Monday, August 08, 2016

Writing Tips

There are many excellent guidelines on writing philosophy: James Pryor's, Michael Huemer's, and more (see this Daily Nous roundup of resources). I thought I'd offer a few suggestions also, as they come to mind:
  • Make an outline, with section headings. We've all been told to do this for a long time, but it is really helpful. And keep those numbered section headings in the paper so the overall structure is clear. A well organized paper almost writes itself: you just have to fill in the details of the various sections. These sections are the parts that form the whole, and if you've got all those parts in mind, your presentation (or paper), again, is really organized and easy to write, and read. 
  • Make your introduction short, no more than half a page. Tell your reader your topic (which should be narrow), what you are going to say or argue about it (that is, your main point, your thesis, which should be brief, e.g., "This argument is unsound," "This premise is false," "This isn't a good reason to believe that," etc., and what the structure of your paper will be: tell the audience what you are going to do (give them a "roadmap" of the presentation) and what the parts of your discussion are going to be (and how they build on each other). That's it and not much more. 
  • Arguments: your arguments is just your main point(s), you conclusions(s) and the reason(s) you give in favor of those conclusion(s). Lay that all out in a step-by-step process. Stating the argument in numbered premises and conclusions is often very helpful for that, and that makes explaining the argument and objecting to the argument easier and clearer. 
  • Break up longer sentences. If a sentence can be broken up into shorter sentences, do it: that always improves readability. 
  • Make each sentence as short as it can be. Rigorously edit to cut words and be maximally concise.
  • Each paragraph should have one, and only one, main topic. You should be able to say, "This paragraph is about that." Short paragraphs are fine. 
  • Use ordinary words, unless you absolutely must use some special word. This helps you be concise and clear. Write so as many people as possible can understand you: do not alienate people with big words. 
  • Use "I": talk to the reader. This helps you be concise and clear. 
  • Generally, don't ask rhetorical questions. Make statements and support them. Don't ask questions and hope that the reader will respond how you hope they will: they might not.
  • Revise, rewrite, rethink. After your write, reflect and revise. What can you say more concisely? What can you cut? Cut what distracts and isn't necessary to your overall purpose.
See also these rules on op-ed writing.

Here's a more recent post by me "Organization and Clarity in Writing: Seeing the Forest Through the Trees"

Here is an earlier post with some essay evaluation standards:

Philosophy Essay Evaluation Sheet

Here are some concerns for argumentative essays. How well does your essay address them?

1.      Introduction: do you have an introduction that explains the topic(s) you will address, or the question(s) you will answer?
2.      Thesis: does your paper have a thesis, that is, a conclusion that you try to support?
3.      Arguments: does your paper give an explicit argument or arguments in support of your conclusion?
a.      Do you explicitly state your premises, and why they should be accepted?
b.      Do you explicitly explain how your premises lead to your conclusions?
4.      Do you respond to any objections or counterarguments? Do you respond to questions that readers might have about your arguments?
5.      Does your paper have a conclusion that reviews what you discussed and what you argued for?
6.      Organization: could your paper be outlined to show its structure? Is it well organized?
7.      Paragraphs: does each paragraph focus on one, and only one, topic?
8.      Writing: is your paper written in plain, ordinary English? Do you use ‘fancy’ words – words that people wouldn’t use in ordinary conversation – only if it is absolutely necessary?
9.      Are there any grammatical and spelling errors?
10.  Are your sentences short and clear? Did you look closely at each sentence to ensure it makes sense?
11.  Did you proofread?
12.  Did you get someone else to read your paper and give you helpful feedback for revision?
13.  Did you revise your paper?
14.  Would someone who is unfamiliar with the paper’s issues, the relevant readings, and your course be able to understand and learn from your paper?

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