Helpful Tips for Writing Superb Philosophical Papers
Arguments lie at the heart of philosophical writing, and they are rarely simple arguments. On the contrary, they tend to be large, complicated and sophisticated treatments of fundamental problems and abstract questions in which reason must be the guiding principle as premises are introduced and tested to arrive at logically sound conclusions. A great deal of the writing done in the field of philosophy is dedicated to the primary activities of making and assessing these arguments, and for many philosophers and students of philosophy writing is actually part of the process of working through arguments. Such writing can be incredibly enjoyable, but it is usually also incredibly demanding, and clarity is so essential that it has been described as the greatest virtue of philosophical writing.
Each and every stage of an argument should be carefully considered and explained in philosophical writing. Initial assumptions must be reasonable and relatively common to be successful in engaging the readers you hope to reach. Premises and objections require careful explanation, and it must be clear to your audience exactly how they relate to the overall argument and its conclusion. Examples and comparisons must be precise, and the way in which they advance the argument must be clarified in your text. Thought experiments may be imaginative, but they must be presented in a logical fashion that can be readily understood by readers. Quotations from the philosophers whose work you are reconstructing and assessing can be immensely helpful, but only if they are introduced and discussed in such a way that your readers will know exactly what they should be seeing in each quotation and precisely why you are quoting it. Conclusions to your own arguments and analyses of the conclusions of other philosophers should be specific, appropriate, sophisticated and subtle.
Writing of this kind requires extremely logical organisation, an effective structure with carefully developed paragraphs and sections, and a style that is not only precise, consistent and focussed, but also entirely correct. When sentences are excessively long and convoluted and paragraphs too packed with details and rapid turns of thought, readers are not given the breaks and pauses necessary to digest complex information. When there are errors in the grammar, spelling and punctuation of your text, ambiguities that can and often do confuse readers are introduced. Such errors are also unscholarly: they can undermine the confidence of your audience and seriously compromise an otherwise excellent argument.
As a general rule in philosophical writing, it is wise to use common terms that will be understood by most readers, even those who are not specialists in your field. At times, however, it is necessary to use and discuss the specialised terminology you find in the writing of the philosophers whose arguments you are considering and to introduce certain discipline-specific terms and concepts into your own arguments. The key to using such terms effectively is to define each one extremely carefully, particularly if a term has multiple or varying meanings. Once you have defined a term, you should use it consistently, providing explanations of even subtle differences in the ways in which particular philosophers, including yourself, use it. Remember that sliding from one meaning of a term to another meaning without such explanation is a sign of a weak and imprecise argument, so slips of this kind must be strictly avoided.