Essays (Science/Philosophy)

Writing Science and Philosophy essays

General things:

Be as clear and precise as possible (so don’t try to use fancy words just for the sake of it). It’s also good to lay out the arguments you’ll be analysing in a formal way (using numbering works well).

Be careful with synonyms: many terms in philosophy are very specific, and everyday synonyms may mean something subtly different in a philosophical sense. At the start, its usually a good idea to define the main terms you’ll be using, and then stick to them throughout.

Make safe claims (like ‘it seems that xyz’, or ‘this tends to be the case’, rather than just stating ‘xyz’). It’s quite likely someone can come up with a counterexample to a general claim, so it’s often better to avoid extreme cases that could pose problems.

It’s perfectly fine to write in first person, and use phrases like ‘I think’ etc.

Coming up with proper original ideas is difficult. Instead it’s better to focus on coming up with different examples (or counterexamples) to explain your points or demonstrate how the work/apply to the situation at hand. (You can take inspiration from other philosophers if necessary)

Remember you’ll have a tutorial on the essay later, where you’ll have the opportunity to explain yourself again if you were unclear, or try to find a response to arguments you may not have had the time to discuss properly in your essay, so don’t worry too much about the essay.

Strategy

It’s probably a good idea to make some sort of ‘plan’/collection of ideas you want to discuss in your essay. In my case that involves writing whatever thoughts come into my head relevant to the question, for others it might be more structured. I tend to refine the order and structure as I’m writing, but some people like to have a very detailed plan that they then only need to flesh out a bit to turn into a final essay.

Try to get your reading done early (unfortunately this is much harder than it sounds). I find it really helpful to have at least a day between finishing the reading, and starting to write the actual essay, since my ideas have more time to develop/refine themselves.

Most of the time, the bulk of your essay will be spent analysing the positions others have taken, and highlighting problems or considerations you or others have found with them (and then potentially finding a work-around or amendment).

Try also to get a ‘first draft’ of your essay done with enough time to take a break (from experience this is quite a rare occurrence). Coming back to it with a clear mind will help find any bits of dodgy reasoning you need to fix and make sure everything makes sense.

I usually write the introduction and conclusion last, once I know what my essay is arguing for. Its fine to be very blunt and to the point: for the intro, I just rephrase my position in the terms of the question, and state how I will argue for that by outlining the content of my paragraphs. For the conclusion, I tend to use a similar format, re-stating my position, and mentioning that the themes of each paragraph support it.

More

http://www.jimpryor.net/teaching/guidelines/writing.html has some pretty comprehensive advice with examples (was recommended by the tutors).