How to write philosophy

(1) Write early

Good essay writing is good rewriting. One feature that a good essay needs is a systematic overall structure, and that can't be achieved on the first attempt. The more you redraft your essay, the better the final product will be. If you can, write your essay early, have a week off, and then come back to it with fresh eyes.

(2) Write with focus

Answer the question set. Do not just tell us everything you remember on that particular topic. So if the title is "Evaluate one objection to the ontological argument", do not mention other arguments for the existence of God, more than one objection to the ontological argument, arguments against the existence of God, or anything else (unless you specifically and clearly explain why it's relevant to your answer to the main question). Relatedly, unless the question specifically asks you to, do not write anything on who was born when, where they lived, or other purely historical matters.

(3) Write critically

Don't merely describe which possible views there are, and don't merely describe the arguments for and against those views. Evaluate those positions and arguments. If Gaunilo has an objection to Anselm's argument, don't just state it. Tell us whether or not it works, and why. Equally, remember that you need to justify your conclusion, not merely say that you believe it.

(4) Write with direction

Again, you aren't simply describing the debate. You're trying to lead the reader into a position on it that you think is correct. So don't tell us that the problem is difficult and no-one has solved it yet, or that you aren't sure of the answer. Even if you are highly unsure about the right answer to the question, you should deliver the essay as a defence of just one view: write the essay as a "best case" for that theory (like a lawyer representing a client).

(5) Write independently

Try to offer some independent thoughts on the issue. Parroting back the content of the lectures or the textbook will not be enough for the higher marks. Simple things like illustrating points with your own examples is a good start here.

Relatedly, use quotes sparingly. Quote only when you are such a huge fan of the literary merits of the relevant section of text that you don't think you can express it any more clearly in your own words. Putting things in your own words is a great way to show you understand something, and can help you frame the issue in new and original ways. This all comes with the caveat that you should not plagiarise: meet this constraint by referencing sources even if the actual words are yours.

(6) Write transparently

You should know what each paragraph and section of your essay is doing, and why they follow on from each other in the order that they do. And the reader should know this too. You allow them to do this by signposting paragraphs with phrases like "One objection to this argument is...", or "In summary...".

You should also provide the reader with a brief description of the overall structure of the essay. This is an excellent way to start your paper. The first two lines of your paper might be: "In this paper, I will argue that ___. I will argue for this by showing that ___." This way, as soon as the paper begins, the reader already knows roughly how the essay is going to proceed, which makes it much easier to follow. You should also put something very similar in your conclusion: "In this paper, I have argued that ___. I argued for this by ___." Doing this also forces you to give your essay a clear structure, and that will help you write it well.

(7) Write well

Don't leave spelling or grammar mistakes. Philosophy is hard to follow at the best of times, and it's ten times harder to understand what you're saying if it's not even coherent English. So spellcheck and grammarcheck your work, and read it out aloud to a friend to pick up on things the grammarcheck misses. Even small errors can make a big difference to the meaning of what you write.


See also Carla Bagnoli and Jim Pryor's guides to writing philosophy essays.