Writing Philosophy

Philosopher CD Broad black and white photo

Competent writing goes hand-in-hand with competent thinking. The philosopher C.D. Broad put it this way:

I have an extreme dislike for vague, confused, and oracular writing; and I have very little patience with authors who express themselves in this style. I believe that what can be said at all can be said simply and clearly in any civilized language or in a suitable system of symbols, and that verbal obscurity is almost always a sign of mental confusion.

Broad was admonishing fellow philosophers, yet his main point applies to everyone:

If your writing is not clear, your thinking is not clear.

Indeed, whatever else you master in college, learn how to write well. No professional occupation escapes the need for clear expression. Writing well is crucial to your career. To be sure, it will take work, especially if English is your second language. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Write simply. Avoid long or overly complicated sentences. Learn how to use punctuation correctly and judiciously.
  2. To that end, study Strunk and White's “Elements of Style”. Brief, chock-full of practical advice, and an outstanding starting point, it is freely available online at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.
  3. Try to emulate an author you admire. You might have a favorite author like Hume or Quine, or maybe you are lucky enough to know someone who always does well in their philosophy courses. Either way, find a model. Try to mimic their style of writing.
  4. Read through some of the recommended guides below before getting started.
  5. Be patient with yourself. Remember that writing philosophy is doing philosophy, and doing philosophy is never easy or quick.
  6. Once you have a draft in hand, remember that it is only a rough draft: Edit, edit, and edit some more, but before you get started, step away from the draft for a few days so it will be fresh.
  7. As uncomfortable as it sounds, read what you've written out loud to yourself. Grammatically awkward or confusing sentences sound awful, like nails on a chalkboard. Text-to-speech software can also help.
  8. As you edit, ruthlessly prune for simplicity and clarity. Eloquence at the expense of clarity may be thought a literary virtue: in philosophy it is annoying, obfuscatory clutter.
  9. Have a friend read what you've written. If he or she can't make sense of a sentence or paragraph, you probably need to rewrite it.

You needn't follow all this advice, of course. Yet some of it is likely to help. For more advice, see the following guides to writing philosophy. To be sure, there is a lot available here: Start with Lenman's "How to Write a Crap Philosophy Essay" to quickly learn what not to do; follow up with Pryor's superb "Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper".