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Writing Philosophy essays



  1. Good essay writing begins with good course preparation. You should remember that just attending courses is not enough. You will engage with the lectures and seminars only if you do the required primary and secondary reading. By the time you come to write your first essay you should already know enough to approach the subject confidently.
  2. Make sure you have properly understood the question. If you do not, ask. Review your lecture notes and the course outline in order to put the question into context and to relate it to other aspects of the subject. If you can break down the question into parts, do so. Decide which are the most important and weight each part accordingly.
  3. Read the suggested texts with your question or questions in mind. If you find the reading hard to understand, try reading a whole article or chapter to get the gist and then re-read slowly, making notes.
  4. Think for yourself. Don't borrow thought or ideas without giving yourself time to digest them. Discuss them with your fellow students. It can be very helpful to discuss the articles and books you read with others. Also, when you take notes, don't simply excerpt long passages, write them in your own words.
  5. Always start from a plan, however rudimentary; but you will inevitably find your argument developing a dynamic of its own, so do not be afraid to revise your plan as you go along. As Socrates says in Plato's Republic: 'Where the argument takes us, like a wind, hither we must go.'
  6. Write a draft, leave it for a while, then come back and revise it. On the first draft concentrate on getting the content and structure right and do not dwell on the style. Do not be held up by the precise formulation of a sentence, jot down a phrase and move on.
  7. Write the final draft. Check the spelling, grammar and make sure all the bibliographical details are correct. leave a wide margin on the right hand side of your page for the marker's comments. Be kind on your marker: use a font that is easy to read and a line spacing of at least 1.5 or 2. Make a photocopy of your essay as a precaution, since they sometimes can go astray.



  1. Your essay should contain a clear exposition of the theory you are studying, a detailed discussion and critical assessment of that theory. The criticisms you look at may be your own, or those of other philosophers.
  2. Make sure you indicate when you are expounding the view of someone else and when you are writing in your own voice. Don't just write a long list of objections to a particular argument. Indicate whether you endorse or reject them and give your reasons.
  3. Use examples to illustrate your point. Preferably, choose your own examples. Always make the point of your example clear to the reader.
  4. Don't worry too much about the 'originality' of the content of your essay. Nobody expects you to come up with a new philosophical theory in your first four pages of writing. Your essay will be original enough if you think for yourself, use your own words, give your own examples and always provide reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular view.



  1. Avoid rambling introductions and conclusions. Some books begin with a portentous opening sentence e.g., 'Philosophy, from the earliest times, has made greater claims, and achieved fewer results, than any other branch of learning.' (B. Russell) You can get away with such a sentence as the opening line of a 400 page book, but not as the opening line of a 4 page essay. State briefly what you think the question involves, if this is not obvious, and get stuck in to your answer. With conclusions, sum up your argument if you want to and leave it at that.
  2. Think small or be methodical. There is a gap between your brain's ability to grasp something and your ability to express in writing what you have already understood. It is as if your intuition can leap up whole flights of stairs at once, whereas your written explanations climb one step at a time. This means that you can easily get ahead of yourself, producing the illusion that your ideas are far more lofty than they really are. Only by patiently stepping through the details of an argument can you avoid such illusions. So be patient! If you are not sure whether you have made your point, try putting it another way; 'The upshot of this argument is...', 'the point of this example is...'. Do not simply repeat yourself, try instead to look at your subject from different angles. Sometimes it will feel as if your point is trivial and not worth making. But a trivial point can be a solid step in an interesting argument. The ability to tease out the subtleties of a small point will serve you better than a grand philosophy of life, the universe and everything.
  3. One way to structure your essay is to outline an argument, consider an objection, then reply to the objection and then move on to the next point. Avoid the two extremes of length and unbroken paragraphs on the one hand, and staccato sound bytes on the other. Divide your essay into clearly defined paragraphs and devote a whole paragraph to each point. Make the connections between them explicit, by telling the reader what they are. Write things like, 'There are two major objections to this line of thought...' or 'what this example shows is...' Think of these connections as signposts telling the reader where she is, where she has been or reminding her where she is heading.



  1. 'Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap.' Do not worry about repeating important words or phrases. In philosophy it is more important to be consistent in your terminology than to find new and imaginative ways of saying the same thing. Clear prose has its own elegance, wordiness can sometimes cloud the issue.
  2. Empathise with your reader. Once you understand something, you forget what it was like not to understand it; but doing just this will help you to get your point across. To write clearly you have to put yourself in the place of your reader. Imagine the reader is someone who knows nothing about the subject. What would you have to do firstly to convince them and secondly to maintain their interest. Generally speaking a concrete example will get you much further than a passage of purple prose or a string of high-falutin' epithets. One useful way to attain clarity and simplicity of style is to write in short sentences. It is easier to waffle in long rambling sentences.
  3. Use 'signposts' to let the reader know what you are trying to do. You can say things like , 'one objection is...', 'A possible reply to this is...', 'What this example shows...', 'This importance of this point is that...', 'What X is assuming is that...'. Be explicit about what you are arguing and why.
  4. Stylistically it is vital to use your own words. Quite apart from the dangers of plagiarism, if you borrow chunks of text from another author and then insert them into your essay, you will end up with a patchwork of different styles that reads awkwardly. By all means paraphrase someone else's view, although make it clear that you are paraphrasing. This will help you to understand the position you are adumbrating; and there is a lot of skill involved in a lucid and concise exposition of somebody else's argument.
  5. Occasionally you will want to cite somebody else's words directly. Be sparing in your use of quotation. There is much less skill to quotation than to paraphrase or précis. When you select a passage for quotation, make sure it is both brief and relevant. There is nothing worse than reading a string of long quotations interspersed with brief and gnomic comments.
  6. Use a dictionary (or spell check) and a grammar. Good spelling and good grammar are not wholly unrelated to the content of your essay. The thread of an essay is easier to follow if the reader does not have to guess the word which you actually meant to write. Good grammar makes not only for elegant but for precise prose. So do not be ashamed to use a dictionary. I prefer the Chambers to the Collins single volume dictionary, but both are good. (Webster's and M.S. Word dictionaries are American.) Michael Dummet, the philosopher, has written an excellent little English grammar for his students, published by Duckworth.


Use of sources

  1. All verbatim quotations, whether long or short should be enclosed in inverted commas or indented, and the precise source given. Make sure that you give enough information for the reader to find the passage, i.e. author, work, edition page number or section.
  2. Passages of close paraphrase should be acknowledged, and the purpose of these paraphrases made clear e.g. as a summary of a view to be discussed disputed or agreed with.
  3. When a point has been derived directly from an author, even though it mode of expression may be original, this should be acknowledged in a footnote or parenthesis.
  4. Extensive use of an essay written by another student should be acknowledged. This applies to essays borrowed from the 'Essay Bank' and to essays which are borrowed on a personal basis. Just as the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence on published sources is not supposed to discourage you from reading widely, the rule that you should acknowledge your dependence where it exists, on other students' essays, is not supposed to discourage you from reading each others' essays. In the end however the only thing of value to you and of interest to us is work in which you express and develop your own thoughts.
  5. At the end of any essay to be submitted for formal assessment (not tutorial essays) write a list in alphabetical order of all the works consulted or read during the preparation and writing of the essay, as well as those from which you quote directly (see Referencing).


Rules for Writing Essays

Writing philosophy well does not come easily; it is a skill that everyone has to learn, and even experienced philosophers find it hard at times! The online Academic Skills module will give you a great deal of help and advice with beginning to write philosophy, and you will find further advice in the For current students pages of the department’s website.

The important things are to write clearly and to argue for a particular answer to the question you have been set, explaining carefully why you think this is correct. Unless you have specifically been asked to do so, do not just report what another writer has said, or describe all the possible answers to the question. And reach a firm conclusion! You will receive written feedback on all your essays, and in some cases tutors will offer you a tutorial to discuss their comments. Always take these opportunities to learn!

At a more basic level, make sure that you understand the words you use, that your writing is grammatical, and that your spelling is correct. This may seem obvious, but we are often disappointed by the standard of students’ writing; your tutors will mark your work down if it is full of errors. If you know or suspect that you have a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia, contact Disability Services ( so that we can ensure that you receive appropriate advice and support.  When you were at school, such support may have been automatic, however, now you are a university student this is not the case, and Disability Services will advise on how to access support for your academic studies (see also Section 6).

Essay questions

Essay presentation

Essay submission


Students requiring Individual arrangements for assessments by essay

Some First year Modules, some Second year taster modules and all Third year modules are assessed by essay. Module outlines specify the upper word limit.

1.  Essay Questions

For some modules essays questions need to be taken from a list provided by the module convener. A list of essay questions will normally be provided in advance of the start of the module, or by Week 5 at the very latest. Where you are required to answer one of a prescribed list of set questions, essays that do not address one of the set questions will be penalised, and may receive a mark of zero.

For some modules students are allowed, and may even be required, to set their own essay questions. In this case, it is important to think carefully about the question you choose to answer: addressing a badly posed question, or writing an essay that does not address a question at all, is likely to affect the quality of essay, and therefore your mark. Students may ask tutors or module conveners for advice on their proposed question (for instance, during Office Hours). Students who would like advice on a proposed question should seek it during term time; in some cases tutors or module conveners may set deadlines after which advice will not be provided. Students should, however, be aware that by asking for advice on a proposed question, they risk breaking their anonymity, as the tutor or convener may remember the question when marking.

For all essay based modules, essays that fail to address, either in whole or in part, relevant module material and/or fail to demonstrate achievement of the module’s learning outcomes will be penalised, and may receive a mark of zero.

2.  Essay Presentation

The Department has rules about submitting written work, which you must follow. These are to help us mark and give feedback on the work, to ensure fairness and to prevent cheating. Essay presentation rules:

  • ‘Y’ Examination number and word count on the top right of the first page* The word count of a submitted essay is the total number of words it contains excluding the bibliography:  all other text, including the essay title, must be included in the word count. 
  • Word-processed
  • Use an A4 page with one inch margins and numbered pages
  • Double spaced
  • 12pt Font (preferably Arial or similar)
  • Title: the title of the essay should be written before the main body of the text, and must be included in the word count
  • Footnotes (no endnotes)
  • Harvard or MLA style referencing in the body of the text (not in footnotes). An online guide to both reference styles is available at: A hard copy is available from the Philosophy Office. All quotations from, or use of other writers’ work must be properly referenced- that is, you must give the author, title, and date of publication of the work concerned, and the page or section number of the passage quoted or cited. Reference style should remain consistent throughout each submitted essay. We prefer you to use the Harvard system or the MLA style of referencing.
  • Full bibliography at the end
  • Your name or other identifying information should not appear anywhere on the essay - candidates should be identified only by their ‘Y’ examination number.
  • Essays do not need to include an abstract; if you do include an abstract, you must include it in your word count.
  • Saved as either a Word file (.doc, .docx) or a PDF. No other file type formats will be acceptable for submission.  Please note that there is a 30mb limit for any individual file.

* Essays which do not carry a word count will not be accepted until one is added. Unless you are told otherwise, the word count is the total number of words an essay contains excluding the bibliography. All other text must be included in the word count. This includes any quotations, footnotes, notes or appendices.

If you declare a word count which exceeds the word limit you will be penalized (see Section 4 below). If we think that the word count is inaccurate, we will check your essay; in addition we may select some essays for random checking.

Where an essay is over length and declares a word count that understates its true length, all other assessed essays for that and subsequent deadlines will be checked. If our word count differs from the declared word count by fewer than 100 words we normally give the benefit of the doubt, and treat this as a genuine error of calculation. This does not mean that you can overrun the word limit by 100 words: a limit is a limit.

3.  Electronic Essay Submission

Philosophy assessed essays should be submitted online via the VLE Philosophy Assignment Submissions site before 12:00.00 noon on the essay deadline date. Essay submissions are ‘date stamped’, and essays submitted after 12:00.00 noon on the essay deadline date without valid Exceptional Circumstances will be subject to late penalties (see 4). It is recommended that students should submit assessed essays no later than 30 minutes before the official deadline in order to ensure the work is received in time and does not incur a lateness penalty.  Keep your submission receipt as proof of the date and time of submission.

If you experience problems submitting work via the VLE by the deadline, you should email your essay(s) as an attachment to before 12:00.00 noon on the essay deadline date. If your essay(s) are received after 12:00.00 noon on the essay deadline date without a valid claim for Exceptional Circumstances they will be subject to late penalties (see 4).

If you have any queries about the submission process - for instance, queries about word limits, essay presentation, due dates, mitigating circumstances, acceptable file types, where in the VLE essays are to be submitted, etc. - please speak to the

Undergraduate Assessment Administrator, Karen Norris ( A ‘practice submission site’ is available to all students so that students can familiarise themselves with the submission process.  If you have technical problems using the VLE - for instance you cannot submit your essay, please email (Note that VLE Support will only respond to queries about technical problems, and will refer any queries about the submission process to the Philosophy Department).  

Essays must be submitted either as either a Word file (.doc, .docx) or a PDF. No other file type formats will be accepted. (Please note that there is a 30mb limit for any individual file.)

Submission of correct file to the wrong module site, but within the deadline for submission will be treated as correctly submitted. If a student realises that they have made such an error, it is their responsibility to alert the department and to explain where the submission has been made.

Students may submit more than one version of an essay for each module to the Philosophy Assignment Submissions VLE site.  We will mark the last submitted version before the 12:00.00 noon deadline unless you inform Karen Norris, UG Assessment Administrator ( that you wish an earlier version be marked.

IMPORTANT: If you submit more than one version of an essay, and the last submitted version is after the 12:00.00 noon deadline only the latest version before the deadline will be marked.  To be clear, if at least one submission is made before the deadline and another is made afterwards, then the last version before the deadline is the one accepted.

If the only version of the essay you have submitted is after the 12:00.00 noon deadline then this submission will be marked and late penalties will be applied. 

Carefully check the document you have submitted: submission of an incorrect file version, draft, or a corrupted file cannot be considered as an Exceptional Circumstance by the University.  

The deadlines for essay submission are strict and penalty marks will be applied to all work submitted late, without valid Exceptional Circumstances (see Penalties 6.4 below). Submission of an essay is only successfully completed when a time-stamped receipt has been issued to the student.  The time-stamped receipt is the one that is used to determine whether a submission is late or not – irrespective of when the submission process was actually initiated.

Brief extensions may be granted to students who apply, with valid exceptional circumstances, to the Department by submitting an Exceptional Circumstances Claim and supporting evidence by the published deadline.

In submitting your work, you are confirming that it is your work and that you have not engaged in any Academic Misconduct. Be aware that any submitted assessments may be investigated for evidence of academic misconduct by using text matching software (such as Turnitin).   The University regards any form of Academic Misconduct as a very serious matter. 

In submitting your work, you are giving us permission to take appropriate steps to process it and to store your work digitally.

4.  Penalties

Penalties will be applied to essay marks in the following circumstances:

a)    A student exceeds the stated upper word limit

The upper word limit for assessed essays for modules advertised in current handbooks is defined as the upper figure in the range specified under ‘Assessment’ in the module outline.  (For instance, where a 2,500 word essay is specified, the upper word limit for the essay is 2,500 words.) No lower word limit is set, though students will normally be expected to submit essays within 500 words of the upper word limit.

Where there is an over-run and the excess is less than or equal to 10% of the set word limit, 5 marks will be deducted from the agreed mark for that essay.  Larger over-runs will be penalized as shown in the following table:



greater than


less than or equal to

Penalty applied to agreed mark for essay

0% of upper word limit

10% of upper word limit

5 marks

10% of upper word limit

20% of upper word limit

10 marks

20% of upper word limit

30% of upper word limit

15 marks

30% of upper word limit

40% of upper word limit

20 marks

40% of upper word limit

50% of upper word limit

25 marks


The word count of a submitted essay is the total number of words it contains excluding the bibliography:  all other text, including the essay title, must be included in the word count.  This includes all quotations, footnotes, notes, references and any appendices.  (To simplify the process of determining a word count for each essay, you may find it helpful to keep bibliographies as separate documents/files.) 

Over-runs of still greater size will be penalized on the same pattern, with 5 further marks deducted as each 10% band is passed until the mark for the essay is zero.

b)    An Essay is submitted late (no valid Exceptional Circumstances)

All work submitted late, without valid exceptional circumstances, will have ten percent of the available marks deducted for each 24-hour period (or part of each day) that the work is late up to a total of five days, including weekends and bank holidays; e.g. if work is awarded a mark of 70 out of 100, and the work is up to one day late, the final mark is 60.  After five days, the work is marked at zero. Note, however, that the penalty cannot take the mark into a negative result.

If a student requires a short extension due to exceptional circumstances they should refer to the Exceptional Circumstances affecting Assessment policy.

5.  Further Guidance on Writing Essays

Writing philosophy well does not come easily; it is a skill that everyone has to learn, and even experienced philosophers find it hard at times! The online Beginning Philosophy module will give you a great deal of help and advice with beginning to write philosophy.

6.  Students Requiring Individual Arrangements for Assessment by Essay

Any student who has a certified disability that recommends that they should not be penalised for errors in spelling or grammar in their essays, or should be allowed extra time to submit their essays etc., should contact Disability Services in the first instance.

6.1  Procedure for identifying essays with dispensation for spelling and grammatical mistakes

When a student has a certified disability that recommends that they should not be penalised for errors in spelling or grammar in assessed essays, and the recommendation is agreed by the Philosophy Board of Studies to be consistent with relevant published module and/or programme learning outcomes, the following procedure will be adopted:

  • Students who have been professionally assessed and found to have a relevant disability will be provided with a Student Support Plan (SSP) from Disability Services which will additionally be sent to the Department(s).  The SSP will confirm that the student wishes to have markers notified that spelling and grammatical mistakes should be ignored. The Philosophy Board of Studies will forward requests from students wishing to have dispensation to the Standing Committee on Assessments for approval.
  • A note indicating that errors of spelling or grammar should be ignored on summative essays will be automatically provided to markers via the feedback forms and the marksheet for the module.

6.2  Procedure for identifying essays with dispensation for extra time to submit essays

  • Students who have been professionally assessed and found to have a relevant disability will be provided with a Student Support Plan (SSP) from Disability Services, which will additionally be sent to the Department(s).  The SSP will confirm that the student may occasionally require additional time (extensions) to submit their essays for disability-related reasons.
  • Extensions are not automatic.  Students will need to request in writing any extension to an assessed essay and this must be made in advance of the submission deadline.  Requests must be sent to the Philosophy Departmental Disability Officer/Chair of the Exam Board (via, stating the reason for the request (which must be for disability-related reasons).  Each request will be made on a case-by-case basis and does not guarantee the successful outcome of an extension application, nor is it a recommendation for blanket extensions to assessed essay deadlines.
  • The request will be considered by the Departmental Disability Officer/Chair of the Exam Board and the student will be notified in writing of the decision as soon as possible after this.
  • If the Department is concerned about the frequency and use of extensions then the student, Department, and Disability Services may be called to review the SSP recommendation.


Referencing & help


The Philosophy Department accepts the Harvard or MLA styles of referencing.  Please refer to the specific information below on each permitted style.

Additional help

You may find the extra help below useful when writing Philosohy essays.


This guide to writing Philosophy essays was written by Gordon Finlayson