Tips and Hints for Writing Papers,Tests, and Exams
I. General (All Assignments)
- Consider your reader to be a person of reasonable intelligence -- a friend or fellow student --
who is not familiar with what you are studying in the course.You will need to show your
reader what you think the appropriate answers to the questions are, and also how you
arrived at these answers. That is, don't assume that your reader knows what you are referring
to with just a vague hint; be specific. You don't need to assume that your reader is a small
child, or stupid, or illiterate, but you also should not assume that your reader knows what you
mean if you don't say it.
- Do not include information that does not contribute to the overall point you wish to
make. For example, you do not need to mention how old Socrates was at the time of his trial,
UNLESS you intend to draw some conclusion based on your knowledge of his age. If you do
intend to draw a conclusion based on your knowledge of Socrates' age, draw that conclusion
clearly. Show what Socrates' age has to do with your answer.You do not need to mention that
Descartes wrote the Discourse in French, UNLESS you intend to draw some connection
between this fact and something about the form or context or audience or content of his work
AND this connection has something important to do with the overall point you are trying to
- Before handing in your test, exam, or paper, do check it over to make sure that you have
answered all parts of each numbered question or topic you have selected. The parts of
each question or topic go together.
- "Show all work." You've probably heard that expression in your math and science classes. It
applies in philosophy too. In philosophy it means that you should show how you got from
your starting-points, or from the questions, to your conclusions. Show your evidence
(references to passages in the text, other observations) and your reasoning.
For example, don't just say, "Socrates was executed because he annoyed people in Athens" and
leave it at that. What was he doing that annoyed people? Which people did he annoy (everyone?
some people?)? What passages in the text suggest that these people were annoyed by his
behavior? What is the connection between these people's annoyance, and the fact that Socrates
was executed? People who are annoying are not always executed! So, what was special about
what Socrates did that led to his trial and execution? -- In this way you may find that the fact that
Athenians were annoyed at Socrates is not the whole explanation of why he was executed, but
only part of a more complex situation.
- Do not hand in your only copy of your assignment. Make every effort to use a computer,
and save your work on a disk for at least the entire semester. When possible, make a
backup copy on a hard drive or on another disk. Also, when possible, print out an extra hard
copy. If you absolutely cannot get to a computer, photocopy your handwritten paper or test or
exam. That way, if anything goes wrong (you lose your hard copy on your way to class, your
printer doesn't work, you give your paper to a friend to hand in and your friend puts it in the
wrong mailbox or gives it to the wrong professor or forgets to hand it in at all, etc.) you are
- Pay attention to spelling and grammar. All of your assignments will be take-homes, so you
will have the opportunity to use a dictionary and grammar reference if you need them. (There
are even some on-line at the GMU Library web site -- look under "Reference.") Errors in
spelling and grammar can make it difficult or impossible for your reader to understand the
point you are making. If I cannot understand what you are saying, I cannot be sure that you are
correct or justified in saying it. Always read your writing back to yourself, or read it to a
friend. If you or your friends don't know what you meant, chances are others won't
- I don't grade you on what you agree with or disagree with; if you want to write a paper
that agrees with Descartes, that's fine, and if you want to write a paper that disagrees with
Descartes that's fine too. What I look for in a paper is the student's attempts to analyze,
understand, and apply the ideas of the philosophers he/she has read.
- The purpose of tests and exams is to examine students' understanding of the assigned reading
and the class lectures and discussions. Tests and exams are designed so that you will be able
to answer the questions well using the assigned readings and your notes. Therefore you
should NOT look to other sources (other than your assigned readings and class notes)
when writing your tests and exams. Using sources other than your assigned readings and
class notes does not show your understanding of the assigned work; it shows that you know
how to look things up, not that you understand them. (On papers, you may be allowed to use
other sources, but on papers you will have the space to show your understanding of those
sources. On tests and exams, there is not enough space. See below.)
- Make sure that your paper has a thesis or main idea, and that you state this idea clearly
toward the beginning of the paper. Then organize the paper so that you support and
explain this main idea, using reasons, evidence, and arguments. That is, do not include
statements that do not contribute to this main point you are making. Showhow your other
statements support or explain or demonstrate this main point.
- Write as though you are trying to convince or prove to someone (a reasonable and
reasonably intelligent person) that your thesis or main idea is true. Do not assume that the
person for whom you are writing already agrees with what you are going to say. Also do not
assume that the reason your reader does not already agree is that he/she is stupid, immoral, or
mean. Your reader is someone who is able to be convinced by clear ideas, strong evidence,
and sound reasoning.
- On some papers, it is all right to use sources other than the assigned readings and class
notes. However, if you do use these outside sources, you must show what you think they
mean and WHY you think they are right (or wrong) in saying what they do about your subject.
Do not simply quote or paraphrase sources without showing what you think they mean and
why you think their claims are accurate (or why you think their claims are inaccurate or
lacking in support). YOUR arguments are what are important.
The content of the paper should NOT be merely a summary of what the source(s) said; it MUST
also involve your own assessment of whether the source you have used has made valid
arguments, has provided sufficient or compelling evidence for the points it wishes to make, or
has made some other contribution to your understanding of the topic. You should also explain
why you felt that the source's arguments or positions were compelling or valid (or not). It's quite
all right to disagree with a writer you have read; it's also quite all right to agree, or to have
questions. But in any of these cases you must show WHY you agree, disagree, or have questions.
Also, you MUST document your sources properly: for every quotation or paraphrase you use,
note the title of the book or article, the date of publication, the author, and the page number. You
can use parentheses or footnotes or endnotes to do this. If you quote your source you MUST use
quotation marks. Failure to use quotation marks or failure to acknowledge your sources
constitutes plagiarism and is subject to punishment under the GMU Honor Code. If you do not
know how to cite sources, consult either your instructor, the GMU Writing Center, or the GMU
Library's Reference area.
- Do NOT use an encyclopedia as a source. (The only exception to this last rule that I will
accept is use of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and if you must use this as your
source, you must treat the entries as what they are: interpretive essays, not entirely proven
statements of fact.)
- To clarify what I have said about the use of quotations from sources who write about the
philosophers we are studying: I am not suggesting that these authors ("secondary sources") are
incorrect, nor that they must be correct. What I am looking for is your understanding of where
and why they are correct, if you think that they are correct (or, where and why you think they
are incorrect or lack evidence, if you think they are incorrect or fail to provide good evidence).
Your first source of information about a philosopher's views must be what he or she wrote:
your first source of information about what Hobbes thought, for example, would be our
selection from his writings, just as your first source of information about what Thomas
Jefferson thought would be a text that he wrote (such as theDeclaration of Independence).
When you read a secondary source concerning the views (as opposed to the life) of Hobbesor
Jefferson, you are reading what some distinguished author thinks Hobbes' or Jefferson's ideas
mean, or come down to. This author may say some things, or many things, that you find
convincing; you may say to yourself, "Yes, that is what Hobbes/Jefferson means." In that case,
your paper should explain why you think that is what Hobbes/Jefferson means: what in H's/J's
writings suggests to you that the secondary text's author has the right idea? For if you check
several secondary sources on Hobbes or Jefferson, you will find that distinguished, brilliant,
well-educated authors disagree on some points of meaning or interpretation. This is not
necessarily carelessness, bias, or ignorance on their part; rather, each is offering his or her
understanding of a deep and difficult subject (and often an author modifies his/her
understanding over time, or in response to issues pointed out by another), and the total stream
of secondary literature on a figure represents our learning process concerning this deep and
Now, it may also be the case that in your reading of the secondary text on the views of
Hobbes/Jefferson, you find you cannot see what the author is referring to, that you cannot see
how he or she arrives at these conclusions about the meanings or implications of H's/J's ideas. In
that case, you could explain in your paper what in the writings of Hobbes or Jefferson seems to
conflict with the secondary author's views, or why what the secondary author says supports
his/her argument or interpretation actually does not provide adequate support.
This is not only the way philosophy develops and proceeds; other subjects go through this
process as well. For an account of how historians learn and how the subject of history develops,
you might like to look at R. Collingwood's The Idea of History as a parallel in the field of history.
- You may be asking, "But how do I know what to consider as true or factual in the accounts
given by secondary sources?". For example, we know that there was a man called Socrates
who lived in Athens and was executed in 399 BCE. We know from several reports (not only
in Plato but also in Xenophon, Aristophanes, and a few others) that he asked the kinds of
questions you see him asking in the Euthyphro and Apology. But we don't know whether he
had the exact conversations Plato portrays.
And we don't need to know such biographical or historical facts, for purposes of understanding
the ideas Plato, or any other philosopher, is showing us. That is, what is important here is the
ideas: what they are, what they mean, how if at all they can apply in our lives, what they
say about what it is to be human, how they can help us ask questions that will aid in our
search for understanding. We each can ask ourselves: what does the Socrates character mean
when he says, for example, that he does not know what makes one thing come to be, perish, or
exist? What considerations does he say led him to that idea? Do these considerations make sense
to us? Why or why not? Does this idea help in our attempts to understand our world, ourselves,
our society? How so? Or, what does Descartes mean when he says that the human soul is entirely
distinct from and independent of the body? (What could he mean? Why does that seem a likely
meaning?) Does this idea make sense to us? Why or why not? Does it give us some important
thing to consider in trying to understand our world, our society, ourselves? How so?
- For another perspective and further hints, you might want to check out the "Suggestions on
Writing a Philosophy Paper" prepared by the faculty of the Philosophy Department at Hunter
College. (Students there said that these suggestions were very helpful.)