Writing and editing a philosophy paper… hints and tips

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Disclaimer — I’m a philosophy Ph.D, not a writing professor — it’s quite possible that you’ve had better advice about how to write papers elsewhere — and that advice is probably right, if it works for you.  Below is what has worked for me over philosophy courses between about 1088 and 2002 — and then in writing my dissertation from 2002-2010… your mileage may vary — but, if you adapt these ideas and write a good paper, it works — if your paper sucks, then find other ways… there are plenty of places on the internet that will help you write, go find one that works…

the BIG questions answered up top..

Page numbers in an assignment are guidelines, and assume you are double-spacing a paper at 12 point Times New Roman font.  

You can choose ANY citation format.  Philosophy officially doesn’t care.  Most students use MLA or APA, but we don’t care which you use.

No, you can’t have an extension — IF your class has a one late paper policy, you can use it.

Before Writing

  • You start with the question — if you’re given one (like in most of your short paper prompt) great — then, ask what it means… what every part of the prompt means, this isn’t a multiple-choice thing, you need to answer the whole paper prompt.
  • Have an on-paper brainstorming session — sit down with a pen and a blank piece of paper.  Write key words for each of the paper prompt on the paper and write down all of your thoughts about each one.
  • Turn your paper brainstorming into an outline — it will probably follow the path of the paper prompt, but maybe not.
  • Do main sections for each part of the paper prompt — maybe putting each of those sections on a separate piece of paper… now, put the stuff you wrote down into an outline that starts at the beginning of how you’d like to write the paper and working down.  
  • Ask yourself what’s missing — where do you need quotes of philosophers, where do you need more analysis, where should you insert stuff you read from your classmates etc.  
  • Fill what’s missing into the outline… it may help to do the outline on note cards, so you can easily rearrange the points.
  • Gather all the stuff you’re missing — use post-it notes as bookmarks if you want to use philosophers in your text.  If you’ve found online sources outside of the class, then gather them in a set of bookmarks on your computer.  If you’re using quotes from classmates, copy them into one document and make sure keep track of where you found it.
  • When you’re gathering sources from elsewhere, make sure you have enough information to make a citation… I usually do this by keeping track of the author’s name, where I found it, and when their information was published.

Writing

  • Write the introductory paragraph, outlining your paper –something like, “I’m going to prove that Macs are superior to PCs by explaining that Macs are easier to use, are less vulnerable to computer viruses, and their hardware is more durable.” — notice that I gave a conclusion “Macs are superior to PCs”, and three reasons (premises) for why that is the case.  At this point, you have three main sections to develop — and then a concluding paragraph to write.  
    • It’s important to note that the introductory paragraph may change as you write the paper, but if you’re working from a good outline, it may not change much..
  • Write the body of the paper — a few things that have helped me:
    • Use a color to denote places you’ve used the words of others — it may be one color for direct quotes and another for paraphrasing.  Pretty much, when you’re looking at another thing and typing, you need to use a color.
    • Insert placeholders for your citations.  If you like parenthetical references, use  something like (Insert ________ info here) — keeping track of what you’re looking at as you type.  Put these notes in RED — so  you’ll see them later.  If you prefer footnotes or endnotes, insert them as you write — they’ll follow the text if you move it — and put the shorthand of the citation in the blank area… The reason for doing it this way is that your brain is in a creative mode, it’s jarring to put citations in right away… besides, you’re going to edit anyway.
  • Keep writing until you think you’re done.  Then, go back and keep writing… you’re going to cut.  Don’t just STOP when you get into the page range… stop when you’re done saying what you need to say.  
  • Write the concluding paragraph, explaining briefly what you did and how you did it.
  • NOW — save it a couple of places, and if you can — print it.
  • This last step is important — walk away.  Physically get up from the computer and walk away — go do something else.  Let  your brain unwind, and give yourself time to think of stuff that should be in the paper — or stuff you need to cut.  I call that part “percolation” — and it’s important.  I tended to put longer stuff in percolation for longer periods etc.. 

Editing the paper

  • Now that the paper is out of percolation, take one of the copies (and make sure you know where the other copies live, just in case disaster strikes at this point) and re-name it something like “Ethics ethical theory paper 1 Patty Courtney” — so, your class name first, the assignment second, your name last.  Putting the course name first will help you find ALL of your work for that course… trust me, you’ll want that system later when you’re looking for a writing sample, something to revise etc.
  • If you can, print out the paper — this really DOES help.. look at it away from the computer screen. 
  • Outline the paper — yep, sounds weird, but make marks in the margin as to which paragraphs go with which parts of your original outline.  Do you spend 6 paragraphs on a sub-point and only one on the main point?  Maybe that needs to change, or maybe you need to revise your opening paragraph to shift the focus of the paper… before you do that, is that shift going to satisfy the assignment?
  • Highlight, with a pen, the quotes — do you have lots of quotes right next to one another without your own analysis in between?  Are you asking your sources to do all of the explaining?  If I wanted that in a paper, I’d just go read your source…. I want to see what YOU think of  your source.  How does it interact with your argument (is it in support or opposition — if it’s opposition, why are they wrong and you right?).  
  • Circle all the places you put in placeholders for the citations.  
  • Find  your pile of references — bring it to the computer.  
  • Adjust the body of the paper so that it makes sense — cut paragraphs if needed, explain more where needed and generally adjust the writing so that it answers the question (remember, it’s all about the question, doncha know? ).
  • Now — look at the form of the paper — a few things to look for (among many):
    • spell-check underlines… and pay attention to what spell-check wants to insert, is it correct, use the dictionary to find out.
    • Missing punctuation — do your in-text quotes have TWO quotation marks?  Do your other uses of quotes fit the style you selected.
    • Informal language — no “lol” — if you’d text it to a buddy, that’s probably not ok language for a formal academic paper.  Also (and this is a biggie) when referring to a philosopher, use their LAST NAME (not their first name… you don’t know them, and there are lots of “Immanuel”s out there in the world, but I think there is only one Kant… use the last name, not the first name — and generally not the whole name.
    • Get the names right — and the names of their theories right… FYI, JS Mill is NOT “Mills”.  
    • It’s your (for things that belong to you) and you’re for (you are).  See other common mistakes all over the internet.
  • Now the body of the paper is how you want it, you’ve adjusted the proportions of the paper and generally you’re (notice that.. hmmm…) happy with the way the paper reads.  At this point, go back and put the citations in — carefully checking the text of the citations one more time.  Follow your style manual, doing your best if you can’t find a way to cite what you’re using — making sure to include basic information.
  • THIS IS IMPORTANT — make sure that EVERY time you use an idea from another person, in the body of your paper, you have something that indicates it’s a quote or paraphrase.  
  • IF you have incomplete citations in the body of the paper (Smith, 97) for example, you MUST make a “works cited” page that includes the full citation.  If you’ve used footnotes or endnotes, that’s not necessary.
  • Once you’ve done all of that — give it another read on your computer.  Fix small errors, adjust the phrasing and generally look carefully at every paragraph.
  • Now –put it in short percolation…
  • When you’re back — give it one more read –quickly this time… does it say what you want to say?  If so, go in and turn everything you’ve colored to black type, no highlighting etc.
  • Save it.
  • Save it someplace else.
  • Close it.
  • Submit it to the dropbox… 

There you go — a million little steps to a decent philosophy paper… 

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