Three Rules for Writing Philosophy

Students once asked Thales, the West’s first philosopher, what the hardest thing in life is. He answered, “To know yourself.” Curious or defiant, another student asked what’s easiest. Thales replied, “To give advice to others.” So, as I advise you generally on writing and specifically on philosophy, I perpetuate philosophy’s lazy tradition of telling others what to do. However, I distilled the major advice on writing into three main rules. Each is an alloy of wisdom purified in the furnace of my and others’ experiences. The rules might not be sufficient to produce excellent writing, but if you don’t follow them, you’ll write poorly.

Rule 1: Remember the audience.

Earbuds pumping into my ear canals and monitor irradiating my lenses, I can easily forget both my audience and purpose for addressing them. The hypnotizing flicker of the cursor, sliding right with each clack of my keys, detaches me from everything but the computer and the chorus of my thoughts. But this is exactly what I need to avoid. I’m almost always writing to a specific audience to accomplish something. When I write an academic piece, for example, I’m writing to a group of my peers to contribute a solution to an academic problem. Other times, I’m writing to a wider public to give them a philosophical lesson they can use in their lives.

Whoever the audience and whatever the purpose, every piece must be tailored to its readership and the reason for demanding their attention. When I write, I implicitly ask my audience to spend hours of their finite energy on my ideas. In philosophy, this means that my readers can’t pay attention to anything else because the ideas are difficult. Many readers also courteously annotate my margins with feedback. The point is this: I ask a lot of my audience when I write philosophy that I expect them to analyze. In my best moments, I respect this.

Many rules of style and organization are designed to minimize the cognitive drag on a reader’s flight through your work. If you eavesdrop on rhetoric and composition classes, you’ll overhear commandments like Strunk and White’s “Omit needless words” and “Put statements in positive form.” Whatever the rule, it’s designed to make your reader’s job as easy as possible. Nathaniel Hawthorne once remarked that easy reading is damn hard writing. Maya Angelou added that sloppy writing creates a chore for the reader. Either way, putting adequate work into a piece makes a reader’s experience more pleasant. Not only does a writer respect their audience when doing this, but they also give their message the best chance at being received well.

Remembering the audience can also remind you that you don’t need to say everything at once. Like a single conversation, you don’t need to cover everything. You only need to transmit the smallest possible message to an audience. Young writers (as well as experienced writers roughing out a first draft) tend to put everything they’ve learned into the piece. Resist that. Keep all tangential concerns—anything not directly related to the project—in your notes, and use your notes as inspiration for later pieces. When beginning a paper, I usually save the file as “Title 1.0”, and I modify the version number throughout. My 1.0 docs swell with notes and asides, but by the time I’m at 3.0 (a draft that’s gone through at least two substantial revisions and partial rewrites), I’ve deleted most tangents. This process reflects a concern for my audience. The first draft is for me because I’m trying to figure out what’s most important for me to transmit. But the later drafts are for the audience because I am trying to communicate that idea as efficiently as possible.

Since I am your audience, I can tell you I always look for two things in your papers: (1) competence in the class material and (2) support for your thesis. Ideas and arguments carry the weight in philosophy. And since the ideas are abstract and complicated, I prefer that your prose be as simple as possible. No matter how polished, poetic, or evocative the prose may be, it means nothing if the ideas aren’t argued for, coherently organized, or connected to the class material.

Rule 2: Know what you want to say before writing a submittable draft.

Philosopher W. V. O. Quine characterized knowledge as a web of beliefs, where strands interconnect and depend on each other, and where every part of the web quivers as threads shift. Hopefully your education is proving that the web changes shape when central beliefs transform or when the web extends to new areas. You have a lot of ideas, and you’re learning more each day. But your challenge as a writer is to untangle that knot of ideas to extract a single filament. You may have an entire web of ideas surrounding your topic, but for any given piece, you’re only presenting one strand as neatly as possible. Steven Pinker warns writers repeatedly against “the curse of knowledge”: the more you’ve learned about something, the further you’ve moved from your audience. As a quasi-expert, you understand the topic’s full complexity and taxonimize its parts in your own mental idiom or your profession’s jargon. But in the process of becoming an expert, you’ve forgotten how to convey a cognizable part of that information in plain language. If you write exactly like you think, you risk overwhelming most audiences with superfluous details, or worse, you write so idiosyncratically that your message is incomprehensible.

Strive for simplicity, and focus on your thesis. This doesn’t mean you need to be reductive or write like Hemmingway. This is relative advice. Some ideas revolt against clear expression (e.g. Hegelian dialectics or Derridian deconstruction). Some audiences tolerate complex organization and specialized vocabulary (e.g. academics or sympathetic fans). Advising simplicity means, foremost, that you focus on one thing and show only the necessary connections.

However, you’ll only know which idea is most important and which connections are most necessary after you find a thesis. Before you can even begin writing a submittable draft, you’ll need a sentence or two that epitomizes your paper’s argument. To find this, you may need to annotate your reading, write responses to questions you have about the text, or pour out a stream of consciousness draft of the paper. Once you figure out which idea is most important to you, then and only then will you be ready to outline. That’s right: “outline,” not “write.”

In academic writing, a majority of the work is done before starting to write anything that resembles a final draft. You have to come up with a question that interests both you and your audience, and then you’ll need to read everything about it. During the research phase, you’ll probably find conflicting ideas, so you’ll have to choose a side in a debate. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and find a side with strong arguments that convinces you to agree with them. Often, though, you’ll settle on a side of the debate that has the least repulsive concessions, limitations, or disadvantages.

Personally, prewriting transforms my work space. Books grow hairdos of neon tabs. Blank sheets of paper darken with notes and mind maps. Google Docs fill with annotated bibliographies and outlines of the material I’m reading. Why go through all the trouble? Well, this process helps me develop a thesis that’s interesting: a reasonable person who knows something about the debate could disagree with me, and we could have a productive conversation. And by organizing notes and blurbs, I can find a manageable part of the project for the word limit imposed by my venue. This work keeps me from writing something trivially true or something so complex I’ve barely explained my thesis in the word limit.

All of the work happens behind the scenes. Your research sets the stage. Your prewriting trains the actors to follow the action you plot out. And your polishing drafts set the lighting to shine on each scene as favorably as possible. But just as you don’t want to see any of this prep while you’re watching a play, I don’t want to see it in a final draft. The audience doesn’t want to see concept art or prop-making tutorials in the middle of the play. The final draft needs to be a work that, on its own, creates a coherent story about a main idea. And you need to know the main points of the story before preparing the final production.

Rule 3: Put in the work.

There’s no way around it: writing takes work.

You have to read philosophy at an excruciatingly slow pace. You have to mark passages for further reflection and discuss them in class. Then of the dozens of questions you scrawl in your notes, you pick one to explore further. This will prompt you to reread passages and scribble paragraphs to gather your thoughts. By some miracle, you find a thesis and start to outline. Then you write a draft. After a celebratory coffee or beer or nap, enough time has passed to return to the draft, rewrite some of the ideas, and send the draft to a friend to ask their opinion. They send it back, and you rewrite some more. Then you read the paper aloud to catch awkward syntax, and you reward yourself again, this time with a warm meal and a night’s rest. After you wake up, you proofread the paper one last time and submit it.

Writing is a maniacal and obsessive process. But so are most things in life worth doing.

Writing a lot, writing often, and reflecting on feedback are the only means to overcome the burdens of the process. That’s what our class is for. We’ll write a lot of papers. I’ll give you feedback each time, and we’ll meet to discuss your writing. If you want more feedback or help, we can schedule that too. Together, we’ll become better writers.

I’ll close with a personal confession. The more I learn about writing, the more I notice the inadequacy of my own skills and the vastness of the labor it takes to improve. If you feel this way, I’d say it’s pretty normal. Good writing is tough and underappreciated. In fact, a lot of bad writing is praised in philosophy because the ideas, and not the style, take priority. Philosophy’s 3000-year history contains few good writers, and the top journals print opaque, esoteric prose. So, some of my advice might ring of hypocrisy in the context of writing philosophy, but I hope you heed it nonetheless.

Writing’s real reward is that, if you can put in the work to improve, you’ll learn many transferrable skills: the ability to organize and adjudicate conflicting information, the craft of producing an independent and succinct piece that communicates an idea, and the grit to see something through to the end. Writing résumés, cover letters, and memos follow the same steps too. You may not enjoy philosophy as a discipline, but the skills it teaches you can contribute to your success elsewhere.