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Department-by-Department Reference Guide

Writing in Philosophy Courses

A Sampling of Advice from Faculty

This information is based on two surveys of Philosophy faculty about their expectations for student writing in philosophy classes (1995 and 2005). It does not exhaust the views of all Philosophy professors, but it does give a fairly representative sample of faculty’s expectations.

1.  What kinds of writing assignments can I expect in Philosophy classes?

     Professors in this department assign a wide variety of papers. Essay exams, or essay questions on exams, are common. In some courses, faculty combine longer research papers with a number of shorter, topical papers. The list that follows will give you a good idea of the range of assignments in the department’s undergraduate courses:

  • Medium length essays (5–7 pp.); some professors require that the topic be approved by them in advance.
  • Short essays (one page, sometimes one paragraph) focused on analysis and interpretation of experience or on topical issues germane to the course; some instructors collect short papers as often as once a week.
  • Position papers (3–4 pp.) arguing for or against an issue
  • Research or “term” papers (approx. 20 pp.); some faculty require submission of the first draft for critique.
  • One professor assigns tutorial papers in upper division courses (5–7 pp. responding to “a single encompassing but specific question”), which students read aloud in a tutorial session.

2.  What qualities of writing are especially valued in Philosophy classes?

     Here is a list of qualities that faculty emphasized, with amplifying quotes from some professors:

  • Clarity in understanding and expressing ideas (“Explain an argument or text so that it’s comprehensible to a reasonably intelligent friend.”)
  • Critical analysis and evaluation of an argument or text (“Speak to the strengths and weaknesses of the argument.”)
  • Consistency in use of terms and in reasoning
  • Good organization (“Take up an argument and follow it through”; “Focus only on the reasons given to support the thesis.”)
  • Good grammar
  • Good stylistic form, especially for footnotes and bibliography on a research paper
  • On research papers, evidence of in-depth research (as opposed to Internet skimming)
  • Accuracy, especially in references to a text, and overall knowledge of subject
  • A well-developed thesis
  • An understanding of the presuppositions and historical or conceptual contexts of arguments
  • The ability to recognize, raise, and respond to objections
  • Precision, completeness, creativity
  • Depth and originality of philosophical/analytical thought
  • Creativity

     Some faculty members have developed their own handouts about their expectations for student writing, and at least one posts advice about writing on the Web. Ask your professor if she or he has posted such a document, and inquire about what qualities are most important to success on a given assignment.

3.  What kinds of evidence/argumentation do you recognize as valid in the work you assign?

  • In general, text-based arguments are expected in core courses, and research-based arguments in upper-division elective courses.

  • Empirical evidence where relevant, or citation of evidence
  • Reasoning from first or basic principles
  • Close philosophical analysis and reasoning (“Students should be able to distinguish the premises of an argument, detect if they need more support, discern which conclusions actually do follow, and differentiate between explicit and implicit conclusions.”)
  • Coherent argumentation—some professors require submission of an outline with the paper
  • Good reasons (“Take opposing views and show that these can be handled by your position”; “Students should be able to construct original arguments to overcome objections.”)
  • Exposition of objections (including possible ones) of other philosophers to the argument being analyzed

4.  What citation conventions do you require students to use?

  • For research papers, faculty are likely to require the formats of either the Modern Language Association (MLA) or Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).
  • For textual analysis papers, providing the page number of texts read in class and used in the assignment may be adequate—like this, for example: (Hume 23).
  • Consistency of format is important—check with your professor.

5.  Special do’s and don’ts about writing Philosophy papers:

     The list of advice that follows again includes some quotations. Perhaps the most important advice has already been stated: Check with your professor about expectations.

  • Do stay on target.
  • Do take the assignment seriously; engage in wide reading for your term paper and probe deeply.
  • Do stick to the page limit.
  • Do use coherent argumentation.
  • Do be clear, correct, and complete. (“State everything as clearly as you can.”)
  • Do proofread carefully. (“Be accurate.” “Use the spell checker.”)
  • Do carefully document wording and ideas that are not your own.
  • Do use a clear and simple writing style. (“Keep your style simple.”)
  • Do rough drafts and give yourself time to revise. (“Edit ruthlessly.”)
  • Do use brief, relevant examples.
  • Do define your terms clearly.
  • Do consider using sub-headings to divide longer papers. (Check with your professor on this.)
  • Don’t “parrot back” the views of the professor or of philosophers studied in the course.
  • Don’t rely on extensive paraphrase and quotation. (One professor says that on short assignments, quotations should be limited to 10 words.)
  • Don’t rely on the Internet as a research source.
  • Don’t make claims or assert opinions without supporting reasons.
  • Don’t use slang and jargon.
  • Don’t write long introductory paragraphs (See the points above about the value of a clear and simple style—get to your point, then back it up.)
  • Don’t use run-on sentences. (“Proofread!”)


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Page Last Modified: October 18, 2018

  For suggestions and corrections, please email
Dr. Rebecca Nowacek, Associate Professor of English
Director of the Ott Memorial Writing Center, 240 Raynor Library (414.288.5542)
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