Suggestions and Guidelines For Written Work

Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

David McCullough

For most people, learning to write well takes a considerable amount of writing and rewriting. This effort, however, is generally repaid; a carefully worded letter can have great effect and a well-written book is a thing of lasting value. There is not just one way to write well; indeed, everyone agrees that all good writers have their own, individual voice. Voice is an elusive concept, often discussed but somehow difficult to define. For our purposes, let us say that voice is the ability to say what you mean in the way that you mean it and in a tone that is appropriate to the situation. Everyone knows how to talk with family and friends—how to convey what they feel and think in these situations—but it is altogether a different matter to speak to utter strangers, whose reactions we cannot anticipate and whose circumstances we do not know. Moreover, the reader of a text does not have the same visual and tonal cues as a listener and must draw an appreciation of the author’s meaning and intent solely from the written words. A good writer, however, is able to use the written word to convey both the intended meaning and a range of concomitant or contrasting feelings and connotations. However far we may feel that we are from this goal, this should be our final aim as well.

There are many different kinds of writing adapted to many different purposes, but at university we focus primarily on expository prose; that is, the attempt to express our ideas on a particular topic in a manner that is appropriate to the subject matter and such that our reader will understand our intended meaning. Moreover, in the endeavor to write clearly and succinctly we often find that our own thinking is greatly clarified. Indeed, one of the best ways to come to grips with a new subject is to write about it in a way that is intelligible to others. In fact, the opportunity to experience this learning process is one of the primary purposes of most writing assignments at university. Hence, there are usually two phases of a writing assignment: (1) a learning phase in which one initially grapples with the subject matter by carrying out research and reading the sources, and (2) a writing phase in which one organizes this material and prepares a paper, and in doing so generally learns much more about the subject than in the first phase. Of course, there are usually iterations of these phases.


Scholars distinguish between different types of sources, depending on how far removed they are from the subject of inquiry. These are called primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Examples of primary sources are manuscripts, a collection of letters, an edition of a printed book, and so forth. Secondary sources are studies of the primary sources, usually books or articles. Tertiary sources are composed predominantly from secondary sources and are things like encyclopedia articles, textbooks, bibliographies, library catalogs, and so on. Although these terms are relative and the categories can sometimes overlap, they are useful for structuring our research approach. When we do research on a subject, we generally work in various ways with all three types of sources. Even if you plan to write on a very specific passage of a primary source, it is a good idea to get some background knowledge by reading the relevant secondary and tertiary sources.

When you begin to study a topic for the first time it may be a good idea to start with very basic tertiary sources like general encyclopedias and internet encyclopedia sources (such as Wikipedia), despite the fact that these are notoriously unreliable in their coverage. The reason for this is that you can get access to a lot of information quickly and you can easily move around between different topics. At the same time, it is necessary to be cautious of internet sources. (Please see this website maintained by the librarians at Cornell University for some tips on evaluating internet sources.) In general, although you can use internet sources to become familiar with a topic, it is not acceptable to use webpages as sources for your paper. (Journal articles downloaded from the internet are not webpages, and they should not be referenced as such. Likewise, scanned or critically edited texts that are published online are not considered as webpages; they should be cited using full bibliographic information.) Again there are exceptions to this rule. There are now serious reference works that only, or primarily, exist online. The most basic criteria for acceptability are that the authors of the articles be named and the date of publication, or revision, cited. Thus, as examples, for the purposes of citations in research papers, the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or the online Biographies of medieval Islamic astronomers are acceptable, but Wikipedia is not.

After you have spent a few hours reading this introductory material, however, you will probably want to plan a trip to the library. Even before you go to the library, however, you can do fair bit of library-related research from any computer on the university network. For example, from the main search page of the Waseda University Library, you can search for books and articles related to your topic. Many recent articles will be online and some of them will be available directly for downloading. At this phase, you should make good use of the tertiary, bibliographic databases that are linked from the main search page. You can also do general searches through Google Scholar. (If you do so from a computer within the Waseda network, the site will provide you with direct links for many articles that are available for download to members of the Waseda community.) When you download a journal article, the first thing you should do is read the bibliography and see if there are any other articles mentioned that seem like they are directly related to your topic. Try to find those articles online, or put them on your list of things to find.

Eventually, however, after you have done some preliminary research and reading, you will have to actually go to the library to see most of the relevant books and articles. Some will not be available in the Waseda Libraries, and can only be obtained through interlibrary-loan. For this reason, it is a good idea to get an early start on your research, so that if you need to order something, it has time to get to you. If your project involves individual scientists, you should look them up in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (中央 2F参考図書コーナー, KK 00661). This is a key reference work in the history of science, written by many of the foremost scholars in the field.

When you find a book that is relevant to your topic, you should look around at the other books in the same area. Many of them will be on related topics. It is a good idea to scan through these as well. If you find another book on a related topic, it is often useful to simply flip to the back of the book and read through the bibliography, looking for items related to your topic. In this way, you should be able to find a number of other books and articles of interest. When I am in the research phase of a project, I always read the bibliography before anything else.

Once you have gathered a pile of primary and secondary sources, you will begin the process of reading them, but it is probably not the best idea to just start at the top of the stack and work your way down; this is time consuming and will not yield the best results. You should begin to sort them by criteria like chronology, relevance to your project, author, and such. When you start reading, you should begin by reading the introductions and conclusions. A good author will use these sections to describe the overall project of the work in question. In this way, you can begin to get a sense for what you will need to read closely, what you can merely skim and what you can safely ignore. When I was a graduate student, a professor of mine, Ian Hacking, remarked to me that the most important skill in reading is figuring out what you do not need to read. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant.

When you have finished reading the sources most relevant to your project, you will probably have a good idea of what you want to write and be ready to start the process of writing.


For many people it’s difficult to get started on a writing assignment, especially if it is a longer paper that will need considerable organization.

Here are a number of techniques that can be used to generate ideas and help refine them:

    (A) Developing topics: In order to come up with ideas and to organize your thinking, you can use the following techniques. Not all of these will work effectively for everyone, so it’s probably a good idea to play around with these and find out which ones work for you.

      Brainstorming: This involves capturing all of the thoughts, ideas, and fragments in your head and writing them down on paper. Brainstorming often looks more like a list, doodle or sketch than a paragraph.

        Listing: Simply list all of your ideas. This will help you when you are mapping or outlining your ideas, because as you use an idea, you can cross it off your list.

        Clustering: First draw a circle near the center of a blank piece of paper, and in that circle, write your main idea. Then in a ring around the main circle, write down the main parts or subtopics within the main topic. Circle each of these, and then draw a line that connects them to the main circle in the middle. Then think of other ideas, facts, or issues that relate to each of the main subtopics, circle these, and draw lines connecting them to the relevant part/subtopic. Repeat this process with each new circle until you run out of ideas. This is a great way of identifying the parts within your topic, which will provide content for the paper, and it also helps you discover how these parts relate to each other. (There are a number of online applications for clustering, or mind-mapping:,, etc.)

      Freewriting: This is a method of arriving at ideas by writing continuously about a subject for a limited period of time without pausing to edit or revise. There aren’t many rules to freewriting: you just have to keep your pen (or fingers on the keyboard) moving. Don’t reread as you go. Don’t pause to correct things. Don’t cross things out. Don’t quit when you think you have run our of things to say. Just keep writing for 15-20 minutes.

      Outlining: Once you have generated some material using brainstorming and freewriting, you can start to organize it using outlining. An outline is a plan for the paper that will help you organize and structure your ideas in a way that effectively communicates them to your reader. Sometimes you may want to develop a formal outline with headings and subheadings. This will help you to demonstrate the relationships between the ideas, facts, and information within the paper. (There are many resources for outlining, but a useful one for sharing outlines is the online application Fargo. As examples, you can see some of my Fargo outlines here: an outline for a research paper on an Arabic translation of a Greek mathematics text, an outline for a book chapter on mathematics education in the ancient Greco-Roman culture, a very short outline for a book review. Here you can see that an outline is useful for written projects of any length: the first will be about 25,000, the second about 6,000 and the last only 2,000 words.)

    (B) Summarizing sources: Another way to generate ideas is to read material related to the subject on which you are writing. There are, however, some techniques you can use to make this a more active process. You should take notes on what you read, either on a copy of the source material, or in a separate notebook. This will help you generate written material for other stages of the process. One of the most useful things you can do both to improve your comprehension of the material and to make it more useful as a source of your own ideas is to produce an analytical summary of each key source. An analytical summary is not just a loose repetition of what is found in the source, it should highlight the key ideas and explain how they fit together. Take a look at these four strategies for writing analytically. If you make a notebook for the analytical summaries you produce for your various sources, it will be a useful resource for ideas for your paper.
    (C) Developing and evolving a thesis: Once you have generated some ideas, notes and source material, you are ready to decide what you want to say about all of this. You don’t have to have just one single thesis statement, but you should be able to come up with some summary of what it is you want to say. Once you have come up with a thesis, you should test it against the evidence you have in your sources. You should check to see if your thesis can be expanded, or if it needs to be qualified. You will find a number of techniques for working with your thesis ideas in this material on developing and evolving a thesis.
    (D) Rereading and revising: Once you have generated some writing—either as freewriting, rough notes, or a paper you want to revise—you can begin the process of reading it critically and thinking about ways to make it better. The basic idea is to try to read your own writing as though it were someone else’s. Try to assume that you don’t already know what you are going to say and don’'t already agree with yourself. Under these assumptions, is the writing still understandable and convincing? Here are a couple of techniques you can use to analyze your own writing;

      Looking for evidence and claims: Take a piece of your writing, or the paper you want to revise, and read through the whole thing, marking each sentence, at the end, with an E for evidence or a C for claim. You will find that this is fairly subjective. Especially if you are writing a descriptive paper about history or current events, many of the sentences will appear to be either evidence or claim, depending on how you look at them. That’s fine, just try to analyze the whole piece in this way. Once this is done, you can think about whether or not you like the paper in the form that it is in. Maybe the the difference between evidence and claims should be made clearer; maybe the evidence should be grouped together in sections followed by more deliberate and clear arguments. What can you do with this material to make it clearer and more convincing?

      Analyzing the argument: Once you have underlined your argument and thought about how to make it clearer and more convincing, it is time to do some analytical work on the argument itself. Take a look at this material on ways to improve an argument and see how you can apply it to your writing. In particular, see if you have made any unstated assumptions, or how your claims need to be qualified (pp. 196-198). Are you using metaphors as a way of making your argument (pp. 198-200)? Can you make these arguments by analogy more explicit? Have you committed any logical fallacies (pp. 201-205)?


Since writing—even writing a university term paper—is in some sense a creative act, there is no straightforward procedure for doing it well that will work equally for everyone. Nevertheless, you should think carefully about the overall structure of your paper. Do you have an introductory paragraph that sets up the problem, clearly states your thesis, and outlines your ensuing discussion? Do each of the points that you raise in the body of your paper support your thesis in a clear and compelling way? Do you have a concluding paragraph that wraps up your argument and helps the reader see its wider significance? Is your writing concise, precise and explicit? Is it lively?

Here are a number of suggestions that will almost certainly improve the quality of your paper:

    (A) Make an outline: Even for a short project, you should be able to imagine its overall structure. In the beginning, it’s a good idea to write down the outline—eventually, you may be able to just keep it in your mind. If, on the other hand, you just sit down and start writing with no clear idea of where you are going, this will become all too apparent to your reader—your sentences will meander, your paragraphs will lack cohesion and, in the end, whole sections may feel out of place or seem pointless. If you are working on a long project, you should get some feedback on your outline before you begin writing. You can show the outline to a friend or take it to the Waseda University Writing Center (Building 7, 1F). If you would like me to look over your outline, feel free to email me to see if I have time to look at it.
    (B) Use a dictionary: Even if English is your native language, you should write with a dictionary within reach. Anytime you are going to use an unfamiliar idiom, or a word whose usage you have not completely mastered, look it up! Often a word has a slightly different meaning than we originally thought, a connotation that we do not intend, or follows an unexpected usage. When I was writing the first paragraph of this page, I looked up the word ‘concomitant’ because, although I have read and heard the word many times, I rarely use it. I wanted to confirm that it indeed has the meaning I thought it had.
    (C) Avoid plagiarism: Plagiarism is the presentation of someone else’s words or ideas as though they are your own. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to “plagiarize” means:
  1. to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
  2. to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  3. to commit literary theft
  4. to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
  5. Although plagiarism was once widely practiced by scholars and other authors, it is now regarded as a very serious offence. (The SILS policy on plagiarism is stated in your student handbook.) The simplest way to avoid plagiarism is to consistently reference the work of others and to put any text taken directly from others in quotation marks. Besides quotations, however, the only things that you need to reference are the ideas or arguments of other authors. You do not need to reference well known facts that are contained in your sources. Although you should generally reference any words taken directly from your source, in the case of technical terminology this is unnecessary. Of course, it is sometimes tricky for a beginner, or a non-native speaker, to know what is technical terminology and what are simply the peculiar expressions of the author. It is best to err on the side of citing your sources too often than too infrequently.
    (D) Cite your sources consistently: There are different standards for citations, many of which are given in the Chicago Manual of Style, an authoritative reference guide for writers, editors and publishers of English, which I encourage you to consult (there are copies in the Waseda Library). (The citation style of the Chicago Manual can be found online.) Moreover, nearly every academic journal and printing house has its own specific style to which it expects its authors to adhere. Hence, there is no such thing as a single correct way to cite sources. Although some professors expect students to use a specific style, it does not matter to me which style you use, but you must use it consistently. If you have a style to which you are already accustomed, that is fine, otherwise you should pick a style and learn it well. There are two main components to citing your sources: (1) a series of footnotes, endnotes or in-text citations that refer the reader to specific passages in the sources, (2) a list of all sources cited or used. If you do not know which format to use, you can use one of those suggested in this style file.
    (E) Reread what you have already written, repeatedly: Many of the common mistakes that you make when you are writing are things that you will notice if you read carefully over what you have already written. When you reread your writing, try to pretend that you didn’t write it. Pretend it is a friend’s paper and you are correcting it. It can help to read it out loud. Sometimes we don’t notice our own mistakes because we are sounding out what we meant to say correctly in our mind as we read. If you read your writing out loud, you will probably hear mistakes that you wouldn’t see.
    (F) Use a book on style and composition: Because there are a number of regional differences in English usage, you should pick a book on style and use it when you write. There are a number of good books available. My favorite is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, often simply called “Strunk and White.” It addresses American prose style, but it has much sound advice for any writer of English. Moreover, it has the virtue of being brief. For a quick overview, see these principles of composition, which you can consult both while you write and while you revise.
    (G) Avoid unnecessary repetition: In high school, many people are taught to provide introductions and conclusions not only for an entire paper, but for each section and even each paragraph. Although these practices may be useful for people who are just beginning to learn how to write discursively, in university it is time to begin moving away from these overly simplistic habits. The reason for this is that constantly introducing and summarizing everything that one says, especially in a short paper, becomes annoyingly repetitive. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself what a reasonably attentive reader could be expected to remember. Thus, in a five-page paper, a sentence or two of introduction and conclusion will suffice, whereas in a fifteen-to-twenty-page paper, the reader may find it helpful if you state the structure of the argument in more detail in the beginning and give a full account of your position at the end.

Before you submit your paper it is a good idea to get someone else to read it over and give you their feedback. If you don’t have a friend that you are comfortable asking, you should take your paper to the Waseda University Writing Center (Building 7, 1F). You can print out the description of your assignment and this webpage and bring it with you. This will help them get an idea of what is expected.

Some useful links (to other sites)

Guidelines on Reading Philosophy (Contains useful advice for any reading assignment)

Philosophical Terms and Methods

Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper (Contains useful advice for any undergraduate paper)

How to Be a Good Graduate Student