Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Advice to master's students writing seminar papers

Recently I marked two seminar papers written by master's students in my department, and despite the two papers being quite different in both style and content, at the end of my detailed comments I found I had comments to offer to both students that were virtually identical: General advice on how to go about writing a paper for a graduate seminar. This is advice that I never really got as a student, and I suspect many other philosophy graduate students haven't/didn't/won't get it either, because as a discipline philosophy seems remarkably bad at teaching people how to write. Given that in the span of a week I had cause to write up slightly different versions of this advice for similar contexts, I figured I'd write it up (with bits specific to the two papers I marked redacted because that content will vary from paper to paper) and post it here and then I can simply point students to the post. (Of course, this advice isn't only applicable to writing graduate seminar papers -- I'm sure some of it can be applied elsewhere!)

I'd like to make a few general comments about the structure of the paper and about the paper-writing process in general, that will hopefully be helpful for future essays.

A first draft is rarely (almost never) a final draft. The present paper is the sort of draft you need to write in order to figure out exactly what you want to say, but once you've figured that out, most papers then need to be almost completely overhauled. Once you've produced a draft like this, ask yourself:

1. What is it that I want to be able to claim?

This should already be articulated in the conclusion of the draft. Here, it seems that your primary conclusion is [conclusion redacted], which is quite an interesting conclusion, integrating a number of disparate topics and fields, one mark of good original and independent thinking.

Once you have this, then ask yourself:

2. What do I need in order to be able to make this claim?

This is a nuts and bolts questions: What are the tools and concepts you need/will use? A number of needs are immediately present from that conclusion: (a) a definition of [redacted], (b) information about [redacted], (c) definition of [redacted]; as well as the other pieces that you use in your argument along the way, such as the notions of [redacted], [redacted], [redacted], etc. Make a list of these, and make sure that every single one is clearly defined/articulated at some point in your final paper.

Once you have the list of things you know need to be defined at some point, then ask yourself:

3. How do all these pieces fit together into an argument for the conclusion I want?

The process of writing the first draft will help make it clear how you need to put the pieces together and structure your arguments; to find out if you've done it the way you need to in the draft, try reverse outlining: Construct an outline of the argument on the basis of what you've already written. Does it make sense? Are all the pieces in order? Are the parts defined before they are used? Is there a clear thread?

Once you have this, then you're in a position to write an introduction which clearly articulates your starting points, your conclusion, and how you will get from the one to the other, and from there, rewriting the paper should be straightforward.