I am quite well read, and I understand the philosophy papers I read quite well. But I am a very sloppy writer. Whatever I write comes back with commentaries degrading my papers. What should I do to fix this problem?

I am a junior college student

The other question does not correspond to the details of my question

Thanks in advance!

  • 4
    Do the comments make specific criticisms, point out particular problems, etc.? If so, those are the things you should fix first. If not, those are some strange and unproductive comments. – commando Oct 22 '16 at 23:01
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    No digressions, concentrate on the question and only on that. If you make a statement, try to find someone to back you up, because nobody asks you for your personal opinion on that level. All that counts is presenting what experts have to say about it. And showing that you know (read: researched and understood - good paraphrasing is king!) what they wrote. That's the basics. If you can build up (expert's!) opposite standpoints regarding the focus and topic of the question and analyse/comment on them very shortly and in addition to the basics, that would make a very good grade. – Philip Klöcking Oct 22 '16 at 23:20
  • As with any form of writing, good writing skills are useful. If you understand the philosophy, it might be worth focusing on the syntax and flow more exclusively. – 0-60FPS Oct 23 '16 at 1:50
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    It all really boils down to "use your words". If you are having trouble grasping the material, try taking notes as you go read books and articles - summarizing the main points. If you are having trouble forming your essay, keep the form simple: Say what you are gonna argue for, justify the argument, say what you just argued. If you are totally clueless, think of writing for your teacher like being on a first date: repeat back what they've said in the form of a question, then answer that question. – Mr. Kennedy Oct 24 '16 at 3:05

"I am a very sloppy writer". does that mean "I try, but I don't know how to write well" or "I can write well but I'm a lazy slob so I don't bother"? if the latter, then the hell with you; if the former, then I suggest the best way to learn to write well is to learn to read well. don't just read your favorite authors, study their writing and try to see why it works. it's very hard work, but the payoff is hyuuuge.

also: do not be discouraged. to repeat: writing well is an art and it takes a lot of work to master.

if you could give an example of the kind of criticism you receive we might be able to give more specific advice.

finally, this is by far the best book on writing well I have ever encountered: https://books.google.com/books/about/Clear_and_Simple_as_the_Truth.html?id=xGG8QgAACAAJ

it's lessons, which are pretty straightforward, apply to just about any field.


Writing in philosophy is difficult. It presupposes that:

  1. You understand what you are reading.
  2. You have a clear argument you are making.
  3. You present this argument in accord with the expectations of good writing and the assignment.

You're asserting that you've got the first point down. So then we need to focus on the other two features. The first thing I would suggest is to look carefully at the prompts for the assignments. Back when I was teaching philosophy general education courses in the US, one of the most common problem I saw was students who did not follow the instructions of the assignment.

One of the more common types of assignments in philosophy is a "outline", "rehersal", "resume" , "precis". In this case, your goal should be to reproduce in as few words as possible the core of the argument and to leave out anything that is superfluous to this core argument. This is often a difficult task for someone new to philosophy both because it's easy to get distracted and there are things that the authors themselves do not emphasize to the extent that they should be.

A second common type of paper is one that asks you to make an argument in interaction with what you are reading. Here, you may be asked to critique a single article or to contrast two articles or to take your own position. This type of writing presupposes that you can summarize in accordance with the above method. After that, you will need to identify what you take to be a weakness in one view or an unseen compatibility between two views.

The expectations of good writing in philosophy may not be the same as you learned in high school or that you learn from a writing class at a junior college. Assuming you have a solid footing in writing in general, the main concept of philosophy is that each paper is an argument.

Here are a few of the more common things to consider to help write papers that argue well:

  1. Each paragraph is an argument with the main claim (occurring either as the first or last sentence) contributing to the main argument of the paper. Your goal should be to lay out your argument clearly and precisely.
  2. Each term should be clearly defined. A good place to get solid definitions is the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. Another good place is directly from the texts you are addressing. (A relatively bad place for most terms is the dictionary).
  3. Don't vary the meanings of key terms in your paper and don't vary the terms themselves. (If you're talking about "free will" don't switch back and forth between "autonomy" "self-rule" and "free will" and "choice" -- define it 1x and stick to one term).
  4. There should be a definite trajectory building up to your conclusion,
  5. but you should also have stated your outline its most succinct form at the top of the paper.

When I say "argument", the most basic patterns are things like "modus ponens" and "disjunctive syllogism."


You will definitely have to achieve a style and quality of paraphrase which demonstrates your understanding of the subject, but you should also be aware that the approval you're striving for is given by a human whose social prejudices and cognitive biases will dictate a great proportion of their action. My advice (in addition to general good style);

Find out which philosophers your professors like and quote them lots. People tend to avoid cognitive dissonance (see here for an explanation), your professors will be more inclined to encourage behaviour which agrees with their world view than behaviour which challenges it.

Dedicate yourself to writing one really good paper, and attend class regularly. Prejudice plays an important part in interpretation especially where you have not communicated your meaning precisely, and your professors are more likely to interpret errors favourably if they think you are a 'good' student generally as research at NatCen has shown here. For a more wide ranging proof of the expectation bias of academics see here,and most recently here, or here or any of the hundreds of examples like them in well-respected journals of all disciplines.

Take steps to determine what the Zeitgeist is around the subject. Your study will include lots of standard texts, but most professors will be more inclined to see the current paradigm as correct than any previous (a combination of availability cascade and confirmation bias), so bring in a wide range of sources, but focus your conclusions on the current paradigm.

Finally, be white and male (see here), or at least get used to being judged less favourably if you're not.


Based on the comment below, and my presumption in the absence of explanation as to the reasons for the down-votes, I should clarify that the question asked for methods for avoiding degrading comments on essays despite a poor writing style. Assuming that "improve your writing style" is so obvious an answer as to be tautologous, exploiting biases which seem, on the balance of evidence, likely to be present (or developing a thick skin where they cannot be exploited) is an entirely rational course of action. It does not require one to reach a conclusion about whether such biases are proven to exist beyond reasonable doubt, only that they may, and that a low-cost strategy exists that would take advantage of them.

  • @mobileink The OP asked how they could improve their grades despite a poor writing style. I gave them an answer regarding the approval behaviour of academics based on statistical evidence using either recent research or well-established psychological principles, all of which are cited. I'm sure that there will be disagreement with my conclusions, but to dismiss them as “bullshit” without even presenting the contrary evidence (which I'm open to the possibility may exist), is below the standard I expect of comments. – Isaacson Oct 24 '16 at 7:49
  • you're right. please accept my apoology. – user20153 Oct 24 '16 at 17:14
  • @mobileink Your apology is appreciated, though I did not take your comment personally. I'm more interested, however, in the evidence on which you are basing your view. If you believe evidence shows that college professors are above prejudice and immune to cognitive bias, I would be very interested to read it. I would very much like to believe that philosophy students are judged solely on the quality of their ideas, and I believe much progress is being made in that direction, just not enough, any evidence that more progress has been made than I'm aware of would be welcome news. – Isaacson Oct 25 '16 at 9:29

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