First steps: figuring out what to say
The first challenge to writing a philosophical paper is coming up with something to say. One strategy is to just start writing, and hope something comes to you. That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but can lead to disorganized and worse, contradictory papers, if all of that writing ends up in the paper you submit.
The first step is to come up with a topic, which is the debate or set of questions that you want to explore. At this stage you aren’t worried about a thesis yet. Focus instead on the question(s) that interest you most. They might the be questions discussed and debated in the texts you read in class, they might be questions that those texts raise but don’t address, or they may be totally new questions that interest you. The advantage to starting with a question rather than a set of texts is that there is a lot going on in an average philosophy paper.
I recommend the following strategies for coming up with ideas on what to write:
If you know your topic, just not your thesis, you can start by writing a summary of the major positions in the debate. This might be useful for you later as part of the background section of your paper. What’s more, being precise on the existing views may help you find a claim you disagree with, a claim that needs further elaboration, or a claim that you think you can provide a defense for.
Do some free writing. Don’t worry about the quality of your prose, and just try to use your writing to brainstorm ideas, and to see if you can defend them. Two tips for this kind of writing. First, be prepared to throw it away. I’d do the writing in a totally separate document from your paper. This is writing to help you think, and using it because it helps you fill up the pages will hurt your paper. Second, when brainstorming ideas, be critical of them. Research suggests that brainstorming is less effective when you simply list ideas, or treat every idea as a good one. Free writing is a good way to see if the ideas you do have can hold up to scrutiny and are worth your time.
Keep a file of ideas. If you are in class or reading a paper, and some idea sounds really interesting, or the argument offered by the text, your professor, or a classmate sounds problematic, jot a note down. When it is time to actually write a paper, going through this list can be a good way to develop ideas to write about the free writing stage.
Start with the types of philosophical theses.