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Suggestions for Writing Essays

General Suggestions for Writing Essays

I. General Aim

Your general aim should be to develop a position that is best all things considered. This does not mean that you have to come up with a view that is correct in the sense that no one would disagree with you. Nor does it mean that any old view will do. Your goal should be to show that the weight of the evidence is on your side.

II. Things to Include

1. State Your Position. Provide a brief description of your position or, depending on the nature of the question, state what decision you would make. This initial description or statement should set up what is to follow. If appropriate, you should say whose view (from readings or lecture) yours resembles.

2. Support Your Position. Provide an argument to show what facts and ethical considerations support your view. It is advisable to use the readings and lectures here if possible It is unlikely that your view will be wholly noel, and you may as well take advantage of the careful thought that others have already done.

3. Anticipate and Respond to Objections. In order to show that the weight of the evidence is on your side, you need to show how your view is better supported by the facts and ethical considerations than competing views. An objection to your view is support for another view, so you need to show how your view can handle objections. (The exchanges between the various authors in the readings are a good model of how objections are raised and handled.) The objections you consider should be the most serious ones you can think of because these are the ones that have the potential to undermine your view. If you consider only the easiest objections, you will not have provided much by way of defending your position.

III. Direction and Coherence

Your essay should be reasonably well-organized and should hang together. Something to avoid is the "shotgun method"--writing down everything you know without tying it together. When you’ve said what needs to be said, stop. Throwing in things because you’ve got a little time left can detract from the quality of your essay.

IV. Use of References

You should use the readings and lectures in your essays whenever they are relevant. The readings help define the "maneuver space", i.e., the well-considered views on an issue. Related to this, there is little reason to start at square one each time you encounter a problem. Effective use of the readings and lectures shows that you understand the content of the course, is scholarly, and contributes to more compact essays.

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