Teaching with Moral Moments

How to Write a Short Personal Philosophical Essay

Copyright © 1996 by Joel Marks

Start with a striking sentence.

In fact, the essay begins before the first line: Use the title to inform the reader and get her involved. Although an essay can be of any length, even booklength, the kind I shall discuss here is very short, modeled on a newspaper column, so you don't want to waste a single word.1 (Why not actually submit your essay to a local newspaper?)

What makes an essay philosophical is the way it approaches its subject. To me this means the subject is (1) shown to exemplify an enduring area of inquiry, (2) treated rationally or argumentatively, and (3) considered from a theoretical point of view.2 For example, in Moral Moments, the essay "Why Cheating Is Wrong" approaches cheating as (1) an ethical issue, (2) the resolution of which involves adducing reasons, (3) which are couched in terms of egoism (the effects of cheating on the cheat), utilitarianism (the effects of cheating on society as a whole), and Kantianism (the very nature of the act).

If I were describing an exclusively philosophical essay, I would say: State a clear thesis at the beginning, explain and defend it in the body of the essay, and then reiterate it in the conclusion. But a personal essay is more literary and so may be more liberal in its layout (while still retaining the philosophical elements listed above). It is all right for an idea to evolve before the reader's eyes. Still, you the author should know where it's going. You want to lead the reader, not meander. Ultimately you want to conclude the essay, not just end it.

The heart and soul of a personal essay are examples. These are what will move your reader and she will remember. They will make your case. Sometimes a single example will carry the whole essay, or will serve as a leitmotiv, providing stylistic unity. The example may be from your own experience. This is my preference because a person is most intimately acquainted with herself, and also most likely to care about what she knows best; hence she will write her best. But it may be drawn from anywhere: current events, history, science, literary works, even imagination. Your essay will still be a personal one so long as you put the example into your own words. You "tell the story."

The means to accomplish this is also the key to successful communication: Assume that your reader has no prior acquaintance with the topic you are discussing. Thus, the burden is on you to explain everything. If you are drawing on your own experience, then luxuriate in your memory. If you are using a book or other source, close it while you write (you can always go back afterward to check for accuracy); in this way you assure that what you write has come from your own mind. Hence also will you need to understand what you are writing about; hence also will your reader be more likely to.

Finally, edit. I don't just mean check for spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, and diction, although that is, of course, essential (and, may I say, should go without saying!). But also for style -- paragraphing, continuity, economy and variety of expression, etc. -- and for content -- coherence, cogency, and so on. Know why every word is there; review them all. Then revise. (For this purpose, a computer is invaluable.)

But how do you actually begin? What if you and the blank page or screen are caught in a staring contest? Let me tell you a secret. The simple way to avoid "writer's block" is: Don't sit down to begin writing until you know what you want to say. If this seems elusive, you have probably not realized how to use your time away from the writing desk for "writing." The process of writing should begin well before the pen touches the paper (or whatever your writing technology). Writing is a form of thinking. Take a walk. Then when you do sit down to write, just press the "Screen Dump" on your mind: Out it comes, at the speed of type!


1. "Column" is ambiguous, but in this case, both meanings are apt. A newspaper column -- the type that consists of a short essay expressing the author's opinion about some timely topic -- is typically the length of one column of newsprint. That's about 700 words, or three double-spaced typed pages. Hence the emphasis on economical expression.

2. This differs from a scientific treatment in the character of the evidence adduced. (Or so I shall argue in a future "Moral Moment.")

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