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Tips on Writing Academic Essays in Philosophy

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Tips on Writing Academic Essays in Philosophy By  W. Martin Davies

While 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: 

  • Week 1 for research and writing the first draft; 

  • Week 2 for "laying down" time (you can still do additional research during this period);

  • Week 3 for correcting and revising the first draft; 

  • Week 4 for correcting and polishing the penultimate draft.

NB: 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.

WHAT NOT TO DO:

1. Don't write for your lecturer!

This may 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).

2. Don't merely reproduce what you think the lecturer wants

This might 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.

3. Don't leave the essay to the last minute

The academic 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.

4. Don't be a soloist-use others for support

Flying 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 help you.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD:

1. Write for an imaginary audience

Imagine 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.

2. Ask yourself questions about the paper

Ask yourself 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.

3. Recognize the need for redrafting

You'd never 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.

4. 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.

5. Give reasons for what you say

One of 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. 

6. Apply what you learn from lectures to how you argue and reason in essays

Try to 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.

7. Be clear about the expectations of different "academic tribes"

A good 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.

 8. Always be relevant

Always 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.

9. Coherence

Plan your 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.

10. Make it clear at the outset what you are arguing for or against

Papers 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.

11. Clarity and Precision

This is 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. 

A few tips:

  • Never 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 be penalized.
  • Take 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. 
  • Don't 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.  
  • Attempt 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. 

12. Show independence of mind

You will 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.

13. 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.

14. Don't be scared of following the argument to its conclusion

Good essays 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.

15. Genuine originality

This is 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.

16. Don't go over the word limit

Part of 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 topic.

17. Acknowledgment

In all 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.

18. Type it up

The best 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.

19. Leave a large margin and double space the text

Leave a 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.

20. Enjoy yourself!

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.
 
 
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