notes on writing a

philosophy paper

1     Look carefully at the topic.

Before you begin writing your paper write the topic quesion out in full at the top of the first page. Then ask yourself which theory or problem or  argument is at issue. Ask yourself what exactly the question requires. Keep that firmly in mind as you think about and plan the paper. Do not fasten on one or two words (like “emotional expression” ) and then proceed write down everything that those words suggest.



The topic is: “Does a work of art have to transmit or cause an emotion for it to successfully express that emotion?”

In my experience those who write out the topic as worded at the top of the page stick to that topic. Those who substitute their own wording or paraphrase the topic ypically wander off the specified topic onto their own chosen topic.This is not asking you to write about any old problem of art and emotion.  e.g. it is not asking whether it is rational to experience pity for the fictional character Anna Karenina.  It is a specific question about what it takes for a work of art to express an emotion and the connection between expression and transmission.  So do not write "Art an emotion" at the top of the paper.  I


2     Strive to make your writing as simple, as clear, and as succinct as possible.

There are no marks for unnecessary complexity, obscurity, or length. Don’t use a lot of adjectives or pack it with impressive sounding phrases of dubious meaning. If a sentence is long and unwieldy, break it up into smaller sentences. If it is difficult to understand, rewrite it and clarify it. If a sentence merely repeats what you have already said, cut it out. Break your paper up into paragraphs. A pretty good rule of thumb is: one thought, one paragraph.

3     Beginnings and endings

Please do not begin your paper in the following way:

“Ever since the dawn of time philosophers have argued about the definition of art.”

Cut to the chase! Don’t waste space like this!

Much better to start like this:

“In this paper I will argue that a work of art can express an emotion without causing or transmitting that very emotion.”

Please do not end your paper in the following way:

"As with all philosophical problems, there are arguments for and arguments against, and this one has no solution and so everyone just has to make up his own mind as to what he believes.”

This is feeble. It is not true that we can learn nothing positive from philosophy, or that any position is just as viable as any other. If you have nothing at all positive to show for the four pages you have written then do a new paper!

Better to end with something interesting and bold like this.

“In this paper I have shown that if Tolstoy's emotional transmission theory of art were correct then much of what we today judge to be profound and important works of art would fail to count as art at all. Further there would be many works that are typically judged not to be art at all that Tolstoy's theory counts as such. Any adequate theory of art must accommodate the clear-cut cases of both art and non-art, and Tolstoy's t theory fails this test badly."

4     Clearly state and evaluate arguments

You should be thinking about arguments that might be given for or against the position that you are endorsing.  And you should be prepared to evaluate those arguments.  Note the two features which make an argument sound. An argument is sound provided both (i) and (ii):

   (i)      The argument is valid

An argument is valid if the truth of the premises would guarantee the truth of the conclusion. The conclusion follows from the premises; i.e. it is impossible that the premises be true and the conclusion false.

    (ii)    The premises are true.

Thus you can show that an argument is unsound in one of two ways. You can show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Or you can argue that not all the premises are true.

5     Length

Your paper should be betwee 1500 and 1700 words long. Excessive shortness and excessive length will both be penalized. Making a point succinctly (and clearly) is part of the discipline of philosophy. So you will not be rewarded for adding words unnecessarily. But to make your point clearly and precisely to someone else it is sometimes necessary to spend quite a lot of time on what might at first appear to be quite a small issue.

6    Quotations and citations

All quotations from sources must be acknowledged. Plagiarism—passing off someone else’s words as your own—is a serious case of academic dishonesty and if you are caught the sanctions are hefty. You can be suspended from the University. All plagiarism cases are referred to the Honor Council. The Honor Council takes an even harsher view of the sanctions than most faculty would be inclined to take. So don’t risk it.

The point of doing Philosophy is for you to start thinking for yourself about these issues. If you plagiarize someone else’s writing you are also plagiarizing their thinking. You have simply become a mouthpiece for someone else’s mind. So plagiarism in Philosophy is particularly egregious.

Put any direct quotation from another source in quotation marks (or indent the passage clearly). Place a footnote number at the end of the quotation, and (when writing a paper out of class) list the details under that number either at the foot of the page, or at the end of the paper. Make the details of your source clear, including: author, title, publisher/journal, date of publication, page numbers.

In many subjects quotations are used to back up a claim or argument. The idea seems to be that some people are authorities and so merely showing that an authority has said such-and-such is good evidence that such-and-such is true. As you will realize by now, in philosophy we do not make that kind of use of authorities. Each claim has to be assessed on its own merits, not on who said it. In philosophy we are primarily interested in truth and falsity, validity and invalidity, not in who said what. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to quote a source when attributing a view to someone, or when you feel the point simply cannot be expressed any more clearly.

Long quotations in papers should be avoided at all costs. One of your main aims in writing the paper is for you to demonstrate that you have grasped the topic and can express your grasp of it in your own words. Quoting long tracts from what somebody else has written hinders that aim. I will not be able to tell whether you really understand what you are quoting, or whether you are merely parroting somebody else's words.

If you do make direct use of any material from any source then make sure you put it in quotation marks and cite your source!

If you find a quote in article X from article Y, and you cite article Y, you still need to note that you first found the quote in article X.


You can read the University's policy on academic dishonesty on this website:

The Philosophy Department's policy is that academic dishonesty will result in a failure for the course with a report to the Honor Council. The Honor Council may well impose additional sanctions, especially if you earn two reports of academic dishonesty.


6     Drafts

Whether you are preparing for a term paper or an in-class exam, it is a bad idea to sit down and write out the final version of your paper from scratch. You will need to draft your paper. A good procedure is this.

After reading and thinking about the topic you will probably have some idea of what you want to say, what lines of argument you are going to follow, and what kind of conclusion you would like to end up with. Sketch this out in a plan of the paper.

Write a first draft of the paper, amending and modifying the plan as required. You will often find that actually writing out some point in detail will change your view of the matter somewhat. Put the first draft aside for a while.

A day or two later write out the final version, again making changes and amendments, especially if you feel you need to do so to make the paper clearer.