Writing Papers (for CS)
(1) Care. If you care, you'll think about the topic. If you think about the topic you'll have some ideas. If you have ideas, you'll write lively, definite prose. Select the topic you care most about. Failing that, select the topic you least care least about. Failing that, simulate passion; various errors of grammar, organization, and attribution can be overlooked if the paper has momentum or is unlike other papers in my stack. You can assume that I have the job of teaching you this subject-matter because I care about it and think it's important and fun. If you don't give a damn about it, I am personally offended; if you are preoccupied or absorbed by it I am flattered. (This is the key to the heart of all professors.)
(2) Picture me reading thirty papers on a narrow range of topics on which I've read hundreds of papers over the years. I'm bored. I have a headache. I'm popping Advils like they're Skittles. Then I come across your paper. It takes a bold or counter-intuitive stance, or it directly opposes everything I ever said in class. The years of terrible disillusionment fall from me and I am again a young professor in his pedagogical springtime.
(3) By all means use Iı and state your own opinion in your own voice. There is no reason to pretend that you donıt exist, or that itıs not you whoıs writing. Use of the first person is conventional in academic philosophy. This does not mean that sheer assertion is acceptable: you must give the reasons for which you believe what you believe. These can often be specified in careful reflection on the thought process that led to your conclusion.
(4) If a word can be dropped from a sentence, or a sentence from a paragraph, or a paragraph from a paper without changing the meaning, drop it. If you find yourself repeating or padding to reach a certain length, either think some more or write short. Otherwise youıre wasting your time and mine, and I become homicidal.
(5) A reasonable form is summary and evaluation: give a clear statement of the argument or polemic of the text and a supported assessment of it. Valid or fallacious? Moving or senseless? A Bı paper will show me that you have a pretty clear grasp on the terms and argument of the text you are considering. An Aı will go on to evaluate the text in your own way in your own voice, giving reasons. The five-paragraph essay must be ruthlessly suppressed in a paroxysm of violence, a stylistic bloodbath.
(6) Sadly and happily, however, excellent essays have been written in innumerable forms or in no discernible form at all (example: the work of the greatest essayist in our tradition: Montaigne). The term 'essay' essentially means 'experiment' or 'exploration.' Offhand, I will, for example, accept dialogues and fictionalizations. I like a good tear or rant that is too angry for organization, though not so angry as to lack documentation. I myself would call my writing, often enough, "riffing," or improvising.
(7) Destroy all cliches and empty, glittering generalities. If you find yourself beginning with ³Since the beginning of time, great thinkers have pondered² or any variation of it, stop and begin again in some other way.
(8) Say everything as clearly and simply as possible, in words you are certain you understand. Trying to sound sophisticated or academic often backfires.
(9) Donıt contradict yourself or try to have it both ways. Be bold. Be clear. Often self-contradiction arises from being overly deferential to a thinker or text: ³Hobbesıs argument is very convincing and logical, but² If youıre not actually convinced, you donıt regard the argument as convincing; the term 'logical' ought not to be tossed around casually.
(10) Define key terms, or if you are discussing the use of some term (³justice,² say, or ³state of nature²) by some thinker, say what that thinker means by it, with reference. If you do define a term, think about the definition as giving necessary and sufficient conditions; try to make sure your definition counts all and only the right items (perhaps you will receive a handout on this matter).
(11) Factual assertions that could be controversial must be supported by evidence and citation. Claims that a philosopher said, argued, or believed something should be supported by references to the text.
(12) My preference for citations is footnotes using the Chicago Manual of Style. If you are referring to a course text, put the name of the author and page number in parentheses in the body of your paper. Second and subsequent references to the same outside source can be treated similarly.
(13) Any materials apart from our texts that you consult should be listed in a bibliography. If you use materials to which you do not refer in the notes for the paper, you can list them on a separate "Works Consulted" page in Chicago Manual style (again, see Hacker 428-435).
(14) That said, I'm not sure why professors are sticklers for citation form in undergraduate papers; it seems to me like pointless hoop jumping. If you are ever on the verge of being a publishing scholar in or after grad school, you can surely look up citation forms. Meanwhile, the real point is to allow me to find and consult your sources if I want to, and if you accomplish that then from my point of view the citation is adequate.
(15) If you cut and paste from the internet, and then replace a few words with synonyms, etc, that is plagiarism. If you closely paraphrase a text by someone else without attribution, that is plagiarism. If you get all your ideas from somewhere, that is spiritual plagiarism. For God's sake show some pride: think and write your own words.
(16) If you are not perfectly confident about grammar and punctuation, get help from the writing center or from someone who knows. And go learn grammar and punctuation. I may not strike you as a person who'd be a stickler about such things, but I am.
(17) If you are taking a position, it is essential to consider the best possible arguments that could be made by your opponents. The most vigorous and effective attack on a position considers that position in its most plausible form. Perform the exercise of envisioning a reply to your point of view, made by a very smart person who passionately believes you are wrong. If you are attempting to support a position put forward by a philosopher, you need to consider the best counter-arguments to that position. I can often be of help with this.
(18) Make sure you have the basics right. If you give the wrong title for a key book, or misspell the name of the person youıre writing about throughout (Mills,ı for example), I assume (perhaps unfairly) that you havenıt actually been listening in class or reading anything.
(19) Read the damn thing over once before you turn it in, and after you spell-check it.
 You can see models of this style in Diana Hacker, A Writer's Reference, 5th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003), 428-435.