10 kinds of essay you should never write
I’m Neil Manson, and I have been marking philosophy essays for almost 3 decades. Over the years I have noticed that there are different ‘types’ of essay. At the very top end there are the carefully argued, well-written, clear and rigorous, focused and structured, well-researched, well-formatted essays that are an absolute pleasure to read. Some essays, still good, might be well-researched and well-written, but lacking focus; others may be clear and rigorous but not quite answer the question. There are also ‘types’ of essay that I see again and again – essays that really could have been a lot better, without the student having to have done a great deal more work. Here is a list of ten of these ‘types’ of essay. If your essay does not fall into any of these categories, and is more like the ‘top end’ description above, then things are looking good. If your essay does fall under one of these types, then best change it!
Here is how not to write a philosophy essay…
1. The knowledge dump
The more common version is where the student just dumps everything they know ‘in the area of’ the question. Very poor. If well-researched and well-written, probably will not fail, but will be hard pushed to get anything above a low 2.2.
2. The switch
This kind of answer just answers another question altogether. There are variations on this theme. E.g., (i) The accidental switch (ii) The explicit switch (tells you that they are, in effect, answering another question). If you are set a question: answer it, not something that you think is a bit like it.
3. The list
An unstructured list of paragraphs. Sometimes connected with lots of ‘Furthermore’ or ‘And another thing’ or ‘In addition’. If you find yourself using these, stop and think!
4. Padding, and other unsatisfying fillings
There is no point in filling out your essay with ‘padding’. In philosophy there is always something relevant to say – always questions to be asked, criticisms or arguments to be evaluated, and so on.
5. The lecture notes
Another common variant is a re-hash of the lecture notes – we are not testing your memory or how well you can re-write lecture notes in a slightly different way, we are testing how well you can do philosophy!
6. The philosophy report
This kind of essay reports philosophy rather than doing it. Now, in history of philosophy papers you may be required to have a grasp of historical figures and their views. Similarly, if a paper asks you to “Discuss so-and-so's argument about x” you will have to discuss so-and-so. But in other ‘issue’ papers you should NOT do things like: “So-and-so argued that time does not change. Then blah said that that was wrong. Then Dr X came along and said...”.
TIP! A little bit of work can turn the philosophy report into a good essay. All you need to do is to focus on the issues (and maybe mention the key people in passing, to show that you know who came up the idea / argument).
7. The empty sandwich
This kind of essay spends the first page and a half telling you what is going to happen, about half a page on the essay, and another page and a half telling you what has happened. Very poor!
Remember – the people marking your essay do an awful lot of reading, often of very long and difficult books. They can remember what you say!
8. Without good reason: the use of “In my opinion”
This kind of essay says lots and lots of things like “Well, time is not real, in my opinion”, and then does not offer us any reasons as to why that opinion should be accepted. The same applies for ‘I think’ and ‘In my view’ or ‘As I see it’. Some essays try to take on some of the cleverest minds that have ever lived: “So-and-so says that p. I do not agree. I think something else.”
9. The missing ending (shame!)
Essay may start well, but either just stops, or comes to a seemingly abrupt conclusion. In an exam, this is because you have run out of time. In an essay – there is no good reason to do this! You need an ending (even just a paragraph drawing a conclusion, but ideally something that shows how you have answered the question set (and not some other question)).
10. The complete chancer
This kind of essay is a last resort from someone who has done very little work. In order for this to have any chance of passing, you have to make sure that you stay critically focused on the question, try to give reasons. A ‘chancer’ essay can, on occasion, work, provided that you take your time and think things through as carefully and clearly as you can. The bad version of this essay just ‘wings’ it (and may exhibit one or more of the bad essay errors noted above). Perhaps the chancer has forgotten that those who mark the essay read, write, think and argue for a living; they are very good at it, and are not easily fooled into thinking that a load of old rubbish is, in fact, a well-structured, focused, relevant philosophical argument. Perhaps the chancer thinks that on reading the essay we will temporarily be struck insane, or become unable to critically reason... as if!
At the very top end there are the carefully argued, well-written, clear and rigorous, focused and structured, well-researched, well-formatted essays that are an absolute pleasure to read.
Dr Neil Manson
Senior Lecturer in the PPR department at Lancaster University