How to Write Well

When it comes to academic work, I can read voraciously, learn new ideas happily, and teach proficiently.  Writing, however, is something that I usually struggle with.  However, writing helps with the previous three features of academia I just mentioned. For starters, writing helps one get his or her ideas across.  Secondly, writing helps clarify what one believes, or at least what one should believe.  Thirdly, writing helps me what to highlight when I teach and how to make the dense materials into something that young students can understand.  What is striking is that I never had a formal class to help me with writing philosophically.  So I have looked at various sources to help improve my writing.  After wading through some sources along with my own personal experiences, I have some general tips that I think will help anyone improve his or her writing.  I should note that this has helped me personally.  If you don’t find this working for you, you can skip it.  But regard this post as something to consider.

Getting Started

  • You are not too busy to write!  The reason why you’re too busy to write is simply because you don’t write.  Being busy is an excuse for not writing.  You always have time to write.  Indeed, to say that you’re too busy is a way to explain why you’re not writing.  If writing is going to be part of your job, then like any job, you must make a plan for writing.
  • Don’t wait for the motivation to “kick in.”  Writing and thinking has a nice feedback loop.  Thinking leads to writing, but writing also leads to thinking.  Often, I write and that helps me what I think about.  Just do it.
  • Don’t confuse motivation with action.  Procrastination comes in because of this confusion.  If you’re not in the mood to do something, then you won’t act on it.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking that motivation has to come first, and then you can act.  Most often, you have to act and then the motivation kicks in.  You’d be amazed that you may not be in the mood to so something, but once you start, you can get into the zone of that activity.
  • Schedule writing like you do with your other scheduled routines.  The common excuse many people don’t write is because they say that can’t find the time.  Of course, people always “find the time” to teach, read, research, watch TV, exercise, etc.  Take teaching for example.  I have a teaching schedule (as most academics do), and I cannot miss it.  The same is true with reading, watching TV, exercising, etc.  We’ve allotted some time for these activities.  The same should be true with writing.  Allot your time to writing in the same way you schedule your other activities.  I usually spend my writing about late morning.  It could change based on teaching schedules ever semester.
  • Like other schedules, you can’t be disturbed This means no visiting students, no looking at emails, and no grading papers.  As an analogy, I wouldn’t do any of these activities while teaching.  Make writing the same.  By setting out a time slot for writing, you eventually see writing not as something that you just happen to do, but as something that is essential to your scheduled routine (in the same way as eating, teaching, or exercising are essential to your scheduled routine).
  • Write regularly.  Great writers write because they write regularly, usually everyday.  Don’t write because you’re not “in the mood.”  There are many days where I’m not “in the mood” to teach or to exercise, but I still do it because it’s part of my scheduled routine.  Keyes says, “Serious writers write, inspired or not.  Over time they discover that routine is a better friend to them than inspiration” (taken from Silvia, p. 27).  You don’t wait for inspiration, nor do you wait until you’re “not busy.”  You plan to write much like any other activity in your life.
  • Form concrete goals.  Some goals are worthy of accomplishing, but don’t make the goal a huge project such as “finish dissertation” or “write this book by next year.”  Take up the project by breaking it up into chunks.  Here are some that have worked for me:
    • Write at least 300 words.
    • Write for at least half an hour.
    • Revise your draft.  This means to fix your paper based on the comments of your editor.
    • Turn that paragraph into a page.
    • Outline your next argument.
    • Re-read certain articles to get a better understanding of the material, and incorporate that into your writing.
  • Start writing first, then research.  This is something that I have a hard time doing because I generally start with the literature.  However, by writing first, you get a clear sense of what you are trying to argue for, or what you’re topic is.  If you research first, you have all the information you need, but then there’s hardly any original input from you.  Write first about the topic, on your own terms.  This will force you to think about the topic.  If you can’t think of anything more to write, then start researching.  Here are some great tips through your research taken from Martinich (p.75):
    1. If something you have written has been written before by someone else, footnote it.
    2. If something you have written has been written better, quote and footnote it.
    3. If something you have written has been written in more detail, adapt it to you essay and footnote it.
    4. If someone has said something else and is wrong, use his view as an objection to yours, footnote and refute it.
  • Remember, writing is hard.  Writing a lot doesn’t mean that you’ll enjoy it more.  You’ll have your pleasant days and unpleasant days.  The same could be said with teaching or exercising.  Nevertheless, you still go out there and do those activities.  How do you deal with it?  You just show up.  The same is true with writing.

Writing Itself

  • Scope what you’re trying to do In philosophy, most articles are about bringing up a problem or a question, or how to solve a problem.  Bringing up a problem or question identifies a certain field that you want to investigate and you’re showing that this deserves more attention.  Solving a problem proposes a new solution (such as a new theory, interpretation, or research).  Here are some possible routes that you could do:
    • Theory X is wrong.  Here’s why.
    • Theory X is correct.  Here’s an objection to theory X.  Here is my response to that objection.
    • Idea X can be applied to Y.  Here’s a way to do it.
    • Here’s a new way to think about idea X.
  • Structure is helpful.  Here’s a good structure of a philosophical essay (taken from Martinich (p. 50-53)):
    1. State the proposition to be proved.
      • Show what you’re trying to do by giving a thesis, or showing the motivations of your project.  This means get a topic to write about, and get specific about it.
    2. Give the argument for that proposition.  Commit to some position.
      • Show why any rational person ought to believe in your position by defending it.
      • Don’t say I feel; instead, say I argue.
    3. Show that the argument is valid.
    4. Show that the premises are true.
      • Give evidence for the premises.
      • Raise objections and respond to them.
    5. State the upshot of what has been proven.
  • If you’re stuck… either outline your project, or expand a paragraph to explain your argument by analyzing the premises or terms.
  • Certain words are unnecessary Silvia points this out by taking out the words very, quitebasically, actually, virtually, extremely, remarkably, completely, at all.  These words are weeds, or parasitic intensifiers.
    • Certain words are redundant, get rid of them.  Things such as bright light sourcedisgusting in natureintellectual process.
  • Replace long phrases with shorter words.
    • For example, the reason for, for the reason that, due to the fact that, owing to the fact that, in light of the fact that, considering the fact that, on the grounds that this is why can all be replaced with because, since, or why.  This is taken from Williams, 94-95.
  • Be clear, precise, ordered, and simple.
    • Being clear means that the reader can understand what you’re getting at.
    • Being precise means that you aren’t vague or being ambiguous.
    • Being ordered means that the structure of the essay is easy to follow through and the reader doesn’t have to guess at where you’re going next.
    • Being simple means that your sentence structure doesn’t need to be elaborate or profound.
  • In every sentence, there has to be new information, as well as old.  Each sentence has to have old and new information.  New and old information has to be in each sentence.  Notice how these sentences are effectively the same.  You can understand them, but it doesn’t do anything because they didn’t give you anything new.  At the same time, if a sentence states everything new, you can’t rely on familiar information from previous sentences.  Make some links between old information and new information.  (Taken from Williams, 118).
  • Along with this, try to say your important stuff toward the end of the sentence.  Observe (taken from Williams, 152):
    1. “Sociobiologists make the provocative claim that our genes determine our social behavior.”
    2. “Sociobiologists make the provocative claim that our social behavior is determined by our genes.”
    • Sentence one leads us to believe that the next sentence will talk about social behavior; sentence two leads us to believe that the next sentence will talk about genes.
  • If you can, simplify relative clauses by deleting who/that/which.  This is to help with the flow of the sentence instead of making it sound choppy.  Observe (taken from Williams, 166):
    1. “Work that is not done on time must be submitted on a date which will be set by those who are responsible for scheduling.”
    2. “Work not done on time must be submitted on a date set by those responsible for scheduling.”
  • Write like a lawyer and not like a detective.  Lawyers make arguments; detectives collect data and file a report.  In other words, lawyers bring in evidence to help support a case and cross-examine evidence that does not support a case.  Lawyers also ignore data that has nothing to do with the case.  When you make an argument that helps persuade a jury, then you’ve got an argument.  If you have data and it doesn’t do anything to drive an argument forward, you’ve got to do something with the data to persuade the jury.

Finishing Up

  • Re-read the whole thing to yourself.  You may think it unnecessary, but after reading it out loud to yourself, you’ll be surprised that you’ll catch some things that sound funny.  Re-word or re-organize once you find the funny spot.
  • If you have time, don’t touch it for a week, then go back to it.  Because you’ve researched this project extensively, you are somewhat knowledgeable or an expert at the field.  But because your focus has been zoomed in, your readers may not know what you’re talking about.  In fact, when you re-look at your paper for revisions, you are usually reinforcing what you mean.  By giving yourself some time off, your mind is distracted and you can somewhat forget about your project.  When you return, you’ll approach your paper closer to an ignorant, yet educated reader.
  • Talk it out with someone.  This will help you explain your ideas to someone who is not familiar with your project, yet wants to know.  This way, you won’t be just spilling out your ideas on paper; rather, you’re trying to explain and perhaps convince the listener of your project.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself if you get rejected.  If you do, just reedit and resubmit.  It’s part of the process.  Resend it to another journal if you have to.  Harsh criticism can stop you, but if you keep going, you’ll see that those criticisms were helpful in making you into a better writer.
  • Reward yourself after a big project goal.  Did you finish a mid-term?  Final?  Go out and celebrate, or buy yourself that new book that you’ve always wanted.  This is a great way to have positive reinforcement.  Other things may be getting a more expensive drink, going out for lunch, or going out for a movie.  Finally accomplishing that project is a way to further motivate your next project.  However, don’t skip writing the next day.  Again with teaching or exercising as an analogy.  You wouldn’t skip teaching or exercising just because you’ve accomplished a milestone.  The same is true with writing.  Don’t reward yourself by not writing.  As Silvia puts it, “Rewarding writing by abandoning your schedule is like rewarding yourself for quitting smoking by having a cigarette” (p. 44-45).  Don’t lose that habit.

Any other tips you’d want to share?

Notes:

Belcher, Wendy Laura.  Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2009.  This is an excellent resource on revising and updating a an article that you want to submit for a journal.  It’s also a workbook and the advice is extremely practical and informative.  I highly recommend simply buying it so that you can refer to it.  She even has a website where you can download the worksheets so that the book can be kept clean.

Martinich, A.P.  Philosophical Writing: An Introduction.  Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.  Perfect book specifically aimed toward philosophical writing, especially toward those who have never experienced writing a philosophical paper.

Silvia, Paul J.  How to Write a Lot.  Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007.  This is a great book, but it’s mainly geared toward psychologists.  Nevertheless, the first few chapters are immensely helpful.

Williams, Joseph M.  Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace.  NY: HarperCollins, 1994.  This book is pretty good in trying to make your paper have coherence, clarity, and style.  It focuses on grammar at the beginning, and it takes advantage of it in later chapters.

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About shaunmiller

I am a Ph. D student at Marquette University. The primary purpose of this blog is to get my ideas out there, and then have other people scrutinize, critique, build upon, and systematize beliefs. This blog will sometimes pertain to what I'm learning in my classes, but it will occasionally deal with non-classroom issues that I'm thinking about as well.
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