“Kings don’t want to be pheasants”: Some Thoughts On Writing

“Writing is cheaper than therapy or drugs” (Roxane Gay). Writing can be more pleasurable, too. The operative phrase here is of course “can be.” Analogous to the playing of a musical instrument (see my post Bullshitting With Parameters), following certain guidelines allows the author to write, paradoxically enough, more freely, and therefore more confidently and pleasurably. What follows are some of my guidelines on writing, specifically with regard to writing argumentative essays, based on a document I wrote specifically for my students:


Before turning in your paper, did you:

• Follow the instructions exactly? (Personally, I don’t really care if you do, but your grade will care.)

• Provide a thesis and inform the reader how you will defend your thesis?

• In defending your thesis, did you anticipate objections to your argument?

• Proofread carefully?

Eighteen Further Items 

(Note: Almost all of the following examples were gleaned from past students of mine. None was the product of autocorrect.)

1) When first writing a philosophical paper, or really any argumentative essay, I recommend that you write about an issue about which you have no strong opinion. For if you are “driven” to defend a particular viewpoint–that is, you write “under a banner”–it is often difficult to see the best case for the opposing viewpoint or represent the “other side” fairly. (When you gain more experience, by all means defend one of your strong opinions. However, you may find that the more you engage with issues in a philosophical manner, the fewer strong opinions you will have.)

2) Remember what an argument is: a conclusion that the author tries to back up (that is, show that it is true) with premises (that is, reasons or evidence). A good or strong argument is one where the premises given by the author actually do support the truth of the conclusion (and of course the premises are true or at least acceptable). A bad or weak argument is one where the given premises do not support the truth of the conclusion (and/or the premises are false). Accordingly, there are two and two ways in which to challenge an argument. You may challenge the form of the argument; that is, does the truth of the premises actually increase the likelihood that the conclusion is true? And you may challenge the content of the argument; that is, are the premises true? Note that the truth of the conclusion it is not logically germane to the critique of an argument. Doing so would blatantly beg the question at hand. Also, it’s just uncool. Don’t you hate it when–after offering someone else an argument–this person simply claims that your conclusion is absurd? Did this person even listen to your reasons?

3) It’s very tempting to want to make your conclusions broad or strong, but don’t exaggerate the breadth and strength of your claims. Assert only what’s you’ve backed up or (if the reader understands) can back up. A modest or weak claim nicely substantiated is much better than a strong claim that is not substantiated.

4) There is nothing wrong with using the first person. The argument against the first person usually goes like this: By using the third-person, the paper is rendered more objective, less subjective, and more authoritative. Really? Say that I believe that x is true based on the truth of y. I could express this belief of mine in at least three ways: (i) I hold that x because of y, or (ii) x is true because of y, or (iii) one should believe x because of y. Each of these statements seems equally “objective.” Now at least regarding the perception of objectivity, yes, (ii) and (iii) seem less subjective than (i). But then we have a solely rhetorical reason for rejecting (i). And this kind of reason has no logical or philosophical merit. Quoting Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach: “The academic bias against subjectivity not only forces our students to write poorly (‘It is believed …,’ instead of ‘I believe …’) but also deforms their thinking about themselves and their world. In a single stroke, we delude our students into thinking that bad prose can turn opinions into facts.” That’s gospel.

5) Look at each one of your sentences, and ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” or “Would I say this to someone?” or “What if someone said this to me?” Take a gander at the following two sentences: “A man is a man like a squirrel is a squirrel”; and, “Life after death is a concept that flogs many people’s minds.” I can’t deny that I love these last two sentences, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to include them, or their kind, in a philosophy paper.

6) If a word or phrase works, use it. In other words, don’t vary words just because you think you’ve used them too often. With regard to writing philosophy, the thesaurus is more often your enemy than your friend. If in doubt, clarity, not style, should be your priority.

7) Critically listen; critically take notes. For example, in a paper on Descartes’ conception of God, a student wrote “God is an infant,” instead of “God is infinite.” In another paper, “blood curdling” became “blood cur tiling.” These students wrote down what they heard in class without really listening to me.

8) Now, in philosophy, the double or even triple negative is not that uncommon and certainly has its due place. But check out this seriously unclear quadruple negative: “Not that not seeing something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” Here is a translation with only three negatives: “Just because one doesn’t see something, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” Although this sentence contains three negatives, it is undoubtedly clear.

9) Interestingly enough, most grammar problems are in the first paragraph of a paper and especially in the first five lines. Don’t rely only on spell-checkers (or grammar-checkers). Try this sentence on for size: “Eye wood sea the hoarse if eye whir ewe.” And consider this ambiguous sentence: “These days steaks are rare at Sally’s Diner.” Nevertheless, grammar checkers can often find typos where spell-checkers cannot.

10) You think spelling doesn’t matter as long as the phonetics are fine? Well, check this sentence out: “Social Darwinism was the grassy noel of Darwin’s career.” The following example is even better. In relation to St. Augustine’s explanation for why he stole pears when he was young, someone wrote, “he committed the crime from pear pressure.”

11) ‘Weather’ refers to climatic conditions. For any other meaning, use ‘whether’.

12) Elmer Sprague, Persons and Their Bodies, quotes John Locke: “…contents himself to imploy [sic] the Principal Terms.” Don’t charge that someone is making a mistake unless you’re darn sure that they are! In Locke’s time, ‘imploy’ was the standard spelling. An American student wrote ‘sic’ after the word ‘practising’ in a British translation of Plato’s Apology. Need I explain?

13) It’s = it is. (It’s lovely outside, so let’s go swimming.) Its is the possessive. (I love the ocean; its power is awesome.) No exceptions!

14) If you mean “as follows,” use a colon.

15) The conditional is: “if … then …,” never “if … than ….”

16) The phrase is “one and the same,” not “one in the same.” Unless you’re inventing a new phrase, which is cool.

17) Consider this sentence: “Another one of my beliefs is, that feelings and fears of death are closely related to age.” Why the comma? This is such a common problem.

18) Consider another sentence: “Although, some people believe that after this life they go on to a better place, with no fear, no pain, no worries, and no problems.” It is a common problem to use ‘although’ and ‘even though’ instead of the more correct ‘but’ or ‘however’.

Some of the above items on writing might be more aptly described as “pet peeves,” but every professor has them. I certainly do. A student is well advised to become aware of such preferences. On writing an “argumentative” paper, Strunk’s Elements of Style covers many other items, and probably in a less pet peevish way. Richard Watson’s On Writing Philosophy is quite helpful, though difficult to understand in places. Plus, it is undoubtedly peevish.

Good luck!

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Me

I’m a Professor of Philosophy at Santa Barbara City College, and have been since 2005. Prior to this teaching gig, I taught at the Univ. of Washington (Seattle), St. Anselm College (Manchester, New Hampshire), the Univ. of Southern Maine (Portland), and the Univ. of Southern Indiana (Evansville). I was taught, in chronological order, at Tulane Univ. (New Orleans, Louisiana), Santa Barbara City College, The Univ. of Arizona (Tucson), King’s College London, and the Univ. of Washington. At each of these “institutions of higher learning,” I had at least one excellent teacher. Let me give credit to them: a poetry teacher at Tulane whose name escapes me; Joe White at SBCC; Henning Jensen, Christia Mercer, and David Owen at UA; Tony Savile and David Lloyd-Thomas at King’s; and, Ken Clatterbaugh, Bob Coburn, David Keyt, and Cass Weller at UW. Not only did these teachers provide great training in their disciplines, but they also demonstrated to me what it takes to be an excellent teacher. It should also be mentioned that UW ran (and continues to run) a required weekly seminar for graduate students regarding the craft of teaching. I believe that all professors and future professors should go through such specialized training. Unfortunately, most have not. (It’s as if they think they can drive a Lamborghini on the Autobahn because they’ve driven a bumper car at an amusement park.) Speaking of which, I have had shitty teachers at each of these institutions, whom, let’s be honest, should have either worked hard to become better at their chosen profession or should have sought out another profession.

Both lucky and cursed, I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California, and am the eldest of six children. Santa Barbara is a small city that behaves and feels that way, so I didn’t apply to any colleges in the area nor even in California. UCSB, for instance, was never on my learning radar. (In a subsequent blog, I will talk about how UCSB and similar institutions need to step up their teaching “game” if they want me to recommend them to prospective students.) I went to the most foreign city in the United States, namely, New Orleans, to study engineering. In many ways, I wasn’t prepared for the experience. I got in trouble, and officially was placed on both academic and disciplinary probation. Looking back, I should have gone to a smaller college with fewer distractions, but at the same time wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. (More on this in later blogs.)

Non-teaching activities that I engage in include music, cycling, and running. I am in an active punk band called Crying 4 Kafka. Our lyrics are provocative and have psychological and philosophical themes. I am a member of the Santa Barbara Cycling Club—one of the spandex crowd. When it comes to running, I am associated only with myself, though I’m starting to branch out. I used to fence a lot, but being that I live in Santa Barbara, it’s too much of an indoor sport. I have three children who will soon all be in college at the same time, probably too soon. Finally, I’d like to thank my partner, Elizabeth, with whom pedagogy is a common topic of conversation. She also edits my posts; any faults are of course my own.