Before writing a philosophy paper, reading the material and taking notes carefully is best. It is also a good idea to create an outline of the points one wishes to make in the essay.
Avoid vague or overly brief exposition, serious omissions, and/or misunderstandings. Moreover, be careful about appeals to faith, authority, or tradition; these tend to weaken a philosophical argument.
Construct and evaluate arguments
One of the main objectives of undergraduate philosophical writing is to construct and evaluate arguments. Such a paper cannot achieve this goal unless the claims that comprise the argument are formulated clearly and precisely.
Moreover, these claims must be organized so that the complex relations of support they bear upon each other are readily apparent to an educated reader.
This task is often difficult for novices, as canonical philosophical assertions are couched in vocabulary with which most non-specialists are familiar only vaguely and with limited understanding.
Therefore, undergraduate philosophers are encouraged to illustrate their assertions with concrete everyday examples.
This serves two important purposes: it clarifies the meanings of esoteric philosophical terminology and demonstrates to instructors that students have understood obscure yet crucial philosophical assumptions in their own terms.
It is crucial for an author to present their views and underlying assumptions in clear, precise language. An author should be especially wary of using ambiguous vocabulary and avoid employing synonyms that invite confusion.
A thesaurus is generally a philosopher’s enemy, as it tends to yield words with overlapping meanings and connotations.
An author should begin her paper with an introduction that maps the rest of the argument. This should include a summary of the logical inter-relations between different claims the paper will defend and the order in which they will be discussed.
The key to success in any philosophy paper is clarity and straightforwardness of thought and language. Students often find it necessary to reconstruct philosophers’ arguments in a way that someone unfamiliar with the original argument will understand. This involves clarifying definitions (usually different from the way Webster’s Dictionary defines them) and arguing that the premises of the argument support the conclusion.
In addition, it is important to use the present tense when explaining any of the arguments you discuss in a paper. This helps ensure clarity and avoids distractions when writers are drawn off on tangential issues. The introduction should also provide a road map for the rest of the paper, indicating how the various claims will be organized and in what order they will be defended.
An argument is a set of claims: a conclusion the author wishes to establish and a set of reasons for believing the conclusion. The author of a philosophical paper must always argue for the conclusion; it is not sufficient to criticize another philosopher’s argument.
It is common for novice philosophy writers to get distracted by tangential issues and fail to articulate an argument that would convince a reader. Philosophers have studied ways arguments can go wrong for millennia; avoiding fallacious argumentation is an important goal for any philosopher.
Philosophy is taught in two divergent traditions: the continental tradition, associated with philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and the analytic tradition, associated with philosophers like Frege, Russell, Carnap, and Austin. An undergraduate philosophy student must take care to understand the distinctions between these two traditions.
Philosophy papers often present arguments in a kind of flow-chart structure, with different “nodes” (premises or conclusions) linked by logical links. Unless these logical inter-relations are presented in the paper, the reader can easily lose track of what is being argued for or against.
Similarly, students should always try to be clear about what they mean when using terms like “law” or “conclusion.” Otherwise, they can inadvertently mislead their readers.
Those who follow these basic guidelines will be on their way to writing excellent philosophy papers. Then they will be ready to receive the detailed feedback their instructors will give them.