Work Habits and the Writing Process

Berkeley Connect Philosophy students discuss how to write philosophy papers 

Michael Rieppel and students discuss the art of writing philosophy.

Michael Rieppel and students discuss the art of writing philosophy.

Writing a philosophy paper is very different from writing other kinds of essays. Recently I sat in as graduate student Michael Rieppel discussed the important distinctions between philosophy papers and papers for other courses with the group of Berkeley Connect students he is mentoring this semester.

“It’s especially important in philosophy papers to be clear, because you are presenting a logical argument,” Michael noted. Sometimes, philosophy students must re-construct arguments of other works. The biggest mistake, according to Michael? Writing it like a book report! “You have to think critically about the argument,” Michael stressed. “It’s important to ask what role each sentence plays.”

Another important technique in philosophical writing is anticipating objections and misunderstandings – whether through explaining technical terms or providing clear examples. “Show you understand by using your own example, not the one given in lecture,” Michael advised. “And always read the instructions! This always seems to be a problem.”

A student commented that it is much harder to reconstruct the arguments of books, because there is so much to cover. Another student agreed. “I never know what to put in or leave out. Often my essay is not well-structured because I’m trying to cram so much into it. But on the flip side, I also lose a lot of points when I try to focus on one thing and leave out another,” she said. Students shared ideas for solutions, too. One student suggested going to office hours, although another noted that sometimes, professors and GSIs brought up points and counter-arguments she did not understand, but then felt compelled to include.

“There’s an exposition part and a more evaluative part,” Michael said in response. “It’s all about how to extract the steps of the argument.” Students agreed. “Even small subtle observations are evaluative and important,” one chimed in.

Students also discussed writing styles. One student joked, “In philosophy, we have one style – dry!” But most agreed that clarity is the primary imperative in a philosophy paper. “I like to write my papers in a way even my roommate, who isn’t a philosophy major, can understand them,” one student said. But how much should they assume the reader knows? Michael said there is no definite answer. “Just imagine a reader who is very prone to misunderstanding,” he advised. A student added, “A professor once told me not only to imagine the reader as prone to misunderstanding, but also mean!”

As the discussion drew to a close, Michael provided the students with sample essays and reminded them to take their time when writing. “You’re trying to get some distance from your own essay. You know what you’re saying, but others might not. One way is to put it away for two days and come back to it.”

Lively and informative, this meeting certainly helped the students – and me – learn a lot about the writing process. It also revealed that mentors are not the only source of advice and wisdom about paper writing; some of the best suggestions for philosophy papers came from Berkeley Connect participants themselves!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant