Avoiding Common Philosophy Paper Mistakes

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When writing a philosophy paper in college, there are many traps that you must work to avoid. The most common traps are forming an invalid argument, arguing yourself into a hole you can’t get out of, misquoting, neglecting grammar and spelling, and not offering your own argument.

The Invalid Argument

Suppose for a moment that Mimi has a paper due, but that she doesn’t agree at all with the topic. Instead of posing a well-thought out argument supporting her position, Mimi writes a paper which boils down to “My religion says this is a bad thing so that means it is a bad thing.” She receives her paper back and is surprised to see a grade that is the exact opposite of what she believes she deserves. Joe, on the other hand, writes a response that doesn’t actually address the initial question.

One way to avoid this is to outline your argument before you start to write. If you start far enough in advance, if you find out that you don’t understand the topic, you have time to discuss the problem with your professor. By outlining the argument, you can make sure you answer all parts of an essay question, fully back up your argument, and avoid some of the many invalid argument forms.

Tip: Make sure you have at least three reasons for your position.

Arguing Yourself into a Hole

This has happened to me. You’re starting your paper later than you should have, you’re two-thirds of the way through and you realize that your argument either doesn’t hold a candle to the opposing side or that what you thought was a problem really isn’t. There are a few ways to combat this. The first is to start early. By starting early, you can complete all of your research and outline and still have time to meet with your professor to discuss what you are going to argue. The second way is to test out your argument on someone in your class. They can often pose objections you might not see until you are mid-way through your paper. The final way to combat this problem is when you are doing research to make sure to research both sides of a position.


Please don’t scan a book for a quote that looks like it might be relevant to your paper. By pulling a quote out of its context, you leave a huge hole in your paper. This actually happens a lot and by well-meaning students. As a matter of fact, you should keep quotations to a minimum (take it from someone who loves to quote in papers).

Tip: Watch out for plagiarism. Make sure you cite every source you used for your paper. Every paraphrase or quotation should have appropriate citation as well.

Neglecting Grammar and Spelling Rules

Make sure you don’t get so focused on the argument or so pressed for time that you neglect spelling and grammar. Mistakes here can cost more than your dignity - they can also cost you your argument.

Tip: If you require assistance in this arena, seek out someone from your school’s writing center or hire a tutor to proofread your work.

Not Offering Your Own Argument

A final mistake that students commonly make on otherwise beautiful papers is leaving out their own arguments. You may write a perfect paper about what Kant said about the Good Will, but unless you have something to say in the paper that is your own, it isn’t going to get the grade you want.

Tip: Make sure that you take a position about what you are writing on – even if it is a history of philosophy paper.