ago, I shared what was then the current version on my old blog.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.