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Writing Essays

1. Answer the question. This does not mean you cannot take hold of the question and use it as a
means of discussing something that is of particular interest or importance. But it does mean that
what you do write must be related in some way to issues that the question asks you to address.
How you introduce your essay is thus of fundamental importance, because it should provide both
an outline of the principal issue or issues you will be discussing and some kind of justification of
your approach. In turn, make sure that the rest of the essay fulfils any expectations that you may
have given the reader in the opening paragraph
2. Structure. Your response must be structured, i.e. paragraphs must be composed of interlinking
arguments. This applies equally to the relationship between paragraphs: each paragraph should
function either (a) to develop points made earlier or (b) to introduce and discuss new and relevant
material (if necessary, justifying doing so). If you are summarising someone else's arguments, the
same rules apply. It is worth remembering that summary is quite often going to take up a lot of the
space of your essay, since questions usually ask you, in one way or another, to discuss in a
detailed and critical manner, someone’s ideas.
3. Written Style. Although some very famous philosophers were bad stylists, this is no reason for
you to follow their example. The manner in which you present your essay is of considerable
importance. Make sure you outline and develop arguments in a clear manner, and check grammar.
4. Use of Primary and Secondary Sources. Primary sources (often those works that the question is
inviting you to discuss) are those texts that you will be analysing in most detail in an essay. You
must therefore present your discussion of these in the form of a detailed account. This means
outlining the arguments these texts contain and justifying your reading by quoting and
commenting on quotes. Likewise, should try to locate key passages or phrases and use them to
further your argument. Do not assume that quotes stand on their own: you must discuss what you
quote, or use quotes to support a particular point you are making, or have made. A useful maxim
worth remembering: ‘statement, quotation, explanation’. Secondary texts (commentaries, for
instance) can be used (i) to help you in presenting your view of the text or issues at hand; (ii) to set
up your own views (such as by disagreeing with what Professor X says about Wittgenstein's
Tractatus). Secondary texts can sometimes become primary texts, or gain a similar importance
within an essay (e.g. questions which begin with 'Assess the view that.../Assess X’s claim that…').
5. Plan Your Essay. This is another key maxim. Do your primary and secondary reading, make notes
on the texts you use (including bibliographical details), plan your response to the question (back to
the issue of structure). A plan will frequently allow you to see what the important points are, and
what strengths and weaknesses there may be in your account of the issues.

Layout of Text.

There are scholarly conventions concerning how you should present your essay.
• Ideally, the main text of your essay should be typed in double space (this allows room for
comments to be written on the essay).
• Quotations longer than about five lines should be indented approximately one inch from the left
and right margins and should be in single space. Here is an example of some main text with an
indented quotation:

[…] What philosophers have hitherto done, Nietzsche says, is take such presuppositions to be a kind

of terminus, an unproblematic starting point, from which one then is able to depart on the journey of

enquiring into reality:

All philosophers have the common failing of starting out from man as he is now and
thinking that they can reach their goal through an analysis of him [...] But everything
has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths.
Consequently what is needed from now on is historical philosophising, and with it
the virtue of mo desty.1

It is equally apparent here that Nietzsche makes explicit a claim about reality; namely, that it is to be

comprehended in terms of change, that ‘everything has become’. What philosophers have mistaken for

reality is in fact unreality, and in making this mistake [….].

• Notes and Quotation Marks. Note that in the above example there is a footnote. Footnotes are
given in superscript (i.e. reduced text which is located just above the line of the main text) and
should be placed after quotation marks (if the quotation is not indented, i.e. is less than around 5-6
lines in length) and after all punctuation. Note also that quotation marks are not necessary for
indented quotations, unless, of course, there is a quotation within the quotation itself. I always
use single quotation marks (‘…’) to indicate cited text, and double quotation marks (“…”) for within
quotations that have already been indicated with single quotation marks (e.g. ‘Only ek-sistent man
is historical. “Nature” has no history’). As a general rule, you should aim to use notes that take the
form of endnotes rather than footnotes.
• The information given in a footnote/endnote can be quite varied. Thus, you can provide (a) a full
reference, giving author, title, place of publication, publisher, and date of publication, plus page or
section numbers as appropriate. A footnote/endnote should also give the name of the text’s
translator, if necessary. (b) if you are citing a text already cited earlier in the essay this can be
indicated by using op. cit., e.g. op. cit. p.44; (c) a footnote/endnote can be discursive, e.g. refining
and developing a point that you do not wish to include in the main body of your argument,
indicating the work of others who have made a similar point, etc.
• Make sure that you keep a firm grip on the matter of organising material for your research purposes
(e.g. keep records and notes in a way that is easily accessible, making sure that you keep an on-
going list of the bibliographical details of the texts that you are using, etc.). This saves a lot of
• Make sure that you are familiar with the practicalities of writing and presenting essays. This
involves familiarity with word-processing facilities and making the best use of the software you are
using. For example, learning how to create ‘short-cuts’ with macro commands (you can change text
layout very quickly and simply this way, as well as creating commands for making and viewing
footnotes or endnotes, etc.).

Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1986), section 2.