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.
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.
Back to Contents
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.
- Pick the topic you're most interested in.
- Take time to narrow down the area you will write on.
- Read everything to do with that narrow area.
- Identify the main positions and ideas in that area and restate
them in your own words.
- Illustrate each important idea with an example you make up
- For each position, describe life in a world in which that
position is true
- Identify the main arguments in your area.
- Restate each argument in your own words, writing as though
you believed it to be true.
- Try to come up with other possible positions in the area,
- Make up your own ways of engaging the topic.
- Repeat as necessary.
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
Late in the quarter, a small delegation of students visited
the professor in his office and the following conversation took
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
Professor: "Good heavens! This is terrible! Let me see what
I can do to be more helpful. You're all doing the reading, of
Professor: "Well, you're asking questions in class, aren't
Professor: "Are you visiting your TA and asking her questions?"
Professor: "Are you at least going to section?"
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
Back to Contents
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.
- Give the TA a real draft of your paper, not something you
threw together in a hurry.
- Turn your draft in before your appointment if possible.
- DO NOT edit or polish this draft.
- Tell your TA to ignore problems in spelling or grammar. (It's
a rough draft.)
- Make sure you consult with the TA that will be grading your
- Don't take the criticism personally.
- Rewrite the paper from scratch after each consultation.
- Ask your TA what the most fundamental problem is, and fix
- Look for other problems on your own.
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!
Back to Contents
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.
Back to Contents
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Back to Contents
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
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.
Back to Contents
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
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
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
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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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.
- 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
- Sort out everything you need to support that thesis. More about support.
- 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.
- Do a cognitive map centered on your
- Do an argument sheet for your thesis.
- 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:
- If the reader needs to know A in order to understand or agree
with B, then A should come before B.
- If A and B are closely related, The parts of the paper that
deal with them should be close together.
- If a premise of one argument needs it's own argument, that
argument should be right by that premise.
- Definitions come before explanations.
- Explanations come before arguments.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 __________ "
- 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 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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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
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
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
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
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
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