Philosophy Essay Writing Tips

Take your essays seriously. To do a good job, make sure you allow at least 4 weeks to complete an essay:

NB: An "perfect" essay is a regulative ideal-it doesn't exist in reality. None of us can write a perfect essay, but that doesn't mean that we can't get better and better at trying. That's what professional academics do too. Like them, the more work that you put into writing essays, the more you will improve, both in terms of style and substance.

What Not To Do

  1. Don't write for your lecturer!

    This may seem odd, but it is sound advice. When writing an essay do not think of yourself as writing for assessment, or for a highly scholastic reader such as your lecturer. If you do this, you will probably only tend to make yourself nervous and imagine that you should be writing to criteria which do not, in fact, apply to you. You might imagine that the lecturer/tutor already knows a lot about the subject (probably a very generous assumption!) and that therefore you can leave out details and write in a super-sophisticated manner. This approach, unfortunately, will generally produce incomprehensible essays. The result of this strategy, inevitably, is a poor grade and much misery. Who then should you write for? (See 'Write for an imaginary audience' below).

  2. Don't merely reproduce what you think the lecturer wants.

    This might also seem odd. Essays are not, however, exercises in reproducing and rehashing "correct" answers; unlike exams, for example. Essays test your ability to question and criticize things-including the ideas of your lecturers-and to show that you can develop a coherent counter-arguments and bring forward additional evidence. Some lecturers take great delight in reading criticisms of their own ideas; especially good, well-argued criticisms.

  3. Don't leave the essay to the last minute.

    The academic essay is a very difficult genre. Writing essays requires considerable abilities in reasoning, scholarship and literacy. It takes time and effort to do a good job. Rushing it will virtually ensure that you won't make the grade.

  4. Don't be a soloist-use others for support.

    Flying solo can be lonely and miserable. You may be convinced that you know exactly what to do and don't need help. However, collaborative scholarship occurs at the highest levels. Form a study group, share your work and take advice from others. Your work can only benefit from the input of others. The Study Skills Centre also has experts who are ready and willing to help you.

What To Do Instead

  1. Write for an imaginary audience

    Imagine yourself writing for an intelligent, friendly, but uniformed audience, to whom you are being asked to explain the matters at hand (whatever they may be). Imagine yourself being asked to address the Year 12 class at a local high school, for example. In this way you will feel the necessity of being clear and systematic in a way that does not produce anxiety in you. This strategy does, of course, involve a slight fiction, but it does also serve to indicate to you the criteria which lecturers and tutors marking papers at first or second year level often use. They will ask themselves: "Is this essay clear?", "Does it communicate the ideas well?", etc.

  2. Ask yourself questions about the paper.

    Ask yourself after you have written a paper: "How much could I, if I were in that Year 12 class, learn from reading this essay?". "How could I have made certain points more obvious and clear?". "Does this point follow from the previous one?" You might like to assume that your audience is, by nature, a skeptical one: you should imagine that you need to be convincing in the material you are presenting. This will also help in making for a better piece of work.

  3. Recognize the need for redrafting.

    You'd never present a difficult idea to a Year 12 audience successfully on the first attempt. You will need to redraft your work carefully. Such a procedure helps you to recognize lack of precision in your paper, and this help you to improve your writing. Indirectly, of course, it assists you in a better understanding of the topic or issue you are presenting. You may find that you will need to rework and revise your essay several times. Indeed you may never be entirely happy with your efforts. You will just have to do the best you can. But, equally, don't get depressed about the process. Remember: there's no such thing as a "perfect" essay.

  4. Use lots of examples.

    It is critically important to make use of examples. The more difficult or subtle a point is, the more useful it is to use an example or an analogy to illustrate. You might like to think of examples yourself, or you might draw them from the texts that you happen to be reading, but wherever they come from, an example will always help your imaginary Year 12 audience-and your lecturer-understand what you are trying to say.

  5. Give reasons for what you say.

    One of the essential things about essay writing generally is that it is an enterprise where an attempt is made to answer certain questions by careful and rigorous reasoning and detailed argumentation. The student should not rely on tradition, authority (including that of a lecturer), faith or hunch, and he/she should distrust bold assertions for which no reasons or arguments are given. The true student should not be dogmatic and always willing to evaluate arguments for or against a view and arrive at a conclusion based on his/her deliberations. No simple instructions can be given as to how to reason rigorously, or to present good arguments. This comes with practice. But make sure you always give reasons for what you say. Don't just assert things.

  6. Apply what you learn from lectures to how you argue and reason in essays.

    Try to apply what you learn from the lecturers and from the way points of view are argued in class in the presentation of your essays. Classes model the kind of thinking required in essays. Sometimes these models are not as good as they should be, but they are models nonetheless. If necessary, seek the assistance of books on logical methods and critical thinking in your subject area. Learn to recognize "good" arguments and "bad" ones; be aware of the many informal fallacies that are commonly made in writing and speech. When required, isolate these in your essays and evaluate them in as much detail as you can. When you think that a particularly bad argument is being used to support a certain position, criticize it forcefully using these techniques of reasoning and analysis.

  7. Be clear about the expectations of different "academic tribes".

    A good essay in one subject is not necessarily a good essay in another. Science essays are not written in the same manner as subjects in the liberal arts, for example. But there are variations within faculty areas too. In philosophy essays, for example, there should be no emphasis on the artistic quality of the language in the texts under discussion (as there might be in English) and the treatment of the history of ideas or the lives of philosophers should be eschewed (unlike in History essays, for example). However, the point of most essays is to try to solve a certain problem. The aim of an essay is to try to come to a satisfactory understanding and resolution of these problems and the assumptions underpinning them. The conceptual tool used in this process is the evaluation of arguments by clear and precise methods of reasoning. However, what each subject regards as reasoning, and the methods of reasoning used, can also vary. Become informed of these different methods and use them in your essays. You will eventually get the idea with practice and application, though, for a time, the exercise will be difficult and even seem foreign to you.

  8. Always be relevant.

    Always stick to the point when you are writing an essay. For example, if you are asked to "critically assess" such-and-such a position or argument, or to discuss a view, you should give a brief statement of the positions or arguments concerned, then get on with a consideration of arguments for or against that view. Don't waste time with bibliographical sketches of the proponents of the position to be discussed, or the historical details of the development of the view. If you refer to the views of some writer on the position or argument you are discussing, make sure that you keep to those views which really bear in on the matter in hand. Don't take time off to sketch his/her whole theory. Expunge all unnecessary information that might clutter the first draft of your essay: get rid of repetition, literary frills and fancies, side issues, unargued points about the lecturer's preferences for a certain theory etc. Also, get rid of any obscurity (see 'Clarity and Precision' below.) In an overall sense, attempt to be as brief and succinct as possible and concentrate what detail you do provide on your central arguments and/or criticisms of other arguments. Make these detailed points powerfully.

  9. Coherence.

    Plan your essay so that your reader will always know where he/she is being led, and how what you say at any point fits into your overall theme. The reader should never have to ask themselves how a paragraph in your essay relates to what you had been saying in a previous section. You might even use headings, sub-headings, numbered paragraphs, etc., as a way of making clear how your points are to be understood. Another good way of doing this is to use "signposts" in your essays, which have the effect of guiding your reader through the points that you are making. Examples of this are expressions like "Following from this point..", "Given this argument ...", and paragraph starters like, "Firstly", "Secondly", and "Thirdly" etc. Making deliberate use of signposts will also help you gather your thoughts on the essay topic. This is a most useful technique, and lecturers look for it in your essays.

  10. Make it clear at the outset what you are arguing for or against.

    Papers are almost always satisfactory when beginning with a clear statement of the position or argument that you are to discuss. Always make it clear at the outset whether you propose to attack or defend that position or argument-and indeed, always indicate your position in regard to any argument that you set down for discussion. These points may seem obvious, but they are frequently neglected. Try to get into the habit of paying attention to them; it is a necessary skill not just in doing essay writing, but in general communication.

  11. Clarity and Precision.

    This is critically important: it constitutes reasons for passing or failing essays. One simply cannot write essays well without being clear and precise with one's expression.

    A few tips:

    • Never use words in essays that you only half understand. Technical terms such as "monism", "dualism" "a priori" etc should all be explained and used consistently. Inconsistency will be noticed and corrected. Also, be aware of the many different positions that can be held under general technical labels. Don't make uninformed statements about such terminology, because you may be quite wrong. The claim "all monists are physicalists" is wrong in the case of Hegel's philosophy, for instance. If in doubt, look up such words in a dictionary or an encyclopedia. To the extent that it displays misunderstanding, lack of familiarity can be penalized.
    • Take pains with your expression of the English language. Academic discipline emphasizes a detailed and fine-grained used of language as the only way that its subject matter can be profitably discussed, so make sure that you use it well. This applies particularly to simple matters like that of punctuation, grammar and syntax. (Compare the meanings of "Charles I walked and talked five minutes after his head was cut off" and "Charles I walked and talked. Five minutes after his head was cut off".) Bad expression at this level of study often makes for serious obscurity, so be careful. You are expected to be reasonably literate before entering university; it is also expected that you demonstrate this familiarity with language in your essays. Failure to do so can influence grades.
    • Don't try to impress by using complicated words and sentences. This is most annoying for your reader. Strive for simple, uncluttered and clear expression. Some of the texts that you will be reading are hardly good examples of clarity and precision. This can't be helped in some cases when you might be consulting texts from distant history where language use has changed, and where translation from a foreign language can effect clarity. It is less excusable in the case of contemporary writing. However, do not attempt to emulate obscure, convoluted or technical professional writing. You could do better to avoid secondary texts, which confuse you, and find other material which is more accessible. For your purposes, the exercise is to explain the subject matter of your essay in a manner, which is comfortable and familiar to you. If an issue is complex, try to make it simple by choosing your words and phrases carefully. You will be surprised at how difficult it is to do this. Nonetheless aim to do it perfectly. Unclear expression results in a lower grade.
    • Attempt to be precise about what you mean at all times. Make sure that you know exactly what position you are arguing for or against. Much time is wasted on arguments for or against a proposition that sounds much like, but is actually different from, the proposition that you are supposed to be concerned with. The conclusion in your essay should mirror the precision in your arguments. Make sure you don't get confused about what your arguments demonstrate, and so, offer a conclusion, which does not, in fact, follow from those arguments. (An example might be that arguments, which refute dualism thereby support physicalism, where in fact they might support something else entirely). Ambiguities of these kinds occur frequently in academia, and you should constantly be on guard against them. Failure to recognize and avoid them results in a lower grade.
  12. Show independence of mind.

    You will be expected to give your own considered opinion on the issue(s) discussed in your essay. You must try to make up your own mind on the question, even if your conclusions are only tentative. This may cause you some difficulty. You may find certain arguments cause you to rethink long-held (unargued/assumed) views on an issue. It may be that they cause some conflicts with other beliefs incidental to these views. Don't be afraid of this metamorphosis, but equally important don't allow it to happen in the course of your essay. Be consistent in the conclusion you are aiming for, look at it from a number of angles and try to defend it from attack from other arguments. The situation may arise, of course, where you are just not sure which of two conflicting views is correct, and cannot come down to either one side or the other. In this case, you should consider the conflicting views as best you can, and then show why you personally regard the reasons for both being equally valid.


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