Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: II – Simplicity

II

Simplicity

Perhaps the most overused design principle is simplicity. “Keep it simple”, they say (whoever they are). But what precisely does ‘simple’ mean, and how does such a design principle help with achieving the undergraduate essay-function (UEF)? There are two ways we can cash the simplicity principle with regards to undergraduate philosophy essays.[1] First, we can apply simplicity to the idea attempting to be communicated in the essay. Second, we can apply simplicity to how we present (i.e., write) our idea.

In this entry, I want to focus on the first application of the design principle of simplicity. So what would that look like? What wouldn’t it look like? Let’s reconsider the UEF:

Undergraduate Essay-Function (UEF): Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

So, you should try and make the idea trying to be communicated as simple as possible. Simple in this context, would mean that the idea is easy to understand, or put another way, is not difficult for the reader to comprehend. Perhaps the easiest way to make your idea simple is by making it singular; only argue for one point. Nothing more, nothing less.

By making a philosophy paper only have a single purpose, or point, all resources can be dedicated to making the best possible case one can for the given idea. And, by focusing on communicating a single idea, one ensures they do the necessary work while simultaneously doing the least amount of work required. This might seem confusing (even counter-intuitive), but it comes down to basic math.

Student’s (an essay writer, really) has constraints: word-count, energy, and time. For any idea, that idea requires an explication, an objection to the idea, and then a reply to the objection. So if one has two ideas, they’ve doubled their workload. Worse still, the resources one dedicates to the ideas have been halved.

Suppose a student has 1 week to write a 800 word essay. If that student has one idea they have 1 week to think and write about it, and probably 200 words for each respective part of exploring and defending that idea. If they have two ideas, then they have 3.5 days and approximately 100 words to write about each respective part for each respective idea. Clearly, the former will write a more in-depth and interesting essay than the later because they have more space and resources to explore their idea.

Another way the idea itself can be ‘simple’ is by not overcomplicating or picking an idea that is overly problematic. A student could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not…

  • ‘transcendental philosophy can help explicate our moral sentiments with regards to the phenomenological experience of the individual who has the choice to pull the lever in the trolley problem thought experiment’.

OR they could pick to analyse the idea of whether or not,…

  • ‘letting die is morally different from killing’.

Sure, the first sounds more interesting, but imagine the amount of work you would have to do to even given a mediocre job of exploring and communicating that idea.

So, the take away is simple this: to keep the idea simple, choose a single, plain, and understandable idea.

[1] And it seems to me easy enough to reapply these ideas to essays on other subjects. But I’ve never read nor written non-philosophy essays, so I can’t comment on them directly.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: I – The Function of an Essay

I  

The Function of an Essay

Perhaps the most popular question I’m asked by my students is, “how do I write a good philosophy paper?” That’s an excellent question. So, in this series of posts I want to consider how design principles can help answer this question. I think by applying design principles, an undergraduate can improve their philosophical writing. Not though, that I am concerned here primarily with their philosophical writing, and not,

I take it that there is more than one design principle. For that reason, merely enumerating a list of principles will not do. Reason being that such a list will be arbitrary; why these particular principles and not others? So, before I outline each principle in subsequent posts, we need to think carefully about why certain principles should be considered design principles, and which ones should not. In other words, we need a theory of design.

My theory of design (for philosophy essays) is straightforward. Design principles should necessarily serve the function of philosophy essays. By ‘function’, I mean the purpose or goal of a philosophy essay (i.e., any philosophy essay). Any purported value that fulfils the function should be adopted as a design principle, and any purported value that fails to realize the function should be rejected (as a design principle). And, I assert, the function of a philosophy essay is simply this:

Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea to the reader.

The essay-function has slightly different applications depending upon the essayist (e.g., undergraduate, PhD candidate, professor, etc.). For the purposes of these entries, I will just consider the essay-function as it applies to undergraduates. The explication of the essay-function for undergraduates is as follows:

Undergraduate Essay-Function: Successfully communicate an idea (i.e., your position on the given essay topic) to the reader (i.e., your essay marker), such that the paper satisfies the essay topic criteria.

If an essay fails to accomplish its function, then it is, by my definition, a bad essay. So, if an undergraduate essay (i) does not engage with the essay topic, (ii) fails to explain and justify your position, and (iii) is not communicated to your marker, then that essay is suboptimal. So, how can an undergrad avoid (i), (ii), and (iii)? I shall address this question – and how design principles fit into this picture – in subsequent posts.