by Lakshmi Sadhu
I have written more philosophy essays than you can possibly imagine – unless you’re a philosophy professor, in which case kindly disregard my pompousness – it’s the inevitable occupational hazard of being a philosophy specialist for five years. Writing a philosophy essay is very different from writing a regular essay, something I wish I had known as a first-year. I had never taken philosophy in high school, but I always did well in my English and creative writing classes. Naturally, I thought writing a philosophy essay, which in my mind was like any other essay, would be a piece of cake.
Boy, was I wrong.
My first ever philosophy essay was for PHL100, an essay that I handed in very proudly to my T.A. I had written it the night before, but I remember feeling very pleased with the quality of my work precisely because I managed to produce a 1,500 word essay the night before it was due. Of course, my illogical bubble of satisfaction burst two weeks later when I got my graded paper back with a D+, also known in my family as “Doomed+”.
Regardless, my first and last D+ taught me two invaluable lessons. First, it taught me what a philosophy paper is not, and second, it made me realise that I needed to find a way to do an essay the night before and still ace it. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that you should complete all your essays last minute and give your professors subpar work that does nothing to represent your true intellectual potential. They deserve better and, frankly, so do you.
What I am trying to say, however, is that there are certain tips and tricks that you don’t always find in those unnecessarily verbose essay guides that professors hand out in class, guides that very bluntly profess certain academic and personal ruin for those students who forget to use quotation marks when directly quoting philosophers. You need a handy compilation of tips and tricks that you can quickly refer to while working on your essays to ensure you’re on the right track, and which prove especially invaluable if you, due to some unforeseeable circumstance, do end up doing an essay the night before it’s due. Maybe you had four essays due that week, or maybe you’re just a pro-procrastinator with a penchant for binge watching TV shows at inopportune times.
Whatever your reason, I have a solution. Here are the top 10 tips to keep in mind when writing a philosophy paper:
1. To fluff or not to fluff, that is the question
The answer to which is a resounding no! Do not begin essays with overly generalised or dramatic statements like, “Since the dawn of time, mankind has philosophised…”, or “Nietzsche was perhaps the greatest intellectual that ever walked this fragile planet…”. Professors commonly refer to these kind of sentences as “fluff”, they serve no real purpose in your essay apart from adding to the word-count. You need to keep in mind that professors and T.A.s have countless essays to grade, they would very much appreciate it if you just got straight to the point. The less annoyed your grader is while reading your paper, the better.
2. You need a blindingly clear thesis
A thesis is to a philosophy essay, what hot water is to a tea bag – indispensable. It’s what brings an essay to life. Your reader should be able to tell within the first 5 sentences of your essay, what the rest of your paper is going to be about. In other words, your thesis is the whole point of your essay, it should clearly explain what and who you are arguing for, or against. Statements like, “The purpose of my essay is to…”, or “In my essay, I will argue that…”, will serve as clear thesis indicators to your readers.
3. You need a structured road map
Where a thesis tells your reader what your essay is about, a road map informs your reader about how you’re going to flesh out your argument, or thesis. It should mention, in sharp detail, the several components of your paper and how they each serve to support the conclusion, which is essentially your thesis. A road map is always mentioned right after the thesis. It would look something like this:
“In my essay I will argue for X (This is your thesis). (Now your road map…) I will accomplish this by first explaining Y. Following this, I will elucidate Z. I will then conclude with why I think that Y and Z support my argument X.”
Naturally, depending on your argument and how you plan to flesh it out, your roadmap may be longer or shorter, and have more steps than I’ve just illustrated. The key is to make sure you are as clear as possible in letting the reader know every step you plan on taking in your paper.
4. Introductory sentences are key
Each paragraph in your essay ought to have a clear introductory sentence that lets the reader know what you’re going to talk about in that section. Just like how a thesis explains the point of your entire essay, the purpose of a paragraph’s introductory sentence is to tell your reader the goal of that paragraph.
5. Avoid gigantic blobs of text
This might seem like common sense, but it’s natural to get carried away while writing and forget to space out your essay into neat paragraphs. Not only are paragraphs easier on your reader’s eyes, but they also make your essay more organised. It’s incredibly important that each paragraph in your essay corresponds with your road map!
Wherever possible, include your own real world examples as evidence for philosophical arguments, instead of just leeching of the textual examples. This shows comprehension, that you have much more than a superficial understanding of the text. And that’s exactly what your professors want.
7. Less exposition, more argument
All essays have a certain word limit. You don’t need to spend a 1,000 of your 1,500 word limit in just rehashing what your assigned text says. The professor does not want to read a regurgitation of your textbook, he wants you to posit an argument from the text and fiercely defend it (or attack it) from every angle. Philosophy essays are argumentative essays, not informational essays. Provide just enough information to give your essay context, the rest should be arguments.
8. When in doubt, cite!
If you aren’t sure if something you have quoted or paraphrased deserves a citation, then just cite it! Never has a student been penalised for citing a sentence that did not require a formal attribution. ALWAYS err on the side of caution!
9. The word-count is not a cage, it is a guideline
Your professor will not mark you down just because you’re off by a 100-200 words, or if you’ve exceeded the word limit by a 100-200 words. Most often that not, professors provide a word-count to serve as a guideline for how many words it might take for you to successfully posit an argument on a specific topic. If you’re a little short on the word-count, but feel like you’ve successfully demonstrated and defended your argument, then you don’t need to worry. Don’t feel like you need to throw in more words, or make your sentences more verbose or repetitive just to reach the word-count.
There’s nothing a professor loves more than a counter-argument! Merely explaining your argument and cherry-picking evidence to support it is not only insufficient but also does nothing to support your grit as a philosopher. However, if you can also provide evidence against your argument, and showcase that your original argument still triumphs despite opposing evidence, then you’ve succeeded in proving that you really know your stuff.
Hopefully these tips help you out! Are there any other essay writing pointers I haven’t mentioned? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂