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I love philosophy. I only had space for one elective this year, and I decided that I couldn’t live without it. If you’re in philosophy, you’ve probably stumbled a few times on writing those essays. This is probably because philosophy essays are almost nothing like English essays. Read on for some tips that have kept me from failing (so far)!

Read the Question Carefully
Writing philosophy opens you up to a lot of detours and tangents. Read the question carefully and make sure that you answer it directly. To test this, take part of the question and phrase it as an answer. For example, if the question were, “Defend one critical objection to Kantian morality” you would answer it with, “My critical objection to Kantian morality is…” This won’t be stated so crudely in your essay, obviously, but it ensures that you answer the question. Remember, you can write an amazing essay, but you’ll get a very low mark if you don’t answer the question.

Make a Strong Argument
This seems obvious, but there are many objections you can make to philosophical ideas that just aren’t good argument. A good argument will completely destroy a theory (or if you’re defending a theory, it will come up with a strong defense in response to a destructive objection). For example, if a philosopher is absolutist, arguing that absolutism is too demanding would completely destroy the argument. This is a good. If you make a critical objection where the philosopher could respond with “yeah, I’ll just tack that onto my theory”, you’re not making a good objection.

Don’t Hide What You’re Trying to Say
Like I said earlier, this is not an English essay. You don’t need to make a point in your introduction and have it lead somewhere epic and different in your conclusion. State very clearly at the beginning of your essay, “In this essay, I will argue that…” and then just go right ahead and argue that. The whole point of a philosophy paper is to defend your point of view, and not necessarily to come up with epic ideas.

Talk to Your Teaching Assistant
They don’t bite, and they mark your papers. Trust me when I say that this is a good idea. Meetings take literally five minutes, and you will walk out with a much better argument than you had going in. You’re also guaranteed to have a better mark after you talk with your teaching assistant because they’ll give you suggestions on what to improve. Walk into their office hours with a draft or an outline. Ask them questions, and be critical of your own work. Your TA will never tell you what’s wrong with your writing, or pick out something that they dislike about your paper unless you mention it. So if you think you have a weak argument, ask them if it’s a weak argument. They’ll tell you yes or no, but they won’t say a thing if you don’t ask.

What I love about philosophy is that there’s no “right” or “wrong”. Like my TA said to me, “99% of philosophy is just bull.” There will always be an objection to your ideas, so don’t worry about saying the right or wrong thing. Just say something. As long as you can defend yourself, you’re golden.

Photo courtesy of dr.jd via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).