Some guidelines on paper writing

(based on an outline by Dr. Michael Gorman)

Here are a few thoughts on writing papers. They should be relevant for any writing that you do.

In writing a paper, you are trying to explain something or prove something. Know what you are trying to explain or prove. If you canít state, in 25 words or so, what you are trying to say, then you havenít yet figured out where you are trying to go; not surprisingly, youíll never get there. So, when you are trying to decide on the basic thrust of your paper, keep trying to state the basic idea briefly and simply.

Be organized. Donít ramble on and on, making it up as you go. For example, suppose you were writing a paper on John Stuart Millís views on liberty and state. You might begin with an introduction stating what you are going to say and describing how your paper is organized. Then you might have a section on Millís views on liberty, a section on his views on the state, and a section on his views on how they should be related. Finally, a conclusion can summarize it all. Boring, but well-organized. (You didnít think you were writing The Waste Land anyway, did you?)

Avoid fluff. Donít spend half a page saying that Mother Theresa was a very holy woman, or that Galileo was a great scientist, etc. This is for the introduction to a 200-page book. When you are writing a short paper, get down to business.

Give and interpret evidence for what you are saying. If you are trying to explain Kant's views on morality, then quote Kantís writings and explain, in your own words, what they mean. Donít just say what you got off the back cover of the book, or what you think you heard me say in class.

Be clear and direct. Donít say, "At this point in time it would be in my best interests, and not at all opposed to yours, to initiate a cross-tabular transfer of the sodium chloride canister in the direction of myself"; say, "Please pass the salt." Only uneducated people think that obscurity is a sign of intelligenceóand donít forget that many people with Ph.D.s are uneducated in just this way. When you find yourself starting to write messy nonsense, put your pen down (or turn off your monitor) and say what you mean, out loud, perhaps to a friend, in the simplest terms you can find.
    For example, suppose you find yourself writing, "Thomas Aquinas, who was a very wise theologian or even a philosopher, not to mention a holy man, nevertheless unfortunately held as a conceptual idea on faith that individuals failing to cognize the entire corpus of faith, not that this is understandable anywayÖ." STOP! Close your ideas, clear your mind, and think. Then be pleased when you hear yourself say, "Aquinas thinks that if you donít believe the whole Christian faith, you donít really believe any of it. I think this is stupid." Now youíve actually said somethingóyou can polish it later if necessary.

Donít tell me what you think I want to hear. Youíll probably get it wrong, and anyway I can do this for myself. Tell me what you think. Give me your reasoned opinions (not your prejudices).