Please note that much of what follows has been taken from and/or based around Jim Pryor's guidelines which you may also want to look at.
Your essay will be marked on five criteria: Structure, Clarity, Knowledge, Independence and Relevance. I'll deal mainly with three of these criteria (Structure, Clarity and Independence), only briefly dealing with Relevance. I've not much to say about knowledge, which is more an issue for lectures you attend, and not something I can really talk about on a website! I then end with a list of things you must never do or say in an essay.
Not only is this the first section, it is also the most important section. This is the section that you should read, and reread, time and time again until you can reiterate it off by heart. This is also the section that most people fail in. I'll lay it on the line for you. People often claim that A-levels don't prepare you for University. I agree, for it appears to me that the ability to construct an argument that follows a rational train of thought, one which evaluates the pertinent information and aims towards a solid conclusion, is not something most first year students seem to be able to do. Instead, what is produced is a haphazard collection of statements, facts, summaries of numerous arguments, and then - in place of a conclusion - an endorsement of one of the positions for little or no discernible reason. The latter does not constitute an essay, and the single most important thing that you need to learn is what does constitute an essay (and how it differs from material you were asked to produce in your earlier pre-University academic career). Just to say again: this section, and what it demands, is the most important section. Ignore it at your peril.
Let us start with what an essay should not do. Routinely, students produce an essay that is of the form "Philosopher X says Y, and philosopher Z disagrees", and then cite some references and conclude with a comment along the lines of "Whilst position Y has a lot to be said for it there may well be numerous flaws"; or "I cannot decide between the two, as there are good arguments for both sides"; or "I think X is right!"; or (and this my absolute favourite) "There's not enough space in this essay to evaluate which is correct". All of these constitute terrible essays. As philosophers we are unimpressed with your ability to recognise that one person said one thing, and another disagreed. That would make you a journalist, and that's not what we're looking for. What the above caricature essays lacks is evaluation, they do not evaluate anything! Philosophers, quite unlike journalists, are interested wholly and solely in evaluation of arguments. That means that we need you to write an essay that argues for a particular conclusion, which is obviously different from citing what people say, and then "concluding" that one of them is right. What we need is an argument, a train of thought that has as few flaws in it as possible, as to why your conclusion is right. Your personal seal of approval means squat. Merely writing "I reckon this guy is right because, heh, it just seems that way to me" is not good enough. Remember the golden rule: I am not interested in your opinions. No-one should be interested in your opinions. No-one should be interested in anyone's opinions. What philosophers are interested in is justified and well-argued reasons for believing a given proposition, not just the fact that people happen to believe it. That's why the last example sentence is my favourite: if you write an essay but don't leave the space to evaluate a theory, then that's a sign - a rock solid sign! - that your essay has gone wrong. We don't ask you questions that can't be adequately evaluated in the space provided, because we intentionally ask questions that allow you to evaluate them as all we're looking for is evaluation.
So, if I haven't hammered the point home enough, the sole purpose of philosophy is to evaluate arguments (notice how often I keep using the 'e' word) and evaluation is not stating a personal preference or gut-feeling about a position. So the sole way to earn marks is to enter into a serious debate with the positions we present to you. Are the premises of the argument true? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? If not, why not - demonstrate to me the invalidity of the argument, don't just state that you think it is invalid - again your beliefs on the matter are irrelevant! When people give the argument and say "I don't think the conclusion follows from the premises" and leave it at that that's an opinion. We demand a demonstration of these things! Provide reasons for thinking the premises are false, or reasons for thinking the conclusion doesn't follow (such as counterexamples or, for the more logically skilled, a proof).
How you set about evaluating arguments is likewise important. You can't just rely on the set text and the lecture material. The lecture material will (usually) present the position, and then present the reasons that people have, in the past, thought these positions to be false. But if you just did the above, you wouldn't get a great mark, as you'd just have recapped the lecture material. Consider: one reason to think utilitarianism is wrong is because it appears we should all enter into a "survival lottery" whereby our lives may be randomly forfeit, and I could be chopped into pieces so others might live. You might well have been presented with that in the lecture. Merely summarising that in an essay, though, won't get you very far. what you need to do is consider further responses to that line of argument - so either why (i) utilitarianism doesn't demand a survival lottery or (ii) it does indeed demand it, but perhaps it isn't all that bad a thing (i.e. being committed to survival lotteries doesn't constitute a reason to deny utilitarianism). You might find such arguments in outside texts, in journal articles and so forth. You might rely upon material presented by the tutor or other students in tutorials. You might come up with one on your own. Whatever. In any case, you go deeper into the argument. This is called a step down argument because... well, because you go a 'step down'. The more steps you give, the deeper the essay. The deeper the essay, the harder it will be for the reader to think of an objection. The harder it is for the reader to think of an objection, the more it qualifies as an evaluation - there's the golden 'e' word again! - and so the higher mark you shall receive.
Ping Pong Essays
The technique of essay writing just presented is sometimes called Ping Pong because it 'ping pongs' the argument back and forth. For instance, you get the position (say utilitarianism), and then a response (say survival lottery) and then a rejoinder to that response (I'd give an example, but then I'd get about fifty essays using this example as an essay structure, but let's say Singer has a response - so Singer's response would be a rejoinder). Indeed, you can keep going: maybe a rejoinder to the rejoinder! Maybe a rejoinder to the rejoinder's rejoinder and so on and so forth! Each step of the way you're evaluating the argument. So it's like ping pong, knocking the argument back and forth. Not everyone likes the ping pong model, and I won't lie and say it's the only way to write a good essay. But you get what you're given. Once you've mastered the ping pong model, and you're spewing firsts out six to the dozen, you can start ignoring my advice and do whatever the hell you want. Until then, ping pong it is.
The ping pong model also gives you some idea of the mark you'll end up getting. The more rounds of argumentative ping pong you shuttle back and forth (wait, shuttle is badminton isn't it? Never mind...) the higher the mark. Just make sure that each step down you go is saying something interesting and further than what's been said before (for example, don't just cite a rejoinder and then say "But you could just restate the initial position" - if just restating the initial position takes care of the rejoinder it was a naff rejoinder to begin with and earns you no marks; more on this below).
With each step, your mark increases. A two step argument isn't as good, or as deep, as a seven step argument (actually, seven steps is pretty impossible in 1,200 words but in upper level essays it's achievable given the 2,000 word limit). Indeed, you can compare your essay to how much effort it'd take to write. For instance, if you wrote an essay which gave utilitarianism, and then gave a response to utilitarianism - the Survival Lottery - and that was basically it, that's a pretty naff essay. It'll get a third or a 2:2. Why? Well, you could write that essay if you'd only wandered into the lecture on utilitarianism. You'd barely have to look at a book. Say you took an hour typing out the 1,000 words, and an hour sat in the lecture, the essay in total would only take two hours to write. You'd be lucky to get a 2:2! Moreover, and this is important, the same thing happens even if you list multiple counterarguments to utilitarianism. If you also noted other counterarguments, such as the Seperateness of persons, the difficultly of evaluating utility and Nozick's Space Utility Monster and they'd also come straight from the lecture then, again, you'd only have to have spent a few hours to write that essay. The mark would reflect that required effort.
But now consider an essay that did the above but gave a rejoinder, say summarising an idea from the tutorial, as to how the Utility Monster (or Survival Lottery) doesn't work. That'd take more time, wouldn't it? You'd have to have attended a tutorial! So you'd get a higher mark. Perhaps you go off and find a reason why what that guy said in the tutorial doesn't work - even higher! At each step of the way you can look at what you've written and think "Exactly how much of the course would someone have to attend in order to write what I've just written". If you're only relying on lecture material the answer would be "Not much" and that should be the mark you'd expect. If you've wandered off into the library and found your own material, the answer would be "A fair bit", and that should likewise be reflected in the mark. If you've spent weeks in the library following a single train of thought, a single line of argument, a single chain of argument/counterarguments ping-ponging back and forth, then that'd be a whacking great amount of work - and deserve a whacking great mark!
Many Responses Resets The Mark
Which leads me onto the next point. As I said above, listing multiple responses doesn't earn you any marks! Think of it like this, we mark the deepest argument you give. So every time you give up on a line of argument and go back to the beginning, you're not adding to the mark, you're effectively resetting it. So if you gave a response to the Survival Lottery, and then listed a few other responses to utilitarianism (not to the Survival Lottery response), tough titty - you just get marked on the Survival Lottery objection and the response you gave to it. The rest is superfluous and doesn't demonstrate any further philosophical evaluation (there's that word again!). This rule isn't that hard and fast. For instance, if the rejoinder you give has two obvious flaws but you've got some cunning way to get around both of them, far better to explain why these flaws don't work as opposed to really concentrating on only one flaw. Alack, at this stage, only experience will tell you how deep you need to go - but then if you get to that stage it's all pucker as far as I'm concerned anyway. If you're reaching that depth of argument, these essay writing guidelines will have already done their work.
One of the things you need to learn is to recognise 'strawmen'. Strawmen arguments are arguments that aren't worth spending much time on. Strawmen arguments generally deal only with caricatures of the position at hand, either mistakenly or willfully misunderstanding the nature of the argument and debate, or they have obvious and crippling flaws. Either ways, citing a strawman argument, and why it's false, earns you nil points - you don't get marks for shooting fish in a barrel.
Nevertheless we will often present you with strawmen arguments in lectures. This isn't so you can give them back to us in your essays! The thinking behind presenting them in lectures is quite simple. Many times, there are common responses that people often give when they first hear an argument but those common response turn out to be astonishingly bad, or miss the point in some way i.e. the common response is a strawman counterargument. So, in our capacity as tutors and lecturers, we set out to explain these positions so you don't foolishly start expounding them yourself.
Let's take an example: Peter Singer's argument that you are morally obliged to give all our money away to charity. One, strawman, response is that if we all did this the economy would collapse. That response doesn't work because, of course, the argument just says that you should do it, not everyone. Singer makes clear that if everyone did it, the amount of money you'd be obliged to give away would be minimal. Moreover, he points out that clearly not everyone is going to start giving all their money away and causing economic collapse. Indeed, he says this in his article. It's a strawman response. Singer (and your ethics lecturers) examine it only because, straw filled as it is, people often cite it, and they have to be corrected (mainly because they've clearly misunderstood Singer's argument). But you don't get any credit for giving this shit argument and then explaining its shitness in all of its glory. It is presented for you to avoid, for you to go "Oh, I see! Yes, that argument is really naff!" and then move on.
So don't make the mistake of thinking that everything mentioned in lectures and tutorials qualifies as good essay material. If in doubt ask. This applies at higher levels too, where the line gets blurry between what is a proper counterargument, and what is a strawman argument that misses the point entirely (and, indeed, may need a torturously long explanation as to where it went wrong - don't think that a long explanation of where an argument goes wrong necessitates that it is worthwhile, it's just that correcting a mistake can often take some time). Indeed, you might spend a long time on a counterargument only to realise that it wasn't that good at all, and in actual fact stemmed from your misunderstanding over what was going on. It happens to the best of us. The correct action is to give up on it, and ensure that in future your exposition more faithfully represents the superior understanding you've now acquired. The incorrect action is to then stick your failed counterargument in your essay and give me a 1,000 words of exactly where you went wrong and what it was you failed to grasp. Again, there's a fine line to walk between giving counterarguments that earn you marks, and giving counterarguments that go nowhere and stem from your own misunderstanding of the position. If in doubt, that's what we're paid for, and we can tell you which category your argument falls under.
Don't Sweat The Big Stuff
Given this concentration on evaluating just one line of argument it is unsurprising that the best essays will spend their time making one, small point very clearly. Read that sentence one more time. It's all about the small points. Here I think it is time for a quote, from Jim Pryor and his essay guidelines:
People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5-6 page paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace.
Couldn't put it better myself (hence, the quote). An essay that tries to demonstrate, conclusively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that all arguments for the existence of God are awful, is far less likely to be a good essay than one which demonstrates that Koon's version of the cosmological argument (one of the many arguments for the existence of God) illegitimately relies upon a premise to do with the nature of facts. The latter is a small point, but one that if well made would make for a superb essay. The former would be overly ambitious. And when I say "overly ambitious", what I mean is "riddled with hubris". Only the ignorant and the foolish would think that, in the space of one essay, they can solve a problem that has scores of articles and books written about it. Even if it did turn out that you were a revolutionary genius you'd still never be able to accomplish the task in the space of 1,200 words! That, I would think, is obvious. Given it is obvious, why even attempt it given that you will fail! Far better then, to concentrate on a single, smaller, issue.
Clarity is everything. It's no good having astonishingly good ideas or brilliantly researched arguments if one can't figure out what you're banging on about. A clearly written essay will score exponentially higher than a poorly written essay. And I do mean exponentially. The clearer the essay, the higher the mark. It's that simple people.
Here's the rule of thumb: your essay should be accessible to the well educated intelligent reader with no specialised knowledge. That means that we should be able to give it to just about anyone with a few A-levels to rub together, and they should be able to read your essay and understand what your argument is. Preferably, they should understand this the first time round that they read it! (At higher levels this is different - a paper on the philosophical implications of quantum physics may not be as accessible as this). Here are some suggestions as to how to achieve a suitable level of clarity.
Don't Write Like a Tribesman from Papa New Guinea Who Just Learned How To Spell
One day I received the following mail:
FROM MR PUNE JIM
TRANSFER OF 36,759,000.00 MILLION POUNDS TO YOUR ACCOUNT
My name is Mr.Pune Jim and I work in a Bank here in London.Therefore
I need your cooperation in this transaction.I will provide all
necessary information needed in order to claim this money.Hoping in God
that you will never let me down now and in future. Your full name,occupation
and phone number is needed.Let me hear from you urgently.
Obviously I didn't get back in touch with him, but nevertheless I did consider it for a second. The spelling was so atrocious, the argument so awful, I felt almost immediately compelled to reply in order to set him straight and tell him what's what. Just look at the first two sentences! How can his working in a bank entail that he needs my cooperation in a transaction? Does that apply to everybody? Does everyone who engages in a simply transaction need my help? Am I to be inundated with requests from bank clerks all over the world? If so the economy is going to grind to a halt pretty quickly...
But he has an excuse. He is some scoundrel sitting in some basement in Nigeria trying to fleece me (I assume that it is Nigeria, as that's where most of these mails come from, as opposed to me just randomly picking on Nigerians). He probably made these mistakes on purpose to pass himself off as a person who couldn't actually speak English. Shockingly, however, many essays I read are just like this e-mail. Not all of them, mind you, but more than one or two! When I read such things I am not sure which I would rather do: write a letter to the Prime Minister explaining to him that eighteen year old adults are leaving school unable to construct sentences in English, or just save myself the unmitigated pain I feel every time my eyes pass across such material by taking a Black and Decker drill to my own eyeballs. Not only is it obviously bad to do these things (write in poor English, that is, not use a Black and Decker drill on yourself - although that too is obviously bad), you will quickly discover that your examiner - for instance, me - will not sit there and charitably try and interpret what the sentence should've said if only it hadn't been written by someone with a passing grasp of the English language. No. It is not up to the examiner to translate an essay from a pidgin tongue into something that actually makes sense. Every sentence that makes no sense will be skipped over as if you never wrote it. And imagine what your mark will end up as if your examiner just ignores half the sentences you have written - whatever is left is unlikely to be worth much. So, the lesson is, write in English, rather than haphazardly and randomly throwing words on the page until you get something that a five year old might mistake for a sentence. Obviously you may well not have this problem! Indeed, most of you will not! But if you are one of the few who has difficulty expressing themselves, then take great care. The only real way to achieve this is to proof read your essay thoroughly (see below). If need be, enroll in a University course on writing techniques. I wasn't kidding about that letter to the PM; I heartily believe that in many cases people leave school utterly unable to construct sentences. Here at Uni, if what I've said here applies to you then it is up to you to recognise this fact (should it apply to you!) and seek appropriate help via the numerous courses the University has to offer.
Don't Write Like Kant (or Mill, or Hume, or...)
If I ever met Kant, I'd kick him to death. Reading what he writes makes me want to stick my head in a blender. For the love of all that is holy, don't try and emulate him! It is never a good thing if your examiner wants to stick his head in a blender.
It's an unfortunate fact of life that we force you to study philosophers who aren't exactly the clearest buggers around. Not every philosopher is like this, but certainly some of the ones we ask you to read make for a hellish experience as you wade through their ill constructed sentences and mind numbing terminology. This is not an excuse to do likewise. They have three excuses. First, they didn't have word processors. It wasn't exactly a walk in the park for them if they wanted to proof read and redraft their books. Second, at the time what they said was probably clearer than it seems now. Idiomatic phrasing changes over time, so what you find hard to read now is sometimes a result of linguistic drift across the centuries. This, again, is not an invitation for you to regress your writing style back three hundred years and start mimicking 17th century English. I am not a Dominican monk, and do not care for such language. Third, guys like Kant and Heidegger are allegedly geniuses. You're not (you may be a genius, but it is unlikely that anyone of note has alleged it to be so). I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt - they're great philosophers in spite of the way they write not because of it. You will get no such benefit of the doubt. So, whilst we subject you to the writing style of these guys, don't mimic it yourself.
You see, modern philosophy is all about clarity. Contemporary philosophy is dead hard. It makes our heads hurt. Writing in simple, straightforward English is therefore a must. Spending time solely trying to just figure out what a sentence says isn't what a philosopher wants to do. A philosopher wants to be thinking about whether that sentence is true. Again, philosophy is about evaluation, not interpretation. As we are training you to be contemporary philosophers, every time you read a piece of philosophy from years ago (such as Kant) do keep in mind that they weren't held to the highest standards of clarity. You, on the other hand, will be.
Do write like the Guardian (or whatever broadsheet you prefer if you think the Guardian is a lefty rag)
Having explained how you shouldn't write, how about how you should? I wanted to entitle this bit "Do Write Like A Newspaper" but then realised some of you might be tabloid readers and would deluge me with essays that begin "Kant in Imperative Failure Shocker", or "Descartes in Cartesian Crackwhore Scandal". So, let us be clear - write like a broadsheet newspaper. And when I say that, I mean the news columns, not the comment sections. Have a glance at the news columns in any broadsheet, and you will find the tone dispassionate. The sentences are simple, short and straightforward to read. I never ever find myself having difficulty understanding what the front page of the Guardian says. I never discover that it has multiple interpretations, or that parts of it are ambiguous, or that it uses words that I don't understand without first introducing what they mean. I never ever need to reread a sentence. The news article just gives me the facts: cold, hard, and fast. Your essay should be like that, and that is the style I want you to emulate.
An example of this in practice would be recent articles. If you want to see how philosophy should be written, nip down to the library and glance at the journal Analysis. The articles there are short and tremendously clear. You may not understand the content of what is being said, but that's irrelevant. What's relevant is simply the way they're written: very short and very clear.
So, let's sum up and reiterate: your essays should succinct. With regard to the writing, one might even go so far as to use the word 'boring'. It is to have no resemblance to poetry, or the writings of the Ancient Greeks, nor should it be suitable to be read from a pulpit. In no way should it be verbose, reflect emotional states you may have towards the authors/philosophers you deal with, or have even a hint of pretension. At every stage keep thinking to yourself whether or not what you've written sounds pretentious, or verbose etc. If it does, that's a bad thing. Imagine that your marker is a mean spirited lad who went to a comprehensive, and likes nothing better than downing pints of lager in the local pub and marking down pretentious gits who want to spend more time making flowery comments than getting to grips with the issues at hand (I wish to point out that this imaginary marker bears only a passing resemblance to myself, for I clearly like playing on my Xbox above all else).
The Thesaurus Problem
Do you know what else I've never come across on the front page of the Guardian? The word 'irenic'. I once came across that in a book by David Wiggins, a philosopher who is very fond of utilising his (obviously impressive) vocabulary. After spending ten minutes tracking down a dictionary and finding out it meant "to seek peace in a conciliatory manner" I was less than amused. Clearly he could have expressed that sentence without such a word. So please, resist the urge to show off your "Word of the Day toilet paper". You are not on Countdown, and you do not make it easier on your reader by using a heavily varied vocab.
This doesn't mean you should be afraid of using specifically philosophical terms, such as metaphysical, epistemological, token, type, deictic, alethic, doxastic, valid, sound etc. (and, no, I don't expect you to know what all those terms mean, nor would it be useful for you to just learn a bunch of philosophical vocabulary, but if you learn technical terms during the course don't be afraid to use them if doing so makes your argument flow better). Although if you introduce technical language, you should ordinarily explain what it means. Again, judgment calls have to be made. You don't need to explain what "modus ponens" means for instance. In a first year essay on Descartes you'd have to explain what Platonic Forms were if you happened to talk about them, whereas in a third year dissertation on the metaphysics of modality you probably wouldn't. Use your best judgment and, again, if in doubt, ask your tutor.
Don't Make Up New Words
Some of you are laughing at this point. But it happens. People make words up. Often. Sometimes they sound like real words, sometimes not. Sometimes they are real words, but have long since fallen out of use. That's just as bad. I speak contemporary English. I would rather like you to be able to write an essay in contemporary English. I'd rather like you to do it without me having to scratch my head at any point or check with the OED as to what a word means. I hope you will oblige me.
Techniques to Ensure Clarity
I'm very bad at making things clear. At least in writing. Being bad at it is no excuse though, we all have our flaws and this is one you may well have to overcome yourself. Here're some suggested techniques.
First, redraft your essay. Note, I do not say proof read your essay. Redrafting an essay is a long and involved process, not just simply scanning through your essay and correcting spelling and grammar mistakes. Basically, the first essay you write is almost certainly going to be naff. It'll contain long winded explanations that can be shortened, it'll make glaring mistakes, and it will almost certainly ramble off on a tangent at some point. I know this because I write lots of essays, and that's what happens to me. I've been in the game for years, so I'm guessing the same crap will happen to you. What you need to do is look over your essay with an eye to rewriting it thoroughly. In fact, the best advice I can give is this: write the essay, stick it in a drawer, forget about it, and then a week later write the essay again before comparing the two. Then take the best bits from each essay before rewriting your third, and final, draft. Maybe the explanation of utilitarianism will be better in the first than the second, maybe you'll realise that section on Hedonistic Calculus is redundant and was just a waste of words which added nothing to the argument, maybe you'll read your first essay in horror, desperately trying to figure out what it was you were trying to say in the first place. Whatever. Either ways, that's the way to do it. Importantly, leave some time in between drafts, and before rereading them. It is only with a fresh mind that you will read your essay for what it is.
Second, give your essay to someone else to read. Specifically, give it to a non-philosopher. We aren't kidding about an essay being accessible to the average intelligent adult. Just about anyone should be able to read your first year essay and make sense of it (it changes slightly in upper year levels, obviously I don't imagine Joe Bloggs should be able to understand the finer points of Frege's argument against Multigrade Predicates and how he fails to do so undermines Singularism as a theory to deal with plural predication: heck, I'd be amazed if Joe Bloggs even knew what any of that meant!). So you should be able to hand it to them, then they should be able to read it in a reasonable space of time, and understand what went on and tell you what they think. Points to consider (i) if it takes them ages to read through, that's probably because it isn't very clear; (ii) they should be able to tell you what your paper says without prompting from you or you having to answer any questions - if your essay doesn't make clear what utilitarianism is (or Kant's categorical imperative, or the Turing Test, or whatever) that's a failing with your essay; (iii) they should be able to tell you what your argument is again without prompting from you; (iv) people lie and claim things are fine when they're not, or claim that they understand something when they don't, often because they figure that since they didn't do the course they shouldn't be able to understand it, and that it's a failing on their behalf. This is nonsense. Your essay should make clear to people who've never done any philosophy before what is going on. So be sure to establish that when they claim to understand, that they honestly do. If after reading your essay they don't understand something, then you know your essay needs work.
Third, proof read your essay. Again, stick it in a drawer for a few days, then proof read it and make sure the grammar and sentences sound right. One way to achieve this is to read it out verbatim. Correct the bits that don't sound right. It makes you sound weird, and your housemates, friends and family will think you've gone doo-lally, and maybe even have you committed and/or disown you, leaving you destitute and with nothing to live for except philosophy, but that's a small price to pay in my opinion...
Relevance is fairly simple. Don't write about something else other than what the question asks for. Here are some specific hints and tips, and possible pitfalls you might encounter.
Every Sentence Should Count
Simply put, every single sentence in your essay should - clearly and succinctly - further your argument towards your chosen conclusion. Any sentence that does not do that is irrelevant and a big waste of space. For instance, to spend even a sentence telling people how great you think Kant's metaphysics is, when you are slagging off his ethics, just because you really wanted your examiner to know (as opposed to because it furthers your argument) is pointless. Every. Sentence. Counts.
Keeping to the Point
You get credit for what you write that relates to the essay topic, and nothing else. Everything you write that is not connected to your chosen essay topic is wasted space. For instance, if the question is about the Survival Lottery in utilitariansim, then a historical account of the moral theory, or writing about other refutations against utilitarianism (such as the problems of using the Hedonistic calculus), is unlikely to earn you any credit. Such things are generally a waste of space, and your essay will end up being just as good if you had left them out. What you need to ensure is that every sentence counts, that every sentence is driving us towards the conclusion you have at the end of your essay, and that every sentence is crisp, and clear, and succinct. You've only got 1,000 words to play with, and a lot needs to be done in that space, so being succinct is vital.
Essay Questions are Round Holes, Don't Make Your Answer A Square Peg
Answer the question asked, not the question you think we should have asked nor the question you really wished we had asked. If the question asks specifically for objections to utilitarianism on the grounds of the Survival Lottery (to keep using the same example) then only talk about the Survival Lottery. No matter how much you love talking about the Space Monster objection (and I do sympathise - I love the Space Monster objection), if you try and beat that drum, perhaps with some cursory glance at the Survival Lottery (maybe writing "The Survival Lottery is not a good objection - what is a good objection is Nozick's Space Monster...") then you're metaphorically loading that shotgun, pointing it at your foot and pulling the trigger. Answer the question. On the topic asked. Do not try and twist and turn the question into something it isn't. This is the most common mistake. In a vain effort to fill the word count people who cannot evaluate any further end up waffling on about something different. Or, someone feels the need to cram everything they ever learnt about the subject into 1,000 words. Or, someone incorrectly comes to believe that a particular issue needs to be explained or discussed when it is, in actual fact, utterly irrelevant to the topic at hand. It's wrong to do any of this.
Again, the best way to figure out whether it's necessary to include a sentence or not is that when you pull the draft out of the drawer you shut it in a few days previously, it should hopefully become obvious what is, and isn't, pertinent to the conclusion you're arguing for.
You've arrived in University. It's fun, it's academically challenging, finally an environment to truly expand your mind. And you've been told that this is it: a place where we want to hear what you've got to say. This is all true, but there's a fine line between ill informed ranting and insightful and adept independent work. This section is designed to steer you more to the latter, and away from the former. And, without wishing to offend, the former is not an uncommon occurrence.
What we mean by independence
We mean many things. Independent work basically sums up anything that takes place outside of the lectures and tutorials - the stuff we leave you to do on your own, the stuff we leave you to do independently. Now that can include a lot. It can include not just sitting there and thinking about your own ideas, but also discussing other people's ideas (and other people's ideas are fine ideas to include in your own work - as long as they are referenced properly), using ideas from tutorials (again, even when they're not yours, you don't get marked down for relying on Billy Bob Joe's Amazing Counterargument to Kantian Deontology that he brought up in tutorial - just don't plagiarise his essay and you'll be fine!) reading articles, reading books, reading articles about books and so on and so forth. So when we say we want something independent that doesn't mean that your essay on Aristotle has to say something no man has ever said before. Indeed, an essay that gave an excellent exposition of what someone else said would be a good example of just one type of essay we are looking for. In fact, an essay that surveys a debate between two other people, say a debate between two philosophers that goes back and forth (so a paper, some philosopher's reply to that paper, the reply to the reply etc.), would not only be independent (as long as those papers weren't the set reading!) but also beautifully capture that ping-pong structure we're looking for. Independence knows many faces. Your own original idea is just one face of these many types of independence.
Not that your own ideas are to be ignored!
We don't want to stifle your own ideas. If you've got your own idea - great! It might be worth checking to see whether someone else has said something similar (say by liaising with your tutor). If so - ALSO GREAT! Too many people get disheartened when they discover the cracking idea they came up with has already been published by some other fella. I am always puzzled by this - if I discovered that I'd come up with an idea that some other published genius had come up with I'd be rather pleased myself. It would demonstrate I was on the right track, that I knew my stuff, that I had the philosophical skillz (I use the 'z' intentionally in no small attempt other than to be down with the kidz...), I was actually learning things at university and it wasn't just a place to get boozed up etc. Better yet, given the time we spend studying the material, you probably came up with that idea in a far shorter space of time than the published philosopher who probably took ages - clearly a sign of your brilliance. Anyhow, if the idea has been used before - go off and follow it up! It's your idea, you should be interested in what people say in response! Also, in coming up with the idea yourself you'll have your own spin on it, and probably your own intuitions as to how to respond to criticisms of that position. All good reasons to follow up on that line of interest up.
If your idea hasn't been talked about...
Let's level here - if your idea hasn't been talked about there's probably (note, only probably) a good reason for this. Whilst at higher levels you will study more cutting edge problems, at the moment you are studying age old problems. Many of which have been knocked around for at the least a few decades, and at most a few millennia. If in that time no-one has come up with your idea then either (i) you're a frickin' genius with insight unbound or (ii) the idea isn't that good. Alas, as I say, the most common result is (ii). And in essence this is what this section on Independence is about - trying to teach you to recognise when you have a good idea, and when you have a bad idea, and managing to sort the wheat from the chaff. As you become more philosophically advanced, your ability to do this will likewise increase. This is just one method. If you're dealing with a well discussed problem and have an answer that's never been discussed, you've got to pause to wonder why. Of course, if you mention it to your tutor and they shoot up and shout 'THAT'S AMAZING' then that's great (by all means abuse your tutor to determine what works and what doesn't - see below). Likewise if you're dealing with a problem that hasn't really been discussed (maybe it's a recent, or lesser known, response to a well discussed problem; or you're studying a module that only deals with cutting edge philosophical topics; or what have you) then you should be less surprised that no-one has come up with your idea, and therefore less reticent in plowing forwards with your own idea.
Stick to the course material
Keep in mind that we raise issues in lectures and tutorials because we expect them to be discussed. If the content of your essay about Marx's view of the proletariat spends more time discussing Jainism in the 12th century, your 'independence' is probably not independence at all but just horse crap. If the course you study introduced numerous technical terms, and was full of technical notions, and you don't use any in your essay, then again your work doesn't reflect the module. I don't really know what more to say than that - stick to the course material (which doesn't mean stick to the reading list you are presented with, or anything like that, just broadly stick to the issues raised).
The Tutor Guideth
Most importantly, your independent work can only be guided by keeping in contact with your tutor. See him/her with essays plans. See him/her saying "I fancied talking about..." and inserting whatever it is you want to talk about. Pilot ideas in tutorials, and see what he/she says. I've seen some amazing students come up with some really excellent material, but it's always under the auspices of the tutor. Individuals who just naff off and do their own thing generate crap - and of course they would! If you could come up with excellent stuff sitting on your own somewhere like a hermit you wouldn't need lecturers and tutors, and you could just wander into the exam when you fancied and pass. Clearly working with those in the know is going to inflate your mark. Sitting at home all the time isn't. That doesn't mean you spend all your time with the tutor, and certainly I'm not suggesting that you just become a scribe for what they say, all I want to convey is the importance of touching base every once in a while to make sure your work is going in a good direction and progressing sensibly, rather than veering off into a bad place (which, inevitably, happens every once in a while).
Essentially this section is meant to encourage the correct type of independence. It can include original thought, but it can also include a lot more besides. What I want to encourage is students who come across interesting articles in the National Geographic about how all cultures share similar values and apply that to moral relativism; or how you think it is fair and reasonable to interpret Mill as believing a different thesis about hedonistic pleasure than previously thought through the use of numerous textual references that you've painstakingly hunted down; or about how Kant's demand that you sublimate your unwanted desires is a form of self harm if you take any view of psychology since Freud and as Kant rules out self harm his own moral psychology is screwed; I want you to give me interesting theodicies to the problem of evil; bring your knowledge of physics to bear in philosophy of science; utilise the abilities learnt in critical thinking modules to accurately and clearly lay out an argument as you see it; I want you to present me with why the Buddhist philosophers who analytic philosophy generally ignore had some interesting arguments for why objects don't persist through time. This is what we want.
I don't want to read your essay about Sufism and the realm of the imagination, which is written in the style of a poem. I don't want you to tell me how dualism is true on the grounds that you believe the universe is wrought by a battle between angels and demons. We don't want to hear some metaphorical crap about how existence is a transitory state of limbo induced emotion (what's that even mean?), which is what you believe ever since you chatted to some blokes down at the pub last night. We don't want to hear your theory of property dualism whereby the properties are located in the space between a nucleus and the electrons, and that's why atomic bombs are so explosive because when you split the atom you destroy the soul. I've heard it all (really, these things actually took place, I'm not making it up) - and, yes, it is all very original. But it is not independent. It's crap. And there's a difference between these things, and the items from the previous list.
With a description of those criteria in place, let's turn to some common mistakes. Jimmy Lenman has a list of even more, in his advice on how to write a crap essay. If you want to write a crap essay, then follow the common mistakes Jimmy lists. Otherwise, try and avoid them.
Bluff the Tutor
Something I am sure none of you will ever do. You cannot bluff the tutor. You cannot make it look like you understand the subject when in actual fact you've done no work at all. Big words and florid, impassioned writing does not camouflage a complete lack of argument. We are not dumb.
"There's no right or wrong": I hate you and all your kin
For some reason people believe that a philosophy essay licences you to say whatever you feel like because there is no right or wrong. The mistake they make is that there is a right and a wrong. Who knows why people would think philosophy doesn't have right and wrong answers - I just couldn't tell you. Some students tell me that this is what they're taught at A-level. Should this be the case, your previous tutor was wrong. When I mark things I want to see a conclusion goddammit, not some namby pamby "In philosophy nothing is ever conclusively right or wrong". If I find that in one of your essays I'll learn the secrets of voodoo for the sole purpose of hexing you. Honest. And just because there is a right/wrong, doesn't mean that you are expected to come to the same conclusions as your tutor. You are not marked wrong for disagreeing with your tutor, you can write essays that directly contradict what your tutor believes. In fact, I would hope that by the by you don't even know what your tutor believes to ensure that you don't fall into temptation. As a side note, for some reason most of the firsts I have awarded have been to essays that conclude something that I believe to be wrong, so I'm not lying here. Likewise, don't try and write an essay with a particular conclusion thinking that just because it agrees with what you believe your tutor believes it'll get a high mark - nine times out of ten they'll believe what they believe for different reasons than what you stick in your essay so it'd be futile anyhow.
Phrases to Avoid
Rather cheekily I've included this section to give some hints concerning the style in which an essay should be written. Try to avoid saying things like "Since the beginning of time man has pondered..." It's just strange. Usually it's also wrong, for since the beginning of time man has spent most of his time ignoring whatever it is you want to discuss and instead going out and getting loaded. Sentences like these just make it your essay sound pretentious (see above). If your essay sounds like it can be read from a pulpit this isn't a good thing, it isn't necessarily a bad thing either, but in all honesty it just makes the person marking your essay chuckle a bit (and not in a "laughing with you" kind of way).
Avoid "Some philosophers say" and "many philosophers have argued that" - avoid this for three reasons. The first is that you may well be wrong, and grouping "philosophers" together makes it sound like we're members of some secret society (which would be upsetting, because if there is I've never been invited). Secondly, you may as well use this chance to demonstrate some knowledge. Whilst facts aren't important it's always nice to use them when they're called for - so don't say "some philosophers" give the name of the philosopher who proposed this argument. Lastly, whilst sometimes it is called for, people have a tendency to use these phrases because they don't want to write "I think" or "I believe", and instead want to pin the blame on some other philosophers. Don't bother - if you believe something then stick your money where your mouth is, there's no harm in it.
A Bunch of Useless Historical Information
In an essay on utilitarianism I do not need to know the Bentham/Mill pedigree of the theory. In an essay on Descartes, I do not need to know where he was born, and how long he served in the army. I do not need to know the dates of the births and deaths of all and sundry. This is all pointless, useless information that does not motivate me towards your conclusion. Is Kant dying in 1804 going to make me more likely to believe state sponsored executions are wrong? No. Is Wittgenstein getting into a poker armed argument with Popper going to make me more likely to accept logical atomism? No. All useless historical information. Whenever I read such things I just end up seeing instead "I hate Nikk. I want him to read lots of pointless information that doesn't have anything to do with my argument. Please mark my essay accordingly".
Don't just insert quotations randomly. By this, I mean don't use a quotation without something leading up to it, a sentence expressing what its pertinence is, a sentence explaining why you thought it was worth the time to copy it out. Do not simply stick the "floating quote" in and leave it like that. This is particularly irking at the start of an essay where, before the essay even begins, there's just a quote. Sitting there. Glaring at me. Maybe it's from a book. Maybe it's from some song lyrics. Sometimes I think those quotes mock me. You might think they're funky, you might have seen other writers use them, you might have been praised in school for such erudite presentation. Nevertheless, you'd be wrong. They're not funky, the other writers can go hang, and that praise was deeply misplaced. Do not do it. It is really annoying.
While we're at it, it is rare that you should ever need to quote just a word or two. If you're putting quotation marks around just two words, they're probably not needed (a reference might be needed, but not a quote).
Do not make jokes. I rarely, if ever, find them funny. If you're lucky, you'll get a laugh. If not, you'll upset and annoy the examiner by making it sound like you're not taking things seriously. Of course, I make jokes when I'm writing papers, as do other philosophers (although they are almost entirely boring geek jokes that only other philosophers get). So why am I hypocritically instructing you to not try to be funny? Well, as I say, it's a rule of thumb, and when you're churning out essays that score firsts left, right and centre, feel free to give my advice the finger and stick in whatever bad puns or silly examples you care for. At that point your examiner will recognise your genius and laugh along with you. Until then, play the part of the straight man (or woman, should that be your gender). Indeed, that applies to everything I say here. I am teaching you a generic, and workable, writing style. When you have mastered this generic writing style only then should you start ignoring my advice and start making your style your own. Until then, ignore what I say at your peril.