Luis Cheng-Guajardo

Luis Cheng-Guajardo

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This page is still in development, but students can find some paper-writing help below. SCU course-specific information can be found through Camino.

HELP WITH WRITING
 
General writing pointers for an undergraduate philosophy class:
 
(1) Hypothesize an audience for your paper
 
If you are writing a paper in an undergraduate philosophy class, then a good rule of thumb is to write your paper as if you are writing in order to teach something to your roommate or friend. They will be able to understand something if you take the time to teach it to them. But they have not been reading the material that you have been reading. Therefore, you will need to explain things to them slowly and make sure that they understand how you are using special terminology. For example, you might teach your audience about a particular philosopher's view on some topic. You might also go on to teach them what a person should think about that view, or what a person should think about particular aspects of that view. This is common in an undergraduate philosophy paper.
 
It is helpful to keep in mind that your professor or teaching assistant is NOT the proper audience for your paper. They might be the only other person to actually read your paper, of course. But you should not think about the paper as if you are writing it for them. Their job is to assess papers, to help students understand a subject matter, and to help students become better writers. You should think of your "audience" as someone to whom you are teaching something. (This is why you will likely have to "hypothesize" that you are writing for your friend or roommate.)
 
(2) Make sure that you have a thesis
 
What is the point of your paper? Your thesis is what you are trying to establish by writing this particular paper. A thesis will typically be a statement that could serve as a very good, one-sentence answer to a particular question. If you are writing a paper for an undergraduate philosophy class, then this question might be the main question of a prompt that you have been given to write about. For example, the statement "Locke's basic view of personal identity can survive Hume's criticisms" is a pretty straightforward answer to the following question: "Do Hume's arguments against the self undermine Locke's view of personal identity?"
 
How do you get a thesis? Here is one suggestion: Think about what your own opinion is on some particular matter. This opinion of yours should probably be the thesis of your paper. You should state your thesis somewhere very early in your paper. You can do so, for example, by simply writing "In this paper, I will argue that Locke's view of personal identity can survive Hume's criticisms."
 
You might not have a thesis before you start writing. That is okay. However, what you are writing is not really ready to be a paper until you have a thesis. This is because every piece of your paper should play some specific role or function in supporting or developing your thesis.
 
(3) Think about what would be a good, straightforward structure for your paper
 
In high school you might have been taught to write papers with a format that looks something like an inverted half-pyramid, rectangle, rectangle, rectangle, half-pyramid. The idea was to start in the first paragraph with a couple of fluffy-but-uninformative lines and then state the thesis of the paper in the last sentence. Then, you would write the body of the text in paragraphs that support your thesis, and conclude with a restatement of your thesis followed by some general comments that appropriately fluff the end of your paper. I was also taught to write in this manner when I was in high school. I'm not sure why. Drop the broad generalizations at the beginning and the end. They don't add any value to the paper. (You might also have been taught to avoid using the first-person singular. You can drop that bit of advice too. Your high school teachers used the first-person when they were teaching you a lesson. They said things such as "Today I am going to talk about polynomials and then we are going to..." Likewise, you can use the first-person singular when you are teaching something to your audience. Remember, you are teaching your audience why it is that your thesis is true.) You can just start writing your paper without any fluff. Tell your audience what you are going to be writing about early on and point out how you are going to make the case for your thesis.
 
You will probably have to make at least a few smaller arguments in order to support your thesis. So, you will want to consider what order it would be best to present these parts of your paper.
 
(4) Write as clearly as possible
 
Understanding and getting a grip on philosophical problems and proposed solutions to these problems is already very hard. Do not make it harder for your audience. Keep things simple.
 
Avoid using very long sentences. Sentences with lots of commas, page-long paragraphs, and overly complicated constructions just make things harder on your audience. Therefore, do not write like Locke or Kant. Write like a college-educated person living in the 21st-century who is capable of teaching someone else about Locke or Kant. A good rule of thumb is to try to just express one thought per sentence. As you are writing in this way, you might feel as though your audience will think that your style is "boring". Don't worry. I can assure you that 99% of the time your audience will not have that thought. You audience will appreciate your clarity. If your audience disagrees or finds fault with what you have to say because they are capable of engaging with you in a disagreement of philosophical substance, then you have done an excellent job of communicating. If your audience finds fault with you because they cannot understand what you are trying to say, then you have done a terrible job of communicating.
 
(5) Be sympathetic and take the views of others seriously
 
If you are writing about another philosopher's argument or view, be sure that you take her view seriously. Chances are that what you are reading by a philosopher was already criticized many times by professional academics before it was published in the version that you are reading. Therefore, you should presume that the philosophers who are advocating the views that you are considering were quite aware of what they were doing. They had specific reasons for writing what they wrote. Your default assumption should be that they are not making foolish mistakes or trying to support an outlandish view. Try to consider why they might have been lead to think what they did.
 
(6) Revise and rewrite your paper
 
This might be the most IMPORTANT thing you do to improve your writing in particular cases. Writing is a process. Physically writing is only half of that process. Think about writing like playing a sport, musical instrument, or game. Sure Tom Brady threw four touchdowns yesterday; but he could have thrown five. Likewise, you might have said what you wanted to say. But you can always find ways to say it better! Your paper can always get better. For the most part, it will get better each time you can sit down and rewrite it.
 
Here are some general guidelines: After you have written your paper, print it out and read it. If you cannot do that, then read it on a different medium than the one on which you wrote it. If you cannot do either of these things, then try reading your paper out load. These tricks will help you to foresee how your paper will appear or sound to someone else that is reading it for the first time. If it reads or sounds a little funny or odd to you, then it will likely be incomprehensible to someone else.
 
Other resources for help with writing: