Tips for writing a philosophy essay

Luke Elson

January 2022

(Back to Luke’s homepage)

There are a million of these guides online, but here’s mine. These are specifically targeted at University of Reading students, for whom essays are the main means of assessment.

Much of this is unashamedly tailored to my preferences, but I think mine are fairly common.

The content of your essay

Get down to business. The question has been asked, so you can just jump in to answer it—no need for a ‘since the dawn of time, XX has been very controversial’ type introduction. This just looks like padding, and most people hate it.

Every factual claim needs to be cited or supported:

  1. Even vague “common sense” factual claims like ‘society is getting more diverse’. These kind of claims rarely add value, so better just to remove them.

  2. Especially claims that someone thinks or claims something. “Singer argues that…” needs a proper citation, including page numbers.

  3. Many professional papers have a footnote at the end of every sentence.

  4. Better to start with too many references and remove some later, than have the opposite problem.

  5. The point of citations is so that the reader can check what you are saying is true. So you need to give enough information to let the reader do this: at the very least a page number.

Most of the time, you need to present the views of others, and then evaluate or criticise some view or argument:

  1. Consider one or two objections or lines of evaluation in depth (a couple of pages each)…

  2. Rather than three or four shallowly (a couple of paragraphs each).

  3. A good way to add depth is to anticipate (invent) lines of objection or response to what you are saying.

Don’t be afraid of a conclusion:

  1. If you’ve given reasons to think that (for example) the argument from relativity doesn’t work, then don’t end with a weak conclusion like in conclusion Mackie’s argument is sound but maybe not valid in today’s society.

  2. That kind of writing provokes a “well, which is it?” response in the reader. Is the argument sound or not?

How to write

Explain everything very clearly – write as if your reader hasn’t read the papers etc you are discussing. Explain it all to them, even if it sounds patronising.

The best way to summarise someone’s views and argument is to quote then explain: quote a couple of sentences, then explain what is being said in your own words.

  1. The quote will keep you honest—it forces you to be accurate, most of the time.

  2. It also means you read the actual material, rather than nonsensical summary websites, Wikipedia, or YouTube videos, which are usually seriously wrong.

  3. Your explanation shows that you actually understand what the author is saying, rather than just copying and pasting.

Be specific. For example, in an introduction, don’t write “I will evaluate whether the argument works”. Write “I’ll argue that the argument fails because …” (adjust as needed)

It’s not compulsory to write this way, but don’t be afraid of ‘I’. ‘I think…’, ‘I will argue that..’ make everything far easier to read. They also make it clear when you are giving your own view, rather than just summarising what others say.

Your paragraphs are almost certainly too long.

More generally: write as simply as you can. Try reading your essay out loud to yourself. If a sentence sounds awkward and jarring and like something nobody would say out loud, it’s probably not a good written sentence either.