How to write a basic philosophy paper.. mechanics

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A philosophy paper isn’t exactly reason to panic… it’s a reason to worry, tho — and you want to get it right.

Disclaimer:  This “advice” only applies fully to my courses, if you aren’t one of my students, go talk to your own professor… If you’d like to see examples of my own work, look at the papers I’ve posted or my dissertation.  For the most part, they do what I’m saying you should do here… :).

This post addresses the mechanics, later posts will discuss content — but, usually the first questions my students worry about are mechanical, so I’ll start there.

Basics:  These are the things that are in the “set-up” part of your paper… do them once and then don’t worry about them.

Spacing — Papers should be double-spaced with the margins that are the default on your word processor… so, about 1.5 on the left and 1 inch on the right — or something close to that.  I’m not about to get out a ruler to check, but you can bet that I’ll notice if you have huge margins.

Font selection — Your font should be something simple, Times New Roman works for me… the curly fonts just look cute and are hard to read, so skip them.  Also, don’t spend too much time worrying about the font because I frankly don’t care.  Also, understand that I’ve played the font game to squeeze a paper into a page limit, so I am well aware of the power of font selection to make a paper seem longer or shorter than it really is… stick to the default font in your word processor…

Font size — 12 point font is good.. it’s easy enough to read and generally, it’s between 10 and 14 — so — go with it.

Titles and such — Someplace on the top of your paper you should have your full name, your section/class information, the assignment and the due date.  Ideally it would be single-spaced on the top left of the paper.  Centered above the first paragraph you should have the title of your paper.  Every page should have a page number in the lower footer… and, while you’re down there, insert your last name and first initial in the footer.

Advanced info — this is stuff you need to think about when you’re writing..

Paragraphs — the thing about paragraphs is that they indicate to the reader when you are starting a new idea, and it’s unusual for first-year philosophy students to have an idea that takes a whole page to explain… so, don’t.  Every page should have at least two, maybe three paragraphs on it.  Indicate a new paragraph by using the “tab” key to indent.  Personally, I have a very difficult time reading a philosophy paper that doesn’t use paragraphs… I read really fast and I generally “see” a paragraph at a time, so when your paragraphs are very long (like, a page or two), I have to stop and put in the paragraph breaks so I can understand what you’re saying.  When I have to do that, your grade will suffer… trust me..

Section-headings — Ideally, your paper will have several parts, each part should have a section heading.  After the introductory paragraph(s), use a short phrase, quote, or something else to identify what you’re trying to do in that section, this is your section heading.  It should be alone on a line — you can use italics, bold or whatever to set it off.. Section headings are helpful because they let me know what you’re trying to do.

Proof-reading — do it, several times… and if you aren’t confident in your own skills get someone else to help you out.  Make sure you’re using the spell-check and grammar-check tools included with your word processor.. Also, read your paper slowly, out-loud if necessary, to hear what sounds clunky to you.

Pro tips…  be careful with apostrophes, possessives and plurals… “Patty’s” means that it belongs to Patty — “Pattys” means that there are more than one Patty —  Also, be careful with “you’re” which is short for you are — and “your” which is possessive .. so, “You’re coming to class, right” vs. “Your car just got towed”..  and their, there, and they’re — “their” is possessive . so, “They sold the house last year” vs.. “There is where the accident happened” and “They’re moving next month”.

Citations and works cited pages —

First, make sure that you have a complete citation someplace in the paper.  If you use footnotes, it can be the first time you use the source.  A complete citation includes (at minimum) the author, title, pages, and year.. it may include magazine or website names etc… but, at a minimum you should indicate where you got the information so I can look it up if I want to.

Second, EVERY time you use the ideas of another person, you need to give them credit.  Imagine if you told a great joke that you made-up yourself and your friends took it as their own… you’d think that sucks — and, it would.  Citations are the way that you give credit to the people who thought up the idea or did the research to establish the fact.  It’s a vital part of academic writing.  The key to making citations effectively is to use them in the paper, WHERE you use the ideas..

As for “works cited” pages, I don’t care if you do one or not — as long as you have complete citations someplace.  If you want to be sure that you give proper credit, do one.  I often do a “works read” page, that indicates other stuff I’ve read but haven’t directly cited or paraphrased — it covers your ass.

Having lots of citations in a philosophy paper is fine — it tells me that you know where you’re getting your information and that you’re being intellectually honest.  Don’t skip them — and, if you have a hard time figuring out how to use them do some research, buy a book or something…

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January 5, 2013 · 3:07 pm

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