Some Typical Problems to Be Avoided When Composing Written Work


1. The "throwing in everything and the kitchen sink" syndrome (& the opposite problem).
What's the problem here?  Don't just write anything that comes to your mind, hoping that some thing that you write will hit the spot.  Focus on answering the question concisely and nothing else.  The opposite problem:  Writing too little.  Make sure you cover all the bases.  There is no absolute minimum or maximum in answering a question (unless there is an explicit word limit); everybody has his/her own style.  But you have to cover all things that are asked for in the question, while avoiding redundancy.  It's a balancing act.

2.  Not defining terms (the "real philosopher" syndrome).

The problem here is that you cannot assume that the reader is a "real philosopher" and knows everything you are presupposing when answering a question.  Make sure you define the terms that you use, even if they were covered in detail in class and have become familiar to you.  Part of showing the instructor (or whoever is grading your paper) that you understood the material is that you are able to define the--for the most part--technical terms a given philosopher uses.

3.  Writing for the professor (the "let the reader do all the work" syndrome).

Related to no. 2.  Do not burden the reader with having to make the connections between the points you are making.  In general, write so that John or Mary Doe can understand your writing.  Do not write to impress the professor by using, e.g., overly difficult vocabulary or excessively technical terms!

4.  Using examples as arguments (the "not getting any mileage" syndrome).

If you use examples but do not explain what they exemplify, you are not getting any mileage out of them!  Using examples is fine, helpful and illustrative, but you have to tie them in with your overall argument.  Ask yourself whether and to what extent the example really exemplifies the point you want to make.

5.  Stating something as an argument, not developing it (the "name dropping" syndrome).

Don't just say, e.g., "This is proven by Plato's dualism," if you don't explain what "dualism" is, what it is about and what it is supposed to prove.  Terms such as "dualism," "ontology" etc. are mere words and terms that are in need of elucidation, i.e., in and of themselves they are no arguments but mere terms that could stand for arguments.  Moreover, philosophers notoriously use terms in their very idiosyncratic sense. Thus, what Heidegger, e.g., means with ontology might be very different from the meaning used by Russell or Quine.

6.  Just beginning to write and ending somewhere (the "Adam and Eve" or "lost in mid-air" syndrome).

Make sure you begin your essay with a real introductory sentence and likewise wrap it up at the end.  Extremes to be avoided:  Don't begin by "Adam and Eve" (e.g., "Aristotle was a wise man and admired by many people of his time.").  Conversely:  Don't leave the reader hanging in mid-air just because you feel that you have written what you needed to say and that you can stop now.  Even if the essay is merely answering a question in an exam, your anwer is a real essay, albeit short, and should be written accordingly (you are not writing emails!).

7.  "Speed writing" (the "running out of steam" syndrome).

Pace yourself and don't speed unnecessarily.  Also, make sure you know what you want to say so you don't run out of steam prematurely.  Making an outline before writing helps.

8.  Retelling the dialogue (the "novelist" syndrome).

Especially when you are dealing with an author like Plato, who uses dialogues with a certain story line, make sure you don't just retell the story, but that you focus on the arguments.  Most likely the question will not ask you to reiterate the story line, but to reconstruct an interlocutor's argument for or against something.

9.  Letting the author do the talking (the "see?  here it is!" syndrome).

Using quotations is welcome and, in a take home exam, expected.  However, a quotation should merely support your argument, not make it for you.  Even an essay heavy on quotations should have a maximum of ca. 25% quotations.  The quotations merely underline the points you are making, maybe saying it with special emphasis or in an especially original way.  You need to do the leg work.

10.  Leaving gaps in the argument (the "perforated canvas" syndrome).

Make sure that when you retell an argument that involves several steps or aspects that you do not leave out anything in the middle.  Things that may seem clear to you may still leave out intermediary points that you are tacitly presupposing.  Put yourself in the position of a potential reader and ask yourself if your grandmother--provided she has never read or heard about philosophy--would understand your essay!


General Guidelines:

Successful Papers

- Make an argument;

- Avoid vague generalizations but are specific about the texts discussed;

- Use specific quotations from the text to back up the argument, but avoid plot summary;

- Are well organized;

- Are clear to a reader;

- Are relatively free of errors;

- Follow MLA style.

Outstanding Papers

- Make a strong argument about ideas not necessarily covered in class or in the book;

- Advance arguments made in class--that is, take them a step or two beyond what was discussed;

- Write with a strong style and voice;

- Follow MLA style.