Writing philosophy…


… or why you need a good philosophy friend!!

This time last year I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation — by “touches” I mean furiously writing a chapter or so before I had major surgery.

Writing a philosophy paper is simple and hard all at the same time.  It sounds simple — make an argument.  Have some reasonable premises that lead to a solid conclusion.  That’s also what makes it hard.

The best way to start is by reading a lot of what other folks have said on the topic.  I spent several years reading just war theory.  I’d read, re-read, think and then follow up on the citations — thus finding more to read.  Then I’d go back to the basics and read them again with a fresh perspective.

As I read, I made notes.  I’m someone who likes to write in the margins and keep a running outline of stuff I’ve read.  For library books I developed a complex system using post-it notes (thank you 3M!!!).  When I eventually had to return the books, I moved the post-it notes to the edges of the books and photocopied the articles for my files… so I could see what I was thinking…. remember, my dissertation took me about 8 years to finish, so I had to keep track of stuff :).

As I was reading and thinking, I was really formulating my argument.  That’s the thing about writing a dissertation, it has to be an original piece of the philosophical conversation on a topic.  If it’s more like a book report, then it isn’t original.  As one of my favorite debaters said, “that sounds hard, you just sit down and write without data to analyze?  I don’t think I could do that”… She’s a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology now and formulating her own dissertation.

I found it really helpful to make an outline of my argument.  It let me see what I might be missing and where there was too much clutter in my argument.  I also went back and outlined what I wrote to see the same things — maybe my best technique was to give every part of my argument a tag and then apply those tags to each paragraph, so I can see the proportions of the paper.

Also, as I wrote, I put all the quotations in blue font.  That let me see two things — first, whether I was using too much or too little of another philosopher’s ideas.  It also let me make sure that I was using my own words to summarize and apply the quote to my argument.

Once I got the first draft down, I’d go visit my Hubby in the tub.  He takes a lot of baths and it was a good place for me to catch him in thinking mode.  We’d talk about my argument, he’d make objections and suggestions and I’d go think about them a while.  Sometimes I’d agree with him, other times I’d figure out why I thought he was wrong.  He was my philosophy pal — and thus he earned his spot in my dissertation dedication.

After you have a draft or two, putting it away is a good idea.  Dr. Adviser gave me a good term for that, he calls it “percolation”.  This lets you see your paper from a new light.  If you’re too close to it, you never see the flaws and thus you can’t fix them.  Letting it sit for a while (sometimes weeks or months in my case) helped me see what was good and what wasn’t.  A key part of percolation is making notes in the file about where you are, what you think you may want to do and what  you think is good.  I used the “insert comment” function in Word.

While you are writing, it’s a good idea to take breaks.  Stand up, do the dishes, take a walk or go read a book for fun.  While I was having writing days, my house was pretty spotless… and I read some good fiction.

In the end, make sure  you review your paper a few times before turning it in.  Take one pass at it to make sure it says what  you want it to say (or, in students’ case, answers the question or fulfills the assignment), then look at it for spelling, grammar and citation errors.  Then look at it one more time — just to be sure.

After you’re sure, print it / send it and don’t look back.



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