Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: V – Conciseness

V

Conciseness

To be concise means to be brief and to-the-point. To be effectively concise requires having only the necessary information structured in the shortest, clearest, and simplest way possible. If a sentence, or paragraph, or essay is concise then the reader will have a much easier time navigating and comprehending it. If the writer is concise they can fit more into their essay. The reader will also thank you for not wasting their time with unnecessary details or flourishes.

Often students are not concise, instead choosing to be wordy and discursive. The reasons for why students are not concise, or not as concise as they could have otherwise been, vary. Some (1) mistakenly think the sentence or paragraph is concise and that the expert is wrong. Other times, (2) they believe the sentence cannot be any more concise than it is presently. A student might also, (3), argue that there is such a thing as being too concise, and that being too concise is overly restrictive, resulting in a loss of meaning or detail. And, (4) understandably, often many mistake ‘philosophy’ for being a subject that requires the flowery expressions and turns of phrases comparably continental philosophers (self-help, new-age books).

Reason (4) is simply a result of undergraduate students being exposed to certain conceptions of philosophy (such as a layman understanding of philosophy), and only certain kinds (self-help, Nietzsche, Rand, De Botton, etc.). I think, in cases like this, it is just a matter of explaining to the student that academic philosophy is done quite differently. Student’s who were being vague or discursive for reason (4) often become concise because “that is just how it is done at the University”.

Reasons (1), (2), and (3), are a matter of students having to learn a craft and realise that they do not know what they are talking about. That is, the students holding to 1, 2, and 3, need to recognise the expertise of their marker, tutor, professor, etc., that when the experts tells you it is not concise, then it is not concise. With regards to (3), the student needs to recognise that being concise requires not losing necessary and valuable information. The trick this student must learn is to be concise and keep all the important information. With regards to (2), this student lacks imagination. This student needs to enumerate the different ways of expressing the same idea and, through this procedure, generate the most concise sentence, or paragraph, that they can. With regards to (1), the student lacks insight; they simply don’t realise the sentence or paragraph is not what it could have been.

You might wonder how one becomes concise. My answer is that we learn to be concise the same way we learn anything: practice. In the same way as the musician, or the artist, or the carpenter, produce great work and demonstrate excellent skill, they treat their subject as a craft. Students need to think about writing essays as practicing the craft of writing. And, in the same way the musician, or the tradesman, takes care of every detail in their work, so the student needs to treat each word as being as important as the totality of the paper it resides in.

The student needs to ask themselves constantly: “can this sentence, this paragraph, this section, this paper, this chapter, be any more concise?”, and then explore whether it can be.

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Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: IV – Clarity

IV

Clarity

Thus far, I have sketched out a design principle concerned with simplicity in essay structure and ideas. I have argued that a simple structure is easier to follow and simple ideas are easier to formulate and successfully execute. And the reason these are important is because they ultimately serve the function of an undergraduate essay. In this entry I want to focus on clarity. I first sketch out what clarity means in an essay context and then explain why such clarity is necessary for good academic writing.

In the context of a philosophy essay, clarity can refer to how quickly the meaning in a sentence (a paragraph, etc.) is comprehended by the reader. We can measure how clear or vague an essay is depending upon the accuracy and speed in which the reader comprehends the intended meaning. The faster and more accurate, the clearer the writing; the slower and more inaccurate, the vaguer. Consider the following sentence:

“The cat sat on the mat”.

What is the meaning of the sentence? I imagine a reader will think the sentence meant to describe a particular kind of animal (cat) and a particular kind of object (mat) and is describing the relationship (sitting) between the animal and object. Because the reader was able to almost immediately comprehend the meaning of the sentence, then this must mean that the sentence was clear – it’s meaning was clear. Now consider the following sentence:

“Upon the mat there was a feline that placed itself upon it”.

The meaning of this sentence is identical to the one above. Yet the mental moves it takes to decode that meaning is more than the previous. Because it takes longer, even if it still results in a correct interpretation, the sentence is less clear than the former.

I do not think the importance of clarity can be overstated. I really do think it is the writer’s duty to take the burden of work with regards to communication. After all, your reader is giving up their time (and often money) to hear what you have to say (or read what you have to write). Given that, it would behoove a writer to make their reader work harder to get the message.

But there are other reasons why, as a student, you should writer with great clarity. You need to demonstrate to the marker that you – the student – understand the material, and you cannot demonstrate an understanding if the reader cannot make sense of what has been written. If the meaning of the sentence is clear then the reader will understand you. Another reason is that it shows you that you yourself comprehend the material and ideas you have read. Student’s often think they get it but, upon asking them to explain the idea in their own words, they quickly falter. Why? Because the student has mistaken a vague notion as understanding, rather than a clear idea.

If we think of an essay as a kind of product for a consumer, then clarity is the design principle that leads to the consumer understanding the purpose of the product and how to use it. If you want your reader to grasp the ideas as quickly as possible you need to be clearer.

One might object that some ideas, problems, or whatever, are too complicated to explain clearly or the ideas in themselves are too vague, to be clarified. For example, you might have heard artists or poets talk about the ideas or themes which they are exploring through their art as being too difficult or even intractable for our common, literal, everyday and even academic talk. Thus, academic writing is incapable of truly capturing the ideas or themes that can be captured by art or more poetic writing.

There are several answers to this. The first, and most uncharitable, is that the above objection is a mark of laziness. Just because something is hard to do does not make it impossible. And considering philosophers and academics have explored such issues by way of academic writing, I do not think this objection holds much water. The second way of responding is simply agreeing, but that since the assignment demands you do it, you might as well try. But the third response is sympathetic to the objection: yes, it might be well that some topics are beyond the reach of plain, literal, academic writing – but you will not know until you try. And, like the artist, while the subject is difficult to grasp, they will try multiple times through many iterations to nail their interpretation, and to try and express that to their audience as clearly as they can.

 But I, and many, can attest that it is possible to become clearer when writing about difficult topics – it just takes a lot of time and effort.

Undergrad Essay Writing Principles: III – Simplicity in Structure

III

Simplicity in Structure

In the previous entry of this series I argued that simplicity is a crucial design principle in crafting a philosophy essay. However, simplicity can be taken in two different directions, (i) application to ideas, and (ii) application to structure. The prior entry addressed (i), and this entry will examined (ii). That is, in this entry I argue that a simple, no-frills approach to structuring an essay – which I call EOR – is in the student’s best interests.

The essay structure which I strongly suggest to students is a simple one:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection
  4. Response
  5. Conclusion

Obviously though, the length of the essay, or the level of study the essay is being written,  can result in adding extra sections. Yet these extra sections are merely repetitions of the above provided structure, and often, if not always, presented in the same order. For example, a longer research paper might be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Explanation/explication
  3. Objection 1
  4. Response 1
  5. Objection 2
  6. Response 2
    1. Objection 2.1
    2. Response 2.1
      1. Objection 2.1.1.
      2. Response 2.1.1.
    3. Objection 2.2.
    4. Response 2.2.
  7. Conclusion

Note that even when there are extra sections, the structure is essentially the same. And what this structure offers is nothing novel nor interesting; I am simply making salient a simple structural procedure that is highly robust because it fits in with our intuitive grasp of how we manage verbal discussions. For example, consider the following dialogue between two car mechanics attempting to fix a car:

M1: I think it’s the ignition.
M2: Why?
M1: These old Volvo’s were designed with cheap material in the ignition part – I’ve seen this before. (explanation)
M2: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this one is the same – have you checked the engine yet? (objection)
M1: Nah, yeah – engine is in pretty good nick. Oi, look – the wiring in the ignition is stuffed. (response)
M2: I’ll go get the wire out back.

As we can see from the dialogue above, the structure of our verbal discussions when attempting to resolve problems or discuss issues uses the EOR design.  That is the beautiful thing about EOR – because we deploy this structure throughout our lives, we are able to immediately grasp it, even when we don’t know we are doing it.

But there are other reasons for employing EOR, most of which turn out to be beneficial to both the writer and the reader. First, it makes the essay easy to signpost and to follow. This benefits the writer because it allows them to quickly locate sections of their paper and edit or work on them, and it benefits the reader because it makes reading the essay easier. Second, it can help the student ensure they have provided a well reasoned or argued paper. After all, they can see if they have provided an objection, or provided a response to that objection, and they can see whether they have provided adequate words to developing those sections. Third, it means that when the student is given feedback, they can follow precisely where they went wrong and what to fix.

Finally, I want to note that the structure of an essay is not, by itself, ever going to result in a high mark. Structure, like spelling and grammar, if done right will not benefit you directly, but done wrong and they will hurt your mark. Why? Because like spelling and grammar, the structure of an essay facilitates the communication of the ideas within the essay. And you, as a writer, do not want all that hard work you put into those ideas to be lost under a sea of poorly designed and obscure structure.

 

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.

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.

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.