Essay writing is an art, not a science, and there is no one-size-fits-all method for how to write a good essay in philosophy. Professional philosophers write in a variety of styles and the same can be said of students of philosophy. I am often asked what I am looking for in a good philosophical essay, and there is no simple answer to this, any more than there is a straightforward answer to what I or anyone else looks for in a good book of philosophy. The question is not what the professor wants but what the topic requires. A good paper is well informed, relatively thorough, well constructed, and has something to say. This can be accomplished in a thousand ways. A good essay needs to do justice to the topic. It begins with a question, as thinking in general does, and pursues this in whatever way is required. One follows a topic where it leads and does not conform to a blueprint. Philosophy is creative, rigorous, and critical at the same time. If there were a blueprint, I would tell you.
An essay begins with a topic (indicated in the essay’s title) and a question, such as what does Heidegger mean by Being, what is Nietzsche’s perspectivism, or what is Camus’ position on suicide? It articulates an hypothesis, such as Camus’ position on suicide is this, or Nietzsche’s perspectivism is this—followed, if one chooses, with some critical argumentation of one’s own on the philosopher’s views. Philosophers value what is called “critical thinking,” which means taking a position either for or against the ideas you are writing about, supported by reasons. In my undergraduate courses, I leave it to students to decide whether they engage in such argumentation. If you choose to do so, I would suggest that you limit yourself to one or two criticisms (if you disagree) or supporting arguments (if you agree) and that you not offer several criticisms or arguments in rapid succession. It is perfectly acceptable at the undergraduate level to write an expository paper. Many a book on Nietzsche, Heidegger, or any other philosopher limits itself to providing an informed and thorough interpretation of its subject without much of an argument supporting or opposing their ideas, so I cannot very well require more than this at the undergraduate level. Providing a good interpretation of your topic is not as straightforward a task as it may sound. Indeed there is nothing simple about it and it is an important skill to develop. A good interpretation is always already critical and is not what is called “regurgitation.” It does, however, need to be informed, detailed, and as thorough as the word limit allows.
How does one learn to write philosophy? Again, there is no one way to do this, or to write in any other form or discipline. To write well, one needs to acquire an ear for the English language. How does one acquire that? The short answer is by reading books and plenty of them—quality prose in any genre one likes. I learned to write in high school, not from my teachers but by reading a great deal of mostly nineteenth-century literature. This generation of students, it seems to me, faces a couple of major obstacles in this regard. The first is the policy of the Ontario Ministry of Education not to teach more than a smattering of grammar in high schools; I gather their rationale for this is that grammar is not entertaining, and indeed it is not. The second is the ubiquity of screens. As I tell my daughter (simplifying only slightly since she is seven), books make you smart, screens make you stupid. If you spend more time looking at screens than books, the likelihood of you developing an ear for the language is negligible. Put down your devices and read books—on anything that interests you, and the more the better. If you want to write well, read a book or two on grammar. It does not make for exciting reading, even for me, but you will learn a great deal quickly and it will improve your grades significantly. Whatever you plan to do for a living, you will more than likely be writing a fair amount, and for this reason alone you need to know some grammar. I recommend the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the Bible for professional writers and it also has a website: www.chicagomanualofstyle.org. I also recommend Maxine Ruvinsky’s Practical Grammar, some copies of which I order every semester through the Queen’s University Bookstore. There are many similar books on the market, and many of them are very good. Any used bookstore will carry some.
Try to develop a bit of reverence for the written word—not too much, but some. You should not write essays the way you speak. Aim for a bit of formality, and again not too much. Too much informality is not good either. Best to err on the side of formality without making your prose stilted. You want your own voice to come through, but in its intelligent version.
What follows are some specific dos and don’ts which reflect what I often see in students’ papers at Queen’s, followed by a list of frequently made errors. My intention here is not to insult your intelligence. Students cannot be faulted for not knowing what they were not taught. You should have been taught grammar and writing style in high school, and almost none of you were. Nor was I. It is your responsibility to learn it anyway, and now is the time.
- Use the Chicago style in your essays, including the citation style. Spend some time reading their website if you don’t want to buy the printed book. I use this style myself because it is logical, intuitive, and preferred by most academic publishers.
- Write essays slowly and edit and re-edit your work. Write in drafts. On my writing days I limit myself to 1000 words a day, and usually less. Slower is better.
- Feel free to read beyond the required texts. Reading another book or two by the author you are writing about is always a good idea.
- Consult a few pieces of secondary literature, but be selective. Make sure a text has been peer-reviewed and do not rely on whatever turns up on a Google search. Most of it is unreliable.
- Go to the library and check out books and articles in reputable peer-reviewed journals. Queen’s has an excellent library. Use it.
- Express your opinion, but not in a cursory way. Spell it out and justify it. Remember that an essay is trying to persuade.
- Have a good dictionary and thesaurus ready to hand when you write. This is not amateurish; good writers do this. I always have the Oxford English Dictionary and the unabridged Roget’s Thesaurus within reach when I write anything that matters, and I use both often. The book versions are far superior to Microsoft Word.
- Give your essay a title. A text is not a text without a title. Come up with your own title and place it near the top of the first page, then leave a bit of space before the first line of the essay.
- Go into as much depth and detail as the word limit allows.
- Number all pages.
- Double-space lines.
- Single-space lines in block quotations.
- Use a 12-point standard font.
- Quote the text some—not too much, but definitely not too little.
- Use italics for book titles and the titles of academic journals—not quotation marks.
- Use quotation marks for journal articles and book chapters—not italics.
- If you are using footnotes or endnotes, provide the full bibliographic information the first time you cite a given text and only the first time.
- Use block quotations for passages three lines or longer. Block quotations do not take quotation marks and the lines are single spaced.
- Include a bibliography or works cited section at the end of the paper.
- Use the first person singular pronoun, that is, “I.” You are an individual, so write like one. If you are the Queen or King of England, use the royal “We.”
- Make sure that the subject and verb of a sentence agree. This is one of most common mistakes I see, and I see it probably 50% of the time.
- End a question with a question mark.
- Learn correct punctuation. This is becoming a lost art, and it is terribly important. Know the difference, for instance, between a comma and a period, a colon and a semicolon.
- Always pick up your essays after they are marked, including at the end of term. I spend some time putting red ink on your papers, and your writing will not improve if you do not see your mistakes.
- Expect to find a formula or easy blueprint for writing philosophical essays.
- Write essays quickly or at the last minute. It always shows.
- Rely on websites, most of which are unreliable or written at too elementary a level. This includes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (not unreliable, but too elementary) and, worse, Wikipedia. Also do not rely on lecture notes posted on some professor’s website; some know what they are talking about and some do not.
- Use contractions.
- Use a cover page.
- Use headers or footers.
- Put your name on every page. Your name and student number go at the top of the first page, before the title. I do not need to be reminded of your name on every page.
- Use clichés—e.g., do not begin a paper with “In this paper ...” or “In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche....” Good writers avoid clichés like the plague.
- Begin an essay with biographical information about the philosopher about whom you are writing.
- Use split infinitives—e.g., “to quickly walk.” The correct phrase is “to walk quickly.”
- End sentences with prepositions.
- Use the passive voice.
- Begin sentences with And, So, Now, Well, Basically, Subsequently, Conclusively, or As such. In fact, do not use the phrase “as such” at all since it is overused and nearly always misused.
- Repeat yourself more than a little.
- Use “firstly,” “secondly,” and so on. The words are “first,” “second,” and so on. The suffix “ly” is used in adverbs, and these are not adverbs.
- Write run-on sentences.
- Write incomplete sentences.
- Use quotation marks in block quotations.
- Misspell words. Do not rely on your spell check program; it will catch some mistakes, but not all.
- Rely on a grammar check program. Your computer cannot write for you.
- Use upper case letters unnecessarily—e.g., on technical terms. Technical terms are usually lower case.
- Under-cite. Know when and how to cite texts.
- Over-cite. This is a new trend, and it is a mistake. Use a footnote, endnote, or internal citation (Camus, 150) when you are either quoting a text, providing a very close paraphrase, or when you need to justify a controversial interpretation of the text (where you can imagine the reader asking where the philosopher writes this). Do not plagiarize, of course, but do not run to the opposite extreme either, as many now do.
- Cite my lectures. My lectures are not copyrighted.
- Use “society” as the subject of a sentence. Society is not an agent.
- Divide an essay into sections or use section headings, unless you are writing a longer paper.
- Write “in fact” when you mean “in my opinion.” The latter phrase is perfectly legitimate.
- Insert extra space between paragraphs. At the end of a paragraph, hit Enter then Tab once to start a new paragraph.
- Think that beginning a sentence with “I argue that” makes the sentence into an argument. It remains an assertion until it is backed up with a reason.
- Write throw-away phrases or sentences. Make every word count.
- Begin an essay with some grand proclamation—e.g., “Since the dawn of time....”
- Use italics except for book and journal titles and non-English words. Inserting italics is rarely necessary and is usually rhetoric (in the bad sense). Same with bold letters. You do not need to hit your reader over the head.
- Use caps lock under any circumstances whatsoever.
- Use exclamation marks. A period will do.
- Include a summary at the end. This is only necessary in longer texts where the reader needs reminding of what you have said.
- Misuse or overuse the word “said”—“the said person,” “the said book.”
- Make up a word when an existing word will do—e.g., “liberalist.” The word is “liberal.”
- Say “positionality” when you mean “position.” These are two different words. Adding “ality” or “icity” to words arbitrarily does not make you look smart. Don’t try to “look smart”; write what you mean.
- Lose sleep worrying about the politics of pronouns. If you want to change the world, you have my blessing, but contrary to what you have heard, changing pronouns will not accomplish this.
- Believe that the grade on an essay reflects whether I agree with it. I read papers all the time that I disagree with; my opinion is not factored into the grade in any way.
- it’s/its. I see this mistake in students’ papers more than half the time.
- anyways. This is not a word.
- immoral/amoral. Two different words. The second is usually misused.
- i.e. and e.g. “For example” is e.g., not ex. “That is” is i.e. There is no need for short forms at all; best to stick with “for example” and “that is.”
- the person “that.” It is “the person who.”
- "one's self." The word is "oneself."
- "showcases." Avoid.
- transcendent/transcendental. Two very different words.
- advocate “for.” A philosopher advocates an idea; they do not advocate for it.
- we “as humans”—as opposed to we as some other kind of thing?
- “as such” does not mean “accordingly” or “therefore.” It means “as such,” and it is almost always misused. Best to avoid this phrase.
- “19th,” “20th,” and so on. Write out “nineteenth,” “twentieth,” and so on.
- a book of philosophy is not a novel. A novel is a work of fiction.
There you have it. You will learn a lot more by reading a book or two on writing style and grammar. I read several of these books in my student days and my writing improved immensely.
I reiterate: put your devices down and read books. I would put this in caps lock were it not bad style.