Tips on Writing
Academic Essays in Philosophy By W.
essays are used for the purpose of assessment, they are
also centrally an opportunity for you to learn. You will
enjoy doing them and benefit from them most only if you
articulate your thinking as fully and as clearly as possible.
Take your essays seriously. To do a good job, make sure
you allow at least 4 weeks to complete an essay:
1 for research and writing the first draft;
2 for "laying down" time (you can still do additional
research during this period);
3 for correcting and revising the first draft;
4 for correcting and polishing the penultimate draft.
An "perfect" essay is a regulative ideal-it doesn't exist
in reality. None of us can write a perfect essay,
but that doesn't mean that we can't get better and better
at trying. That's what professional academics do too. Like
them, the more work that you put into writing essays, the
more you will improve, both in terms of style and substance.
NOT TO DO:
Don't write for your lecturer!
seem odd, but it is sound advice. When writing an essay do
not think of yourself as writing for assessment, or for a
highly scholastic reader such as your lecturer. If you do
this, you will probably only tend to make yourself nervous
and imagine that you should be writing to criteria which do
not, in fact, apply to you. You might imagine that the lecturer/tutor
already knows a lot about the subject (probably a very generous
assumption!) and that therefore you can leave out details
and write in a super-sophisticated manner. This approach,
unfortunately, will generally produce incomprehensible essays.
The result of this strategy, inevitably, is a poor grade and
much misery. Who then should you write for? (See 'Write for
an imaginary audience' below).
Don't merely reproduce what you think the lecturer wants
also seem odd. Essays are not, however, exercises in reproducing
and rehashing "correct" answers; unlike exams, for example.
Essays test your ability to question and criticize things-including
the ideas of your lecturers-and to show that you can develop
a coherent counter-arguments and bring forward additional
evidence. Some lecturers take great delight in reading criticisms
of their own ideas; especially good, well-argued criticisms.
Don't leave the essay to the last minute
essay is a very difficult genre. Writing essays requires considerable
abilities in reasoning, scholarship and literacy. It takes
time and effort to do a good job. Rushing it will virtually
ensure that you won't make the grade.
Don't be a soloist-use others for support
solo can be lonely and miserable. You may be convinced that
you know exactly what to do and don't need help. However,
collaborative scholarship occurs at the highest levels. Form
a study group, share your work and take advice from others.
Your work can only benefit from the input of others. The Study
Skills Centre also has experts who are ready and willing to
TO DO INSTEAD:
Write for an imaginary audience
yourself writing for an intelligent, friendly, but uniformed
audience, to whom you are being asked to explain the matters
at hand (whatever they may be). Imagine yourself being asked
to address the Year 12 class at a local high school, for example.
In this way you will feel the necessity of being clear and
systematic in a way that does not produce anxiety in you.
This strategy does, of course, involve a slight fiction, but
it does also serve to indicate to you the criteria which lecturers
and tutors marking papers at first or second year level often
use. They will ask themselves: "Is this essay clear?", "Does
it communicate the ideas well?", etc.
Ask yourself questions about the paper
after you have written a paper: "How much could I, if I were
in that Year 12 class, learn from reading this essay?". "How
could I have made certain points more obvious and clear?".
"Does this point follow from the previous one?" You might
like to assume that your audience is, by nature, a skeptical
one: you should imagine that you need to be convincing in
the material you are presenting. This will also help in making
for a better piece of work.
Recognize the need for redrafting
present a difficult idea to a Year 12 audience successfully
on the first attempt. You will need to redraft your work carefully.
Such a procedure helps you to recognize lack of precision
in your paper, and this help you to improve your writing.
Indirectly, of course, it assists you in a better understanding
of the topic or issue you are presenting. You may find that
you will need to rework and revise your essay several times.
Indeed you may never be entirely happy with your efforts.
You will just have to do the best you can. But, equally, don't
get depressed about the process. Remember: there's no such
thing as a "perfect" essay.
Use lots of examples
It is critically
important to make use of examples. The more difficult or subtle
a point is, the more useful it is to use an example or an
analogy to illustrate. You might like to think of examples
yourself, or you might draw them from the texts that you happen
to be reading, but wherever they come from, an example will
always help your imaginary Year 12 audience-and your lecturer-understand
what you are trying to say.
Give reasons for what you say
the essential things about essay writing generally is that
it is an enterprise where an attempt is made to answer certain
questions by careful and rigorous reasoning and detailed argumentation.
The student should not rely on tradition, authority (including
that of a lecturer), faith or hunch, and he/she should distrust
bold assertions for which no reasons or arguments are given.
The true student should not be dogmatic and always willing
to evaluate arguments for or against a view and arrive at
a conclusion based on his/her deliberations. No simple instructions
can be given as to how to reason rigorously, or to present
good arguments. This comes with practice. But make sure you
always give reasons for what you say. Don't just assert things.
Apply what you learn from lectures to how you argue and
reason in essays
apply what you learn from the lecturers and from the way points
of view are argued in class in the presentation of your essays.
Classes model the kind of thinking required in essays. Sometimes
these models are not as good as they should be, but they are
models nonetheless. If necessary, seek the assistance of books
on logical methods and critical thinking in your subject area.
Learn to recognize "good" arguments and "bad" ones; be aware
of the many informal fallacies that are commonly made in writing
and speech. When required, isolate these in your essays and
evaluate them in as much detail as you can. When you think
that a particularly bad argument is being used to support
a certain position, criticize it forcefully using these techniques
of reasoning and analysis.
Be clear about the expectations of different "academic tribes"
essay in one subject is not necessarily a good essay in another.
Science essays are not written in the same manner as subjects
in the liberal arts, for example. But there are variations
within faculty areas too. In philosophy essays, for example,
there should be no emphasis on the artistic quality of the
language in the texts under discussion (as there might be
in English) and the treatment of the history of ideas or the
lives of philosophers should be eschewed (unlike in History
essays, for example). However, the point of most essays is
to try to solve a certain problem. The aim of an essay is
to try to come to a satisfactory understanding and resolution
of these problems and the assumptions underpinning them. The
conceptual tool used in this process is the evaluation of
arguments by clear and precise methods of reasoning. However,
what each subject regards as reasoning, and the methods of
reasoning used, can also vary. Become informed of these different
methods and use them in your essays. You will eventually get
the idea with practice and application, though, for a time,
the exercise will be difficult and even seem foreign to you.
Always be relevant
stick to the point when you are writing an essay. For example,
if you are asked to "critically assess" such-and-such a position
or argument, or to discuss a view, you should give a brief
statement of the positions or arguments concerned, then get
on with a consideration of arguments for or against that view.
Don't waste time with bibliographical sketches of the proponents
of the position to be discussed, or the historical details
of the development of the view. If you refer to the views
of some writer on the position or argument you are discussing,
make sure that you keep to those views which really bear in
on the matter in hand. Don't take time off to sketch his/her
whole theory. Expunge all unnecessary information that might
clutter the first draft of your essay: get rid of repetition,
literary frills and fancies, side issues, unargued points
about the lecturer's preferences for a certain theory etc.
Also, get rid of any obscurity (see 'Clarity and Precision'
below.) In an overall sense, attempt to be as brief and succinct
as possible and concentrate what detail you do provide on
your central arguments and/or criticisms of other arguments.
Make these detailed points powerfully.
essay so that your reader will always know where he/she is
being led, and how what you say at any point fits into your
overall theme. The reader should never have to ask themselves
how a paragraph in your essay relates to what you had been
saying in a previous section. You might even use headings,
sub-headings, numbered paragraphs, etc., as a way of making
clear how your points are to be understood. Another good way
of doing this is to use "signposts" in your essays which have
the effect of guiding your reader through the points that
you are making. Examples of this are expressions like "Following
from this point..", "Given this argument ...", and paragraph
starters like, "Firstly", "Secondly", and "Thirdly" etc. Making
deliberate use of signposts will also help you gather your
thoughts on the essay topic. This is a most useful technique,
and lecturers look for it in your essays.
Make it clear at the outset what you are arguing for or
are almost always satisfactory when beginning with a clear
statement of the position or argument that you are to discuss.
Always make it clear at the outset whether you propose to
attack or defend that position or argument-and indeed, always
indicate your position in regard to any argument that you
set down for discussion. These points may seem obvious, but
they are frequently neglected. Try to get into the habit of
paying attention to them; it is a necessary skill not just
in doing essay writing, but in general communication.
Clarity and Precision
critically important: it constitutes reasons for passing or
failing essays. One simply cannot write essays well without
being clear and precise with one's expression.
use words in essays that you only half understand. Technical
terms such as "monism", "dualism" "a priori" etc should
all be explained and used consistently. Inconsistency
will be noticed and corrected. Also, be aware of the many
different positions that can be held under general technical
labels. Don't make uninformed statements about such terminology,
because you may be quite wrong. The claim "all monists
are physicalists" is wrong in the case of Hegel's
philosophy, for instance. If in doubt, look up such words
in a dictionary or an encyclopedia. To the extent that
it displays misunderstanding, lack of familiarity can
pains with your expression of the English language. Academic
discipline emphasizes a detailed and fine-grained used
of language as the only way that its subject matter can
be profitably discussed, so make sure that you use it
well. This applies particularly to simple matters like
that of punctuation, grammar and syntax. (Compare the
meanings of "Charles I walked and talked five minutes
after his head was cut off" and "Charles I walked and
talked. Five minutes after his head was cut off".) Bad
expression at this level of study often makes for serious
obscurity, so be careful. You are expected to be reasonably
literate before entering university; it is also expected
that you demonstrate this familiarity with language in
your essays. Failure to do so can influence grades.
try to impress by using complicated words and sentences.
This is most annoying for your reader. Strive for simple,
uncluttered and clear expression. Some of the texts that
you will be reading are hardly good examples of clarity
and precision. This can't be helped in some cases when
you might be consulting texts from distant history where
language use has changed, and where translation from a
foreign language can effect clarity. It is less excusable
in the case of contemporary writing. However, do not attempt
to emulate obscure, convoluted or technical professional
writing. You could do better to avoid secondary texts
which confuse you, and find other material which is more
accessible. For your purposes, the exercise is to explain
the subject matter of your essay in a manner which is
comfortable and familiar to you. If an issue is complex,
try to make it simple by choosing your words and phrases
carefully. You will be surprised at how difficult it is
to do this. Nonetheless aim to do it perfectly. Unclear
expression results in a lower grade.
to be precise about what you mean at all times.
Make sure that you know exactly what position you are
arguing for or against. Much time is wasted on arguments
for or against a proposition that sounds much like, but
is actually different from, the proposition that you are
supposed to be concerned with. The conclusion in your
essay should mirror the precision in your arguments. Make
sure you don't get confused about what your arguments
demonstrate, and so, offer a conclusion which does not,
in fact, follow from those arguments. (An example might
be that arguments which refute dualism thereby support
physicalism, where in fact they might support something
else entirely). Ambiguities of these kinds occur
frequently in academia, and you should constantly be on
guard against them. Failure to recognize and avoid them
results in a lower grade.
Show independence of mind
be expected to give your own considered opinion on the issue(s)
discussed in your essay. You must try to make up your own
mind on the question, even if your conclusions are only tentative.
This may cause you some difficulty. You may find certain arguments
cause you to rethink long-held (unargued/assumed) views on
an issue. It may be that they cause some conflicts with other
beliefs incidental to these views. Don't be afraid of this
metamorphosis, but equally important don't allow it to happen
in the course of your essay. Be consistent in the conclusion
you are aiming for, look at it from a number of angles and
try to defend it from attack from other arguments. The situation
may arise, of course, where you are just not sure which of
two conflicting views is correct, and cannot come down to
either one side or the other. In this case, you should consider
the conflicting views as best you can, and then show why you
personally regard the reasons for both being equally valid.
Use the work of others-but always use your own words
It is not
adequate merely to summarize the views of the lecturer, or
one or more of the authors you have looked at, though these
will no doubt influence your conclusions. Do not merely reproduce
the views of some author in their own words. This, on its
own, is never adequate and if an essay contained no more than
a section lifted straight from a reference book, the essay
would fail badly. On the other hand, this does not mean that
one cannot use quotations from texts. One can make moderate
use of quotations to good effect in essays, but one should
always use them only having put forward the view in your own
words, or after having explained the meaning of the quotation
as you understand it. Never use quotations for anything more
than an additional articulation of the position that you support
or do not support, and never try to "prove" anything by an
appeal to someone else-it is simply not good scholarship.
Don't be scared of following the argument to its conclusion
are not merely a documentation of certain positions in regard
to a particular issue. You are expected to think through some
varied perspectives on a topic and come to some conclusion.
The conclusion may be conventional, or even turn out quite
bizarre and unconventional. It may also-though it is highly
unlikely-be original (see 'Genuine originality' below). The
thing that will be assessed, is whether your arguments and
reasons have been carefully worked through, and whether you
have demonstrated an understanding of problems in the area.
Your conclusion will be evaluated in terms of how well it
follows from your arguments and your reasons for them.
rare in academia and much prized. Lecturers and tutors do
not, of course, demand of you that you produce answers to
problems that no-one has ever though of before. Originality
is not expected of you. If you believe, however, that you
have a genuinely original position to take on a topic-a completely
unconventional approach-you would certainly do best to put
it forward after you have given reasons for dismissing the
more conventional approaches. Further, you will have to give
reasons for why your own approach should be considered. Certainly,
any grandiose claims on your part will require substantial
logical and conceptual defense. Bold assertions of originality
will be scrutinized very carefully, so be extremely careful
what you are claiming. A word of warning: If you are going
to take this line in writing your essays, you had better have
your tracks covered. Make sure that you have read all you
can on the subject (including journal articles) before you
claim that a particular position is your own.
Don't go over the word limit
the whole exercise of writing an essay is to test your capacity
to argue cogently for a certain position within a certain
word limit. Most people could make a fair go at arguing for
some point of view if they had an unlimited time frame and
no bounds on the length of the document. But even so, quantity
never equals quality: a long essay is not necessarily a better
one. Long manuscripts are often 90% waffle and 10% content:
Don't spread yourself "miles wide but only inches deep". Learn
to be your own worst critic, and prune your essay heavily
if it does not, in your view, make the points convincingly,
or if the content seems "scatter-brained" and confused. (Use
the "imaginary audience test" above.) You may even like to
swap essays with someone else who is writing on a different
topic, for a fresh appraisal of the relevance of your essay.
Collaborative scholarship is an excellent way of improving
your writing and understanding of an area. It is a procedure
which goes on at the highest level of research at all academic
institutions, so don't think that it wouldn't be useful to
you. Someone with a fresh approach to your essay, might challenge
you to revise what you actually thought was relevant to the
essay writing you must show the sources from which you have
obtained material. If you use a point from another author,
in that author's words, you must use quotation marks, and
provide a footnote (or endnote) specifying the author, the
work and the page number. This also applies when you paraphrase
a writer's work. In addition, all books which you use in your
essay, should be listed in a bibliography at the end of your
essay. If you are in doubt about how to compile bibliographies
or set out footnotes or want to know how to use scholarly
abbreviations (ibid., loc. cit., op. cit.) make sure that
you have a look at some of the many style manuals that are
available in the library, and the leaflets from the
Study Skills Centre. Make sure that you know what you
are doing. It is not a difficult procedure to use the correct
methods of acknowledgment and it is best to get into good
scholarly habits early in your university training.
Type it up
way to present an essay is to type it, or better still, word
process it on a computer. This ensures that it is clean and
legible for the person that is to mark it, and makes it look
more professional as well. If you do not have access to a
typewriter, you will need to produce a neat handwritten manuscript.
The content is really the most important thing in an academic
essay, though obviously the presentation of a paper does count.
Presentation does influence your overall grade.
Leave a large margin and double space the text
wide margin on your papers. If the person marking your essay
is to have the opportunity to help you with comments, then
you must leave room for him/her to do so. This is also true
for double spacing which has the added advantage of making
your essay easier to read. There's nothing more irritating
for a lecturer with 50 essays to mark than to come across
a single-spaced essay with virtually no margins. Double space
the text, leave ample margins on each page, and provide a
blank page at the end of your essay for comments.
As we said
at the outset, the essay is used for assessment but is also
an opportunity for you to learn. Make sure you enjoy the process
of essay writing. Don't leave things to the last minute, take
lots of breaks, discuss your work with others, and do the
best job you can.