Professor Gary Jason, PhD | TUTORIAL – What kind of writing style is appropriate in the essays we do for class?

TUTORIAL – What kind of writing style is appropriate in the essays we do for class?

We commonly distinguish between creative and expository writing (prose). The question is which is appropriate for the essays you will be writing in my classes.

In creative writing, the focus is on the novel and aesthetically pleasing use of words, the construction of moving and enlightening similes and metaphors, plot construction, character development and so on. In expository writing, the focus is the tightness of organization, the cogency of the argumentation, and the presentation of factual data.

In my philosophy classes, I expect well written expository essays. I hold literature—in the sense of well written creative writing—in the highest esteem, but it is not generally what I am looking for in the classes I teach.

One other point is worth noting. Some students wonder how “passionate” or personally involved they should be in writing their essays. Considering that the classes I teach that call for essays—introduction to philosophy, beginning ethical theory, and business ethics—many of the subjects are very topical and controversial. You may well be passionate, emotionally invested, in one side of the dispute. I don’t have a problem with that at all, as long as your passion does not make you dismiss, demean or disparage other points of view. Put another way, don’t let your deep commitment to a perspective lead tendentious (i.e., one-sided) writing.

Let me illustrate with three cases. As it happens, one of the many topics in my business ethics class students can choose to write about is the question whether we should legalize prostitution. A few semesters ago, I had two students who were both passionate about the issue, but on opposite sides. I also had a third student who apparently felt nothing about the issue personally, but chose the topic because it intrigued him.

The first student was a young woman who revealed in her paper that she had, for a short period of time, supported herself by prostitution. She was very personally convinced that the practice was evil and should never be legalized. She controlled her deep feelings enough to articulate clearly the arguments people often give in favor of allowing the practice openly, and she reviewed in compelling detail the relevant data from other countries in which prostitution is legal. She then passionately but articulately laid out her case against it.

On the other side was a young man who stated frankly that he frequented prostitutes when taking trips, and felt deeply that it was a perfectly normal thing to do, not harmful to anybody in any way, and resented our society’s attempts to suppress it. But he did not allow his feelings interfere with his ability to state fairly the various reasons people oppose legalizing the practice, and looking objectively at the data from areas where it is legal.

The third student was a young man who, so far as I could tell, had no personal feelings on the issue at all. In his essay, he covered in a dispassionate manner the major arguments for and against legalizing the sex trade, along with a lot of relevant data. At the end, he stated that he understood both sides, but had reached no settled opinion.

In all three cases, the students received top grades on their papers. If you feel passion, you needn’t hide it. If you feel no passion, you needn’t feign it. I grade, not on your passion or lack thereof, but on the balance of your presentation (if you haven’t done so already, review the tutorial on the golden rules of argumentation), the comprehensiveness with which you cover the relevant arguments, and your presentation of the important facts.

Often, or perhaps even typically, people who feel passionately write a position paper, while those who don’t write a review paper. The distinction is discussed in the tutorial on how to structure essays.