Writing

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
—George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Writing in Our Class

You will be evaluated with respect to both the philosophical content of your paper and the quality of your writing, that is to say both your ideas and arguments and the clarity with which you communicate these ideas and arguments. Most students find that writing papers at the university level is significantly more challenging than writing papers in high school.  Furthermore, philosophical writing is different from other kinds of writing with which you may be familiar.  This should not be surprising; different writing styles serve different goals and are appropriate in different situations. If you have any concerns about your writing, please come speak to me and I will direct you to resources that will help you improve your writing. The following criteria are used to evaluate your written work in our class:

1. Style and clarity. Good style requires a facility with English grammar (syntax, punctuation, and spelling) as well as a habit of choosing the words that express exactly what you mean. A writer with a good style is able to compose sentences that sit well together, saying what she wants to say in a manner that is clear and readable. Elegance and brilliance are also attributes of a superior style, but clarity comes first. Make sure that your paper clearly expresses the thoughts that you want to express. It is foolish and risky to hope that your reader will be able to read between the lines and “know what you meant to say.” Rather than hoping that I will know what you meant to say, simply say what you mean to say.

Two things will help you develop a clear writing style. First, you should study the grammar and usage of the English language. Yes, there are elements of formal writing about which reasonable people might disagree; and, yes, language evolves over time. Nevertheless, there is something like Standard Written English, which is the lingua franca of academic discourse as well as that of access to and success in most of the fields a college graduate would hope to till. The prestige and power of standard written English is not unproblematic, as a quick read of the link above will demonstrate; but fluency in standard written English remains an essential skill for many careers. Unfortunately, the American educational system has failed a great many students by neglecting to teach them the basic grammar and usage of Standard Written English. If you are one of the people our educational system has failed, you must take it upon yourself to address this lacuna. The Elements of Style remains a fine, short introduction to style and composition; and Garner’s Modern American Usage is an excellent resource for the usage of specific words and phrases. Purchase a thesaurus, but always use it along with an excellent dictionary. There are many other “style guides” available for your consideration. None of them are infallible; but they are good places to begin.

A second thing that will help to improve your command of style is to read. If you read a lot and you read good writing—most people do neither—you will develop an ear for style even if you cannot explain the grammatical nuances that please or offend you. But for this to work, you must read a great deal, much more than the average American tends to read. And you must read good writing, not the sort of tripe that all too often passes for “literature” in the contemporary idiom. You don’t need to be a literary snob to find or appreciate good writing; there is a lot of it out there, expressed in a variety of styles, telling very diverse stories, and catering to a wide range of tastes. Good writing is not found only in the classics, although those are worth reading and have stood the test of time. Unfortunately, in the contemporary glut of information there is an even larger amount of garbage that you will have to identify and avoid to find the good stuff. 

2. Soundness of reasoning. You will find that there is often a strong correlation between sloppy writing and sloppy thinking. If your writing cannot clearly express what you think, it may well be the case that what you think is not that clear.

It is very easy to commit logical fallacies without realizing it, especially if your patterns of reasoning are derived from internet forums, television pundits, AM talk radio, the editorial pages, or most of our politicians and public servants. The antidote is to be clear and self-critical. Make sure that your conclusions really do follow from your premises. Sometimes it is hard to be objective about the quality of your own reasoning. Show your work to a friend, asking him or her to see whether you’ve made any logical howlers. Thoroughness is important. Like any good advocate, you should acknowledge contrary evidence and explain how your position still stands. You don’t want to be open to the charge that you’ve “stacked the deck” by considering only places from the text that work in your favor or that your characterization of the opposing position is really a caricature.

3. Originality and insight. It is very difficult—and not necessarily desirable—to be completely original. Your aim is not novelty for its own sake. It is true, however, that the texts we are reading are extraordinarily rich. If you approach them with enough passion and openness, you may discover within yourself an aptitude for saying things that go well beyond what is apparent on the surface. This is not to denigrate surface understanding; without a command of surface meaning, nothing else is possible. However, if you can penetrate beyond the surface of the texts we will be reading you will considerably enrich yourself.

Some Relatively Common Errors to Avoid

1. Be sure to understand the assignment. A research paper is different than a journal entry; an argumentative paper is different than an exegetical paper. However, in almost all cases your paper must have a point, and it must make a case for that point. For example, an argumentative paper—a very common type of paper in undergraduate courses—must have a thesis, and it must have arguments that make the case for that thesis. One useful exercise for undergraduates is to make sure that your paper will pass “the highlighter test.” Take your first full draft to someone who is not in your class, carefully explain the assignment, and ask your proofreader to highlight the essential elements in the paper. In the case of our hypothetical argumentative paper, if your proofreader cannot identify and highlight single sentences that clearly communicate your thesis and each of your arguments, you need to revise the paper. 

2. Do not set up a “strawman” as an opponent to your argument. The best papers will assume that dissenting opinions are held by reasonable and intelligent persons, even if you suspect this is not the case. You should accustom yourself to engaging in a charitable reading of your opponent’s objection—real or hypothetical—before your respond to and, hopefully, refute those objections.

3. Exercise appropriate intellectual humility. It’s fine to criticize the philosophers we read, and it’s fine to criticize my own philosophical positions (assuming you are able to accurately distinguish them from my pedagogical advocacy for the philosophers I’ve assigned). However, you owe it to your interlocutors and to yourself not to engage in such criticism in a ham-fisted manner. If you find yourself asserting that a well-regarded thinker is “laughable,” “ridiculous,” “stupid,” or “insane,” you should reevaluate your claims. It may well be the case that certain well-regarded philosophers in the canon are wrong; it may well be the case that they are uncharitable to others; it may well be the case that they argue from unfounded or false premises; it may well be the case that they are blinded in some way by their historical context. However, any author whose work I assign in class is worth reading and, therefore, worth reading well. The cheek of an undergraduate (whose familiarity with philosophy is likely to be narrow and fragmentary at best) dismissing offhand thinkers like Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, et al. is staggering, and I can assure you that it will help neither your argument nor your grade to engage in glib or shambolic criticism.

4. Beware the temptation to tie every philosophical point or issue to your idiosyncratic interests, pursuits, and hobbies. It is true that philosophy is broad enough that it touches, in some way, on every human endeavor. It is also true that philosophy is often at its most meaningful and moving when we can relate the issues in our own lives. Nevertheless, writing your metaphysics paper on pop-music’s flavor of the month, or a paper on mysticism on the social intricacies of cosplay or pickup basketball, is likely to force you into an abusive distortion or frivolous treatment of a serious subject. There are no doubt philosophical issues at stake in the diverse interests and hobbies of undergraduates, and sometimes you can (and should) write your philosophy paper on topics related to your non-academic life; but you can’t relate just any academic paper to your fascination with philately.

Other Details

  1. Unless directed otherwise, all written work for our class should be typed, double-spaced (if you are uncertain regarding the page requirements for specific assignments, ask whether they assume single- or double-spacing), and clearly printed. Use a Times New Roman font in 12-point size.
  2. I strongly encourage you to use recycled paper for all assignments in my classes.
  3. While I do appreciate the gesture, folders and title pages remind me of dead trees. I would prefer that you simply provide your name, class information, and the word count of the paper in the header.
  4. I strongly discourage use any web-based sources as references in your papers, with the exception of peer-reviewed academic journals associated with a reputable publishing house. This policy is not because of plagiarism, which is often so inept as to be easily identifiable. Nor is it because the Internet is inherently unreliable; there are reputable, peer-reviewed journals online, some of which I’ve cited in the course of my own work. Rather, the problem is that too many undergraduates seem incapable of distinguishing trustworthy sources from untrustworthy ones, and peer-reviewed sources from mere opinion pieces.
  5. Your written work should be presented appropriately: clearly formatted and printed, neatly stapled, and on time (or early). Anything less suggests that you do not care about the outcome of your submission (that is, your grade), which will be evaluated with that in mind.

Resources

The Chicago Manual of Style is the gold-standard for clear, usable citation and, fortunately, it is the standard method of citation in philosophy. If you will be working in philosophy or in other fields that use the Chicago Style, you should purchase a copy of Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Terms Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 6th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 1996. Turabian is a useful summary and guide to the Chicago Style for undergraduates. If you are a bibliophile and frequent used bookstores, you can sometimes find old editions of the more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style (in its 16th addition as of August 2010) for a decent price. Other useful resources include:

  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style
  • Bryan A. Garner , Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed.
  • Bryan A. Garner , Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4rd ed.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.
  • The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed.
  • John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing