As I mentioned yesterday, when my students come to my office for consultation on their term papers, I try to be straightforward in my advice: “Don’t shoot for literary elegance. Use simple, straightforward prose. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Use familiar words. Don’t write using prose you wouldn’t use in conversation: generally speaking, if you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.”
But today I want to focus on some of the writing advice that I give them and that is geared more toward the formulation of successful arguments. Good, well-reasoned writing presents certain claims and the reasons why these claims are worthy of respect. Most well-reasoned arguments do not just consist in the mere reporting of another person’s opinions. That is why I tell my students that they must explicitly state the arguments that they are making in order successfully to defend their positions.
In particular, I tell them “you can’t just say ‘Aristotle says that the moral life is worth living,’ and leave it at that.” Instead, I tell them to say something like “Aristotle says that the moral life is worth living, and these are the reasons why he says that the moral life is worth living.’ Or, I tell them to say “Aristotle says that the moral life is worth living, because he had asserted earlier in his argument that such a life was consistent with our human nature.”
The point that I emphasize to my students is that no matter which of these forms their papers take, they must explicitly present reasons for their views and for the claims of others that they are relating to their readers.
Students often feel that since it’s clear to them that some thinker’s claim is true (or false), it does not need much argument. But it’s very easy to overestimate the strength of a particular argumentative position. In well-reasoned writing I tell the students that they should assume that their audience does not already accept the position. And then I tell them to treat their papers as an opportunity to persuade their audience of the correctness of their views.
Finally, I tell my students to have confidence. They almost always do well at their writing projects when they put their hearts into it. That lesson applies just as much to me too.