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A Guide to Writing Philosophy Essays

If this is your first philosophy class, you may find what is expected in your written work to be somewhat different from what is expected in other disciplines. Even if this is not your first philosophy class, you may find the following comments useful as a guide to what your instructor expects. (Half the battle in any class is to figure out what the professor expects from you.) In either case, you should read what follows since it contains some important information and warnings.

Chapter references below are to A. P. Martinich's Philosophical Writing: An Introduction (2nd edition, Blackwell, 1997) where you can find more detailed information about these topics.


To be successful writing an essay you must understand the topic it will address. Before writing anything you should make sure you understand the topic by thinking about it carefully and discussing it with your instructor or with other students. Your essay should be structured around an argument or arguments relevant to the topic (Ch3). In a short essay, it is especially important to avoid irrelevant material. For instance, DON'T start your essay with something like "Philosophers have been pondering the nature of truth since the beginning of time." Get straight to the point (Ch8). In particular, you should begin by describing the question or topic you will address and giving some indication of your purpose (e.g., to answer the question one way or the other, or, if not to answer it, then to give an analysis of a particular approach to the topic). If you are not writing a response to a particular question that your instructor assigned, then it is also important to provide a title for your essay.

Philosophy is concerned with arguments. You will be asked to identify and explain the structure and content of arguments in the assigned readings and, perhaps, to present your own arguments. If you do not understand the relationship between premises and conclusions then find out before you attempt the first essay (Chs 2 & 5). You might also consider taking an introductory course in logic.

Level of Presentation

Writing assignments in a class such as this one serves two purposes. The first, and perhaps the most important to some of you, is so that you may be assigned a grade for the class. To this end, you are required to demonstrate how well you understand the ideas and arguments which have been presented. In any area, not just philosophy, one of the best ways to find out if someone understands something is to have them explain it to another person who is not already familiar with the material. With this in mind, you should imagine that you are writing your essay not for your instructor but for an intelligent layperson, such as a friend who is not taking the class (Ch1). (If you have a willing friend who meets this description, it might even help to have that person read your essay and see if they understand it.) From the perspective of the grader, a point by point summary of your reading does not show comprehension. You must try to highlight the logical structure of the arguments you are presenting.

The second purpose is to teach you how to do philosophy and how to write good philosophy papers. In the latter respect, the assigned readings for the class may be less than perfect examples! A good piece of philosophy consists in considering arguments, trying to think of ways in which the argument might be challenged, and thinking of how those challenges might be met. This requires a lot of thinking! You cannot expect merely to paraphrase what you have read and do well in philosophy. Once you have done the thinking, a good piece of writing lays out the main argument and then systematically considers challenges to the argument (Ch3). The more methodically this is done, the easier it is for the reader to follow what is going on. The next section contains further hints for good writing.

Clarity of Exposition

Things you can do to make your writing understandable include:
  1. Introduce technical terms explicitly, by means of a definition or examples. Don't just start using them without explanation (Chs 1 & 5).
  2. Make sure that your sentences cannot be misconstrued because of ambiguity or vagueness (Ch7). It is very easy to overlook ambiguity or vagueness. Because you know what you intended the sentence to mean when you wrote it, it is hard to reread the sentence with an open mind. Don't expect the person who reads your essay to be able to read your mind!
  3. Reread your essay sentence by sentence. Stop after every sentence and ask yourself if it says exactly what you want it to say. If you are not happy with a particular sentence or passage that you have written, ask yourself why it bothers you. It could be that you don't really understand what you are trying to say or that you don't really believe it. If either of these is the case, you need to think some more before writing. It really helps the rereading process if you can allow some time between writing and rereading--in other words, start working on your assignments well before the deadline! (But see Martinich's Appendix.)
  4. Provide "signposts" for your reader. Explicitly indicate the structure of your essay by saying how what you are writing relates to the question you are answering. Also, be sure to indicate explicitly when you are reporting your own view and when you are reporting someone else's. The reader should never be left in any doubt about whose ideas are being presented. In presenting an argument, whether your own or someone else's, be sure to indicate which are the premises and what is the conclusion of the argument.
  5. When you are trying to give an argument, don't use rhetorical questions. Such questions are problematic on several accounts. First, they don't make clear, unambiguous statements. Second, they invite the disgruntled reader to disagree with you. Third, even if the reader is inclined to agree with your general thrust, they don't provide any reasons for doing so, so they don't count when you have been asked to argue for a particular position.

Grammar, Spelling and Format

Bad grammar and spelling tend to distract a reader and get in the way of your presentation. While neither grammar nor spelling will be directly graded by the author of this document, they may affect the grade you receive because of the psychological effect they produce in the reader. Particularly annoying are misspellings of words that are common in the readings, especially names. (E.g., it is "Descartes" not "Decartes" or "Descarte"; and "argument" not "arguement".) Doubly annoying are multiple but different misspellings of the same word.

Papers should be typed, double spaced, with a one-inch margin on all sides and a standard font size (usually 11 or 12 points).

Citation and Plagiarism

All work should be your own, with the exception of brief quotations that are introduced to support a particular textual interpretation you wish to make. In other words, you should not use a quotation unless you go on to say something directly about the passage you quote.

You are encouraged to discuss the assignments with anyone you wish, including other class members and your instructor. However, except for the assigned readings, you should not need to make use of other written materials. The object is to teach you to analyze philosophical arguments, not to find out how good you are at library searches.

When you write your essay, it must be entirely your own work. When explaining an argument from a piece of assigned reading, it is not sufficient to quote or directly paraphrase material in the text. You must recast the material in your own words. Taking a sentence from any source and substituting synonyms is not acceptable. Quotations or extra sources must be clearly cited in a standard way.

There are many guides to help you avoid plagiarism, and most universities have good ones. See Google search of edu sites for examples.