Writing the Position Paper: Tips for Improving Writing Skills in Your Philosophy Class

The Assignment

So you’ve been assigned to write about your opinion on a controversial issue for your philosophy class. The important thing to remember is that in philosophy it is never enough to have an opinion. In fact, which side you argue for matters very little to your professor. What does matter, however, is that you argue for a side. You cannot simply say "I agree with ‘x’." Restating this, no matter how many times or ways will also not get you ahead. So how do you write a paper that will get your point across? Read on to find out.

Which Side will you Argue For?

One of two things might happen when you receive this assignment in your philosophy class. Either the subject will be something you feel very passionately about, or the subject will be something that you could care less about. Sometimes you will get something in between. The first step if you fall into the second or third categories is to research the topic so you are aware of the arguments that have been made on each side. If you feel passionately about the topic, my suggestion is to argue for the side you personally are against. That’s right, argue the opposite of what you believe. This generally makes a stronger paper. Here’s why:

  1. You will be less likely to say something like "I disagree with ‘x’ because it’s bad."
  2. You will already know objections to the point you are arguing – and thus can create a stronger argument.
  3. You will have to state all assumptions that you are making in your argument. If you are arguing something you agree with, sometimes you forget to be explicit with assumptions that must be made in order for the argument to be sound.
  4. You will be required to research the point of view of both sides – something that is very important when posing an argument.

If you don’t care about the topic, my suggestion is to imagine that you are a passionate supporter of the statement. What conclusions would this lead you to? How would this be supported? If you opposed it, how would you argue against it? Find the point of view that will allow you to talk more in your paper. If you have lots of objections to the point, then argue for it – because you will have something to respond to.

Your Outline

With the position paper, you want to begin with the end. You will state your conclusion, clearly at the beginning of the paper. For example, if you are arguing for universal healthcare, you will start your paper by saying this. Next, you will state each premise (argument) supporting this conclusion that you will discuss further in your paper. The body of your paper will then contain the reasoned out discussion supporting your premises.

Avoid Common Fallacies

When writing the position paper, it is essential that you avoid argument fallacies. You especially want to be careful of this if you are very passionate about the topic (another great reason to argue for the opposite side). When you outline your paper, make sure to run through the list of fallacies when looking at your premises. Do you have an ad hominem argument? Do you have an appeal to false authority? Make sure you know these before you turn your paper in – your professor will mark you down if she catches these mistakes.

Have Fun

It seems strange to wish you fun on your paper when it’s an assignment, but writing position papers is fun. I always enjoyed it – especially writing from the opposite perspective. I really felt like I was able to be creative and to get a point across.