What To Read To Improve Your Philosophical Writing


A professor writes in with a question:

I’d be very curious what books or other resources your readers might recommend for graduate students looking to improve their writing skills.  I have in mind anything from general style guides, to guides aimed more specifically at academics (or even professional philosophers!).

One thing that helps writers improve is reading a lot of good writing, so in addition to suggestions of works focused on writing itself, I’d welcome examples of philosophical work that can serve as a models for graduate students. Such works may not be the most elegant or stylishly written pieces of philosophy, but those that clearly demonstrate the basic elements of good philosophical writing.

 

olivetti_valentine_typewriter

guest
39 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
5 years ago

The advice I got was to read the more mature work of Nicholas Wolterstorff and David K. Lewis. It was excellent advice.
Report

Ken Friedman
5 years ago

Three books on writing are of great value to any scholar who wants to write well. The first is a classic: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It is now in its 4th edition, and arranged slightly better than in the past. Chapters I, III, and IV are about technical issues. Chapters II and V address the vital elements of how to write well. The second is a book on writing by cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker: The Sense of Style. Pinker writes on the subject of how to write elegant, lucid prose. These two books will help anyone learning to write. Finally, for scholars, I recommend Helen Sword’s book: Stylish Academic Writing. This is an informative, helpful book based on examples from the journals of ten academic disciplines. philosophy among them. Strunk and White takes about two hours to read carefully. I read it once a year, and I learn something new and useful every time. Pinker is a massive book — it will take about a week of reading and thinking between reading sessions, so I’d recommend a first browse-through, followed by a careful reading of Sword.

Ken Friedman Report

Split Infinitive
Split Infinitive
Reply to  Ken Friedman
5 years ago

For a contrary opinion on Strunk and White, and a nice example of good writing style, see Geoffrey Pullum’s ’50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice’. http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

My advisor said before my dissertation proposal defense, “Among your studies, include some examination of your own committee members.” Good advice. As a grad student– and simultaneously a library employee — I learned that the basement of our main library was filled with the dissertations of my predecessors. You want to know what kind of writing and organization has been passed by your examiners in the past? Check out their former students’ successfully defended dissertations! I think I checked out, and quickly mapped, the outlines of at least three of the dissertations that were vetted by my own committee members. It didn’t take long and it was revelatory. Models mean a lot when one feels lost in the woods. My committee then found my own chapters met their expectations, because I studied their expectation-meeting works before I submitted my own.

I found writing advice books very helpful in completing my dissertation, also. There are days when one does not want to admit to others that one cannot face the writing, and then silently turning to books are a great relief. Reading a bit of one generated a productive hour or two for me on otherwise bad days. I remain grateful to the authors of:
Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis (Joan Bolker)
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)
Getting What You Came For (Robert Peters)

I hope others post more recent publications! I would love to know what grad students read today. But Anne Lamott’s book, in particular, is good no matter what decade it is.

Report

Johannes H.
Johannes H.
5 years ago

I found Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” helpful. Thomas and Turner’s “Clear and Simple as the Truth” also seems promising.Report

Imhw
Imhw
5 years ago

I think one thing it helps to read is writing aimed at appreciating and critiquing writing. I remember reading Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s essay On the Style of Demosthenes was a huge wake up for me just because it helped me think about writing as something you could do incredibly deliberately on the level of sentence structure, imagery, and diction. I think when you see other people’s writing praised and critiqued it becomes clearer to you what you should aim for and what to avoid.Report

@iwasid
@iwasid
5 years ago

Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style is excellent, as was his much earlier The Language Instinct. Strictly neither are style guides, but they give practical insights into how language and writing works, and importantly what doesn’t work. Every comma so far could usefully be replaced with a fullstop, second commas almost certainly so.

I like Bryan Magee’s style, very clear and accessible. David Hume often seems quite modern. AC Grayling shows how to deal with challenging abstract content.

Apparently learning to write good code is beneficial. Structure, branching, referencing, parcelling up, explanatory comment, space.

Anyone given to long sentences with multiple clauses and subclauses that abstract from abstraction should be tied to a wheel with the complete works of Hemingway within reach before they are allowed to put pen to paper. Myself included. Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  @iwasid
5 years ago

Well put. I’ve said it elsewhere but Kris McDaniel’s work is a standout for straightforward writing that does not sacrifice rigor. I’ve often thought of him as something like philosophy’s Hemingway. A good sample is his entry on McTaggart in the SEP:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mctaggart/

Report

Colin Bodayle
Colin Bodayle
5 years ago

I would recommend “Style: Towards Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams. Instead of merely offering advice on sentence-level revision, this book takes a holistic approach. It includes tips and strategies for organizing information, writing lengthy paragraphs without losing your reader’s attention, and adding a flair of style to your writing without pretension.

I keep this book nearby whenever I’m writing or editing. If you want clear and beautiful prose without sacrificing content, read this book. Report

Matt
Matt
5 years ago

Clear and Simple as the Truth is the best book on style I’ve ever read. It’s not a perfect for philosophical purposes, but much of it applies.Report

JH
JH
5 years ago

I sometimes try to improve my writing by reading good philosophical writing. This obviously reflects my own tastes, but my favorite philosophical writers are John Broome, Michael Huemer, and Elizabeth Harman. They are models of clarity and rigor (I especially admire Broome’s writing). Report

GGD
GGD
5 years ago

Better and more enjoyable to read crystal clear contemporary philosophical prose than trudge through style guides to get a sense of how to explain and defend a philosophical theory. Try recent work by Tim Crane, Colin McGinn, Bryan Frances and classic papers by Saul Kripke for lucid, jargon-free prose…the ideas ain’t bad either! Report

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

Merricks, and not much written by McDowell, MG Martin, Heidegger.Report

Martin Lenz
Martin Lenz
5 years ago

The best and most succinct guide on writing philosophy is the one by Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy, 3rd edition, New Jersey: Prentice Hall 1996. Report

Brint Montgomery
Brint Montgomery
5 years ago

I have always found Frank Jackson and Kai Nielsen to be excellent examples of lucid writing. Report

Joshua Blanchard
5 years ago

It goes without saying but anything by Slavoj Žižek.Report

R
R
Reply to  Joshua Blanchard
5 years ago

This may be my favorite comment on this blog ever. Report

B. Myers
B. Myers
Reply to  Joshua Blanchard
5 years ago

Not knowing his work, I looked him up and discovered how elegantly he writes and speaks about “Nigg—s” and then discovered his defense that white supremacists should use the term wantonly. Great…. :/
https://www.rt.com/usa/344148-zizek-left-forum-refugees/Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
5 years ago

I want to second the recommendation of Williams’s /Style: Toward Clarity and Grace/. It is the best writing book I know of — far more helpful, in my view and that of many others, than Strunk and White.Report

Rutabagas
Rutabagas
5 years ago

Third the recommendation of Williams. If your students are looking for advice books, I found Eviatar Zerubavel’s book The Clockwork Muse enormously helpful. Report

Tubby Troublemaker
Tubby Troublemaker
5 years ago

On Writing Well by William Zinsser is for a completely different audience but I read it at the beginning of grad school and thought it helped a lot.Report

Brad
Brad
5 years ago

I’d also suggest reading fiction. Non-fiction writing is, in general, stodgier and less interesting. I try to find time for science fiction and Kurt Vonnegut.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

In terms of style, I can’t think of any options better than the works of Beauvoir, Camus, and Nietzsche.

As far as teaching clarity, I don’t think it is something that can be imparted. To write more clearly, I suggest two things:

1) Make sure your understanding of the material is thorough,
2) Go to the bar and try to explain it to a drunk person, provided the material is actually interesting enough to non (academic) philosophers that a drunk person would care to listen.Report

Sean McAleer
Sean McAleer
5 years ago

There’s a copy of Jonathan Bennett’s and Sam Girovitz’s helpful “Improving Academic Writing” at Bennett’s Early Modern Texts site that’s certainly worth a look: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/jfb/bengor.pdf
Report

Devon Belcher
Devon Belcher
5 years ago

I’m kind of surprised that no one has mentioned Quine. I disagree vehemently with everything he says, but he is a real pleasure to tead and perhaps one of the greatest prose stylists (in Philosophy) in a century.
Also, having served in a department with David Boonin, I second Justin’s advice. The guy is in addition a Prince among Men. Report

Lars Hertzberg
5 years ago

Norman Malcolm is a model of clarity.Report

Nicholas Denyer
Nicholas Denyer
5 years ago

I recommend pupils to read something crisp and clear (Lewis, Geach, Prior, Quine…), and then rewrite it to make it worse. The idea is to give them not just an overall impression of prose as it should be, but a detailed appreciation of what contributes to making that impression.
Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

My husband is a copy-editor, and I saw him almost shout with joy and relief when he had to edit the work of Lisa Tessman. “She’s so clear! It’s such a pleasure!” So it isn’t just my imagination that Lisa Tessman’s work is studiously lucid. It’s also the copy-editorial view!Report

Jon
Jon
5 years ago

I am a current graduate student. The book that has most significantly transformed my relationship with writing during graduate school is “Several Short Sentences About Writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg–a fantastic and imminently readable little book. Reading it was a little like diving head-first into the Atlantic in January. Grad school can do a number on your relationship with writing, and this helped to change the way I feel about writing as much as it provided good advice about putting together a decent sentence.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Jon
5 years ago

I am so happy to learn of this book, thanks. But what WOULD happen if one dove head-first into the Atlantic in January? Report

Paul Kelleher
Paul Kelleher
5 years ago

Looking just now at Kris McDaniel’s McTaggart entry, I agree entirely with Alan White above; it’s excellent writing. A main reason is that it embodies throughout Roy Peter Clark’s dictum, “Activate your verbs!” Here’s a chapter from Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” that I give to all my students, and that has helped me in my own writing: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/6418638/Clark–Activate%20your%20verbs.pdf

Above, Lars Hertzberg also cites Norman Malcolm as a great writer. I haven’t read much Malcolm, but his _Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir_ includes a biographical sketch of Wittgenstein by G.H. von Wright, of which C.D. Broad–himself a great writer–said: “Wittgenstein died in Cambridge on April 29th, 1951, three days after completing his 62nd year. Many false, and some absurd, legends have sprung up about him, and some of them have been widely circulated. It is therefore most desirable that there should be a brief biography of him by an absolutely trustworthy, competent, and scrupulously accurate person, who knew him well and admired him and his work, and who has set himself to ascertaining the available facts. All these qualifications are possessed to a pre-eminent degree by Professor G. H. von Wright, and the biographical sketch which he contributed in October 1955 to Vol. LXIV of The Philosophical Review is a model of its kind. It is reprinted in the book under review, and occupies the first 22 pages of it. It is written in an English style of such excellence as few Englishmen and hardly any Americans nowadays manage to attain.”

I recommend downloading the von Wright piece and savoring its plain English style. Beyond that, I fully agree with others here who’ve praised John Broome’s pellucid prose. Report

Atticist
5 years ago

1. Instead of merely reading, write a lot. If you want to improve in anything, do THAT thing.
2. Don’t read only academic philosophy. Be a well-read humanist, and read good writing in literature, poetry, drama, etc.Report

J. Jocelyn Trueblood
J. Jocelyn Trueblood
5 years ago

Check out these old-timers for some very nice prose: W. T. Stace, A. C. Ewing, and C . D. Broad.Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

He’s more of a theologian, but I’ve always enjoyed the writing of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, especially considering that he’s German.Report

Simon
Simon
5 years ago

Rorty.
Especially his book reviews.Report

Bryce Paulson
Bryce Paulson
5 years ago

Anything by William JamesReport

adam
adam
5 years ago

I forgot to mention- Jennifer Lackey’s book “Learning from Words” exhibits, in spades, every virtue of academic writing I can think of. Best written piece of philosophy that I have read. Report

Simonon
Simonon
5 years ago

Quine.
Hume.
Diderot.Report