Philosophy 1361, Dr. Cynthia Freeland

Spring 2004


Tips for exam essays and papers


1.      Be clear.  Get to the point.  Avoid wordiness.  Don't overdo it when a simpler phrase will suffice.  This makes you look pompous and pretentious.

2.      Use standard essay structure: an introduction that previews topic and approach, paragraphs each with a topic sentence and supporting sentences, and a conclusion summing things up.

3.      Spell all proper names properly.  If you don't know how or aren't sure, look them up.  Check them in any case.  (Imagine writing a judge, school principal, Congressman, or your boss about something and spelling their name incorrectly.  You will look foolish.  You will start off on the wrong foot.) Spell-checks don’t catch everything.

4.      Use appropriate quotations and references to support what you claim.  Don't simply say "Plato thought that a culture's art could be immoral."  Cite the passage, use a brief quote, give the page reference, offer one of his examples.  Back up what you claim.  In the same way, during your future professional life you may need to quote from a lease, contract, or manual; it’s good to get into the habit of nailing things down.

5.      Do not plagiarize (do not copy from someone else's work without giving due credit). This also means, do not simply paraphrase—that is also stealing! In any case, do not copy or quote other work too extensively.  An essay (report, letter, proposal, statement, article) should be your own work. 

6.      Draw upon all of the material that is available to you.  For our course, that means the Korsmeyer textbook, the Freeland book, and all the examples of art shown in class or discussed by the various authors in the readings.  Not to draw on these suggests that you have been lazy, inattentive, and/or stupid.  Clearly, you have missed the boat.

7.      Use complete sentences.  Avoid run-on sentences and sentence fragments.

8.      Clarify pronouns.  Avoid using "this," "it," "he", "she," "they," etc. where the antecedent of the expression is unclear or ambiguous.

9.      Never start a paper with a quote from the dictionary.  This is one of my pet peeves, but many professors share it.  To do this is an escapist and a trite move that shows you are about as original as 10,000 other students in the past. It is BORING to read a dictionary definition since they are neither “deep” nor “philosophical.” Hence, they are irrelevant to our course! 

10.  Avoid all forms of vagueness.  Re-read your writing out loud to see if it makes sense. 

11.  Work on continuity.  Don't leap from topic to topic.  Provide transitions between paragraphs to help the reader follow your line of thought.  Use an outline to structure your paper if you are having problems with transitions.  Plan the structure in advance.

12.  Proofread, proofread, proofread.  There is no excuse for obvious errors of spelling or sentence construction.  Ask a roommate or friend to read your paper to note errors.

13.  Communicate.  Help readers follow you, rather than mystifying them about what your plans, ideas, and viewpoints are.

14.  Say something interesting.  Why should anyone ever read your writing unless you are yourself interested in what you have written? 

15.  (This last one is the most difficult.)  Strive for a unique style that is "you."  Are you suave and elegant or witty and clever?  Are you forthright and forceful or delicate and discriminating?  What do you want to reveal about yourself to others?  Your writing does this every bit as much as other things that you probably care about (your clothing, hairstyle, preferences in decorating and music, friends, major, etc.).