How to Write Philosophy?——Ten Steps to Build a Solid Term Paper
By Andrea Borghini
There are lots of writing styles in philosophy and slowly developing your own, with passion and care, is one of the greatest pleasures you may find in philosophizing. Here are some basic steps that I find most useful for building up your skills. They are largely independent from each other and, individually or in bulk, can go to complement the recommendations of your professor, mentor, or favorite author.
Writing philosophy is no innate skill. You have to educate yourself to it and, like reading philosophy, it requires a good dose of patience. Remember that philosophical writing is persuasive writing: you have to convince your reader, not just pass some information along. Your rhetorical choices are momentous and challenging. Thus, it is always a good idea to think hard before you start writing a philosophy paper, even if you are familiar with the topic.
2. Know what you have to do
A paper topic is a request to execute a project: do you know what the project is? Make sure that you understand exactly what is expected. If you have to choose among different topics, pic the one that you understand best. What precisely are the components of the problem? What are the key terms involved (e.g., cogito, a priori, universals)? Are you sure that you know what they mean in this context?
3. Do your homework
Did you read the relevant texts, philosophically? Mark the passages that seem most relevant for your paper: they will be the foundation of your project.
4. Study the key passages
Your goal should be to reconstruct them. Here are some specific things to look for. (i) Analyze the passages, don’t summarize them: extrapolate the most relevant statements and put them into logical relations. (ii) Be charitable with the author: always look for the strongest plausible interpretation of the argument. (iii) Be creative, but not fanciful: make sure that you have not taken the passage out of context. (iv) Check if other passages may conflict with your interpretation; if they do, you need to take this into account: you may revise your view or explain how it does conform to your interpretation, or acknowledge that it does not conform.
5. Take a side
At this point, you are ready to try and take a side. Draw a rough outline of your overall argument and jot down how the textual components that will fit into the argument. These are the bones of your paper. If the texts that you have collected do not contain the right sort of raw materials for a coherent solution to the problem, then it might be wise to consider another topic.
6. Work out an outline
Now that you have the bones, add some flesh. Prepare an outline including the following four steps. Introduction – If you can, just go straight to the problem,;otherwise, contextualize the issue concisely. Statements of the problem in your own terms. This is crucial to ensure a good paper. Make the problem appealing. Be explicit. Leave the least that you can for granted to the reader. Bulk of the argumentation. Typically your argumentation will include considering rival solutions together with evidence of their inefficacy; your own solution, along with some possible objections and replies. Conclusion. Recap the problem, the key points in the argumentation, and reaffirm your solution. You are half a way. Take some time off!
7. Time to write
Writing is a great space you have all to yourself: make it enjoyable. Choose a space appropriate to you (quiet? scenic? cozy? a lively café?) and unplug yourself from what’s not strictly necessary for writing. You have to persuade your reader: each paragraph ought to be written so as to support your general argument and each sentence ought to be composed so as to support the point of its paragraph. The trick – and the fun part – is to make all the pieces fit neatly together. If you feel confused, take a break. Go back to your outline and the text. Are the paragraphs properly divided? Are they logically arranged? Is your terminology clear? Once you finish writing, take time off and relax.
8. Revising is not cleaning up after the party ...
…it is the party!, as David Silverman once reminded. One of the best skills you can acquire in writing philosophy is that of reading your own draft as though someone else wrote it. Assume nothing. First of all, check the content of your paper, starting from the arguments that are crucial to your interpretive goals. Make sure they are clear, sound, and valid.
9. Revise the structure
The arguments look good to you? Then it is the time to add some insights gained from the process of thinking hard about your topic. Read the paper with an eye to the structure: is the material properly divided into paragraphs? Does each paragraph follow neatly from the previous one? Does the logical flow of the whole need revision?
10. Revise the spelling and formatting
Print out your paper (make sure that there are page numbers!); read it out loud (this is key!) slowly and carefully, with a particular eye to the following: are you definitely convinced that the paper solves the original problem neatly and with coherence? Now is the time to add a bit of pizzazz to the presentation of your ideas. Run a spell-check. Check for additional mistakes in the syntax, grammar, and typos.