Philosophy Essay

A philosophy paper generally involves the consideration of some thesis or argument, often one that has been presented by another philosopher. A good paper is “modest and makes a small point, but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it” (Pryor, 2012).

PURPOSE. As Pryor (2012) stated, the purpose is to make a small point but to make it well. You must think critically about philosophical questions; your goals are simplicity and clarity.

NOTE. While there are general principles and goals for this type of writing, this planner is not a how-to guide. When in doubt, or if something conflicts, check with your professor or TA.

Plan your assignment now:

Add your assignment plan to your calendar or download a PDF copy:

STAGE 1

Phase 1: Early stages

This phase includes everything you should do before you sit down to write your first draft: read and take notes, brainstorm, think, discuss the issue with others, and outline your arguments. The more thinking and planning you do, the better the paper you will write, so start early.

Step 1: Understand your assignment

This should take about 4% of your time

What are you being asked to do? Think about:

  • the purpose of the assignment (e.g., to show that you understand a text; to evaluate a claim; to develop an argument)
  • the context of the assignment (e.g., is it a term paper? One of ten short response papers due over the term?).

Carefully read any instructions or guidelines you have been given. How long should it be? What formatting considerations have you been given (e.g., font size, spacing)?

If you have any questions, ask your professor or TA.

New to Philosophy?

  • Queen’s Libraries has a great introduction to research (including specific resources on writing research papers).
  • Professors from the University of Cambridge wrote an excellent student guide, Tackling the Philosophy Essay (accessed May 2022). It has annotated examples of the components of a philosophy paper and an annotated example of a successful final draft.
  • Keep in mind that the aim of philosophy is “to be clear-headed rather than confused; lucid rather than obscure; rational rather than otherwise; and to be neither more, nor less, sure of things than is justifiable by argument or evidence” (Geoffrey Warnock).

Step 2: Analyze the question

This should take about 4% of your time

If you have been provided with a question, begin by understanding it. Here are some considerations (pp. 3-6) as you unpack the question and decide how to respond (Benn, Cameron, Cawston, & Siriwardena, 2013).

If you must select a topic, pick one that you find “both intriguing and manageable” (de Bres, 2009). Which of the topics do you find most interesting? Which do you have the most to say about?

Step 3: Review relevant material

This should take about 8% of your time

Once you understand what the question is asking, determine the course material that is relevant to answering it, including your lecture notes or course readings. If you haven’t already, make notes in your own words about the arguments and points covered in this material. Take an active approach to your note-taking.

The goal here is to re-familiarize yourself with the material studied in class to determine your thesis.

Step 4: Decide on your thesis

This should take about 9% of your time

You cannot begin writing until you have determined exactly what you are trying to show. You’ll know you’re ready when you can state precisely what you want to prove in a single short sentence (Horban, 1993). As John Searle said, “if you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself.”

  • Talk it out. It helps to discuss your ideas with others (e.g., writing consultant, TA, professor, friend, classmate, family member). Explaining your ideas and reasoning out loud helps to clarify your thinking.
  • Your thesis can change and evolve. As with other types of writing, you can revise your thesis later on in the writing process. Aim for “a strong and well-defined thesis” (de Bres, 2009, p. 11).
  • Keep your thesis simple and modest. In Philosophy, less is more. Don’t try to take on too much! It’s better to go into great detail about a modest or small point than to attempt to address too many points, or too complex an issue.
  • Troubleshooting. Here is some helpful information on troubleshooting thesis statements, beginning on page 7 (Benn, Cameron, Cawston, & Siriwardena, 2013).

Step 5: Outline your argument

This should take about 10% of your time

Philosophy papers rely on clear, logical structures. Consider the logical progression of your ideas (e.g., which premises you select, how and in what order you present them, your ability to anticipate the reader’s objections) before you begin writing.

Begin by outlining your arguments (short, succinct sentences).

Step 6: Revise your outline

This should take about 5% of your time

When you’ve finished an outline, let it simmer (Horban, 1993), for a few days or for whatever length of time is reasonable before you begin writing. Then take another look at it and ask yourself,

  • does the argument structure still seem as clear as it did?
  • are there any changes you could make to improve it?

STAGE 2

Phase 2: Draft your paper

Using your outline as a guide, write your first draft.

Step 7: Write a first draft

This should take about 20% of your time

Write the body first, followed by the introduction and conclusion. Although you’ll write your conclusion last, know what your conclusion is and how your reasons and examples support it; this will help you write clearly and make good decisions (Law & Warburton, 2007).

  • Use simple prose. Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Use everyday words. (de Bres, 2009).
  • Signpost to communicate a clear sense of your argument and its direction (Rippon, 2008)): short guide to signposting in essays (Birmingham University); topic sentences and signposting (Harvard College Writing Center); effective transitions (Queen’s University).
  • Be concise, but explain your argument fully.
  • Imagine your reader (see advice in Step 10 (below) around the “lazy, stupid, and mean” reader).
  • Anticipate objections to your arguments.
  • Use plenty of examples and definitions.

More generally, here are some elements to consider and avoid when writing philosophy papers, and some general writing advice (de Bres, 2009, p. 14).

STAGE 3

Phase 3: Rewrite, and keep rewriting

Plan on writing three or four drafts of your paper. This assignment planner includes revision steps so you’ll be able to budget the time accordingly. Take this as a minimum guideline; if more revisions further improve your paper, and you have time, then do it.

Here is an example of how much can be gained from multiple revisions. A writing tutor for introductory philosophy courses has illustrated how to revise a short paper: follow along from the first to the fourth draft (and to the final paper) to see how much the paper improves each time.

Step 8: Review

This should take about 3% of your time

Before you revise, take the time to review the assignment guidelines (e.g., the specific question that was posed, the requirements for the assignment). Make sure that you have accurately understood the assignment and that you have done what was assigned in your draft. Then, look back at your argument. What was your thesis? Is that what you defended in your draft, or did you drift? (If you drifted, this is a logical starting point for revisions.)

It can be very helpful to plan to see your TA or professor, or a writing consultant, about a draft.

Step 9: Revise 1

This should take about 10% of your time

Revision is about the big picture of your paper. Some of what you might revise includes:

  • the paper’s logical structure and flow,
  • the addition of examples or explanations as you anticipate objections or ambiguity,
  • any/all possible objections to your premises, etc.

One way to revise efficiently is to select a different goal each time you revise. For example, paragraph structure or eliminating wordiness. Focus on that goal for the whole paper, then pick a new goal and go through it again. Make a note of something you want to return to if it comes up.

Be bold. “First drafts will always be improved significantly by rewriting. Better drafts are almost always shorter drafts because words have been cut out as ideas are clarified. Clear sentences do not just happen—they are the result of tough-minded editing” (Horban, 1993).

Step 10: Revise 2

This should take about 10% of your time

Envision your reader. What might they think, question, and understand when reading your draft?

Jim Pryor suggests going so far as to imagine that your reader is “lazy, stupid, and mean.” They are probably none of these, but writing with such a person in mind will help you use the clearest prose possible:

[Your reader is] lazy in that he doesn't want to figure out what your convoluted sentences are supposed to mean, and he doesn't want to figure out what your argument is, if it's not already obvious. He's stupid, so you have to explain everything you say to him in simple, bite-sized pieces. And he's mean, so he's not going to read your paper charitably.

Look back over your draft and revise accordingly (e.g., add examples or explanations, clarify terms, simplify language, anticipate objections, etc.).

Step 11: Revise 3

This should take about 10% of your time

Remember that simplicity and clarity is your goal. Every sentence you write should be in the service of your argument. Now’s the time to cut anything extraneous. Make sure every sentence does useful work; cut the ones that don’t. Avoid fluff (e.g., wordy or roundabout language, padding, flowery prose) and ambiguous language. Say exactly what you mean.

Step 12: Edit

This should take about 5% of your time

Once you’ve finished revising, you can focus on editing your paper, with an eye to sentence structureword choice, and grammar. You’re aiming to improve style and coherence, reduce awkward phrasing, ensure transitions are clear, etc.

Your aim is clarity, and clarity in philosophy happens at the level of 1) words, 2) sentences, 3) paragraphs, 4) arguments, 5) illustrations, and 6) underlying thought. Each of these levels deserves your attention at the revision stage.

Here are some of the most common errors in style, grammar, and punctuation.

Step 13: Finalize your paper

This should take about 1% of your time

Time to proofread! This is your last chance to find those typos that always turn up right after you hand in your paper. Always proofread a hard copy, not on a screen.

Sometimes it helps to proofread your paper backwards (e.g., sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph); you’re more likely to catch typos by focusing on form, not content. Alternatively, you might print it out in a different type or size of font, or read it out loud.

Step 14: Submit

This should take about 1% of your time

Congratulations—you did it!

If possible, take a moment to reflect. How did it go? Think about what went well, what didn’t, and how you might like to improve your process for your next philosophy paper.