Theodore Gracyk's Expectations about Philosophy Essays







How to write a compare & contrast paper 
(Harvard University website)




Department of Philosophy, Oregon State University 
Douglas W. Portmore's site at Texas A & M University 
Jim Pryor's Guide at New York University 
University of Milwaukee Wisconsin 



When writing a college essay, you must be selective in discussing an author's views, since not everything in the text is relevant to a particular issue or question. Rather than merely summarizing what you've read, you must organize your essay by showing how the author's views relate to a particular question or issue. Where possible, clearly distinguish the author's conclusions from the reasoning supporting the conclusions.

When writing an essay, you should state the author's view in your own words as much as possible, to show that you yourself understand them. If you do quote from the book or from another book, provide quotation marks; the page number on which the quotation is found should be provided in parentheses.

Papers should be organized into three general sections.

1) First is an introductory paragraph in which you briefly explain to the reader what you plan to do in the essay. You should state the topic under discussion, specifying the issues you plan to deal with. If you plan to criticize an author's views, state briefly which views are to be criticized.

2) The main body of the paper carries out what you say you will do in the introduction. Here you answer questions, provide examples, discuss and criticize arguments, and develop your own views.

3) Finally, the essay should close with a short concluding paragraph briefly summarizing what you have accomplished in the paper.

When you are asked to evaluate or respond to an author's views, you are expected not merely to agree or disagree with the views, but to provide your reasons for doing so. If you disagree, be as specific as possible about which part of the reasoning is mistaken, and why. It is not an adequate criticism to state or "feel" that the author is mistaken. Nor is it adequate to say that the author's views aren't the way you were raised to think about things; the fact that a view is foreign to you has no bearing on its truth.

An important thing to attempt to any essay is clarity. Do not presuppose too much on the part of your reader. Imagine that your reader is not the instructor, but someone who is not in the course at all and who is not familiar with the text, but who is interested in the topic. (Suppose, for instance, that you were explaining to your mother what you were studying.) Consequently, you will need to define any specialized vocabulary. Use specific examples whenever possible to clarify general claims; relate the doctrines you are discussing to everyday examples and situations.

Finally, avoid sexism. Don't say things like "When a man is faced with a moral dilemma, he should follow Kant's advice." Women face moral dilemmas as frequently as do men. If you mean to include both men and women, don't use male language. But try to avoid the expression "he/she" and similar phrases; they clutter your writing and detract from what you're saying. Instead of exclusive, male language, use inclusive terms such as "anyone," "someone," or "a person." The sexist sentence given above could be rewritten: "When people face a moral dilemma, they should follow Kant's advice." Or simply use the pronouns "us" and "we." After all, your writing will be read by another human being, not an aardvark or elm tree, so the sentence could be written in this way: "When we face a moral dilemma, we should follow Kant's advice." It is fine to use male language when you are explicitly talking about a male (e.g., "When Mill got older, his views diverged from Bentham's"), but not otherwise.


1. Does each sentence say what I mean it to say? Could a reader possibly misinterpret me? Is there any way to make my point more clearly? (Do I need to break a sentence up into two or more sentences to separate my thoughts more clearly?)

2. Is there a logical organization to my paper? Is each paragraph organized around one general idea? Do the paragraphs follow in a logical order? Are the connections between my thoughts clear? (Do I need to provide a transition from one paragraph to the next, or to explain to my reader how what I am now discussing relates to earlier elements of my essay?)

3. Is my thesis clearly expressed in the introduction? Do I carry through and do everything that I promise I will do? Does my conclusion end my paper with finality, or do I drift off into meaningless generality and confusion? Have I made my position clear, or am I sitting on the fence?



Grade of "A": An excellent essay in all respects. Clear, grammatical, well organized, and progresses logically, with all elements relevant to the topic. Exhibits both original thought and an accurate grasp of the material. Grammatical errors kept to a minimum.

Grade of "B": A good essay, but not outstanding. Overall organization is clear and coherent, although minor weaknesses may be present. Accurate grasp of material, but generally presents the minimum needed-- limited original thought. A few minor or subtle errors in punctuation and/or spelling.

Grade of "C": A satisfactory paper. Shows basic understanding, with some deficiencies. Organization not always clear and transitions abrupt or lacking. May contain irrelevant material. Weak support of ideas. Occasional grammatical mistakes, or sloppiness which could have been avoided.

Grade of "D": Minimally acceptable work. Marginal grasp of material, ineffective or confusing presentation. Summarizes the most obvious aspects of the material, but otherwise tends to be irrelevant. Little or no organization. Contains major grammatical problems.

Grade of "F": Unsatisfactory. Superficial, incoherent, and/or irrelevant. Writing ability verges on illiteracy. Plagiarism.


Late work that does not receive prior authorization to be late will lose one grade step (one third of a letter grade) for each school day that it is late. (This means that a paper that is two weeks late becomes a failing paper.) 

For writing intensive courses (e.g., Professional Ethics, Morals & Medicine, Philosophy and the Arts), you must submit every assigned paper in order to pass the course. Notice that if a formal essay is so late that it will receive a failing grade, you must still complete the assignment successfully in order to pass the course.

There is no penalty for a late paper if you have received prior authorization for late submission. The best way to receive prior authorization is by speaking to me or by telephoning me (if I am not there, just leave a message on my voice mail). Leaving me a voice mail message will automatically grant you a one day extension on a due date. Email is fine if done several days in advance (and I will acknowledge it by return email). But email is unreliable for contacting me on the due date itself because I may not have time to see it before the start of class, when it is due.

Official university events can be the basis of an excused absence. If you can document that such an event will create an excused absence, that absence might be the basis for a short extension (without any penalty).



Plagiarism is passing off somebody else's writing or ideas as your own. There is nothing wrong in consulting any number of sources to help you understand what we are studying (whether an article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Cliffs Notes) but it is stealing to take material without first paraphrasing it completely into your own words, or without placing it in quotation marks. (Rule of thumb: if you take more than three consecutive words from a source, put them in quotation marks, and if the idea behind a sentence comes from an outside source, acknowledge that source!) Any time you consult and draw on ideas from any source, you should cite your source. Taking ideas from another person and pretending that they are your own, original thoughts, is also plagiarism. The fact that your source was an assigned text for the course does not mitigate or lessen the seriousness of plagiarism. (click here for more information)

Unintentional plagiarism is sometimes claimed by students. It is difficult for an instructor to judge whether the plagiarism was intentional or unintentional. Unintentional plagiarism often occurs when a student may attempt to paraphrase an author's ideas, but fails to put it completely into his or her own words. (If you paraphrase and don't cite your source, that's evidence of intentional plagiarism.)

If evidence demonstrates that you have plagiarized any part of any written assignment for the course, the offense will be reported to the Vice President for Student Affairs and you will receive a failing grade for the course.

In short, if you use an outside source, provide appropriate footnotes, endnotes, or citations in parentheses. (click here for more information on how to do this -- PDF file)

Last revised Aug. 24, 2012

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