Guidelines for Writing Philosophy Papers return to philosophy through video games web page

1.  A quick primer of some concrete guidelines for composition return to top

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:

  1. Introduction: Make it informative. Say what you are going to d
  2. er. 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."
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Conclusion: Sum up what you have done. Reiterat
  6. o 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 pape what you have proven in the paper and tell your reader why it is important and interesting.

b. Specific style/layout points

  1. 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.
  2. Introduce the quote smoothly.
  3. 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 quoting himself.
  4. 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, 116)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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

  1. 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:..."
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. Don't use slang. People will read your paper more charitably if you sound intelligent.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

  1. Type your paper in 12 point readable type with reasonable margins (about 1 inch all around).
  2. Staple your paper in the correct order and number each page at the top right hand side.
  3. 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.
  4. Refer to the formatting guidelines on the syllabus.
  5. Unless directed differently, use the Chicago Manual of Style system for all citations. The target of the link provided tells you how to cite articles, books, periodicals, and web pages.

2.  Understand the question and make sure you answer all parts of it. return to top

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. return to top
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. return to top
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:

5.  Cut out the fluff. return to top
Don't say anything that doesn't relate to the question asked. Don't insult the assignment. This will not earn you points.

6.  We can't read your mind. return to top
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. return to top
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. return to top
Your university almost certainly has a writing center where people will help you at every stage of a paper's production. Avail yourself of these resource! Your university almost certainly has an on-line discussion of what constitutes plagiarism. Read it and if there is anything about it you don't get, discuss it with your professor.