Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.
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 friendshow to convey what they feel and think in these situationsbut 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:
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: bubbl.us, www.mindmeister.com, 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.)
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 writingeven writing a university term paperis 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:
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.
- to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
- to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
- to commit literary theft
- to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
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.
Guidelines on Reading Philosophy (Contains useful advice for any reading assignment)
Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper (Contains useful advice for any undergraduate paper)