(Originally published Sep 10, 2012)

The semester is off and running, which means the first student papers are due soon.  This year I’ve created a new set of Guidelines for Writing a Philosophy Paper.

After grading undergraduate papers for several years now, I’ve become well aquatinted with some common mistakes that they make.  To be fair to them, some of these mistakes are understandable.  Many, especially in lower-level classes, have never written a philosophy paper before.  For some, it may even be their first college paper.  While I could complain and grumble about the sad state of writing abilities in college students today, that wouldn’t accomplish much.  My job is to help them.  As I tell them, they will be judged in their jobs and in life based on how they communicate.

So I wrote up these guidelines1 to help them avoid some of the common problems.  The two biggest points I’m trying to stress here (and in class are: (1) cut the fluff, and (2) make an argument.

Many undergraduates, especially those new to college or philosophy, have a tendency (I’ve found) to ramble.  Their introductions sometimes start off with something like, “Since the dawn of time, great minds have pondered for generations the greatest questions facing humankind.  Among these questions are [topic of the paper], and [philosopher so-and-so] had thoughts about it.”  (Okay maybe they’re not that bad, but I’ve seen some close.)  The first paper assigned is 500-700 words.  They’re starting to understand that they have to jump right in and stay on topic to cover everything in that limit.

The other problem I’ve noticed, particularly in intro classes, is the inability to make an argument.2 It’s not uncommon to see a paper in which the same point is stated three or four different ways (but always saying the same thing), ostensibly as an argument for that point.  By getting them to focus on arguments for their thesis and respond to potential counter-arguments, I’m hopeful this will improve.

For other faculty reading this blog, how about you?  What are some guidelines you give to students for their papers?

1I composed these guidelines based upon my own experience, a similar document by my dissertation advisor (Stephen Neale), and Harvard University’s “A Brief Guide to Writing a Philosophy Paper.”

2I don’t mean to say that the inability to make an argument is universal.  Some students are better than others, of course.