Some tips for how to write a good
philosophy paper or essay.
Remember, writing well is extraordinarily
important no matter what your career plans are. This is important
- Formatting guidelines are given on the syllabus.
- You can use the internet to help you get
non internet sources. Use J-STOR and the Philosopher's Index.
I'll show you how in class.sources.
1. A quick primer of some concrete
guidelines for composition
Layout of a Good Paper
The most important thing is to pick a thesis
and stick to it. Make sure every sentence in every paragraph
you write is relevant to your thesis. Make sure your reader knows
what the connection is.
a. Your paper should look like this:
- Introduction: Make it informative. Say what
you are going to do in the paper and how. State your thesis and
your plan clearly and succinctly. Give a map for the reader so
she can follow the paper. It is perfectly permissible, and often
much clearer, to use first person singular in telling your reader
what you intend to do! If your high-school teachers said otherwise
then they were ignorant of the appropriate standards for scholarly
writing. The vast majority of papers you will turn in at this
level are critical, so your statement of thesis will often be
something like, "In what follows, I will demonstrate the
invalidity of Russell's arguments to the conclusion that the
burden of proof lies on the idealist."
- Set up: Explain in your own words the view/position
(and the arguments for this view) of the philosopher you
are discussing clearly and carefully. Pretend you are telling
someone who doesn't know anything about this view. Don't include
historical information, however, don't tell when the book was
written for example or that the philosopher in question was a
great British thinker. Do all this before you say anything
critical about the view.
- Carefully state your criticisms/analysis
of the view and arguments you are considering. Remember that
you are trying to convince someone, so be clear and precise.
- Conclusion: Sum up what you have done. Reiterate
what you have proven in the paper and tell your reader why it
is important and interesting.
b. Specific style/layout points
- Don't use quotes to replace your own writing,
but to enhance it. You should explain the philosopher's view
in your own words and only quote when you want to make a specific
point about a certain passage.
- Introduce the quote smoothly.
- Don't say: "Mill uses the quote: "irrespective
of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it." Mill doesn't
use the quote; he wrote it. And he can't use it because he isn't
- Don't just stick the quote in; construct
a sentence around it, using enough of the quote that the reader
can tell what is going on. A good use of a quote looks like this:
In discussing the competent judges test, Mill stipulates that
the people will prefer the higher pleasure "irrespective
of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it..." (Mill,
- There are two ways to correctly format quotes.
The first is demonstrated above. Use quotation marks and after
the quote put, in parentheses, first the author's name and then
the number of the page on which the quote occurs.
- The second way is usually reserved for longer
quotes. Indent to about a half inch on each side of the quote,
justifying both sides. Single space the quote. After the quote,
list the author's name and page number as above. If you format
quotes this way, do not use quotation marks.
- At the end of the paper, list all of the
books you used or quoted from. You must provide a full citation
of any source you use. For this class, most of you will only
cite the text.
c. General stylistic points
- Know the name of the author and the title
of the book or article you are discussing. Do not refer to the
anthology in which it appears. Don't write: "In Conduct
and Character Mill writes:..." Instead write: "In
Utilitarianism, Mill writes:..."
- The first time you mention an author you
are discussing you should use his or her full name (e.g. Bertrand
Russell). After that just refer to the author by his or her last
name (Russell). Make sure you have the author's name right!
- Answer questions in your paper, don't ask
them. Make positive claims. Questions don't give the reader information.
The point of a philosophy paper is to argue for a position.
- Don't use slang. People will read your paper
more charitably if you sound intelligent.
- Know the meanings of the words you use. Using
a word incorrectly confuses your reader and makes you look less
intelligent. A paper that is simply written and clear is preferable
to a paper that tries to use big words and fails.
- Don't make big general statements you aren't
prepared to defend. "There are a lot of different kinds
of pleasures out there." These kinds of statements are either
uninformative or indefensible (or both).
d. Formatting guidelines
- Type your paper in 12 point readable type
with reasonable margins (about 1 inch all around).
- Justify both sides of the page.
- Staple your paper in the correct order and
number each page at the bottom in the center.
- Type your name, the title of your paper,
your course number, and the time your class meets at the top
of the first page of your paper.
- Refer to the formatting guidelines on the
syllabus, and remember that any deviation from them results in
a grade of F for the paper. If there is anything you do not understand
about how to format a paper appropriately first talk to the people
in the on campus computer labs. If you still have problems, e-mail
the instructor (firstname.lastname@example.org) and he will help.
2. Understand the question and make
sure you answer all parts of it.
Usually, questions on philosophy exams or
papers ask for you to give reasons or an argument. Analyze
and argue, don't report. First, you should carefully set
out the position you are arguing for or against (if you are arguing
against a position, be charitable) and then provide an argument.
A philosophical question such as: ``why would
someone believe there is a self?" should be answered with
an argument. This means that answers which talk about history,
society, or the (possible) psychology of the people of the time
are not acceptable.
3. Organize your answer.
Decide what you are going to write and highlight
what is important to your argument. State your thesis first and
then defend it.
4. Give good arguments:
This means: give clear, concise, coherent reasons
for your view or position. Argue for your position using uncontroversial
premises. Make sure your conclusion follows. Like good writing
skills, the ability to provide evidence for claims and the ability
to evaluate such evidence is a skill essential to success in
any field or endeavor. [Note: I hope that this class helps you
to develop these skills somewhat, but you should also take a
couple of Logic classes in the Philosophy Department here. (Over
and over again I've heard students tell me that their Logic classes
were the best classes they ever took, because learning logic
enabled them to do so much better in their other classes.)]
What not to do in giving an argument:
a. Don't appeal to authority. That is, don't say things like:
I don't know your mother and maybe I don't
agree with the Buddha.
b. Don't assume you're preaching to the
choir! Pretend you are arguing with
someone who has a different belief system than yours (within
reason of course). ``Clinton is a good man because he is a democrat"
is not a good argument. Your reader might not be a democrat.
In general, appealing to religion or any large body of beliefs
that your reader might not hold is not acceptable.
c. Every claim you make must be argued
for. Do not say things like:
This is not an argument. It is stating two
of your beliefs.
d. Know your enemy. Attack
the positions or arguments of your opponents, not your opponents
themselves. Don't say things like:
``The Buddhists all believe there is no self
because they are all crazy and don't believe their lives are
``The Buddhists believe there is no self because
they don't think about their views."
``All the people who doubt my position are
e. Don't talk about your feelings. Say: ``I believe there is a self'' and then give
reasons. Don't say:
f. Play the philosophy game. Don't say things like:
Even if you are not sure which position is
the correct one, you should think of the best arguments you can
for both sides. Who knows, you may be convinced by one of them.
5. Cut out the fluff.
Don't say anything that doesn't relate to the
question asked. Don't insult the assignment. This will not earn
a. Don't provide historical background
unless it is specifically asked for.
b. Don't tell us about your religious beliefs.
c. Don't make big general statements like:
``We can't really know the truth."
``Many people disagree with this position."
``I can't do anything about those who disagree
``There are reasons to doubt any position."
(This is my favorite! Good, then give me some reasons!)
None of these are informative statements and
do not add to your argument.
d. Don't tell me what you had for breakfast. Longer isn't necessarily better. If you put in a
lot of unnecessary stuff you won't get more points; instead I
will have to dig for the important parts.
6. We can't read your mind.
Make sure everything you say is as clear as possible.
Avoid analogies. ``Life is like a bowl of cherries" really
doesn't tell me anything about why I should agree with your position.
7. Avoid rhetorical questions.
I shouldn't see any question marks in your paper.
The purpose of philosophy papers is to argue for something, not
to ask questions you are not going to answer.
8. Use campus resources.
The LSU Writing Center, located in B-18 Coates
Hall, offers free, individual peer tutoring to help LSU students
improve their writing skills in any subject. For them to make
an appointment, call 388-4439. The hours are MTWTh 8:30am-4:30pm
and F 8:30am to 3:00pm.
Please, please utilize the LSU Writing Center
as a resource. Good writing skills are absolutely essential part
of success in any field of endeavor, and you should use every
avenue open to you to develop these skills.