Monday, September 21, 2009

Tips for Writing Philosophy Papers

Here are the standards I give my students for their papers for me. Perhaps some of the advise may be of help to your writing. Of course, each professor has his or her own particularities regarding stylistic matters.


I have long held that any philosopher who takes the trouble to master the art of writing clearly and is at pains to exercise it, can explain most of the things that matter in philosophy to any reader of intelligence and goodwill, provided that the philosopher understands what he is writing about—C.E.M. Joad, The Recovery of Belief (1952).

A. The mechanics of your papers

1. Use a title page that includes your name, your campus box, the class, the assignment, the date due, and the date turned in. Do not use any computer-generated graphics, weird text fonts, or other distracting images or special effects, please.

2. Double-space all papers. Use normal margins (approximately 1.25 inches on each side), leaving me room for me to make written comments. Use 12-pitch setting on your printers. Stay within the assigned number of pages for the papers unless you receive permission otherwise.

3. You must use page numbers! It is time-consuming for me to have to number the pages for you in order to find out if you have written the assigned amount. The title page is not page 1. Your first page of writing is page one. Papers without page numbers will be downgraded one half grade.

4. Use subtitles where appropriate. They give order and structure to your paper.

5. If you use a Scripture verse, put the reference in parenthesis within the text along with the translation: (John 3:16, TNIV). If you quote or otherwise refer to a biblical text, give the reference.

6. Carefully check spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalization, paragraphing, and documentation. Underline or italicize book titles, magazine, and journal titles. Beware of incomplete sentences. Like this. Root them out with relentless and religious determination. Use the Turabian or APA standards for documentation. If you don’t know what this means, please find out.

7. Beware of redundancy, vagueness, convolution, and incoherence in sentences.

8. If English is not your primary language, and you have difficulty writing in English, please have someone proofread your papers before handing them in.

9. Do not plagiarize! Plagiarism is intellectual theft and is a sin. Any idea that you owe to someone else (that is not general knowledge) must be documented. Any direct quote must be put into quotation marks and cited. Any paper showing signs of plagiarism will receive an “F” grade.

10. The Denver Seminary Student Handbook stipulates that you must use inclusive language. Do not use “mankind,” “man,” etc., when you are referring to both women and men. Papers not consistently using inclusive language will be downgraded one-half grade. For help in this matter see “Guidelines for Non-sexist Use of Language” from the American Philosophical Association web page:

11. Do not be overly autobiographical. Do not write, “I think that X is true because of Y.” Simply write “X is true because of Y.” Any personal references must directly relate to the substance of your paper.

12. Periods, commas, etc., go inside quotation marks—“Like this.”—not outside of them—“Like “this”. Semicolons do not go inside quotation marks. Please figure out the difference between a colon and a semicolon. They are not identical or exchangeable in sentences.

13. Be careful to identify pronouns such as “this.” Often the reader does not know what “this” stands for. It can give graders a headache—and students lower grades.

14. The upshot is this: sloppy papers will not get good grades.

B. The form of your papers

1. Be very sure to answer the question you have been asked to answer and not something of your own invention (however brilliant that may be). If there is a choice of questions to answer, stipulate which question you are answering in the body of your paper. I don’t want to have to guess what question you are addressing. For the short papers, use materials from class primarily, not outside sources. Do not cite my lecture notes when they are addressing points in your required reading. That shows that you probably haven’t done the reading!

2. Good papers begin with an engaging, clear, and pertinent introduction, which draws the reader into the paper, outlines what the paper will do, and points to the first topic to be discussed.

3. Be sure to end the paper with a conclusion, which summarizes the main points of your paper. Some papers end very abruptly. This is bad.

4. Paragraphs should contain only one main idea. They should not go on for several pages, nor should they be only one sentence.

5. Do not overuse direct quotations from sources. Stay away from long citations. I want to know how you summarize and interpret the material. The paper is your work, not a compendium of other sources.

6. Never apologize about the quality of your work in a paper or on a note attached to the paper. Let me decide. That’s what professors are for (among other things).

7. For general help in grammar, syntax, punctuation, and good taste, see William Strunk and E.B. White, Elements of Style, 4th ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2000). It is still a classic.


Robert Velarde said...

Can't we just use Wikipedia? :-)

pgepps said...

When I teach writing, Strunk & White occasionally comes up in class as a bad example.

But students who consciously adopt *any* specific style are going to be ahead, so bonne chance!

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The Chronicle of Higher Ed ran a very critical review of "Elements" last year, just as I was using it in a class. The review was unnecessarily condescending, although it pointed out some problems. Nevertheless, Elements teaches many good writing habits.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


You are now banned from my blog!

Sam Harper said...

Regarding inclusive language, what about when we use personal pronouns to refer to hypothetical people? It used to be that people just used "he," but that became politically incorrect, so they started saying, "he or she" or "s/he." That become cumbersome, so people started saying, "she." Is "he" still okay?

Robert Velarde said...

Shocking! :-)

Andrew Hay said...

Point A-12 has been thrown out the window for the next few years. Quite the 'adjustment'.

drwayman said...

Dr Groothius - Under point #10, I can't get the link to work, maybe it's my computer. Is that the correct link?

You wrote, "American Philosophical Association." Don't you mean American Psychological Association ( Maybe I'm mistaken because you are talking about the Philosophy of Religion here.

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