|How to Write a Good Essay|
How to Write a Good Essay by Stephen T. Asma
The following is a description of some typical problems that students encounter in writing college papers — particularly philosophy papers. Please read this carefully and make every effort to avoid these pitfalls.
One of the major errors that students commit is that they offer up a pastiche of their “opinions” on a given topic, but they never follow-through to justify those opinions. The first thing that one must realize is that your audience (the smart reader) is not in the least bit interested in your “opinion” or anyone\'s opinion for that matter. This is a shock to some students who believe that what we\'ve been doing in class is just trading opinions on various topics. The confusion lies in the fact that some students are only attending to the first part of a two-part process — they are forgetting or not sufficiently following the second part of the process. The smart reader is not interested in your opinion. The smart reader is interested in the argument that you can give which explains why you hold that opinion. Giving an argument that supports and defends your opinion is the second-part of the two-part process that we encounter in our readings and class discussions. Generally speaking, you should treat all opinion-statements as logical conclusions , and the art of good reading and writing is to dig back to the premises, the assumptions, and the evidence that led a person to draw that conclusion. Just as in math classes, wherein providing only your conclusions is unacceptable, you must “show your work” in essay-writing too.
A metaphor may be helpful for grasping this common confusion. If we think of the relationship between a flowering plant and its hidden root system, we may see the relevant relation. Our opinions and our beliefs are like the flowering plants, and the reasons for holding those opinions are like the hidden but all-important root-systems. Some students confusedly think that writing a humanities paper is like displaying their particular flower gardens, but they do not expose the root-systems (the “why”) in their writing, and it\'s precisely this aspect that the smart reader always seeks. Once a student has stated his belief that “God makes our destiny”, or “abortion is immoral”, or “animals should not be tortured”, or “racism is bad”, or “science is too masculine”, or what have you — once he has stated this position, he has only begun to give a proper response. He must now go on to detail the specific reasons and the specific evidence that led him to hold that belief. This second step is the only truly important part of a good paper, and some students never even begin to provide it in their essays.
“Opinions” are like “armpits”, everyone has them and nobody really cares. A class in which everyone just stated their opinions (for or against) the death-penalty, for example, would be as fascinating and illuminating as a class in which everyone just stated their favorite ice-cream flavor. The smart reader wants to know why a person holds a particular opinion, but some students mistakenly believe that simply stating the opinion is enough. It is not enough to write “I am against the death-penalty” in your essays and then move on to some additional opinions. One must explain in detail the reasons, experiences, and factual evidence that lead a person to be against the death-penalty. One can argue against the death-penalty on ethical grounds, social grounds, religious grounds, epistemic grounds, economic grounds, and more.
A student must articulate the most compelling grounds for their opinion and present them in the most persuasive and logical terms possible. Notice also that each and every “controversial” claim that is made in the sequence of your argument will likely need additional argumentation and justification. For example, it will not be terribly helpful to claim that you believe capital punishment is wrong because the Bible says so. It will then be immediately incumbent upon you to give some argument for why your interpretation of the Bible is the only correct one, and then you will also have to give some argument for the existence of God, and quickly follow this with a strong argument for why God is communicating through this scripture and not, say, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. All this is a very tall order, especially when we remember that the essay topic in this case is only the death penalty and one should stay focused on the topic at hand.
The example above illustrates the fact that many people will unfortunately attempt to justify their opinion by invoking other highly controversial opinions. Imagine trying to convince an atheist, for example, that the death penalty is wrong because the Bible says so. Apart from the fact that the Bible doesn\'t actually say anything of the sort, the atheist is going to be remarkably unimpressed with the “premises” (the God-talk) that led to your “conclusion.” A better argument strategy is to search for the most “common-sense” premises that you can find (some fact or idea that most people — atheists and theists alike — would agree to), and try to show how your conclusion (“capital punishment is wrong”) must follow from those premises. Ideally speaking, your objective should be to show how your controversial opinion is in fact the most reasonable conclusion that follows from some relatively uncontroversial facts or ideas.
It is also important to notice that a rational argument for a particular opinion is not just the personal history of your own intellectual commitments. You need to do more than just tell how you came to hold the opinion (which, after all, may be only the result of some weird personal coincidences). In presenting a rational argument, you are sketching the chains of ideas that any rational person could potentially recognize as convincing. Like an attorney who tries to convince a jury of reasonable people to see the truth of her position, you are expected to make your position logically compelling to the average but thoughtful intellect. In fact, your job is even harder than the lawyer\'s because, as a logical essay writer, you cannot fall back on rhetorical tricks to distract and manipulate your reader. You must use logic and evidence as your primary tools of persuasion.
When someone feels very strongly about some issue (the death penalty, animal rights, the existence of Fate, etc.), they can become so close to their belief — so familiar and comfortable with it — that this belief will seem utterly natural and uncontroversial to them. It will seem so obvious as to be unworthy of any further explanation and justification. This is one of the most common reasons why students neglect to give arguments for their opinions/beliefs. Students believe that many of their claims are so obvious that they don\'t need to “spell it out.” But, in good college essays, one always needs to “spell it out.” You should never think of your instructor as the only audience for your papers, because this will lead you to cut important corners (imagining incorrectly that “oh, he\'ll know what I mean by this”). Always write a college paper with the assumption that your reader is someone who disagrees with you, but is willing to listen to reason and possibly change his/her mind. In writing for that audience, you will avoid taking things for granted, and you will be more careful to articulate your position (or the position of another thinker).
Lastly, it is important to realize that once you\'ve adapted to this method of always giving arguments for your claims, you still have to master the art of constructing good arguments. Not just any rationale for your beliefs will do. Badly constructed arguments are all around us — they populate most advertising that we see on T.V., and they comprise most of what is said in political campaigns. In your papers, you should always be vigilant against bad argumentation. Below are just a few examples of poor arguments that seem, at first, like reasonable positions.
I. Adamant conviction does not substitute for logical argumentation. (e.g., yelling or weeping does not improve the cogency of someone\'s position.) Appealing to fear is also a fallacy. For example, a lawyer might say “If you do not convict this criminal, one of you may be his next victim.” This is fallacious because what a defendant might do in the future is irrelevant to determining whether he is responsible for a crime committed in the past. It may be relevant at the time of sentencing, but not during the deliberation of guilt or innocence.
II. Nothing follows from the fact that you passionately believe x to be true, except that you passionately believe x to be true. In other words, the external world need not mimic your subjective internal states. (e.g., believing with every fiber of your being that Jim Morrison is still alive, has nothing whatever to do with Jim\'s current status.)
III. Correlation is not necessarily cause. (e.g., a recent prime time T.V. program argued that since a number of wealthy men had consulted with psychics about their investments, psychic insight caused the men\'s wealth. We could just as easily and erroneously point out that these wealthy men all wore underwear, therefore underwear causes wealth. The latter is logically and experientially equivalent to the former.)
IV. “Logical possibility” is not the same as physical possibility, and the truth of a claim or the persuasiveness of a claim cannot be founded only on mere logical possibility. Conceptual coherence is a first step which then must be accompanied by evidence. (e.g., It is logically possible for a cow to jump over the moon because that act does not violate any laws of logic [in the way that a “married bachelor” would so violate the laws]. Despite its logical possibility, the jump is clearly absurd because of the physical impossibilities — gravitational laws and bovine physiology won\'t allow it. But many people will leap from the fact that x is logically possible (usually a trivial point) to a whole hearted belief in x.)
V. Positive or substantive claims do not follow from the appeal to ignorance. A lack of evidence is no evidence at all. (e.g., “no one has proved that angels don\'t exist, therefore they exist.” Clearly fallacious. Another example: “No one has proved that the Loch Ness Monster doesn\'t exist, so I believe it does”)
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