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 best approach is to develop your thesis (at least, a working version of it), before you start. There are a few places you might start: with a topic, with a question, or with a provisional thesis. A topic is a concept, debate, or issue that you might want to explore in more detail. If you are taking a philosophy of language course, for example, you might want to write about the meaning of proper names. Of course, there is a lot you could say about the meaning of proper names, and there is an extensive philosophical literature on this topic. So the next step is to turn your topic into a question.

Formulating a good research question is the key step to turning your potentially jumbled thoughts into a paper. A good research question has the following properties:

  1. It is narrow enough that you could write a paper on it within the page limits of the assignment without giving woefully inadequate arguments or ignoring major parts of the literature.

  2. It should be formulated in the terms of the existing debate. Often we initially formulate questions in terms of our imprecise everyday language. Using the concepts and ideas from the existing debate will help you to more precisely state what it is that you are investigating, but it will also help you find sources to discuss.

  3. It should place your answer in the context of the existing debate. Are you responding to a question put forward by a particular philosopher? Are you raising a question about a position defended by someone else? The advantage of putting your research question in the context of other philosopher’s work will give you a leg up on sources, and it will help you keep the topic narrowly focused.

Once you have a question, it is time to develop a working thesis. A working thesis may not be the view you defend in your paper, and usually you’ll fine tune and develop the thesis as you continue your research. However, you should at least start with a working thesis in order to help give you direction to your research. Once you have that thesis, you will have an easier time finding evidence to support it, and to find sources who disagree with it.

As you do your research, you’ll refine your working thesis into a more specific claim. One frequent pitfall for students is that they think their thesis has to be of the form: “Philosopher X’s central claim is wrong because Y.” This is a hard thesis to start from! After all, philosopher X has probably thought a lot about their central claim, and coming up with reasons why it is wrong might be really difficult. You have, however, a lot more options. One good way to go about refining your thesis is to start with some basic templates:

  1. The Positive Support - I will argue that <your claim!>, on the grounds that <your reasons!>

  2. The Critique - I will argue that the best arguments in support of <other philosopher’s> claim that <the position you will critique> fail, on the grounds that <your reasons!>

  3. The Defense - One of the prominent objections against <your position!> is that <the critique!>. However, <the critique> does not work as an objection against <your position> because <your reasons!>.

  4. The Implications - It has been argued that <a position you will start from>. In this essay, I will argue that, if this position is right, then <the interesting things that follow from it!>.

These can be combined into more elaborate essays. For example, you could defend your claim with reasons in support of your position, and defend it against the best objections from your critics. Starting with these templates in mind (and thinking about how they relate to the assignment instructions) might help give you direction for your research. Plus, once you have decided on your thesis, and you know what kind of essay you are writing, these templates will help you structure the paper. In the next section, I’ll look at how.

But how should you come up with ideas in the first place? After all, you surely discuss a lot of topics and questions in your classes - but what should you write about? I recommend the following strategies for coming up with ideas on what to write:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

structuring a paper: what should i include?

Exactly what you include in your paper will be determined by a number of factors, including the assignment instructions and the page limits. I think it is most helpful, however, to think about structuring my papers around what I need to do in order to establish my thesis. Let’s take an example using the supportive thesis structure, where I plan to argue that some claim is true, giving supporting reasons for it.

I notice two main parts: my claim itself, and the reasons. First things first then, I need to introduce my claim - but to do this effectively, I might need to do a few other things. Are there any key terms in it that need to be introduced? If I’m writing an essay on a technical topic, I might be using concepts that my readers will not yet be familiar with. I also might need to situate my claim in the context of the broader debate. Is my position challenging any prominent positions in the field? Is it expanding upon any? What questions does it attempt to answer? That is, you are helping your reader to understand what you are saying, and why you are saying it.

Next, I need to introduce my own arguments. Here, I once again should check if I have any concepts I need to introduce. I should also focus on organizing my paper around each argument I have in support of my claim. I strongly recommend not worrying about paragraphs at all at this point. Too often students get stuck in the “three paragraph” essay format, and they end up worrying about cramming their ideas into that format, instead of thinking about the structure that best suits their argument.

Instead, start by writing out your argument in terms of key sentences - the premises making up your argument. Each premise is a claim that you need to show is true in order to establish your claim. From there, you can worry about what you need to do in order to explain and defend each of those premises. Once you’ve worked that out, you’ve got a list of tasks - things you need to do in order to successfully make your argument. Structuring your paper is now just a matter of figuring out what order to do those things in. Let’s take a simple example.

Suppose I want to argue that your phone can be part of your mind (I am borrowing here from work by Andy Clark and David Chalmers). To introduce that thesis, I already know I’ll need to:

  • Explain what I mean by “part of your mind.” I obviously don’t mean it is physically attached to your brain, so what do I mean?

  • Situate my argument in the recent debate - perhaps mentioning how it develops out of Clark and Chalmers work.

I then work out my arguments for it. Suppose I have two, which I can sketch out as follows:

Argument One

  1. Accessing information from your phone works in the same way as accessing information from your memory.

  2. If accessing information from memory and your phone work in the same way, then either they should both be part of your mind, or both not part of your mind.

  3. Your memory is part of your mind.

  4. Therefore, your phone is part of your mind.

Argument Two

  1. If the functioning of your phone could be built into a microchip that was physically implanted in your brain, such that it operated the same way as any other mental process, it would be part of your mind.

  2. There is no relevant difference between a chip implanted in your brain and a chip running in a phone outside of your brain.

  3. Therefore, your phone is part of your mind.

Since I have two arguments, I’ll start with a section of my paper for each. I then take a look at my first argument. I need to establish that accessing information works in the same way in both of these cases. I should start by identifying what they have in common. What are the features of accessing information from my memory? Does using my phone have each? How do I know? Say I identify three features - perhaps I’ll devote a paragraph to each, explaining how both memory and using my phone involve those features.

From there, I’ll move on to the next premise. This one seems to be based on a number of assumptions from the philosophy of mind about what your mind even is. Notice, for example, that the criteria it uses for being part of my mind is that the way in which information is processed is the same as mental activities. Why should I believe that? Well, here I should probably spend some time introducing the relevant theories from the Philosophy of Mind. (Advertisement: take Philosophy of Mind and learn what they are!) Here I will plan out how much background I need in order to explain and defend this claim.

The third premise is perhaps one that I’ll take as an assumption, and not defend here. If so, then I can just devote a short paragraph to it explaining that I will be assuming it. Now, it is time to move on to argument two, and do the same process. By the end of it, I’ll have a sense of all of the tasks I need to accomplish to write my paper, and now it is just a matter of breaking it up into those tasks (each a small chunk of the paper), and doing some writing!

For the different thesis types above, here are some suggested structures to start with:

The Positive Support

  1. Introduction

    1. What is my thesis?

    2. Why should you care?

  2. Background

    1. What concepts do you need to know in order to understand my thesis?

    2. How does my thesis fit into debates in the field?

  3. Argument One

    1. (Each sub-section here is a defense of a premise).

  4. Argument Two…

  5. Conclusion

    1. Summarize how I’ve argued for my thesis.

The Critique

  1. Introduction

    1. What is my thesis?

    2. Why should you care?

  2. Background

    1. Summarize the argument you’ll be critiquing. Be sure to explain any key concepts and situate it in the field.

  3. Objection One

    1. (Each sub-section here is a defense of a premise in your objection).

  4. Objection Two…

  5. Implications

    1. If your objections hold, what does that mean for the argument you are critiquing? Have you shown that it is false? Have you shown that you shouldn’t believe it (even if we don’t yet know if it is false or not)?

  6. Conclusion

    1. Summarize how I’ve argued for my thesis.

The Defense

  1. Introduction

    1. What is my thesis?

    2. Why should you care?

  2. Background

    1. What is the position I am going to defend?

    2. How does that position relate to others in the debate?

  3. The Objection(s)

    1. What are the most prominent objections against that position?

    2. If the objections are successful, what are the implications for that position?

  4. The Defense

    1. Explain your rebuttal to the objection. Some ways you could approach it:

      1. Deny a premise in the original argument.

      2. Grant the premises, but deny that the conclusion follows.

      3. Grant that the opposing argument is a good one, but deny the significance of their conclusion, i.e., show that even if it is true, it does not undermine your position.

  5. Implications

    1. Have you saved the original argument as is? Are any changes necessary based on your own arguments?

  6. Conclusion

    1. Summarize how I’ve argued for my thesis.

The Implications

  1. Introduction

    1. What is my thesis?

    2. Why should you care?

  2. Background

    1. What position am I going to start from?

    2. What do I need to explain about that position for you to understand it?

  3. Implication One

    1. What follows from the original position, and why?

    2. Why is it important if this follows?

  4. Implication Two…

  5. Conclusion

    1. Summarize how I’ve argued for my thesis.

How i write: My process and the tools i use

Finally, in this last section, I am going to talk a bit about my own writing process. I always start with free writing. I keep a research journal where I jot down ideas and stray thoughts on research topics, or just philosophical things that interest me. Sometimes those journal entries are half-baked ideas that go nowhere, sometimes they are really promising ideas that become papers. Sometimes, when I am working on something, these journal entries give me a place to try to work out what I want to say in my paper. I find that writing helps me think, but that it is helpful to have space that feels less like a commitment - I’m not going to use these words in my papers. It is just a matter of writing to help me work out some ideas, and I find that freeing. I keep this journal in a plain text file, which I write in using Sublime Text 3. I often add to it from my iPad, where I use Drafts with an output command to pre-pend my new entry (with the date and time) to the text file in my Dropbox.

I keep track of all my sources in a BibTeX file, managed through Zotero. You can also use RefWorks, which the University has a subscription to. I use Zotero because it offers a bit more flexibility, is faster, and because of how well it integrates with writing in Plain Text. However, RefWorks tends to be a bit easier for a lot of people, especially with Microsoft Word. Either way - I strongly recommend using a citation manager if you are doing any large research projects. It not only helps with formatting, but also allows you to re-use citations to papers you have used before. If I want to cite a particular paper, all I need to do is add the citation key to my paper, and like magic, the citation appears in my paper, with both an in-text citation and bibliography entry.

When it comes time to write, I start by making a rough outline of what I want to say, and where, in my document. I usually put in all of my section headings, along with 1-2 sentence summaries of what I want to do in each sub-section. This is helpful to me for a few reasons. One is that I like to jump around when I write. Sometimes I’ll get stuck in a particular section, so I’ll go work on another section of the paper. It helps me keep the paper moving, and coming back to the part I was stuck on fresh often helps me figure out what to say. The other reason is that I write a little everyday (more on this below), so these little section headings help me pick up where I left off more easily. Finally, they also help when I need to reorganize. If I think that a point would work better earlier in the paper, those notes help me find the paragraphs I need to move.

From there, I just write a little bit everyday. Students often write in big spurts, where a deadline pushes you to try and write an entire paper the day (or night) before it is due. Students often point out that the pressure of the deadline helps them write. I think it is probably true that the pressure helps you get words down on paper. I am more skeptical that helps us to write. The difference is that we do better writing when we have time to think, reconsider, re-write, and re-evaluate what we are doing. Instead of sticking with the last minute strategy, I’ve found the best approach is to just get some writing done every day - maybe a small amount, maybe a large amount if you are feeling particularly inspired. Not only does it make getting the whole paper done feel easier (a half hour a day is a lot more pleasant than an energy-drink fueled rush late at night!), but it keeps you in the mindset of your paper. That is, you’ll find yourself thinking about it more often, and in more circumstances, which often helps you work out thorny problems.

I actually write my papers in plain text, using the markup language Pandoc. Writing in plain text means that you don’t get any fancy formatting as you write. It also means, however, that you don’t need to worry about formatting - you can focus solely on what you want to say. To do the actual formatting, you use some really easy code, such as using asterisks to indicate italics, and the @ sign to mark a citation. It is easy to learn, and one advantage of writing in Pandoc is that when you are done, you compile the paper into some other format. This makes it easy to turn your paper into a PDF, a Word Document, an HTML page, or whatever else you need.

Finally, to edit my papers, I use a few strategies. One is that I rely on friends and colleagues. I participate in a writing group where I have other scholars (philosophers and non-philosophers) read parts of my papers and offer feedback. This helps because I always know what I meant to say, and so it is really useful to find out what other people think you have actually said! When editing my own papers, I read them out-loud. This will help you catch grammatical errors because it prevents you from simply reading your sentences as you meant them to sound.