PHIL 3600 -- Philosophy of Religion
Spring 2014
Prof. Chris Heathwood

University of Colorado Boulder


Guidelines for Papers


These guidlines are designed especially for students who are writing "original" or "open topic" papers for me as opposed to papers on pre-assiged questions. But even if you are doing the latter, still read these guidlines. A lot of it still applies.


  1. When is our paper due and how long should it be?

    See the First Paper or Second Paper documents for length requirements and due dates of papers. Do adhere to the word limits.

  2. What can I read for guidance on writing a philosophy paper?

    Here are three useful sources that are available to you free:

         excerpt from A.P. Martinich's Philosophical Writing
         Michael Huemer's Guide to Writing
         Jim Pryor's Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.

    And if you really want to get serious as a writer, do yourself a favor and buy

         Garner's Modern American Usage.

    It's a bargain at that price.

    Finally, definitey check out

         'A Sample Philosophy Paper' by Angela Mendelovici,

    an excellent "Prezi" presentation in which she lays out the elements of a good philosophy paper in the context of a sample paper. A paper like this would get a high A from me.

  3. What is the overall purpose of my paper?

    The overall purpose of your paper is to defend, by means of rational argument, a clearly-stated philosophical thesis, relating to a topic from the course, that you think is true.

  4. How do I accomplish that?

    To accomplish this, your paper should contain these four elements:

    1. It must have a thesis. Your paper can't simply be a "book report" on the views of others (our exams are for for testing your mastery of the material, not the papers). Your thesis will be a philosophical claim that you think is true, and the purpose of your paper is to persuade the reader that it is true. Your thesis should not be a trivial claim that everyone already accepts. It should be at least somewhat controversial or surprising or interesting.

      Make sure your thesis appears in the first paragraph of your paper. It is ok if you use a phrase like, "The purpose of this paper is to argue that ________ " where the blank is filled in with your thesis. It needs to be blatantly obvious what your thesis is.

      Whatever your thesis is, it can't be too big. The papers for this class are not long, and there isn't space to do anything very big. Here is a quotation from Pryor's writing guide (linked to above):

      "A good philosophy paper is modest and makes a small point; but it makes that point clearly and straightforwardly, and it offers good reasons in support of it. People very often attempt to accomplish too much in a philosophy paper. The usual result of this is a paper that's hard to read, and which is full of inadequately defended and poorly explained claims. So don't be over-ambitious. Don't try to establish any earth-shattering conclusions in your 5-6 page paper. Done properly, philosophy moves at a slow pace."

    2. It should provide whatever background is necessary for understanding your topic, your thesis, and the argument to come.

    3. It must give reasons to think your thesis is true. This is the argument of your paper. The main argument of a philosophy paper is its centerpiece. The argument will contain premises (these are the reasons for thinking that your thesis is true) and a conclusion (this is your thesis). You will need (i) to show that the premises of your argument in fact support the conclusion, and (ii) to show that the premises are true.

    4. It should address objections to your argument. Anticipate how an opponent of your thesis or argument might object to it. Present the objection as charitably and forcefully as you can. Then explain why you think it does not ultimately show that your thesis is false or that your argument is unsound. If your thesis and argument require a lot of space to lay out, and for this reason you have no space to address objections, that may be ok. (Though if you waste space on unnecessary "filler," and for this reason have no space to address objections, that's not ok.)

  5. What kind of style is appropriate?

    1. aim for clarity, precision, succinctness, and directness.
    2. avoid flowery language, polysyllabic words, and long, winding sentences.
    3. you don't need to be "deep" – instead, just make it completely clear exactly what you are trying to say.
    4. don't include any paragraphs that don't serve the thesis of the paper in some way (whether by providing background, by containing an argument or part of an argument for the thesis, by containing a presentation of a possible objection to your thesis or to an argument that you have made for your thesis, or by containing a response to such an objection).
    5. make no spelling, grammatical, or usage mistakes – use a spell checker, get a good usage manual, consult Huemer's list of common mistakes (items B-F), and use this page of Common Errors in English Usage as a resource.
    6. It's ok to use the words 'I' and 'my' in a philosophy paper (e.g., "I will argue that ... ," "An opponent might raise the following objection to my thesis ... ").
    7. Above all, aim for clarity. Make it so that I know exactly what you are trying to say at every step.

  6. Who is my audience?

    Write as if you are writing for an intellignet but ignorant reader, one who is not a philosopher. Your paper should be written in such a way that a friend or roommate of yours (who is not a philosopher) could read your paper and go away fully understanding the issue and your view about it.

  7. What kind of format do you want it in?

    1. typewritten and double-spaced, with normal fonts and margins (normal is 12pt font and 1-inch margins)
    2. printed out (double-sided printing is best) and submitted in class on the due date. Do not submit your paper by email unless you receive special permission to do so.
      (The exception to this rule is late papers. Because you lose 1/3 of a letter grade for each day (not each school day, each day) that your paper is late (see below), you can and should submit late papers by email. That way you don't have to wait until the next class meeting to turn in your late paper.)
    3. your name on each page.
    4. page numbers on each page.
    5. word count stated at the top

      If you fail to follow any of these simple formatting rules, you'll lose points.

  8. How will you grade my paper?

    Here are the factors that will determine your grade. "Yes" answers improve your grade; "No" answers lower your grade.

    1. Thesis. Is your thesis

      • easy to identify?
      • easy to understand?
      • non-trivial?

    2. Background.

      • did you provide the background necessary for understanding your thesis and argument?
      • is this background information itself easy to understand?
      • is it accurate?
      • have you avoided including unnecessary "filler"?

    3. Argument. Is your argument (or arguments)

      • easy to identify?
      • easy to understand?
      • does it actually support your thesis?
      • are its premises plausible, or at least not absurd?
      • have you adequately defended them?

    4. Objections.

      • did you consider interesting objections to your thesis or argument(s)?
      • have you presented them fairly and forcefully?
      • have you responded to them adequately?

    5. Other Factors.

      • Style. Have you avoided errors of spelling, grammar, and usage? Is your writing crisp and easy to understand?
      • Formatting. Have you followed #6 above?
      • Facts. Have you avoided making any factual errors? If you say that some theory is the view that such-and-such, is this what that theory really is? If you said that some philosopher said such-and-such, did she or he really say that?

    After you have written your paper, you should check it against all of these questions. If the answer to any of them is "No," then (with the possible exception of item d) fix your paper until the answers are all "Yes."

  9. What if I can't come up with a good thesis?

    Choose one the the Pre-Assigned Topics on the Paper document. But if you are a philosophy major, or at least an advanced philosophy major, I hope you'll try hard to defend a thesis of your own.

  10. What if I'm not sure if my topic, thesis, or argument will make for a good paper?

    We are more than happy to provide assistance as you work on your paper. Feel free to come to office hours or to email us with questions, or to run a rough outline by us.

  11. What if my paper is late?

    Late papers will lose points unless you have a legitimate, documented excuse. Your letter grade will be lowered one notch for each day that your paper is late (each day, not each school day, and not each day that our class meets). A "notch" is 1/3 of a letter grade, e.g., the difference bewteen a B and a B-, or an A- and a B+.

    To illustrate, suppose the paper is due on a Friday, but you don't turn it in until the following Tuesday and you don't have a legitimate, documented excuse for its being late. Suppose the paper you turn in would have received a B if it were on time. Because the paper was four days late, it would now receive a C-.

    You can and should submit late papers by email, so as to get them in sooner, thereby losing fewer points.

    If your paper is going to be late, you should let me know about this on or before the day the paper is due (either by telling me in class or by sending me an email). This is so I know that you are aware that we had a paper due and that your paper is going to be late.

  12. What are your top five "pet peeves" in student papers?

    That was nice of you to ask. Here are five, in no particular order:

    1. papers that aren't stapled together.
    2. papers that don't have page numbers.
    3. calling everything an 'argument'. In philosophy, we traffic in theses (or claims) and arguments. Don't confuse these. A thesis or claim is the sort of thing that can be expressed with a single declarative sentence. For example, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK is a thesis. That Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK is not, however, an argument. An argument is a series of claims, one of which (the conclusion) is supposed to follow from or otherwise be supported by the others (the premises). Here's an example of an argument (though not a valid one). Don't mix up 'thesis' and 'argument'.
    4. misusing 'as such'.
    5. (gimme a bit more time to think of #5)

  13. Can I cheat?

    You are encouraged to discuss your paper with others in the class. However, the paper you turn in must be
    your own work. Students turning in duplicate or near-duplicate papers will receive an F for the entire course and may be subject to expulsion from the university. So will students who use a paper -- even if only a tiny part of it -- that they got off the internet (these are easy to spot). I take cheating very seriously.

    Do not quote much or at all in your papers. I want to hear the ideas in your own words. But if you must use the words of others, put them in quotation marks and cite the source. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing. Plagiarism will earn you an F for the whole course and possible expulsion from the university