The best kinds of intro-level Philosophy essays:
~ Demonstrate detailed and precise knowledge and understanding of the arguments and concepts relating to the question.
~ Give a clear, detailed and precise analysis of the arguments and theories relating to the question.
~ Make good use of illustrations and examples to support your analysis, and more importantly, the line of argument you choose to reach your conclusion.
~ Interpret and combine the points you’ve chosen to talkabout to create a coherent, and well-reasoned argument that directly addresses the question.
1/ Do your research – beforehand! Getting the detailed and precise knowledge the examiners are looking for involves reading around the subject; don’t just rely on what you do in lessons. Don’t forget, this is great practice for what life’s like at university. See it as your own independent research, and own it. Do remember, this step comes way before you enter the exam room!
2/ Look for clues in the question. Don’t rush. Take a moment or two to look for the clues the examiners have given you in the question that tell you what they want you to focus on. Does the question link up with other questions you know about? If so, how? What arguments, or philosophers are relevant? And how do they contribute to the debate?
3/ Prove it! – pick a line of argument. The very best philosophy essays pick some line of argument that leads them to some definite conclusion, and this is what you need to aim at. So based on what you’ve discovered in the question, how are you going to answer it? What are you going to prove? And what arguments and theories can you use to do so?
4/ Signpost what you’re going to do. Now you’ve chosen your line of argument, and how you’re going to construct it, tell the examiner that in your introduction. After you’ve introduced the topic generally, explain how you’re going to approach the question, what theories or arguments you’re going to consider, and what you’re going to do with them. And when you finished, summarise what you looked at, what you did with it, and what conclusion you’ve drawn. Dead easy.
5/ “On the one hand… on the other…” Even though your essay should aim at persuading whoever reads it to accept your conclusion, you’ve got to keep it balanced. It’s no good just singing a view’s praises without considering possible pitfalls, problems and criticisms. So for every point you make, consider a counter-argument. Even better, you could try to think of any way someone holding the original view might give a counter-counter argument.
6/ Define key terms and concepts. Even if what you mean might be obvious to you, there’s no guarantee it’ll be obvious to your reader. And that’s even more of a problem if there are multiple ways a word could be understood. So define any technical terms to make sure your reader knows what you’re talking about.
7/ Be precise, and specific. Examiners can spot waffle a mile off. If you want to make a point, do so explicitly; don’t do the verbal equivalent of waving your hand vaguely in the air when you could easily point directly at the thing you’re talking about. And don’t forget to include as much detail as you need to really pin the point down on paper. Vagueness is about as bad as waffle.
8/ Write clearly, and use simple language. Imagine you were trying to explain your point to a friend, or family member, who doesn’t do philosophy. Would they understand what you’re saying? If not, simplify it, or use less words to say the same thing. This is where proof-reading your work, and practicing writing, are essential. The more you practice, the better you get at saying more by writing less.
9/ Use detailed, creative examples. Illustrate your points by giving detailed examples that show the reader what you mean. But don’t forget that sometimes it’s helpful to say why the example is useful or relevant to the point you’re making. Again, though you know what you mean, the examiner reading your essay might not.
10/ Stay focused – don’t wander off! Though you might have to go through a few different arguments or positions to construct an argument that supports the conclusion you want, always stay focused on answering the question. No matter how good the essay, examiners can give only limited marks for good-but-irrelevant answers. The easiest way to beat this? Keep what you say focused on what they want to see you talk about.
A checklist for a good essay…
It’s really useful for you to think about what’s good and bad about your work. And more often than not, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things you could have done to improve it. Have a think about each of these points, in relation to your essay, then give each point a score out of 5. Scores of 3 or below are things you could have done a bit differently to improve the essay overall.
|Not at all||Not much||Some, ish||Quite a bit||A lot|
|Looked for key clues in the question?|
|Picked a definite line of argument to take?|
|Read around the topic to research relevant positions and arguments?|
|Given a clear statement of the problem the essay covers, and how you’re going to answer it, in your introduction?|
|Defined your key terms and concepts?|
|Provided at least one good illustration for each point you make?|
|Provided at least one good criticism for each point you make?|
|Given a balanced debate between both, or multiple, sides of the argument?|
|Is your writing as clear and simple as it could be? Have you been as precise as you could be?|
|Does your essay stay firmly focused on the question, without wandering off on tangents?|
Good writing, just like anything else, takes practice. And practice itself involves a lot of patience.
So if you don’t get it right first time, then don’t worry too much. Just keep thinking about the areas you could improve on next time, and practice, practice practice!
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