The three questions every statement and essay should answer
It can be seen that scholarly essays should always be written expecting the reader to want to know, and if in doubt be persuaded of: (1) what the paper’s statements (sentences) or claims (a statement is a sentence used to assert a claim that is supposed to be true) really mean, (2) why they should believe that these claims are true, and (3) why they should think them important and care.
The mark of a good paper is that the reader is not left doubting any of these things.
It is the last of these questions that many academic papers fail to answer. But in a way it is also most important. Of course, as a writer you should be sure of all of these things. Or rather, should want to be, since writing is first of all an effort to think clearly about a subject. Good writing is good thinking. The thinking you do in your head may be more approximate and vague than you think. Writing out thoughts is a way to make them precise.
Problem (1) of what words and phrases mean is one that becomes very pertinent when writers find they need to use terms that are in use already. This includes “jargon,” which is terms that are specific to, and given special and clearly-defined meanings, in a field or subfield, which can include the works of a particular thinker. The problem here is one of clarity, and it is that we writers may think something is clear, perhaps because we are satisfied with how we wrote it, but if you ask this question of a sentence, word, or expression, you will sometimes find you thought it was clearer than it is. Asking what someone means is usually asking what some verbal expression means, and often turns out to be a revealing question. Much work in philosophy, especially in the English-language “analytical” tradition, involves a search for clarity in the use of expressions, or the discovery that some concepts and expressions do not have the meaning they were thought to have.
Problem (2) concerns argument, and that of course is the meat of every academic paper, excluding stories.
Arguments consist of reasons, which can include facts and inferential warrants. A warrant is a claim that some statement Y is a good enough reason to believe some other statement X is true. Facts can include evidence or other statements presumed true, and evidence may be seen or otherwise presented. Arguments try to persuade by inferring (logic in at least, and usually, a loose sense) more uncertain claims needing support from more certain ones that may be assumed.
Argument in philosophy and rhetoric is not nastiness but attempt at persuasion through demonstration. The practice of making and evaluating arguments is sometimes called “the game of giving and asking for reasons,” or simply “Reason.” Arguments can be made in speech or writing. It can make sense to engage in them if we like to learn by persuading and being persuaded. Essays and other written texts add to the practice of argument the quality of being artifacts that are produced much like artworks. There are literary essays that do not make arguments in the narrow sense of giving reasons. But to write a good college essay that is not a story you will probably need to both create a well-wrought product and engage in reason.
Arguments made in essays should support claims that are interesting in part because they are controversial. The necessity of this is a matter on which problem (3) of interest, importance, or relevance also bears. In an argument something must be at stake, and it should make a difference, recognizable to the reader, to something of important to her or him. It is always true at least trivially that a truth-claim (an asserted statement, also called a proposition because it proposes something) is only of interest, and normally will only be made, if the speaker believes it true and important, but suspects that the reader is not certain of this, and knows himself that he is not certain. Scientific statements always have this character, as do scholarly papers in the humanities, notwithstanding the methodological differences between these kinds of fields. Consider: even if everyday speech, if I say to you that “The cat is on the mat,” I implicitly am also claiming: (a) that I believe this to be true, whether or not I am yet prepared to act on this belief, (b) that I am not certain of it, as otherwise informing you of its truth would probably have the character of a command, and so I would not appreciate being contradicted, refuted, or asked why I think it is true, (c) I am prepared to make good my claim by showing a reason, including evidence, why I make the claim, (d) that I know you could contradict me (you can say “Yes (you’re right)” as well as “No (you’re wrong)).” So in a trivial sense there is always potential controversy. The controversy will be a significant one if the reader sees that it is about something important that he or she does or should care about.
Problem (3) Is often ignored in the sciences, when the paper is addressed to the resolution of a problem that is clearly defined in the field. In humanities fields, the importance of what is being argued is usually worn on its sleeve. Also, a certain use of eloquence may be used in fields that permit freer creative expression in writing because the function of this eloquence is rhetorical, to persuade. (Imagine a lawyer summing up a case for a jury, or a politician making a speech. They don’t want just agreement to what they claim but an assent that is passionate and motivating). (Philosophy in the two major traditions, “Continental” and “analytical”—see my essay on this on this site—tends to divide between more scientific and more literary models, such that in analytical philosophy many good published papers never say why the point that is proven matters. This is usually because the problem is a technical one, and everyone is among the readership addressed is expected to already know that the issue matters. To be sure, there is a possibility here of “felt” importance being overlooked or not expected to be doubted while a kind of “assigned” importance is at play. In Continental philosophy, it is almost understood that what is at stake are vital issues to ordinary human citizens of the world; they are often already political, ethical, or aesthetic issues (or all three), or if they are questions of metaphysics or something else, they have direct import on those domains.)
Students also, especially if they are ambitious to succeed, will often automatically follow the “scientific” model here. And that may be a mistake. The metaphor I used above of “assigned importance” has plain bearing on the work of most students, and sometimes even graduate students. The situation you are in is such that you want to succeed (get a good mark, etc.) and so you want above all to write what you write so that it is right. Or, beyond just correct (proper organization, no grammatical or spelling errors, etc.). to write better or as well as possible. There is nothing wrong with that at all. There are professions were a quantifiable excellence is very important, and of course, the fact that students are given grades for their papers, as well as comments, which are more subjective, brings a certain attention to quantitative standards that cannot be avoided. (Though, if you wind up applying to a graduate or professional program and want recommendations, you will likely want more than just a high mark because the recommending professor has to write a letter and describe you and your work).
There is a sense in which the intellectual landscape of certain professions lends itself to a marginalization of what we might call subjective value. This is more true in some professions than others, depending in part on the importance in them of individual creativity. In many cases, though not all, some attention to choice of topic when writing can strengthen a paper. It may also, of course, make it easier to write. In most cases, it is worth asking yourself question (3) above, and not taking it for granted. There is something in the way that colleges and universities are organized that will tend to involve a certain tension here.
Philosophically, this might be considered a form of the opposition between the true and the interesting as values of what is thought. The most common traditional definition of truth is that it is the property whereby ideas or language correspond to things or realities that they represent. And it is easy to see that in this sense something can be trivially true. (That is, it is true what someone says but it matters to nothing and no one of sense and discernment could possibly care). It may be that other notions of truth, from the coherence of ideas to the revelation of things (and their meaning) in Heidegger and others since, solves or avoids this problem. But if everything that we can experience or even think may be considered interesting or beautiful or revelatory, it may seem that essays and other information with which our world is now saturated are candidates for exception to that rule! At least, something that interests and seems important to you could well seem otherwise to someone else!
Would that only mean that you have not thought it through clearly enough? Perhaps, if clear thinking in writing is not “in me” and to be “sent” to you, but already in the world we share. Though the general notion is that we write not only to think clearly about some matter but also to persuade others.
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