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Academic Writing Advice with David Ebrey

David Ebrey is currently Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in the Research Training Group Philosophy, Science and the Sciences and works primarily on Plato and Aristotle. He has recently been circulating a brief handout of academic writing advice, with an eye towards ancient philosophy. I found this advice clear and helpful. He originally shared it with graduate students at Humboldt University and developed the current version after getting feedback from a number of people in the field. I wanted to take this opportunity to share this advice with everyone and ask David a few follow-up questions about it.

Start by reading his advice: available here, it’s also up on his website. Also, feel free to share your own advice or your questions about academic writing in the comments.

David’s Answers to Caleb’s Follow-Up Questions

  1. First of all, what was your purpose and motivation in writing up this advice? What are some of the biggest problems that you’ve seen in drafts of ancient philosophy papers?

Last year I ran the work in progress group for ancient philosophy and science grad students here at Humboldt. In addition to discussing the ideas and arguments in each paper, we discussed ways to improve the writing in each. Originally, this document was written for that group, as a way of summarizing my advice from over the year. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to write ancient philosophy papers, in part because it did not come naturally to me. Some people just naturally imitate the style, without needing to fully understand what they are doing. I had to work hard to figure out how to write the sort of papers that I wanted to write while meeting scholarly expectations. So I sympathize with people’s frustration about how to write such papers. This struggle also made it easier to for me to give advice, since I had to explicitly articulate expectations that others intuitively grasp. While it comes somewhat naturally to many people, I nonetheless found that many of my friends, colleagues, and students were having trouble with the same issues.

The first step, I think, is to recognize that you are writing in a specific genre, so you should try to understand the expectations of this genre. Three of the most common mistakes I find are: (1) not clearly motivating the central question in the introduction, (2) not making clear to the reader, while he or she is reading, why paragraphs or whole sections are relevant, (3) putting key evidence near the end of the paper, instead of towards the beginning, where it could turn the reader to the author’s position. Typically, once the reader becomes sympathetic, his or her whole attitude towards the rest of the paper completely shifts.

  1. Which aspects of your drafting and revising have you changed the most, compared to the start of your career?

I conceive of my papers from the ground up in a very different way than I did ten years ago, when I had just finished my PhD. I have a much clearer sense of which theses are defensible and of how to build a case for my views. This means that I don’t go through nearly as many iteration where I alter my thesis and significantly change my paper’s structure. That said, each of my papers still goes through countless drafts and through this process each paper’s structure is still likely to change.

  1. You begin with the importance of motivating your writing through your paper’s introduction. In your experience, which error do you think is more dangerous and/or common, offering excessively detailed explanations about the history and motivation of one’s topic or assuming that all your readers already know and care deeply about the problem and its background? 

If you are writing on a well-known problem and are trying to get published in a specialist journal, then excessive explanation and motivation is more dangerous. The introduction is where first impressions are made; if your introduction isn’t tight and if it tells the reader stuff that she likely already knows, that can be fatal. That said, if you are giving a talk to a broader audience, such an introduction could be perfect. Audience is key.

Of course, it is great to raise new questions and puzzles, and that means one needs to explain what these questions and puzzles are and why they are important and interesting. Moreover, sometimes one of a paper’s significant contributions is that it clarifies a well-known question or problem. If you are doing this, it is important to make clear to the reader that you are doing this, so that it does not seem that you are simply repeating what everyone already knows.

  1. In your advice, you say that “it is more important to have an interesting thesis that you argue for well than to ultimately persuade people of your thesis.” I’m sympathetic to the view that persuasion is not the only goal of a good paper and that making clear what’s distinctive about one’s paper is important.  I wonder, though, whether the current academic research model puts too much emphasis on the novelty of one’s position and on presenting oneself as arguing against some existing consensus. Are these genuine virtues that papers should try to exemplify or are they just features of an instrumental (but possibly regrettable) framing for the sake of getting published?

I think—and here I may be agreeing with you—that the structure of academia can create a perverse incentive to defend views simply because they go against a census. This generates a number of papers that I think really should not be published. But, that said, I do think that the whole point of academic research—whether in mathematics, sociology, philosophy, or any other discipline—is to argue for new claims (or provide new arguments for old claims). People shouldn’t publish papers whose main contribution is to say things that have already been said. You should be contributing something new. Moreover, it should not be something new to the literature because everyone already understands it, and so there is no need to say it. The easiest way to show that there is a need for your paper is to show that people have denied what you wish to defend. Hence, it is common for papers, good or bad, to reject some relatively common view. I think such a paper can exemplify a genuine virtue: showing that people have misunderstood something important. Perverse papers’ vice masquerades under this virtue.

  1. In your advice, you mention that the paper’s introduction should establish your authority, including your command of the literature. You say, however, that “you do not want to bog down the paper with an exhaustive and exhausting literature review,” and that “footnotes are often ideal for this.” How much responsibility do authors have to really know and cite the literature? On the one hand, many worry that philosophers fail “to cite work that is clearly relevant to the topic at hand,” and, in general, don’t read and cite enough. (cf. the discussions here and here) On the other hand, as you note, extensive summaries of the existing literature can be tedious and, on many topics in ancient philosophy, there are thousands of commentators over thousands of years. How do you balance proper engagement with quickly getting to the heart of what one wants to say? Do current papers in ancient philosophy tend towards an excess or deficiency of citations?

My impression is that ancient philosophy community is rather different than the broader philosophy community, although the broader philosophy community is changing. Perhaps because ancient philosophy lies between classics and philosophy, people working on it are typically expected to cite more. Before answering your question directly, let me mention again that this document is meant to help people understand a certain genre of writing. At first, I found this genre’s norms very artificial, a way of showing academic tribe membership. Now I think there are good reasons for many of the norms. But like them or hate them, they are (I claim) the norms that one is working within, if writing such a document.

That said, let me try to defend these norms a bit. It is important to demonstrate that you understand the current state of the relevant literature. If you don’t, then why should the reader trust that you genuinely have something new to say? At the same time, people are interested in your new insight about ancient texts—not in your insights about scholarship on ancient philosophy. So you should quickly orient the reader and show awareness of the state of the literature, but not make the paper primarily about it. In general, meeting these expectations does not require having read and cited everything ever published in an area, but certainly the recent and classic pieces. And you should certainly cite relevant topics and questions as you go through your paper, not just at the beginning. Again, it is important to show awareness of the major issues and point readers to significant discussions in the secondary literature, without bogging down the paper. For purposes of understanding the norms of the profession, it can be useful to look through several recent issues of ancient philosophy journals and simply look at how most articles are written, ignoring their content.

In some of my early journal submissions I engaged at length with the alternative interpretations that I thought were most interesting and promising, which were not the ones that are most popular and influential. I was punished mercilessly for this by referees. I realized that I needed to write for my actual readers, and they tend to be persuaded by the dominant views in the secondary literature. Given that I want to persuade people of my views, I need to meet them where they are and bring them to where I wanted them to be, focusing much more on the primary text than on views in the secondary literature that do not move many people.

  1. Would you like to share with our readers what you’re currently working on? 

Having spent ten years figuring out how to write articles, my main project now is a comprehensive book on Plato’s Phaedo, in which I break the dialogue into ten parts and write a chapter on each. It has taken me a lot of work to figure out how to write in this new genre. I’m not systematically defending a single thesis, as I do in my papers; instead, I am defending several major claims about the whole dialogue, and, within the individual chapters, many other claims about specific parts. With a thesis-driven paper, it is clear what I should leave out—anything unnecessary for defending my thesis. There are thesis-driven books too, of course. With this book, I’ve found it harder to figure out the principle for excluding things. I could easily write a seven-hundred page book on the Phaedo, but not many people would want to read it, and many of my central claims would get lost in the details. I think I’ve managed to find a way to keep the book contained, but we’ll see.

I am very excited about the project, for all sorts of reasons. One is the opportunity to show how the different parts of the dialogue fit together, rather than just focusing on just one, as is necessary in an article. I’m defending new accounts of some of Plato’s most famous ideas and discussions—including “Platonic Forms” and Socrates’ intellectual autobiography—while also bringing out under-explored ideas and parts of the dialogue—including the ethics of the dialogue, its literary structure, and the discussion of misology.

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