Good writing is the product of proper training, much practice, and hard work. The following remarks, though they will not guarantee a top quality paper, should help you determine where best to direct your efforts. I offer first some general comments on philosophical writing, and then some specific.
One of the first points to be clear about is that a philosophical essay is quite different from an essay in most other subjects. That is because it is neither a research paper nor an exercise in literary self-expression. It is not a report of what various scholars have had to say on a particular topic. It does not present the latest findings of tests or experiments. And it does not present your personal feelings or impressions. Instead, it is a reasoned defense of a thesis.
What does that mean?
Above all, it means that there must be a specific point that you are trying to establish something that you are trying to convince the reader to accept – together with grounds or justification for its acceptance. Before you start to write your paper, you should be able to state exactly what it is that you are trying to show. This is harder than it sounds. It simply will not do to have a rough idea of what you want to establish. A rough idea is usually one that is not well worked out, not clearly expressed, and as a result, not likely to be understood. Whether you actually do it in your paper or not, you should be able to state in a single short sentence precisely what you want to prove. If you cannot formulate your thesis this way, odds are you are not clear enough about it.
The next task is to determine how to go about convincing the reader that your thesis is correct. In two words, your method must be that of rational persuasion. You will present arguments. At this point, students frequently make one or more of several common errors. Sometimes they feel that since it is clear to them that their thesis is true, it does not need much argumentation. It is common to overestimate the strength of your own position. That is because you already accept that point of view. But how will your opponent respond? It is safest to assume that your reader is intelligent and knows a lot about your subject, but disagrees with you. Another common mistake is to think that your case will be stronger if you mention, even if briefly, virtually every argument that you have come across in support of your position.
Sometimes this is called the fortress approach. In actual fact, it is almost certain that the fortress approach will not result in a very good paper. There are several reasons for this.First, your reader is likely to find it difficult to keep track of so many different arguments, especially if these arguments approach the topic from different directions.
Second, the ones that will stand out will be the very best ones and the very worst ones. It is important to show some discrimination here. Only the most compelling one or two arguments should be developed. Including weaker ones only gives the impression that you are unable to tell the difference between the two.
Third, including many different arguments will result in spreading yourself too thinly. It is far better to cover less ground in greater depth than to range further afield in a superficial manner. It will also help to give your paper focus. In order to produce a good philosophy paper, it is first necessary to think very carefully and clearly about your topic.
Unfortunately, your reader likely your marker or instructor has no access to those thoughts except by way of what actually ends up on the page. He or she cannot tell what you meant to say but did not, and cannot read in what you would quickly point out if you were conversing face to face.
For better or for worse, your paper is all that is available. It must stand on its own. The responsibility for ensuring the accurate communication of ideas falls on the writer shoulder. You must say exactly what you mean and in a way that minimizes the chances of being misunderstood. It is difficult to overemphasize this point.
There is no such thing as a piece of good philosophical writing that is unclear, ungrammatical, or unintelligible. Clarity and precision are essential elements here. A poor writing style militates against both of these. You are guilty of begging the question or circular reasoning on a particular issue if you somehow presuppose the truth of whatever it is that you are trying to show in the course of arguing for it.
Here is a quick example. If Smith argues that abortion is morally wrong on the grounds that it amounts to murder, Smith begs the question. Smith presupposes a particular stand on the moral status of abortion – the stand represented by the conclusion of the argument. To see that this is so, notice that the person who denies the conclusion – that abortion is morally wrong – will not accept Smith’s premise that it amounts to murder, since murder is, by definition, morally wrong.
When arguing against other positions, it is important to realize that you cannot show that your opponents are mistaken just by claiming that their overall conclusions are false. Nor will it do simply to claim that at least one of their premises is false. You must demonstrate these sorts of things, and in a fashion that does not presuppose that your position is correct. There is much more that could be said about clear writing. I have not stopped to talk about grammatical and stylistic points.
For help in these matters and we all need reference works in these areas we recommend a few of the many helpful books available in the campus bookstore. My favorite little book on good writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. Another good book, more general in scope, is William Zinsser’s, On Writing Well. Both of these books have gone th
Again. After that, have someone else read your paper. Is this person able to understand you completely? Can he or she read your entire paper through without getting stuck on a single sentence? If not, go back and smooth it out. In general terms, do not be content simple.
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