When my students ask about how to write a philosophy paper, I tell them to aim for three or four criteria. And if they want more guidance, I give them writing tips. Below are the criteria — in order of importance — and the tips.†
What this means: It should be difficult for me to misunderstand you.††
So don’t waste time crafting long sentences with big words. Instead, aim for a 6th to 9th grade reading level. Yes, I know: that’s not how many academics write.††† But many academics do not write well.
1st Writing Tip: You can check readability and grade level for free.
Microsoft Word can automatically check the readability of your writing [here’s how]. If you don’t use Word, that’s OK. You can copy-paste your paper into a free, online Flesch-Kincaid readability test like the one pictured below.
2nd Writing Tip: Your friends can help.
Ask a peer to read your paper and summarize each part. If they misunderstand your paper, then you probably need to revise.
And offer to read your peer’s paper. Remember, writing well is hard work. We’re in this together.
3rd Writing Tip: You can listen to your paper.
Have your computer read your paper aloud so that you can hear how it sounds [here’s how]. Revise the paper until your writing no longer sounds unnatural, overly complicated, etc. (This is also a good way to find errors, so you might proofread your final draft by re-listening to it.)
What this means: It should be difficult for me to disagree with you.
So support your claims. And don’t make your claims so strong that you cannot support them. Also, tell your reader about the strongest objection(s) to your thesis. After that, salvage your thesis from the objection(s).
4th Writing Tip: Not all criticism is equal.
When criticizing someone’s argument, you don’t want to resort to name calling or other fallacious responses. You want to criticize the argument and it’s conclusion.
The diagram below is a hierarchy of the kinds of disagreement that you might provide in your paper.†††† Your paper should include only the top 3 kinds of disagreement. Ideally, it would contain only the top 2 kinds.
5th Writing Tip: You can change your mind.
When your thesis can’t be salvaged from objection(s), don’t worry. Simply change your thesis from “[X] is probably true“ to “[X] is probably false”. Seriously. It’s that easy.
What this means: It should be difficult to (a) find irrelevant text in your paper and / or (b) rewrite your paper using fewer words.
So write as concisely as you can (without sacrificing 1 and 2, of course). Get rid of everything that is unnecessary.
6th Writing Tip: You probably need to cut a lot.
I find that almost half of the words in the average first draft can be cut. So if you reach your word limit after writing only one draft, you still have a lot of work to do.
7th Writing Tip: You might need to start over.
Sometimes, the easiest way to make a paper more concise (and / or more clear and / or more cogent) is to rewrite it …from scratch. So plan to start writing soon enough that you can rewrite the entire paper before the deadline.
What this means: Creativity can help. But it might hurt. So be creative at your own risk. Remember, you can get an A without being creative.
8th Writing Tip: Prioritize clarity, cogency, and concision.
You might want to ignore the urge to be creative until your paper is optimally clear, cogent, and concise. Trying to be creative prior to that point might actually prevent your paper from achieving optimal clarity, cogency, and concision.
9th Writing Tip: Not all creativity is good.
Creativity can undermine your efforts to make a paper clear, cogent, and concise. Really. It’s not like any instance of creativity will help. The only kind of creativity that helps your writing is the kind that improves clarity, cogency, and concision. And that’s a difficult form of creativity to achieve. So if you are struggling to write creatively, remember: there is no shame in writing a paper that is clear, cogent, concise, and yet not creative.
How I Use These Criteria In My Feedback
My goal is to make sure that my feedback on papers is directly related to these four criteria. When I read something that I don’t like and it’s not related to one of these criteria, I ignore it. In those cases, it’s not a student’s writing; it’s me.
To give feedback quickly, consistently, constructively, I use a grading shorthand. The shorthand contains the most common errors students make when writing a philosophy paper. The key to the shorthand is pictured below.
† Thanks to Steve Jovanović for getting me to write this down. And thanks to Jack Justus for introducing me to the alliteratively satisfying “clarity, cogency, conciseness, and creativity.” Finally, thanks to u/neotropic9 on Reddit for pointing out that ‘concision’ is more precise than ‘conciseness’.
††† And this probably isn’t how you were taught to write before college. In the US, students are not taught how to write philosophy. This is frustrating for college students in the US, I know. But I’m on your side. I’m here to help. 🙂
†††† Thanks to Mikio Akagi for pointing me to this diagram.