Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Organization and Clarity in Writing: Seeing the Forest Through the Trees

Philosophy papers, or philosophical presentations (talks or lectures, audio or video presentations, which are usually based on something written in preparation for the talk), typically attempt to do a number of things, such as:
  1. State a view or claim.
  2. State and explain a view or claim. 
  3. State and explain a view or claim, and explain an argument(s) or reason(s) given in its favor, e.g., that the view is true or reasonable to believe, or state and explain a view or claim, and explain an argument(s) or reason(s) given against it, e.g., that the view is false or unreasonable to believe.  
  4. State and explain a view or claim, and explain an argument(s) or reason(s) given in its favor or against it, and state and explain some objection(s) to that (or those) argument(s) - that is, a reason to think that the initial argument is somehow faulty - and explain whether that objection(s) is strong or not.  
And there are other tasks that one might do in a philosophy paper or presentation. It's important that whatever you decide you are going to do, you do it. 

1. Planning and Parts

Whatever you are doing, your paper or presentation will have parts that form the whole paper. The "forest" that is the whole of your paper is composed of "trees," which are the parts. 

To create organization, you should make a list of those "trees" or parts. Use those parts to make an outline: "First, I'll have to discuss this; next I'll have to explain that; finally, I'll have to address this..." Make a real numbered outline of these parts and use it in your paper: keep it there in the paper to help the structure and organization be clear and obvious. You might notice that many academic writings have an outline built in: this makes it easier to read. An outline also makes a paper easier to write because the task is broken up into sub-tasks, which are easier to address. 

You can begin the task of finding these parts by recognizing that your paper will always have an introduction and a conclusion: you'll always have to start, and you'll always have to end. So you can start your outline with those parts:
  1. Introduction
  2. Conclusion
(For new philosophers, the best introduction involves just telling the reader what your topic is and what you are going to do in the paper: what your are going to explain, what - if anything - you are going to argument for, and so on. Let them know what's coming, so they know what to look for.) 

From here, you need to think about the "parts" involved in your task. What your parts are depends on what you are tasked with. Suppose you want to people to understand the cosmological argument for God's existence and one reason that people reject it, that is, one objection. Well, here we go then:
  1. Introduction
  2. Stating the Cosmological Argument
  3. Explaining the Cosmological Argument
  4. One Objection to the Cosmological Argument
  5. Conclusion
From here, keep that outline and just fill out the details of each section. Each section is a mini-paper, a part, contributing to the whole paper. In planning this out, You might come to think that you should have more sections, or less. You might come to think that sub-sections would helpful. That's great if it makes it more organized and clear.

2. Quick Tips for Organization and Clarity

One you've got a structure, you are on your way. Here are some other quick tips on organized and clear writing:
  • Have each paragraph be about one, and only one, topic. This helps with organization. 
  • Write in short sentences. For any long sentence, break it up into short sentences: these are easier to read and understand. (Read a newspaper article: notice how the sentences are short. This is because they are easier to read!). 
  • Rigorously edit each sentence: cut out needless words; try to say things as concisely as possible; and don't use "big" and uncommon words when ordinary words will do. Again, this all makes it easier on the reader. 
These are a few quick tips. Implementing them takes practice and reflection, but using them can, and will, make you a better communicator. 

Doing a philosophy paper should also help make you a better thinker too. And one thing better thinkers do is they do not form a strong opinion on an issue until they have thought it through carefully. A paper is an opportunity to do this thinking, on paper, and so form the basis of your understanding of an informed opinion on the topic. Given that, don't go into writing a paper certain of what your view on the topic is: be open to the possibility that your own explaining the issues and evaluating the arguments will inform and influence your views, for the better

For similar guidance, see my earlier "Writing Tips."

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