Philosophical Writing Manual (Long Version)


by Martin Young

"The biggest improvement always comes when you realize that you don't know what you're doing."

This document can be printed out by your web browser. (But don't print it if you don't absolutely need it!)



Table of Contents




How to use this manual


This manual is designed to balance the needs of those students who need more thorough explanations against those who need something that can be read quickly by exploiting the capabilities of "hypertext." Some students can get the picture in a few words, and are likely to be bored by a long explanation, while others need more details and perhaps an example or two before they will really understand. I expect most students will manage on brief notes for some things, but will need longer explanations for others.

Thus I created a short version of the manual by stripping out everything that looked like a long-winded explanation and replaced it with a link to the appropriate point in the original. The short version is meant to clue you in quickly about philosophical writing. The "more" links are there in case you need a more detailed explanation of a particular topic. To return to your place in the short version, just use your browser's back key.



Introduction


Most students have no idea how to write for a philosophy class. The smart students realize this and try to do something about it. The dumb ones think that what got "A"s in high school will get "A"s in college, and if they get an "F" it's the instructor's fault. This manual is for the smart students.

The basic rule of writing for a philosophy class is to take a position and support it with arguments. This means taking a position that can be supported. Leave your usual way of thinking at the door. You don't have to agree with anyone else. You do have to be able to support what you say with evidence and argument. The rest of this manual is an attempt to help you to be able to do that.

This book was written because getting a lousy grade on your first paper is a lousy way to find out you don't know how to write philosophy. Better to do it right the first time than to waste hours and hours on a paper that's going to come back to you with a "C-" on it. The idea is to take mistakes that students have made, explain why they're mistakes, and tell you what to do instead. Most of it is simple, and some people will find that it makes writing philosophy much easier and less stressful.

Most students in lower division philosophy classes get bad, some might even say LOUSY, grades on their papers. At one level, those that get these bad grades do so because, instead of writing papers that demonstrate that they understand the topic and can justify an interesting and relevant opinion with argument and evidence, they turn in fluffy messes of unsubstantiated prejudices, recycled clichés and bad or missing arguments. (And that's only the good ones!) Of course there's nothing wrong with writing bad philosophy (glossy newsmagazines are full of it), but there is something wrong with turning in a bad philosophy paper in a philosophy class. Namely, you get a bad grade.

Getting a bad grade isn't just unpleasant and bad for the self-esteem, it can keep you out of Med School! (Yes, philosophy classes do count towards your GPA.) Many students are TOTALLY SURPRISED by their bad grades. Sometimes a student is so outraged by his bad grade that he takes the trouble to explain to his teaching assistant exactly why he should get a better grade. For instance, each of the following was at one time tried on me: "My girlfriend is taking this class at UCLA and her TA there thinks this paper should get a better grade." "Don't you think a paper of this length, with all these quotations and footnotes and references, should get a better grade?" "But I get A's in my writing class!" This kind of thing never works. (Well, almost never.)

Despite the very occasional chiseller, the majority of students who bring their bad papers in after grading are sincerely interested in finding out what went wrong. Often, these students are surprised to learn that they didn't understand the assignment, or what is required in a philosophy paper, or even how to set about writing a paper, any paper in the first place. Sometimes, they are shocked to learn that the hours and hours they spent on their papers were almost completely wasted! These students often respond very well to suggestions about what they could have done differently, and their second papers are usually much better.

I strongly suspect that many of these students leave the TA's office thinking "Boy, I wish I'd known all this stuff before! (Why didn't they tell me?)" Well, now I'm telling you. (Actually, this is all stuff you should be able to work out for yourself from previous experience and what the professor says.) Everything in this book is derived from something some perfectly intelligent students, usually a lot of perfectly intelligent students, have previously done wrong in the writing of a philosophy paper. It is organized into four sections, arranged roughly in order of helpfulness. "Mastery" outlines and explains in general what anyone should do if she wants to write a philosophy paper. "The Big Secret" is the most important piece of advice anyone can give you about undergraduate writing; SHOW A DRAFT TO THE TA WHO WILL GRADE YOUR PAPER. It also explains the best time to see her and the best questions to ask, etc. "What Not to Do" is a catalog of the elementary mistakes that cause most students to get bad grades. Since many perfectly intelligent student's writing technique consists of nothing but elementary mistakes, the last section, "What to Do" is a catalog of things that can not only help you write a better paper, but they can also help you do it in less time and with less trouble. Following these sections are a glossary of important concepts and a comment key (Which your TA probably won't use.) These are also both based on mistakes other students have made.

Primarily, this manual is pitched towards student's who don't have a clue, and those who think they have a clue, but don't. Thus it starts with fundamentals and "common sense" and moves on to more advanced topics. While everything in here can be mastered by the beginner, even the most advanced student can find something useful here, although she should probably skim the first three sections and concentrate on the fourth.

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Mastery.


Philosophy papers are graded on how great an understanding of the selected topic is demonstrated in them. If your paper demonstrates that you understand your topic well, you get a good grade. If it doesn't, you don't. Mastery is the condition of knowing some particular topic backwards, forwards, inside out and sideways. If you haven't mastered a topic, you can't write well about it. You can't master a whole field in a few weeks, but you can master some tiny part of it. Even that takes a lot of work, which is why lower division philosophy papers tend to be short.

Mastery is the opposite of memorization. When you have mastery of a topic you can go beyond the texts, make up your own descriptions and arguments and explain things in your own words and own examples. Amazing as this may seem in light of what you read in the opinion columns of our major news media, it is necessary to actually know something about a topic before you can write well about it. No matter how long you spend polishing a paper, even the most elegant expression of ignorance is only worth an F. This is the reason that most philosophy papers are written about very narrowly defined topics. Only when what is being written about is a very small part of something does it become possible (I won't say easy) to learn that thing inside out and through and through in a very short time. Since philosophy is the art of understanding, philosophy papers are graded on how great an understanding of the selected topic is demonstrated in them. If your paper demonstrates that you understand your topic well, you get a good grade. If it doesn't, you don't.

Two ways to guarantee a bad grade are A: to write it the evening before it's due, and B: to spend the whole two weeks writing a paper without ever researching the topic. Understanding takes time and effort, which is why the one or two weeks you have to write a philosophy is barely time enough to do it. The most extreme problem a student can have (apart from never attending class) is illustrated by the following incident which, although I've boiled down the dialog a bit, actually happened to a professor at UCI.

Late in the quarter, a small delegation of students visited the professor in his office and the following conversation took place:

Students: "We've come to see you because we don't think we're getting the help and guidance we need to do well in this class."
Professor: "Good heavens! This is terrible! Let me see what I can do to be more helpful. You're all doing the reading, of course?"
Students: "No."
Professor: "Well, you're asking questions in class, aren't you?"
Students: "No."
Professor: "Are you visiting your TA and asking her questions?"
Students: "No."
Professor: "Are you at least going to section?"
Students: "No."
Professor: "Well, here's some help and guidance. Do the reading, go to section, consult your TA regularly and ask questions in class. If you still have problems after this see me again."

It's true that a bad prof, TA and text can prevent you from understanding by failing to communicate the material clearly, but even the clearest presentation cannot make you understand. No matter what the professor, TA or texts do for you, understanding depends fundamentally on what you do. Many students have the experience of struggling through the reading, not understanding it at all, and then having everything seem clear at the lecture. From this they conclude that it's not worth it to do the reading since they can get what they need from the lecture. This is a wildly bad mistake. Philosophy texts are difficult because the subject matter is complicated and depends on subtle shades of meaning. Your professor (usually) isn't making up for the writer's inability to be clear. The writer is (usually) being as clear as he can. Your professor is simplifying by bringing out the main points and showing roughly how they are connected. Thus the lecture is not the whole story. Rather it is intended to illuminate the issues dealt with in the text, and thus help you in your struggle to understand those issues. Struggling through complex and subtle text may not be fun, but it's the only way to understand philosophical issues well enough to (eventually) write about them.

While it's necessary to read the parts of your texts that deal with the topic you're going to write about, there are reasons to also do all the other reading as well. For one thing, it's very rare for a philosopher's arguments on one topic to be disconnected from his arguments on other topics. Thus really understanding the arguments contained in those pieces of text that explicitly mention your topic often depends on other arguments in other pieces of text that you were also supposed to read. (Why aren't these connections brought out in lecture? Well, sometimes they are, but there's a lot to cover and the professor only has so much time.) Another problem is that philosophers tend to look at things very differently from the way ordinary people (and other philosophers) do. These differences are very subtle and it's very easy to miss them and come out thinking you understand when you really don't. In order to really understand a particular philosopher you must at least take the time to read what she wrote.

Finally, there's the difference between merely understanding a topic and mastering it. If you understand, you can explain what particular philosophers say about a topic, what their arguments are, and what the relevant facts are. When you've mastered the topic you can talk about other possible arguments, what might be wrong with these arguments, why those particular facts are relevant and what would happen if the facts were different. Mastery means understanding a topic well enough to go beyond what's already been said to work out for yourself which arguments work and which don't and even to work out effective and relevant arguments of your own. (Again, this is why philosophy papers tend to have such narrowly defined topics.) Mastery never comes by memorization. You can commit to memory absolutely everything ever said about your topic and still not understand any of it. Just a learning to ride takes getting on a horse and trying to make it do things, understanding, and eventually mastery of a topic, comes from trying to explain relevant facts, other people's arguments, and what might be wrong with them. There's no other way to do it.

In practical terms, someone seeking to master a topic must start out by trying to put everything in her own words. This means taking things like claims, arguments and (hopefully) relevant passages, "translating" them into her own words and then seeing if the "translation" really does mean the same thing as the original. Thus it means accepting a fundamental uncertainty about her understanding of the material. This uncertainty is especially acute when it comes to arguments, both those she is attempting to reproduce, and those she comes up with herself. Mastery of a topic is not gained by playing it safe, but by taking a series of "stabs in the dark" each of which is then thoroughly criticized in hopes of improving the next stab. This is why philosophy papers are usually short and cover a very limited topic. Mastering even the smallest topic well enough to write even a three to five page paper takes quite a lot of time and effort.

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The Big Secret


The simplest, most practical thing you can do to improve your grade is to write a complete draft of your paper, give it to your TA and after she's had a chance to work though it, get her to tell you the most important things that are wrong with it, and the best way to go about improving it. Very few students ever think to do this, but it's the closest thing to a magic wand we've got available to us. Generally, the better you're doing, the harder it is to make an improvement, so a single consultation won't necessarily turn an A- paper into an A, but it is likely to turn a F into a C or even B. Gross errors are easy to spot, and easy to explain to a first-time philosophy student. Since even the brightest student can fall into even the most elementary errors, it is not impossible for an F paper to turn into an A paper after a single consultation.

The great virtue of consulting your TA is that it enables you to get your paper looked at before it has to be graded, so the TA can tell you everything that's wrong with it without giving it a grade. However, getting the most out of your visits to your TA takes a little planning on your part, so here are the main things you should worry about.

1. Give the TA a real draft of your paper, not something you threw together in a hurry, and turn it in before your appointment if possible. DO NOT edit or polish this draft, but make sure it's as clear, as precise and as thorough as possible.

2. Tell the TA exactly what you want out of the interview. Tell her the paper's only a rough draft and that she's not to worry about spelling or grammar or anything else other than philosophical content. (It's easier to point out spelling errors than logical errors, but it's a waste of your time and hers. You can correct spelling on the final draft, which may be completely different.)

3. Don't come without at least some of your own written work for the TA to look at. We're not clairvoyant, and we need to know what you're thinking in order to know what help you need. You have to do some work on your own before seeing the TA because you have to have some ideas for this process to work. Otherwise, it may not be any more than a rehash of the lectures. (And if you didn't get it then, why should you get it now?) It's always better to see the TA than not to, but visits where the student has done at least some work on his own are nearly always helpful, while visits where he hasn't are usually a waste of time.

4. Make sure you consult with the TA that will be grading your work. Getting advice from a TA who isn't going to grade your paper isn't bad by itself, but every good TA has her own opinions on exactly what constitutes a good paper, and that difference can affect your grade. (This is just about the only area where the variation between TAs has any practical significance.)

5. Don't worry about being "ripped to shreds." It's not particularly fun to have your work criticized, but the whole point of visiting the TA is to find the flaws in a paper that's otherwise as good as you can make it. You can save yourself some unpleasantness by reminding the TA that you only want to know the most important problems, and that once you're set straight on those you'd like the opportunity to find the others for yourself.

6. Remember that no TA can possibly find all the flaws in a paper on one consultation. Just because the TA didn't talk about it doesn't mean it's brilliant, or even that it's ok. When you've fixed the major errors, look through for others. It wouldn't be a bad idea to take your next draft in for another consultation.

7. In most cases, the best thing you can do is rewrite the paper from scratch after each consultation. This actually saves trouble in the long run as it lets you leave behind other, unnoticed errors and structural problems with the previous draft. Remember that what were major points in the previous draft might be missing in the second, your whole approach may have changed. Most important, a fresh start goes a long way towards freeing your mind from the bad habits that led you to make those original errors.

The essence of consulting a TA is to show them everything you think about the assignment and get them to correct the most obvious problems with your view. A visit without written work in hand, or a specific question, is nearly always a waste of time.

What you show your TA should be your ideas about how to do the assignment, not your ideas of what has to be done. The only way to communicate this is for you to go out on a limb and say exactly what you intend to say in your paper. Often, the easiest way to do this is to write as good a draft of your paper as you can, and show it to your TA.

If you don't have a draft, but do have a thesis and an outline, you can show them to your TA. Problems are often easier to spot at this point and outlines are a lot easier to change than first drafts, so this might prevent you wasting time on false starts. However, there is a risk, if you have an outline, make sure it indicates more than just the topics you intend to cover. To be useful, it should also say what you think about each topic.

Don't say things like "define X." Instead, say "X: _____" and write in your own definition of X.

If you show your TA an outline that doesn't include the claims and arguments you're going to make all she can criticize is the structure of the paper. It's content NOT structure that earns you the good grades.

Make sure you tell her to ignore your grammar and spelling and concentrate on the ideas and their arrangement. (Don't let her correct your spelling! You can do that yourself later, and you only have a limited time with your TA.)

Try to hand in the draft, with a few questions and instructions, a couple of days before you meet with your TA. Then she has time to think over and digest the paper, and can write better comments.

Make sure she writes so you can understand her writing!

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Applause


When marking your paper, a good TA (we're not all that good) will not only tell you when you've done something wrong, she or he will also pick out parts of your essay where, in her opinion, you've done something right. Sometimes she'll make a detailed comment, other times she'll just make some little mark (like "hey hey hey!!!" that you have to figure out yourself. Here are three marks I use, and what I think they mean.

OK This is okay. It could be better, but it's roughly the kind of stuff you should be writing. The comment "OK" indicates guarded, maybe even grudging approval. It indicates that the work in question is acceptable, but doesn't go so far as to say that it's good. A paper that answered the prompt fully but consisted of nothing but "OK" work would probably be worth a C, although it could have other redeeming qualities that raised it to a B or even A.

"OK" thus means that you're not making any particular mistakes in the indicated passage, and it's on the whole acceptable, but it could possibly be made more clear, or effective, or more insightful. Thus it wouldn't hurt to rewrite it a little, but it also wouldn't hurt to leave it alone.

GD This is good. The comment "GD" at the end of a paper is meant to indicate qualified approval. The TA isn't raving about your work but you should definitely think that you're on the right track.

The comment "GD" written in the margin of a paper means that the adjacent passage is good work. A whole paper of such work should be worth at least a B. (Whether or not it would be worth an A or A+ depends on whether the paper as a whole clearly demonstrates mastery of the topic.)

XW Excellent work! This is the kind of stuff that gets "A"s. This comment indicates that your TA is impressed. A paper full of the kind of stuff that gets As may not itself get an A. An excellently-written exposition of a mediocre idea is still a mediocre paper. A highly-flawed exposition of a superb idea can sometimes manage to be a superb paper. In any case, "XW" is definitely a good sign.

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What Not To Do


Every one of the don'ts is a mistake that has been made at least once by some student in some class. Some are pretty obvious once they're pointed out, others are harder to spot. These errors can only hurt you if they appear in a draft that's actually graded. If your TA points them out before you have to turn the paper in, that gives you a chance to improve your grade.

One way to work up a good "rough draft" is to write out a version of the paper without worrying about any of these things. Then go through it and hi-light anything you think is one of these errors. Write another draft in which you fix all the errors you can, then hi-light the ones you can't fix and take the result to your TA for a consultation.

DON'T appeal to authority. An "appeal to authority" is when you expect people to believe something just because some particular person said it, thinks it, or wrote it down in a book. Even the smartest of people can be wrong, and even the best-written book can contain mistakes, so "A says X" doesn't give anybody any reason to believe X. Personal pronouncements can come with reasons to take those pronouncements seriously. A scientist's pronouncements can be supported by the results of a study she's done, and anyone's ideas can be supported by argument. What's unacceptable is to just say "so-and-so says such-and-such" and leave it at that. Replace an appeal to authority with a citation to research done, a clearly laid-out argument, or anything else that supports the point you want to make.

DON'T make controversial claims without also providing arguments in support of those claims. If you've made a claim that some of your readers might disagree with, and you need that claim to be true in order to make your point, then you will need to supply an argument in support of that claim. Arguments are the bread-and-butter of philosophy, so it's vital to get them right. Arguments consist of one or more premises and a conclusion. A conclusion is some statement that the person giving the argument wants her audience to think is true. This is usually something that people disagree about. The premises are statements which, taken all together, are supposed to make it impossible for the conclusion to be false. These are usually things that the arguer and her audience already agree are true. If the intended audience might not accept some particular premise, then it probably needs an argument of its own. The presentation of an argument should make it clear why the premises make it impossible for the conclusion to be false. This can get very complicated. For our purposes, say that an argument is just a very clear statement of the reasons why you think some claim you are making is true and how they do so. A way to make things clear is to write down the claim you want to prove, followed by a numbered list of the reasons you think it is true.

DON'T use complicated or arcane language when you can think of simple ways to say the same thing. The best rule is to make your language as simple as possible without obscuring any important points. Use a lot of short sentences instead of a few big ones. Your terminology should be no more complicated than that in the texts you're working with, and can probably be simpler. The complexity of the subject will make your papers complicated enough as it is. Don't add complexity if you don't have to. If you use a grammar checker aim to produce text for the lowest grade level you can get while still saying exactly what you need to say. Likewise don't try for literary style. The elegant phrase or enchanting example might look great on its own, but make sure it's saying what you really want to communicate, and not something else. Replace arcane language the kind of words and phrasing you would use if explaining your points out loud. In fact, read your writing out loud often and to as many different people as you can.

DON'T ignore your opponent's counter arguments. If you are criticizing someone else's position, and she has an argument against some claim you make in support of your criticism, then you should do something about that argument. The essential point here is that ignoring an argument is not the same as refuting it. If there's an argument that clearly undermines your thesis, and you can't handle that argument, then you should probably change your thesis.

DON'T use worn-out clichés or empty phrases instead of arguments. Clichés are particularly well-phrased opinions that have become so commonly used that most of us are tired of hearing them. An empty phrase is a cliché-like expression that nicely sums up what a lot of people think about a particular issue. The theory is that we're supposed to think "that's so nicely put, it must be true." Nothing is true merely because it's nicely put. These things may sound nice or make you feel good, but they add nothing to your paper. One of my favorite empty phrases is "this argument may be fine in theory, but we don't live in a theoretical world." It sounds like a robust appeal to practicality, but it's no more than an appeal to simply not thinking about things. The student who wrote this was actually admitting that he could not find anything wrong with the argument he wanted to criticize If something is a cliché or an empty phrase, just cut it out and see what happens. If you can't support the point you want to make without resorting to clichés or other empty rhetoric, then that point is probably wrong

DON'T treat a contingent or accidental fact about something as if it is a necessary feature of that thing. A necessary relation is a relationship between two things that has to be the case. The relation between matter and gravity is a necessary one. All matter has gravity. A contingent relation is a relationship between two things that happens to exist, but could be otherwise. The relation between the planet Mars and any given piece of rock that formed on Mars is a contingent one. Not all Mars rock is on Mars. The problem with confusing the two is that claims made on the basis of necessary relations can't be supported by contingent ones. If the relationship between Mars and Mars rock was a necessary one, then proving that a particular piece of rock was formed on Mars would also amount to proving that the rock was on Mars. Since meteorite ALH84001, which proved to be of Martian (but non-biological) origin, is on Earth, the relation between Mars and Mars rock cannot be a necessary one. Don't mistake contingent relations for necessary ones by assuming that because you're used to thinking of two things as associated with each other that they have to be associated. If a relationship turns out to be contingent when you thought it was necessary, you should probably change your thesis.

DON'T state new, unsual or disputable claims as "facts" without citing a reference to some research or authority that supports your claim that it is a fact. Lots of things that you or I take for granted are routinely denied by other people. If a "fact" is important to your thesis, and someone else might simply deny that it is a fact, it will help your paper if you give a reference to some reputable source that, in your opinion, has established the fact you want to use.

DON'T use definitions taken from a dictionary. Dictionaries usually contain the most common, everyday meanings of words. Often, the meaning given in the dictionary is a distortion caused by everyday misuse of some technical term. Philosophical terms are often borrowed for everyday use. Most of the time the concept that word was coined to represent doesn't make it into everyday usage, and the philosophical term is then used to represent some very different concept. (And philosophers aren't even allowed to complain!)

If you try to understand the meaning of some philosophical term by applying a distortion of its meaning, you're asking to get it wrong. Stay out of the dictionary, at least where important philosophical terms are concerned. Instead, try to figure out what the author means by that particular word, not what other people think it means. Write down different ideas about what it means and decide which works better. Come up with your own definition (with examples) and ask your TA which is right.

DON'T distort the meaning of any quote you use. (This is a very easy mistake to make!) Make sure that what you say a quote means really is what that piece of text means. Don't "form an impression" of what the author's ideas are and then look around for a quote to support this impression. Leave your impressions aside and read the author's words as though you knew nothing whatsoever about what she thinks. Try to put what she says into your own words, line by line, sentence by sentence. Whatever you do, don't say "he thinks such-and-such" and then throw in a quote where he mentions the general topic that "such-and-such" is about. This is asking for trouble. Derive your views about what people think from the actual meanings of the words they actually write, not from what you already think or what other people say about them.

DON'T rely on technical or obscure language without defining your terms Yes, I know you know what those words means, but the reader might not. Or he might think they mean different things. Either way, becareful with your use of even everyday language. If part of your argument hangs on the meaning of a particular term or terms, or you use terms that other people migh use differently, make sure you spell out what you think that term means.

DON'T criticize a position without explaining that position first. Philosophical writing is always aimed at trying to convince a reasonable person to agree with your conclusions on the merits of your case, not just on your say-so. If you don't lay out the view you're criticizing then the reader won't know what it is, and will have no way to tell whether your criticism is on the mark or not. You should lay out opposing positions as part of your process of understanding the issues. If you don't look at all sides of the issue then you're not doing the work necessary to come to a supportable position. If you can't be bothered to consider alternative positions then you aren't doing philosophy. Finally, if you can't explain the position you're criticizing, then you simply don't understand it well enough to criticize it. If this is true, then you should abandon your thesis, and go back to prewriting so that you can come up with something that can be supported in the face of a well-articulated opposing position

DON'T use quotations without explaining what the quote means in your own words. The assignment is asking what you think about your topic, not what other people have said about it. Also, if you don't explain the quote, then you haven't shown that you understand it, and your TA can't give you credit for understanding it. Try putting the point in your own words first, and then see if you need the quote after all.

DON'T confuse the moral rightness of an action with how easy it would be to do. When the chips are down the moral course of action is usually the more difficult, costly and dangerous one. Just because a program or ideal would be difficult to achieve or couldn't work in some areas doesn't mean it's not worth doing or won't work in other areas. During the holocaust it was easy, rewarding and almost risk-free to help the Nazis and other anti-Semites round-up and murder Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists and other inconvenient persons. Opposing these dirtbags was difficult, costly and dangerous. Sometimes it was impossible and suicidal. It was always and without exception the right thing to do. (The same goes for current genocides, like the Indonesian occupation of East Timor (sanctioned by Henry Kissinger) and the subjugation of Karens, Kachins and other hill peoples in Myanmar (That's Burma, also supported by the US).) We can understand and sometimes even excuse those who stood by, or were forced into collaborating, but we can never say that they did the right thing.

DON'T use fancy fonts, clever typesetting, elaborate cover sheets, plastic covers or bindings. Fancy fonts and plastic bindings are for business and communication students where presentation counts as part of the assignment. Philosophy is content-oriented, so such things only get in the way here. Just make sure your paper is readable. Double spaced in a standard font with nice black printing is all you need worry about. This other stuff only makes your TA's job harder. Turn in nothing that couldn't be done on a typewriter.

DON'T use your own opinions as the standard of what's true and false, logical and illogical. Writing or arguing "from a conclusion" means coming to a question with a set opinion of what the answer is, and then using that "answer" as the basis for deciding what evidence is true and what arguments are sound. An example of this is a case a few years ago of a high school teacher caught preaching creationism who tried to justify himself by saying "evolution isn't a scientific theory because it contradicts the bible." Here, the conclusion he's arguing from is the claim that creationism is science. Taking that as a fact from which to start, he reasons that if evolution is scientific, then creationism isn't. But creationism is scientific, so evolution isn't. (Note that this is a perfectly valid argument. The problem is that it begs the question. The scientific status of creationism is something he has to prove, not something he can take for granted.)

Arguing from conclusions is actually the direct opposite of doing philosophy. It's about the worst thing someone can do in a philosophy class. It's very bad for students' grades too, because it's a method that guarantees failure. People who argue from conclusions invariably commit themselves to all kinds of logical fallacies and unsupported assertions. This makes for incredibly bad papers.

Obviously, this isn't something that students should get credit for in a philosophy class. If someone who argues "from" a conclusion, rather than "from" evidence, is ever right it is sheer coincidence. The worst thing is that it's dishonest, since it purports to prove something based on argument and evidence, but in fact just throws "argument" and "evidence" together to look like they support an already decided position.

If you suspect you might be arguing "from a conclusion," try to seriously consider positions that contradict your own. If you find it difficult to accept that you might be wrong, whatever the evidence, then you might have been choosing arguments and evidence on the basis of whether they support your opinion, and not on their own independent merits

If it helps, you can write about what conclusions are supportable by argument and evidence rather than what conclusions are true. That way, you don't have to commit yourself to a position you don't want to believe.

If you can't even think about any position that differs from your own, choose a different topic.

DON'T leave gaps. If one thing you say is supposed to follow logically from another thing you say, make sure it's clear how it's supposed to follow. It's a matter of judgment as to how many of the intermediate steps you need to fill in. Generally, you need to fill in enough that the average reader can follow your argument. If a step is particularly important, it's probably best to make the implications clear. Very important steps should be explained in detail, with explicit arguments and examples.

If you can't say just how one thing follows from the other, then it probably doesn't follow, and you should change your thesis.

DON'T leave your reader hanging Don't make a grand point that (you think) refutes your opponent without also showing how it refutes him.

Don't write important and/or interesting sounding material without also saying how it supports your thesis. If it doesn't support your thesis, cut it out.

DON'T let your paper be incomplete. A paper is incomplete when there's something you should have written about but didn't. Usually when someone makes this mistake it's by missing a part of the prompt. Sometimes, it's an important part of your topic that wasn't mentioned in the prompt, but must be covered anyway. Even the most narrowly defined paper topic will have several elements. Try to say something about each significant issue.

Re-read the prompt to see if there is a question there that you haven't answered.

DON'T use impertinent arguments. An argument is "impertinent" if it is not relevant to the precise issue under discussion. Make sure that any fact you cite in support of a claim you make is both relevant to the claim and actually does support your claim. You can't support a thesis with arguments that merely suggest that "something like" your thesis might be true. You have to come up with arguments and evidence that support the claim that your precise thesis is exactly true. If you can't come up with support for your precise thesis, change it to a thesis you can support.

DON'T jilt the arguments against your position. You can't refute an argument against your position merely by giving an argument for your conclusion. You must also show why the arguments against your position are no good. Otherwise, your paper doesn't prove anything. Think about it. If there's one argument for, one argument against, and neither is refuted, the reader is going to make up her own mind, or toss a coin, or go on to another subject. In any case, your paper isn't going to be convincing.

I've seen papers where the writer put the argument he didn't like first, followed it with the argument he did like, and assumed that he'd proved his point. If that worked, then just reversing the order in which the arguments were presented would prove the other conclusion. A paper that "proves" both sides proves neither.

If there is an argument against your position, and you cannot show that there's anything wrong with that argument, then maybe there's something wrong with your position.

DON'T jump to conclusions. Jumping to conclusions means taking one possible position and assuming it's the correct one without thoroughly researching the topic. That's why it's a bad sign if you already have an opinion before you know anything about the topic. Take the time to go through all the arguments and evidence before forming an opinion. Always be ready to change your mind.

DON'T leave out important details. Philosophical questions often turn on the precise details of a situation. Thus a vague "overview" of a topic is usually not enough to earn any credit. Lack of detail can also make it impossible to tell whether the writer really understands what she's writing. Since it's your responsibility to demonstrate understanding, it's up to you to fill in appropriate details. If you can't tell what details are appropriate and which aren't, then you probably don't understand this particular material well enough yet. Sometimes it's very hard to tell what's wrong with a piece of student writing. There's something missing but the TA can't quite put her finger on what it is. The only recourse in such situations is to ask the student to fill in more details and see what emerges. (Sometimes just adding a few details can solve the problem.)

DON'T say that somebody "thinks" something without giving evidence that she really does think that thing. Make sure you get other people's views as close to exactly right as you can. It is a serious academic sin to misrepresent someone else's views. Especially don't say "everybody who thinks X also thinks Y, so-and-so thinks X, therefore so-and-so thinks Y." This is a catastrophically bad argument. Just because you think that X implies Y doesn't mean that they do. If someone actually holds a particular view, then they will have somewhere explicitly stated that they hold that view. If you can't find something she's said that means exactly what you think she thinks, then you can't say she thinks it. If you think something is implied by what she's said, say that instead, and give your reasons for thinking so.

DON'T confuse normative and descriptive claims. A descriptive claim concerns matters of fact. It's a claim about how things are ("Montreal is in Canada," "Rush Limbaugh has stronger gravity than some asteroids.").

A normative claim concerns matters of value. It's a claim about how things ought to be. ("Montreal has too many French people, Surf Nazis must die!") Descriptive claims can only be established by appeal to other, already established, descriptive claims. Normative claims can only be established by appeal to other, already established, normative claims. Thus, while an argument for a normative claim can include descriptive claims as premises, it must also include at least one normative premise. Otherwise, it can't prove any claim about how things ought to be.

DON'T have things in your paper that are not needed. You only need to include material that directly or indirectly supports your thesis. Background materials, history, commentary and asides don't do this, don't earn you any credit, and take up space that could be used to improve your grade.

A few TAs take points off for going over length, so check with the TA that will grade your paper. Otherwise, having stuff in the paper that it doesn't need doesn't cost you anything. The danger is that it makes you think your paper is longer than it is. A page or two of "historical background," a page of rambling "conclusions" and two pages of philosophy might look like a five-page paper, but it's really only a two-page paper, and will get the kind of grade that three-page papers get. My advice is, if you can prove your points just as well without it, get rid of it.

DON'T fall into normative sociology, blaming one thing you don't like on another thing you don't like. According to Robert Nozick, "normative sociology" is taking one thing you don't like and blaming it on another thing you don't like. (See also "arguing from a conclusion.)" I once heard a conservative "commentator" blame a violent shoot-out between cops and assault rifle wielding bank robbers on "the sixties" and "disrespect for authority." Really! And he did it with a straight face too! Don't say "feminism causes families to break up" as an argument against feminism unless you can also show that feminism does indeed break up some families and it's a bad thing that those particular families broke up. The way to guard against normative sociology is to make your claims and arguments as careful, specific and precise as you can make them. If you want to connect two things, show a clear logical or causal connection. If you can't give clear and precise reasons why one thing, and only that thing causes another, then it probably doesn't.

DON'T let other people's words carry the discussion for you. Use your own words In philosophy, we give credit for demonstrating that you can understand concepts, arguments and issues, and for explaining your understanding in a clear and effective manner. We don't give credit for proving you can copy text out of a book, or for proving that you can use a thesaurus. (We especially do not give credit for producing a piece of text that just looks like a philosophy paper.) Everything that is not a direct quote (with citation) must be in the words that you yourself would use to explain your own points. Don't worry if it doesn't look "philosophical." Worry about being clear and precise. Try to use language you would use to explain the concept in a conversation with another student. If you can't put a concept into your own words, then it's a good bet that you don't understand that concept and should spend more time on trying to understand it.

DON'T write long introductions, "transitions" or elaborate concluding paragraphs. Material that isn't directly relevant to the topic is called padding and doesn't count towards your grade. Just give the main points of your paper and then set about proving them. Oh, and stay away from phrases like "from the beginning of time, man has wondered about the meaning of good and evil" or "both science and religion rely on faith as they pursue their eternal quests for knowledge." It's just not a good idea to pad out a philosophy paper. They're not graded by length, so taking up space with a complicated explanation of a simple point means you have less space to make important points. The same goes for "literary stylings" and anything else that isn't aimed at clearly communicating your ideas. A way to "boil down" your writing is to pick out the main point and say it flatly in as few words as possible. Then look for anything else you absolutely have to say and write that down in as few words as possible. If you have trouble saying something in a few words, try saying your point out loud and writing down what you say. If all else fails, seek help from your TA, or your English department, or some campus resource devoted to helping undergraduates write better. (At UCI this is the LARC (714) 824-6451.)

DON'T take stuff, however small, out of other people's work and try to pass it off as your own work. Plagiarism is the act of taking somebody's own work and passing it off as one's own. Plagiarized work is deliberate failure, and dishonest to boot. Plagiarism takes many forms, from passing off a purchased paper as one's own work, to using long passages without attribution, to even taking phrases or sentences out of other people's work, jumbling them up or otherwise changing them slightly, and then pretending that the result is one's original work. If you put something on the page that isn't written by you word-by-word, and you don't give a citation showing clearly who did write it, then you're plagiarizing. If you have to, keep other people's works closed and away from you unless you're typing in an acknowledged quotation.

DON'T leave out quotation marks. Material taken from other people's work, however fragmentary, should be placed in quotation marks and the source indicated. Longer quotes should be set off in a separate paragraph. This makes it possible to tell which words are the writer's, and which are being quoted from somebody else.

DON'T use red herrings. Long ago and far away, those who wished to disrupt hunting parties would take a smoked herring (then known as "red" herring) and drag it across the trail of whatever animal was being hunted. When the hunting dogs got to that point in the trail they would (at least in theory) be attracted more to the smoked fish than to their quarry. So they'd follow the fish. Thus giving rise to the well known phrase "follow that fish!" Oh and by the way, don't spend time discussing issues that aren't logically connected to your topic, even if the result seems to support your thesis. If you find yourself going on and on about several new issues that seem sympathetic to your theis but don't actually have a clear connection to your point, quit and start again.

DON'T use rhetorical questions instead of arguments. Don't say things like "but who is to say what is right or wrong?" You are, at least as far as this assignment is concerned. If you need to phrase something as a question in order to focus your discussion, fine. But make sure you answer that question, and justify your answer with argument and so forth. The problem with rhetorical questions is that, while it feels very satisfying to say "but what about so-and-so?" it doesn't give the reader any reason to think anything but "well, what about it?" Asking rhetorical questions takes up space that could be used to support your thesis.

DON'T repeat yourself if you can possibly help it. You can't get extra credit for saying the same thing over again, so repetition just wastes space. If you find you haveto repeat yourself, maybe you should reorganize your paper

DON'T use synecdoche arguments, that prove your point for only part of the situation. You need an argument that proves the point for all relevant conditions, not just a few conditions, or just part of the situation. "Synecdoche" is an obscure (to me) but neat-sounding word that means any figure of speech in which a part or feature of a thing is used to refer to the thing as a whole, or vice versa. Referring to a single cop as "the police" is an example. The Synecdoche fallacy is the mistake of thinking that an argument which proves something about a part of a thing actually proves it for all of that thing.

A clear example of this fallacy was made by a writer for Forbes Magazine a few years ago when he claimed that, because the seasonal average temperatures of the continental United States didn't rise over the previous few years, global warming wasn't happening. If he'd used all the data instead of just some, he would have gotten a different result.

DON'T make sweeping claims unless you can support them with evidence and argument. Limit the claims you make to precisely what you can support. If you find you've made a grandiose claim, try to come up with an argument that strongly supports the whole claim. If you can't, then modify the claim to what you can support.

DON'T skate lightly over several topics. The aim of philosophical writing is not to mention as many topics as possible but to establish some particular claim by argument and evidence. Thus it's not necessary to cover a lot of ground, but it is vital that the ground you do cover is dealt with in sufficient detail that the significant issues are made clear. A superficial treatment of many important issues is worse than no treatment at all, since it wastes space that could be used to provide adequate support for particular claims.

DON'T set up straw man arguments that are easy to knock down. A "straw man" is a fake version of somebody's real argument that's constructed to look like the real argument and to be easy to refute. Deliberately constructing straw men is dishonest. Accidentally constructing them is a mistake anyone can make, but it means a lot of time wasted in writing about the wrong argument. The best defense against straw men is charity. That means make the arguments against your point as strong as they possibly can be and then do your best to knock them down. You should also read the people you're criticizing very carefully.

DON'T make "bold claims" or "knockdown comments" without showing how they're connected to your thesis. It's a common mistake for students to make some emphatic statement that they think advances their claims but forget about saying what they think this statement proves or how they think it proves it. If you say something that you think settles the matter, make sure you make it clear what inference the reader is supposed to draw from your point, and say why they should draw that inference and not another one. If you can't make these things clear, then maybe it doesn't settle the matter after all.

DON'T indulge in special pleading. Special pleading is leaving out evidence and arguments against your position, or using an argument that you wouldn't find credible if it was used anywhere else. Arms manufacturers, for instance, often "defend" themselves by saying, "if we didn't do it, someone else would," but would they excuse someone who mugged them if the mugger can point to another mugger who would have committed the crime if he hadn't?

Present all relevant evidence and arguments, even if they don't support the case you want to make. If you can't disprove or refute stuff that proves the opposite to what you want to prove, then you're probably wrong.

DON'T put more than one sub-topic in a paragraph. Generally, you should have one topic per paragraph. If you have more than one topic in a paragraph they should probably be put into separate paragraphs. This will also help you organize your thoughts.

DON'T make claims without supporting them. To "support" something means to give the reader some reason to think that is true. This would be argument, or evidence, or both.

An argument is an arrangement of established facts (the "premises") intended to give the reader good reason to believe that some further fact (the "conclusion") is true. Evidence is citation of established facts intended to give the reader good reason to believe that something is true.

Generally, the premises of an argument will be things that all sides of a disagreement already agree to be true. If you have a premise that doesn't fall into this category, then you need to support it.

Evidence can be well-founded facts, such as established scientific theories, research results, historical data and so on. (Citations are needed for all these.) When your claims are controversial, evidence will usually need to be connected to your claims by argument.

Generally any significant, non-obvious or controversial claim will need to be supported with argument and/or evidence, even if the assignment asks for your opinion.

"Your opinion" means "what decision you come to after weighing all the arguments and evidence presented in this class" not "whatever you happen to think irrespective of this material."

Remember that the definition of an "F" paper is "any paper that could have been written by an intelligent person who did not participate in this class." Writing that does not respond to the class materials and lectures is generally not worth any credit.

DON'T start with a conclusion and look around for stuff that supports it. Starting with a favored conclusion and looking for things to support it is what I call "arguing to a conclusion." Students very often start by coming up with a set opinion, or just by remembering a particular opinion that they've had for years. They then conduct their research with the sole object of "proving" that opinion, whether or not it happens to be supported by the available evidence. This is almost the exact opposite of doing philosophy.

To many people, arguing to conclusions seems like an entirely sensible procedure. "I know where I want to go, now all I have to do is to figure out how to get there." The problem is, doing things this way always results in very weak papers. If you haven't taken the time to figure out what conclusions can be supported by the available arguments and evidence, then the conclusion you've picked very probably can't be well supported.

The way to avoid this is to set aside all your own opinions on the subject, and try to figure out what theses might be supportable from the available arguments and evidence. Write down a list of all the conceivable positions on this topic, no matter how weird or unpleasant they may seem to you. For each one, write down all the evidence that might support it. Then write down the evidence against each one but, instead of ruling out that possibility, "explain away" that evidence by coming up with some ad-hoc hypothesis, no matter how ridiculous, that allows the weird conclusion to be true in the face of this contradictory evidence. When you've done this for all the possibilities, go back through the list and try to come up with more reasonable hypotheses to replace the weird ones. When you've come up with three to five different conclusions, weird or not weird, each of which can be supported in a more or less reasonable way, start the serious work of deciding which of them is most supported by the available facts and arguments.

DON'T leave crucial words or concepts undefined. If you make heavy use of a term that most people aren't familiar with, take the time to give a definition of it in your own words. If you can't give a definition in your own words, then you probably don't understand the concept. Working through a definition sheet would probably help.

DON'T get your version of a theory from people who attack that theory. The attacks may be well founded but you'll never be able to tell if they are or not unless you work through a description of the theory written by one of it's advocates. (The classic example is people who derive their views on biology and science in general from creationism, which fails to grasp the elements of either.)

DON'T write to your computer. If your computer makes comments on your writing, ignore them. Some students run their papers through a "grammar checker" as part of the writing process. That's okay if you have trouble with English grammar and you know the limitations of a computer grammar checker. It's no substitute for sitting down with a writing coach, but it can be helpful if you can't get an appointment with a human being.

Beware, some grammar checkers include an assessment of the writing's "grade level." Some students react badly to having a computer tell them that their college writing is "at 10th grade level" so they pull up their theasauri and start replacing clear, simple and appropriate words with obscure, complex and inappropriate terminology. (I mean "big words.") DON'T DO THIS! There are almost no exact synonyms in the English language. Theasauri list words that are close in meaning. Every time you change a word you change the meaning of the sentence. If what you wrote was right before you changed that word, it will be wrong after. The aim of writing is to clearly communicate ideas. If your paper says exactly what you want it to say, and your computer says it's 8th grade English --- Pat yourself on the back! You've written an exceptionally clear paper.

DON'T leave out descriptions of significant differences. Sometimes, the difference between two things might be very clear in a writers mind but totally missing from the page. The writer may be so used to thinking of these two things as different that she assumes that the reader will think so too. If someone else might think the two things are the same, or other people don't know what the difference is, you need to explain it. If the difference is significant, you need to make clear how it is significant.</

DON'T worry about being wrong. The goal in a philosophy class is to train you to come up with your own positions and defend them properly, not to get you to "understand" some pre-determined "right answer."

There are right answers to these questions, but finding them isn't your problem. Your problem is working out what you think about some of these issues as well as you can. (If you suddenly realize your thesis is wrong, just reverse it)

DON'T wait until the last minute to start writing.

DON'T ever be afraid to ask for help. Getting help is a mark of a good student.

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Interpreting the Prompt


The prompt is that paragraph of instructions and or questions that an instructor gives you as a possible essay topic. Your job is to write a unified essay that addresses every issue raised in the prompt. If the prompt contains a bunch of separate questions you have to figure out how they all hang together, and then write a paper that hangs together also.

Whatever the prompt says, you have to write a paper that makes a claim and supports it with reasons. Treat the prompt as a bunch of hints on how to do that.

Once you've figured out what the assignment asks for, try to figure out what it would take to do it really well.

Write a PROMPT SHEET, a piece of paper with the prompt written at the top and your comments, ideas and questions scribbled below it. Most important, write down what the prompt means in your own words. Typically, there will be more than one question together with instructions to cover some particular issues, come up with your own arguments and so on. The thing to remember is that, no matter how sprawling and confusing the prompt, the instructor wants you to write a complete and unified paper in response.

When a prompt asks multiple questions, there are two errors that students can fall into. First, a student can write a paper that addresses only some of those questions. Second, a student can answer all the questions, but separately, as though they had nothing to do with each other. The first error results in incomplete papers, the second in disjointed papers. Both errors may lead students to disregard important points. (Treating a prompt as a series of independent questions is not a bad way to start the writing process, since it's an easy way to start thinking about the issues involved.) Take the time to make sure you understand what each question is actually asking. It's also a good idea to ask yourself what the instructor is trying to get at with this prompt. Sometimes a good answer will require you to refer material that isn't even mentioned in the prompt.

The basic question here is "what do I have to prove in order to meet this assignment?" Eventually, you could surround the prompt with a cluster of scribbled questions and comments. When you're reasonably sure that you can't add anything useful to these notes is a good time to check in with your instructor or T/A to make sure you're on the right track. (You should note however that doing everything the instructor says is not necessarily enough to guarantee a good grade it's the stuff you come up with for yourself that gets you the grade.)

EXAMPLE: "Give Plato's argument for a tripartite nature of the soul. Do you agree? Explain."

The first question to ask is what the instructor really wants here. Given that this prompt is given in the context of a philosophy class, she must want you to do philosophy, which means that, sooner or later, you're going to have to make a claim and support it with your own arguments. At this point, however, you don't need to worry about what claim you're going to make, just ask yourself what this claim is going to be about. You may think that it's going to be about the soul, but you'd be wrong.

What would your paper be like if you first wrote about Plato's argument and then gave your own opinion about the soul? You'd have two separate papers, each having nothing to do with the other, except that their pages are stapled together. Remember that a paper is supposed to present a single idea, so you must unify the paper by connecting your ideas with Plato's. In philosophy, the obvious way to do so is by deciding who's right about the soul, and the only way to do that is by engaging Plato's reasons for thinking what he does and so your claim, whatever it turns out to be, will be about Plato's argument, not simply the soul itself.

A good way to start is by creating a PROMPT SHEET. This is a piece of paper with the prompt written at the top and your comments, ideas and questions scribbled below it. (Try to scrawl, neatness is much less important than getting your thought processes going.) Add anything else you need, like definitions for hard words like "tripartite" and so on.

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Pre-Writing


When you've figured out what the prompt means it's time to start pre-writing. "Pre-writing" is all stuff you do before you start composing the actual paper. This means more than doing research, organizing your thoughts and planning the paper. It means doing what you can to engage the material, to think things through and weigh your ideas. In short, it includes everything to do with gaining mastery over the subject.

What you actually need to do will vary by assignment but the techniques I give you are pretty generally useful. You should also make up your own techniques and try other ways of engaging the material. (Jokes, stories, poems?) Find and use whatever works for you.

Your pre-writing exercises needn't be done in any particular order. They don't have to be finished to be useful, and you can always come back to change things. If you get stuck, they help you get unstuck.

If you're not sure you're on the right track, you can show some of your pre-writing to your TA. This will help show her exactly where you are, which makes it easier for her to help you. Remember that none of your pre-writing is (normally) graded. Thus you should avoid trying to get stuff that looks like "good" pre-writing but instead do things that help you understand the material better.

QUOTE SHEET: copy out a quotation from the text onto a blank piece of paper and then do your best to say exactly what that quote means in your own words. Do this for any quotes you think are crucial for the topic you're thinking of writing about. The aim is to get the real meaning of a piece of text as clear as possible. Clear thinking requires messy notes, so don't be afraid of false starts, mistakes and repeated effort

DEFINITION SHEET: Take an important word and try to define the concept it represents in your own words. Ignore the dictionary. You should do this for any word you're not sure about, or which you think is important to the argument. Use your own words to describe what you think the author means by the word. You should do this for any word you're not sure about, or which you think is important to the argument. Don't put down the dictionary definition and don't put down the definition you're used to using. Figure out what the author means and put that down as well as you can.

ARGUMENT SHEET: Take an important or controversial claim and write it down together with the reasons that are supposed to support it. An argument sheet should be your best effort to get one argument as clear as you can. Lay it out in numbered premises above a conclusion and use your own words. Try to figure out what's been left out or taken for granted. Weaknesses can be hidden in unstated premises and unexamined assumptions. Make the argument as strong as you can, even if you intend to refute it eventually. Be prepared to do several sheets for one argument, as some arguments have premises that need arguments of their own. It's real important to do this for any argument you think you might have to criticize or defend.

EXAMPLE SHEET: Make up your own example to clarify some complicated concept.

COGNITIVE MAP: Write down the names of important concepts and connect the names with lines to show how they're related. Cognitive maps are an easy, quick and effective way to organize your thoughts on any topic. Take a blank piece of paper, write the name of an important topic in the middle, circle it and connect it with lines to the names of related ideas, also circled. Add ideas as they occur to you and connect them to each other as you think fit. Fool around with this as long as you're interested in it. Then compare your cognitive map with the essay prompt and ask yourself if the map indicates answers to the questions in the prompt. If it doesn't, expand it so it does. If you're working on a thesis, connect it with everything that might be relevant to the truth of your thesis. Then work in the things that support your thesis or defend it from possible criticisms Do it over and over if you feel like it. There's no wrong way to do it.

When you've done all the sheets you think you might need, spread everything out on a table and think about different ways of it all together. Look for gaps; is anything missing? Or contradictions; does any sheet say (or imply) the opposite of any other sheet? Gaps and contradictions are important. They can expose ideas that won't be obvious to other people, ideas that could be relevant to your topic. They could even give you an idea for a thesis.

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Writing


These are the most important steps in putting your paper together. Some are essential, a few can be skipped. The basic problem is how to go from a mass of unconnected papers to a coherent paper. The solution is to step back and let your mind wander through the ideas and arguments. Mull things over and let yourself react to the research you've done. What ideas come into your head when you think about this stuff? Coming up with a thesis is crucial to the writing process. Everything else can be done in whatever way works best for you, so you can skip some of the other steps, but writing without a thesis isn't really writing.
  1. Come up with a thesis, a specific claim your paper will make and support. There's no easy way to come up with a thesis. The basic idea is to look at everything you can find out about a topic and decide for yourself, strictly on the basis of the available evidence and logic of the arguments what the truth is. Work over your own notes and think about what you want to say. Usually, theses start coming as you master the material, so you should have one pretty soon. If you can't quite get it clear, you could do a THESIS SHEET on which you write a possible thesis, comment on it, and try to improve it. Try various ideas out for size. Take a position and look for stuff in your notes that contradicts it. When you find a contradiction, try to defend your tentative idea against it. When you've found an idea that you can reasonably defend, you've got a thesis Coming up with a thesis can be hard, but don't start writing without one.
  2. Sort out everything you need to support that thesis. More about support.
  3. Arrange the supporting materials so that logically connected things are together. Sometimes simply shifting around pieces of paper can help you organize your thoughts. If every idea, concept, definition, argument, example or whatever is on a separate piece of paper you can lay out these pieces of paper in arrangements that reflect the logical relationships between the underlying ideas. Forcing yourself to work out where some piece of paper belongs can force you into figuring out some important logical connections before you ever start writing.
  4. Do a cognitive map centered on your thesis.
  5. Do an argument sheet for your thesis.
  6. Sketch out an outline of the paper. An outline is simply a list of things you will say in the order in which you will say them.
    The basic rules are:
  7. If the reader needs to know A in order to understand or agree with B, then A should come before B.
  8. If A and B are closely related, The parts of the paper that deal with them should be close together.
  9. If a premise of one argument needs it's own argument, that argument should be right by that premise.
  10. Definitions come before explanations.
  11. Explanations come before arguments.
  12. Positions should be explained before they are criticized.
    The easiest way to do an outline is to do a simple one for your main argument with a lot of space between the points. Then do a little outline for each point in the blank spaces. If all else fails, try writing the sheet headings on another piece of paper in various orders, and pick one to be your outline. Don't limit your outline to a list of topics and/or questions. To get maximum use out of an outlinewrite in briefly what you will say about each topic. At this point you don't need to connect things or fill in the arguments completely, but the outline should contain your main claims and your main reasons for thinking that those claims are true. Without some content, your outline will not help either you or your TA to detect problems. Remember that the structure of a paper depends on the logical structure of the ideas in it. If the ideas aren't there, there's no way to tell if the structure is the right one.
  13. Order your worksheets according to your basic argument or outline. This is a quick and easy way to create a rough draft. You can base this on a pre-existing outline or arrangement, or you can do it from scratch. The basic idea is to organize your notes so that you can write the paper directly from then with as little fuss as possible. To start, you should have every idea, concept, definition, argument, example or whatever, is on a separate piece of paper. Pull out your thesis statement and lay it down. Find your arguments sheet for that thesis and pull out the sheets for each of the premises (or supporting examples etc.) and lay those on top of the thesis sheet, putting the argument sheet on the very top. For any premise that needs its own argument, cut the stack just above that premise and repeat the process. Finally, take all the remaining sheets that are become necessary. Once organized, your stack can be turned into a first draft simply by starting at the beginning and turning each sheet into a paragraph or part of a paragraph of text until you get to the end.
  14. Write up your paper from your outline and/or worksheets as clearly as possible. Try to write as though you were verbally explaining this idea to an uninformed but intelligent friend. Write as though you were speaking in the most precise way possible. Avoid long, complicated and flowery sentences. Instead, put the ideas as simply as you can without distorting them. Make up your own examples for the trickier points and make sure you use your own words for everything. Don't worry about style and let the transitions take care of themselves. (You can also ask your instructor about style and such.) Take the time to read the paper out loud to yourself or even to other people, if you can get anyone to listen.
  15. Add a brief introduction that says what you want to prove and how you plan to do it. I like to see introductions that let me know what the writer wants to prove, and give me some idea of how she is going to set about proving it. All an introduction really needs is a thesis statement and short list of the main topics in the paper. General remarks, background material and other commentary are unnecessary and can be distracting. Some writers make the introduction the last thing they do.
  16. Show your completed draft to your TA.

The basic task is to organize your ideas so that you can support an interesting and arguable thesis, and criticize and modify your ideas and arguments as you go along.

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Re-Writing


Re-writing is what you do when there's problems with your draft and you need to fix it. Before you even think of editing or polishing, make sure that the draft you have is right. This is much more important than editing. Re-writing a paper doesn't mean you've done anything wrong, it means you're doing it right! Working over ideas again and again is the best way to get them clear in your mind. Rewrite as many times as you have time, or until you're satisfied that your paper says exactly what you want it to say.
  1. Start with a clean sheet and rewrite the whole paper. The worst way to "rewrite" is to just correct your draft wherever your TA has made a comment. The best way to rewrite is to start with a blank sheet and write a whole new draft. If your original outline and rough draft don't have any problems you can use them, but don't try to "patch-up" a defective working draft. Just going over the ideas again will improve your presentation and you'll probably find the paper flows much better this time. If you're unsure how to proceed, you can go all the way back to pre-writing. In fact, if you have the time to go back and pre-write again, it always results in a better paper. Pre-writing is always easier the second time around. You have all your previous work to call on and you're much more familiar with the material. Furthermore, if your paper really needs a deep fix, trying to fix it by messing with the working draft will only waste your time and may mess things up worse. Remember that your drafts are not carved in stone. You should be perfectly willing to cast aside any draft and do the whole thing over. Your writing will improve and the process will actually get easier. Introductions and conclusions should be regarded as particularly disposable, so you should never spend much time on them until the polishing stage. If you do have to go back to pre-writing, do it as thoroughly as you can and follow all the other steps described in previous sections.
  2. Fix the BIGGEST problems and ignore the little ones. After meeting with your TA, you should have a melange of critical comments. Some will be scrawled in the margins and some will be written at the end of the paper. The ones at the end are usually more important than the others. There's a systematic method for dealing with instructor comments. First, make a list of the most important ones. (These are usually the ones that make you feel helpless and confused.) This will include all at the end of the paper and maybe some of the marginal ones. If any comment seems particularly serious (or mysterious) you can put it on a RESPONSE SHEET and translate it into your own words, with your own comments. (This you can take back to your TA for more help.) Next, prioritize the TA comments, and address them in decreasing order of importance. Fixing an important problem might also make a minor problem disappear. Take the most important problem and decide what you really need to do to fix it. This could range from something minor, like changing the order of your paragraphs to a major fix, which might send you all the way back to pre-writing. Unless you and your TA agree that the only things wrong with the draft are grammar and spelling errors, you should REWRITE your paper rather than EDIT it. Only when you've fixed all the big problems should you start looking for the little one's. If your rewriting hasn't automatically eliminated a little problem, you can fix it now.
  3. Do more pre -writing, as necessary. Doing more pre-writing might seem like taking a step back, but it's actually a step forward because, once you've done it you understand your subject a lot better. If you don't do the additional pre-writing, the danger is you won't understand the problem well enough to fix it.
  4. If your thesis was badly wrong, you can reverse it. If your attack on someone else's idea turns out to be misguided, you can turn your paper into one defending the other's idea against your own attack! Instead of saying "so-and-so is wrong because _________ " your paper can begin "so-and-so could be attacked on the basis of _________ but I will show that this attack fails because __________ "
  5. If you can't fix the problem, try to figure out why you can't fix it. When everything else just isn't working, spend a half-hour or so just trying to put the problem into words. Sometimes just organizing your thoughts can get you moving again. There are two kinds of problems, writing problems and cognitive problems. Cognitive problems are more serious and more difficult to fix than writing problems, which are just difficulties in organizing and expressing your ideas. Cognitive problems are problems with your ideas themselves. Considering that the basic definition of a cognitive problem is "having a wrong idea and thinking it's right," merely recognizing that you have a cognitive problem is a major victory in itself. If you have one it will be difficult, confusing and frustrating to work out what it is. The best advice I can give you is to write the problem out as clearly as you can manage, and take it, with the rest of your notes, to your TA or instructor.

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Post-Writing


Post-writing is what you do after you've got all the ideas in your paper sorted out properly. The aim here is to make your paper as clear and easy to read as possible, not to correct every grammatical, punctuation and spelling error. Only post-write if you have time left after everything else. TA's grade you on how well you do philosophy, not literary style. NEVER turn in work late because you want to edit or polish.
  1. Read your paper aloud all the way through, and listen to yourself as you do it. READING ALOUD can really help your writing. You can read aloud to yourself, to an audience or even to your cat. If something sounds awkward or mysterious when you read it aloud (remember to project your voice, don't mumble!) then it probably reads awkward or mysterious as well. The wording you should use in your paper is the same wording you would use to explain your ideas in a conversation with a reasonably intelligent but uninformed fellow student. (Minus, of course, all the ummms, ahhs and incomplete sentences that would also appear in that conversation.)
  2. Have another student read your paper and tell you what she thinks it means. Remember that the other student may not understand the topic as well as you do. If you've done your research right, you will understand this topic better than any other student in the class. Thus if she tells you something's a problem, it might be her problem, not yours.
    The point is to see what your paper looks like to someone who's not yet familiar with the topic. If this is her first introduction to the topic, she won't have any preconceived ideas and will have to rely on what you've written. (That's the theory, anyway.) If she reads the paper and then tells you that it means something other than what you wanted it to say, then you may have to rewrite parts to rule-out erroneous interpretations.
    If you're happy with most of the paper, but you're unsure about a paragraph here and there, have someone read those paragraphs and rewrite them in their own words. If what she says is what you meant, then you're probably okay. If not, think of a way to clarify that paragraph.
    I want to emphasize that I am not talking about peer editing here. Peer editing means having another student read your paper and comment on it. If not done right, peer editing can be worse than useless. Peer editing mainly gives the other student practice in editing that she can in turn apply to her own papers. Peer editing is actually unlikely to turn up serious errors in your paper, and can be misleading. What it can do for you is to find grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, and other things that make your paper hard to read. This too can be useful. The way to make peer editing work for you is to critically evaluate the your peer editor's comments, and decide for yourself whether they're valid. If she says you spelled a word wrong, look up that word. If she says your grammar or punctuation is wrong, look up the rules and decide for yourself. If she can't understand something, decide for yourself if it needs to be changed. The danger with peer editing is that your editor could misunderstand and think there's something BIG wrong when there isn't. This could really mess you up. The best rule is, if you don't agree that a problem exists or you're nor absolutely clear about what the problem is, don't bother with it. Remember, you can always ask your TA whether anything's really wrong.
  3. Consider a visit to a campus unit dedicated to helping students with their writing. Most universities have some kind of organized support for students who need help with basic academic skills. Such centers hold their staff to the highest standards, and only employ highly qualified people. They usually offer individual counseling at little or no charge. Even students who have pretty much mastered college writing can benefit from a one-on-one conference with someone who has extensive training and experience in teaching writing.
    At UCI the Learning and Academic Resource Center ( LARC ) (located opposite the student center) is part of the Program of Academic Support Services (PASS), a "campuswide academic assistance program focused on helping students develop and improve their skills and knowledge to enhance their academic performance." (They tend to get busy at the end of the quarter, so visit as early as you can.) Call (714) 824-6451.
  4. Only edit or polish when your paper says exactly what you think it should say. EDITING, as far as I'm concerned, means making it clear. POLISHING, to me, means making your prose as pleasant to read as possible. Grammar, punctuation and spelling errors can make your paper difficult to understand and hard to read, so you should find and correct what you can. Complicated sentences can have the same effect, so shorten and simplify where you can.
  5. Make a list of your writing problems and develop strategies to overcome them. This won't help you make the paper you're working on now any better. It will make it easier to get a good grade on your next paper. It will also make writing easier in future classes.
    Basically, it involves looking objectively at the problems in your present paper. Look at them not as things to fix but as possible results of the way you approach writing. Make a list of the worst problems, the biggest or silliest errors and the things that were hardest to fix. For each problem, ask yourself (or your TA) "how did I come to make this mistake?" and "What was it about the way I do my research that led me into this error?" (If you can't think of anything, go to another error.)
    Look for things you tend to do again and again and things that lead you into a lot of wasted time. Pick the worst one or two and try to figure out ways of doing things that will help you avoid these mistakes in the future. Write this stuff down and pull it out when you get your next writing assignment.
    This may seem like a lot of work, but it could point to a quick way to improve your grades and/or save you a huge amount of wasted effort in the future.

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Comment Key


If the two-letter comment code is highlighted, you may click it to be moved to a section of the manual that has a more detailed explanation.

AA This appears to be an appeal to authority. The person you quote isn't necessarily right.

AG You need to supply the appropriate argument for this claim.

AL This seems pretty arcane language. Try to think of a simple way to say the same thing.

BD This is an elaborate way of saying a simple thing. It could be boiled down to a few words.

CA The author has a counter argument that you need to deal with.

CL This is a cliché or empty phrase. Try to come up with an argument instead.

CR You need to cite a reference to support this assertion

DD This is only the dictionary definition, the term has a different meaning here.

DQ I think you have distorted the meaning of this quote.

DS Should be double spaced so your TA has space to make comments.

DT You need to define your terms, so the reader will know what you're saying

EP You need to explain this position before you build on it or criticize it.

EQ You should explain what this quote means in your own words.

ER Just because something isn't easy , doesn't mean it isn't right.

EX If you could come up with an example of this, it would really help your paper.

FB This fancy binding/font/cover/cover sheet is very nice, but it's not needed.

FC I think you're arguing from your conclusion here.

GD This is good.

GP There seems to be a gap here. Show how one thing is supposed to follow from the other.

HG This leaves the reader hanging. Show what follows from this point, and how.

IC This paper seems incomplete. I think you've left out an important issue.

IP This argument is impertinent. It doesn't support the claims you make in this paper.

JA You've jilted this argument. You must do something to deal with it.

JC I think you're jumping to conclusions. Seriously consider the alternatives.

MD This is ok, but it needs a lot more of the details filled in to make it clear.

MP I think this misrepresents the author's position.

NN This material is all very well, but it's really not needed to make your point

ND I think you're confusing normative and descriptive issues here.

NS This sounds like normative sociology. Are these things really connected?

OK This is okay. It could be better, but it's roughly the kind of stuff you should be writing.

OW This should be explained in your own words. How would you explain this to a friend?

PA Most of this appears to be padding and should be cut out.

PL This appears to be a jumbled mass of things lifted from other people's work.

QM Use quotation marks when you quote someone.

RH Red herring. This stuff sounds good but it's really irrelevant.

RQ This is a rhetorical question. Replace it with an argument.

RY You appear to be repeating yourself here.

SA Synecdoche argument: only proves its point for part of the situation.

SC This a very sweeping claim that needs a lot more support than you give it.

SH Start here. The material above this point is really superfluous and could be discarded

SK This is a very superficial treatment of these ideas that skates over important issues.

SM This is a straw man. The author's real argument is a lot stronger than this.

SO You need to say what follows from this point. What are you trying to say here?

SP This looks like special pleading. Don't ignore stuff you find inconvenient.

ST Paragraph has more than one sub-topic in it. Give each point it's own paragraph.

SU This point need a lot more support than you give it.

UT Undefined term. Say what this word/phrase means in this context.

VO This is based on a version of this idea concocted by its opponents. They could be wrong.

WD What's the difference? You need to say how these things are different from each other.

XW Excellent work! This is the kind of stuff that gets "A"s.

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Copyright 2004 by Martin C. Young