How to Write a Philosophy Paper (Undergrad)

One thing I’ve come to realize upon completing my first year of grad school is that my writing process needs some work. I had a system that worked stellar for me as an undergrad, but for whatever combination of reasons, is harder for me to execute as a grad student. Maybe I’ve just become out of practice since taking a year off.

But, since I’ve gotten quite a few questions over the years about how to write a paper for a philosophy class, I figured I would share the process I used here. I expect this to be most helpful to undergrads, especially those who are somewhat new to philosophy. [Insert the usual cautionary preface about how “this might not work for everyone,” blah blah blah…]

I always kept my philosophy papers very structured, explicit, and to-the-point. I created an outline-centered approach that catered to my desired style of writing:

1 Create bare-bones outline

Like I said, I like my papers very structured. Almost every paper I’ve ever written has had the following structure:

outline

I really like having my papers read like a standard argument, so the entire body of my paper is ordered based on the general argument I present in my introduction. (Just keep in mind that, given that this is a bare-bones outline, “general argument” and “premise” here can be interpreted quite loosely.)

Sometimes, instead of addressing (an) objection(s) at the end of the main body of my essay, I’ll tack them onto the end of one the previous sections III A-D. It just depends on what I think makes my paper flow the best.

2 Add main details to intro paragraph

A Formulate thesis

Usually it starts with “I will argue that . . .”

B Formulate general argument

Something like “I hope to establish this by first . . . , then . . . , and finally . . .” – just something that both resembles the flow of an argument and sets up the structure of the main body of your paper.

3 Provide background info

The essays I wrote in undergrad were always a response to some paper(s) we read in class. My rule of thumb is to assume I’m writing for someone who has some philosophical background but not necessarily in the topic at hand. So throughout my paper I would feel free to use philosophical jargon, but in this section of my paper I would provide a relevant summary of the current discourse/body of work I was addressing and define all technical terms.

4 Organize topic sentences

Each of my topic sentences are an assertion of each premise (loosely interpreted) from my general argument (also loosely interpreted); I dedicate each portion of my main argument a section in my essay body.

5 Fill in each section in outline

For my intro paragraph, this usually means adding a sentence or two to introduce my paper before I present my thesis and possibly also one sentence briefly addressing the importance/significance of my thesis.

For each of my body paragraphs, this means arguing for each of my topic sentences (kind of like mini arguments for the premises of your general argument).

6 Objection(s) + Response(s)

Usually I introduce an objection with “One may try to argue that . . .”

Again, I place the objection where I see fit. Sometimes it’s within the discussion of an individual premise (usually if it’s an objection against one of my premises) and sometimes it’s at the end of the body of my essay as a whole (usually if it’s an objection against the argument in its entirety, e.g. its structure).

7 Add transitions

For example, at the end of intro paragraph I’ll put something like: But before presenting my argument, it is useful to first provide the background against which this conversation is taking place, to help connect my intro paragraph to the next section of my paper.

8 Conclude

A Summary

“In this paper I have attempted to show that . . . I did this by first . . . I then argued that . . . Lastly, I responded to the objection that . . .”

B Implications and significance

I conclude my papers with a short discussion of where my conclusion situates us in the discourse, why it might be important/significant, and address any shortcomings of or possible future lines of inquiry from my arguments.

9 Stitch essay together

Usually at this point I have enough material to organize into an essay by simply deleting my headers and C&P-ing. I’ll read over what I’ve stitched together and make minor edits/additions as I see fit.


I think I’m going to make a “Student Advice” section for my blog which will include practical help information such as this, as well as things like time management tips, mental health advice, and the like.

This will be the first post in this category.

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