Writing your essay

Planning and structuring your essay

It is very important that you plan your essay, so that you have an idea of what you are going to write before you start to write it. Of course, you will most likely alter things in later drafts, but you should still start off by having a plan. Planning your essay includes laying out a structure. It is very important that your essay has a clearly discernible structure, ie that it is composed of parts and that these parts are logically connected. This helps both you and your reader to be clear about how your discussion develops, stage by stage, as you work through the issues at hand.

Poor essay structure is one of the most common weaknesses in student philosophy essays. Taking the time to work on the structure of your essay is time well spent, especially since skill in structuring your thoughts for presentation to others should be among the more enduring things you learn at university. A common trap that students fall into is to start their essay by writing the first sentence, then writing another one that seems to follow that one, then another one that sort of fits after that one, then another that might or might not have some connection with the previous one, and so on until the requisite 1,500 words are used up. The result is usually a weak, rambling essay.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules about how to structure a philosophy essay. Again, it is a skill you develop through practice, and much will depend on the particular topic at hand. Nonetheless, it might be helpful to begin by developing an essay structure around the basic distinction between your exposition and your critical discussion (as discussed above). In this it will be important that you make clear who is putting forward which point, that is, make it clear whether you are presenting your own thoughts or are expounding someone else's. (Again, confusion in this regard is a common problem in student essays.) It can often help your structuring if you provide headings for different sections (possibly numbered or lettered). Again, this helps both your reader to follow your discussion and you to develop your thoughts. At each stage, show clearly the logical relations between and the reasons for your points, so that your reader can see clearly why you say what you say and can see clearly the development in your discussion.

Another key to structuring your essay can be found in the old adage "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em. Tell 'em. Then tell 'em what you've told 'em", which provides you with a ready-made structure: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion.

In your Introduction, first introduce the issues the essay is concerned with. In doing so, try to state briefly just what the problem is and (if there is space) why it is a problem. This also applies, of course, to issues covered in text-focused essay topics. Next, tell the reader what it is that you are going to do about those problems in the Main Body. This is usually done by giving a brief sketch or overview of the main points you will present, a "pre-capitulation", so to speak, of your essay's structure. This is one way of showing your reader that you have a grasp (indeed, it helps you get a grasp) of your essay as a structured and integrated whole, and gives them some idea of what to expect by giving them an idea of how you have decided to answer the question. Of course, for reasons of space, your Introduction might not be very long, but something along these lines is likely to be useful.

In your Main Body, do what you've said you'll do. Here is where you should present your exposition(s) and your critical discussion(s). Thus, it is here that the main philosophical substance of your essay is to be found. Of course, what that substance is and how you will present it will depend on the particular topic before you. But, whatever the topic, make clear at each stage just what it is you are doing. You can be quite explicit about this. (eg "I shall now present Descartes' ontological argument for the existence of God, as it is presented in his Fifth Meditation. There will be three stages to this presentation.") Don't think that such explicitness must be a sign of an unsophisticated thinker.

A distinct Conclusion is perhaps not always necessary, if your Main Body has clearly "played out" your argument. So you don't always have to present a grand summation or definitive judgement at the end. Still, often for your own sake, try to state to yourself what it is your essay has achieved and see if it would be appropriate to say so explicitly. Don't feel that you must come up with earth-shattering conclusions. Of course, utter banality or triviality are not good goals, either. Also, your essay doesn't always have to conclude with a "solution" to a problem. Sometimes, simply clarifying an issue or problem is a worthy achievement and can merit first-class honours. A good conclusion to a philosophy essay, then, will usually combine a realistic assessment of the ambit and cogency of its claims with a plausible proposal that those claims have some philosophical substance.

Relevance

What you write in your essay should always be relevant to the question posed. This is another common problem in student essays, so continually ask yourself "Am I addressing the question here?" First-class answers to a question can vary greatly, but you must make sure that your essay responds to the question asked, even if you go on to argue that the question as posed is itself problematic. (eg "To ask ‘What is scientific method?' presupposes that science follows one basic method. However, I shall argue that there are, in fact, several different scientific methods and that these are neither unified nor consistent.") Be wary, however, of twisting a topic too far out of shape in order to fit your favoured theme. (You would be ill-advised, for example, to proceed thus: "What is scientific method? This is a question asked by many great minds. But what is a mind? In this essay, I shall discuss the views of Thomas Aquinas on the nature of mind.")

This requirement of relevance is not intended as an authoritarian constraint on your intellectual freedom. It is part of the skill of paying sustained and focused attention to something put before you - which is one of the most important skills you can develop at university. If you do have other philosophical interests that you want to pursue (such as Aquinas on mind), then please do pursue them, in addition to writing your essay on the set topic. At no stage does the requirement of relevance prevent you from pursuing your other interests.

Citing Philosophical "Authorities"

There might be occasions when you want to quote other philosophers and writers apart from when you are quoting them because they are the subject of your essay. There are two basic reasons why you might want to do this. First, you might quote someone because their words constitute a good or exemplary expression or articulation of an idea you are dealing with, whether as its proponent, critic, or simply its chronicler. (eg "As Nietzsche succinctly put the point, 'There are no moral phenomena at all, only a moral interpretation of phenomena'.*") You may or may not want to endorse the idea whose good expression you have quoted, but simply want to use the philosopher as a spokesperson for or example of that view. But be clear about what you think the quote means and be careful about what you are doing with the quote. It won't do all the work for you.

The second reason you might want to quote a philosopher is because you think their words constitute an "authoritative statement" of a view. Here you want to use the fact that, eg Bertrand Russell maintained that there are two kinds of knowledge of things (namely, knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description) in support of your claim that there are two such kinds of knowledge of things. However, be very careful in doing this, for the nature of philosophical authority is not so simple here. That is to say, what really matters is not that Bertrand Russell the man held that view; what matters are his reasons for holding that view. So, when quoting philosophers for this second reason, be careful that you appreciate in what exactly the authority lies - which means that you should show that you appreciate why Russell maintained that thesis. Of course, you can't provide long arguments for every claim you make or want to make use of; every essay will have its enabling but unargued assumptions. But at least be clear about these. (eg "For the purposes of this essay, I shall adopt Russell's thesis* that ...").

* Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973 [first German ed.1886]), Sec. 108.

* See Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967 [first pub. 1912]), Ch. 5.

Examples

Philosophy is by its nature a relatively abstract and generalising business. (Note that abstractness and generality are not the same thing. Nor do vagueness and obscurity automatically attend them.) Sometimes a longish series of general ideas and abstract reasonings can become difficult for the reader (and often the writer) to follow. It can often help, therefore, to use some concrete or specific examples in your discussion. (Note that there can be different levels of concreteness and specificity in examples.)

Examples can be taken from history, current events, literature, and so on, or can be entirely your own invention. Exactly what examples you employ and just how and why you use them will, of course, depend on the case. Some uses might be: illustration of a position, problem or idea to help make it clearer; evidence for, perhaps even proof of, a proposition; a counter-example; a case-study to be returned to at various points during the essay; or a problem for a theory or viewpoint to be applied to. Again, be clear about what the example is and how and why you use it. Be careful not to get distracted by, or bogged down in, your examples. Brevity is usually best.

English expression

There's another old saying: "If you can't say what you mean, then you can't mean what you say" - and this very much applies to philosophical writing. Thus, in writing philosophically, you must write clearly and precisely. This means that good philosophical writing requires a good grasp of the language in which it is written, including its grammar and vocabulary. (See Section 9.3 for advice for people from non-English speaking backgrounds.) A high standard of writing skills is to be expected of Arts graduates. Indeed, this sort of skill will last longer than your memory of, for example, the three parts of the Platonic soul (though it is also hoped that some of the content of what you study will also stick). So use your time at university (in all your subjects) to develop these skills further.

Having a mastery of a good range of terms, being sensitive to the subtleties of their meaning, and being able to construct grammatically correct and properly punctuated sentences are essential to the clear articulation and development of your thoughts. Think of grammar, not as some old-fashioned set of rules of linguistic etiquette, but rather as the "internal logic" of a sentence, that is, as the relationships between the words within a sentence which enable them to combine to make sense.

Virtually all sentences in philosophical writing are declarative (i.e. make statements), as opposed to interrogative, imperative or exclamatory types of sentences. There is some place, though, for interrogative sentences, ie questions. (Note that, in contrast, this guide, which is not in the essay genre, contains many imperative sentences, i.e. commands.) As you craft each (declarative) sentence in your essay, remember the basics of sentence construction. Make clear what the sentence is about (its subject) and what you are saying about it (the predicate). Make clear what the principal verb is in the predicate, since it is what usually does the main work in saying something about the subject. Where a sentence consists of more than one clause (as many do in philosophical writing), make clear what work each clause is doing. Attend closely, then, to each and every sentence you write so that its sense is clear and is the sense you intend it to have. Think carefully about what it is you want each particular sentence to do (in relation to both those sentences immediately surrounding it and the essay as a whole) and structure your sentence so that it does what you want it to do. To help you with your own sentence construction skills, when reading others' philosophical works (or indeed any writing) attend closely to the construction of each sentence so as to be alive to all the subtleties of the text.

Good punctuation is an essential part of sentence construction. Its role is to help to display the grammar of a sentence so that its meaning is clear. As an example of how punctuation can fundamentally change the grammar and, hence, meaning of a sentence, compare (i) "Philosophers, who argue for the identity of mind and brain, often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." and (ii) "Philosophers who argue for the identity of mind and brain often fail to appreciate the radical consequences of that thesis." In the first sentence it is asserted (falsely, as it happens) that all philosophers argue for the identity of mind and brain; in the second, only some philosophers are said to argue for the identity of mind and brain. Only the punctuation differs in the two strings of identical words, and yet the meanings of the sentences are very different. Confusions over this sort of thing are common weaknesses in student essays, and leave readers asking themselves "What exactly is this student trying to say?"

It will be assumed that you can spell - which is not a matter of pressing the "spell-check" key on a word-processor. A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should always be within reach as you write your essay.

Also, try to shorten and simplify sentences where you can do so without sacrificing the subtlety and inherent complexity of the discussion. Where a sentence is becoming too long or complex, it is likely that too many ideas are being bundled up together too closely. Stop and separate your ideas out. If an idea is a good or important one, it will usually deserve its own sentence.

Your "intra-sentential logic" should work very closely with the "inter-sentential logic" of your essay, ie with the logical relations between your sentences. (This "inter-sentential logic" is what "logic" is usually taken to refer to.) For example, to enable sentences P and Q to work together to yield sentence R as a conclusion, you need to make clear that there are elements within P and Q which connect up to yield R. Consider the following example: "Infanticide is the intentional killing of a human being. However, murder is regarded by all cultures as morally abhorrent. Therefore, people who commit infanticide should be punished." This doesn't work as an argument, because the writer has not constructed sentences which provide the connecting concepts in the various subjects and predicates, even though each sentence is grammatically correct (and possibly even true).

If you are concerned to write not only clearly and precisely, but also with some degree of grace and style (and I hope you are), it's still best to get the clarity and precision right first, in a plain, straightforward way, and then to polish things up afterwards to get the style and grace you want. But don't sacrifice clarity and precision for the sake of style and grace - be prepared to sacrifice that beautiful turn of phrase if its presence is going to send your discussion down an awkward path of reasoning. Aim to hit the nail on the head rather than make a loud bang. What you are likely to find, however, is that a philosophy essay which really is clear and precise will have a large measure of grace and style in its very clarity and precision.

Remember that obscurity is not a sign of profundity. (Some profound thought may well be difficult to follow, but that doesn't mean that one can achieve profundity merely through producing obscure, difficult-to-read writing.) Your marker is interested in what's actually in your essay, not what's possibly inside your head (or indeed what's possibly in some book you happen to have referred to in your essay). So avoid hinting at or alluding suggestively to ideas, especially where they are meant to do some important work in your essay. Instead, lay them out explicitly and directly. Of course, you won't have space to spell out every single idea, so work out which ideas do the most important work and make sure that you at least get those ideas clearly articulated. In expounding a text or problem that ultimately just is vague, muddled, or obscure, try to convey such vagueness, muddle or obscurity clearly, rather than simply reproducing it in your own writing. That is, be clear that and how a text or problem has such features, and then perhaps do your best to make matters clearer.

Despite these stern pronouncements, don't be afraid of sometimes saying things which happen to sound a little odd, if you have tried various formulations and think you have now expressed your ideas just as they should be expressed. Philosophy is often an exploratory business, and new ways of seeing and saying things can sometimes be a part of that exploration.

The need for clarity and precision in philosophical writing sometimes means that you need to stipulate your own meaning for a term. When you want to use a particular word in a particular way for the purposes of your essay - as a "technical term" - be clear about it. (eg "In this essay, I shall intend ‘egoism' to mean ...") Also, be consistent in your technical meanings, or else note when you are not. Be wary, though, of inventing too many neologisms or being too idiosyncratic in your stipulations.

With regard to what "authorial pronoun" to adopt in a philosophy essay, it's standard to write plainly in the first person singular ("I", "me", "my", etc.) rather than use the royal "we" (as in "we shall argue that ..."), or the convoluted quasi-legal indirect form ("It is submitted that ..."), or the scientific objectivity of a physics experimental report. Nonetheless, stick closer to "I argue", "I suggest", "my definition", etc., than to "I wish", "I hate", "my feeling", etc. A philosophy essay is still something more intellectual and formal than a personal reminiscence, polemic, or proclamation. In terms of audience, it's probably best to think of your reader as someone who is intelligent, open to discussion and knows a little about the topic you're writing on, but perhaps is not quite clear or decided about the issues, or needs convincing of the view you want to put forward, or is curious about what you think about the issues.

Try also to use non-discriminatory language, i.e. language which does not express or imply inequality of worth between people on the basis of sex, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. As you write, you will be considering carefully your choice of words to express your thoughts. You will almost always find that it is possible to avoid discriminatory language by rephrasing your sentences.

Other things to avoid:

  • waffle and padding
  • vagueness and ambiguity
  • abbreviations (this guide I'm writing isn't an e.g. of what's req'd. in a phil. essay)
  • colloquialisms (which can really get up your reader's nose)
  • writing whose syntax merely reflects the patterns of informal speech
  • unnecessary abstractness or indirectness
  • unexplained jargon
  • flattery and invective
  • overly-rhetorical questions (do you really need me to tell you what they are?) and other flourishes

There are many guides to good writing available. Anyone who writes (whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether beginners or experienced professionals) will do well to have some on hand. Most good bookshops and libraries will have some. Among the most consulted works are (check for the latest editions):

  • J. M. Williams and G. C. Colomb, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  • W. Strunk and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000)
  • E. Gowers, The Complete Plain Words, 3rd ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987)
  • R. W. Burchfield, ed., The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • Pam Peters, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
  • Australian Government Publishing Service, Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 5th ed. (Canberra: AGPS, 1995)

Vocabulary of logical argument

Closely related to the above points about English expression is the importance of having a good grasp of what can rather generally be called "the vocabulary of logical argument". These sorts of terms are crucial in articulating clearly and cogently a logical line of argument. Such argumentation will, of course, be of central importance in whatever discipline you are studying, indeed in any sphere of life that requires effective thinking and communication. I have in mind terms such as these (grouped a little loosely):

all, any, every, most, some, none, a, an, the
that, this, it, he, she, they
if . . . , then. . . ; if and only if . . . , then . . . ; unless
either . . . or . . .; neither . . . nor . . .
not, is, are
therefore, thus, hence, so, because, since, follows, entails, implies, infer, consequence, conditional upon
moreover, furthermore
which, that, whose
and, but, however, despite, notwithstanding, nevertheless, even, though, still
possibly, necessarily, can, must, may, might, ought, should
true, false, probable, certain
sound, unsound, valid, invalid, fallacious, supported, proved, contradicted, rebutted, refuted, negated
logical, illogical, reasonable, unreasonable, rational, irrational
assumption, premise, belief, claim, proposition
argument, reason, reasoning, evidence, proof

Most of these are quite simple terms, but they are crucial in argumentative or discursive writing of all kinds. (Many are themselves the subject of study in logic, a branch of philosophy). The sloppy use of these sorts of terms is another common weakness in students' philosophy essays. Pay close and careful attention to how you employ them. Moreover, pay close and careful attention to how the authors you read use them. For further discussion of some of these terms and others, see:

  • Basic Philosophical Vocabulary, prepared by the staff of the Philosophy Department and available from the programs Office
  • Wesley C. Salmon, Logic, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973)
  • Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking (London: Fontana, 1985)
  • Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry, Invitation to Critical Thinking, 4th ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1999)

Revising your essay

It is virtually essential that you write a first draft of your essay and then work on that draft to work towards your finished essay. Indeed, several drafts may well be necessary in order to produce your best possible work. It is a rare philosopher indeed who can get things perfectly right on the first attempt, so be prepared to revise and re-develop what you write. Don't be too precious about what you have written, if it appears that it should be sacrificed in the revision process. There is usually a very marked difference between essays which are basically first draft rush-jobs done the night before they are due and those which have been revised and polished. Give yourself time to revise by starting writing early on. For most philosophy students, the greater part of the work in essay writing is in the writing, not in the preliminary researches and planning stages. So be wary of thinking "I've done all the research. I only need to write up my notes, which I can do the night before the essay's due". This is likely to lead to a weak, perhaps non-existent, essay (and very likely a sleepless night).

Word limit

Stick to the word limit given for your essay. Why are word limits imposed? First, to give the markers a fair basis for comparing student essays. Second, to give you the opportunity to practise the discipline of working creatively under constraints. Skill in this discipline will stand you in very good stead in any sphere where circumstances impose limitations. Again, word limits are not constraints on your intellectual freedom. Outside your essay you are free to write without limit. But even there you'll probably find that your creativity is improved by working under a self-imposed discipline.

As a general rule, most student essays that fall well short of the word limit are weak or lazy attempts at the task, and most essays that go well over the limit are not much stronger or the result of much harder work - the extra length is often due to unstructured waffle or padding which the writer hasn't thought enough about so as to edit judiciously. If you structure your essay clearly, you'll find it easier to revise and edit, whether in order to contract or expand it. ("Hmm, let's see: section 2 is much longer than section 4, but is not as important, so I'll cut it down. And I should expand section 3, because that's a crucial step. And I can shift that third paragraph in the Introduction to the Conclusion.")