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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Adapted from an article originally written by Emm Barnes

Remember that good critics justify their criticism by careful argument.

For many of you starting HPS Part II the prospect of having to write tens of thousands of words in the next nine months may seem intimidating. After years of studying scientific subjects it may have been a long time since you needed to write essays.

Don't panic. Firstly, nobody – or at least very few people, no matter published authors or Part II students – thinks of writing as being effortless, so you are not alone. Secondly, there are some basic strategies that can help demystify writing.

Writing starts with reading: use existing articles as a resource and guide

Look at HPS journals and books to see which style of writing and formatting you find effective, which style of writing, formatting, arguing you like, and take it into account as you start writing your own essays.

Start with a plan

You should always start with a plan, however brief, even when writing short supervision essays. The plan is to remind you of:

  • the points you wish to convey and the evidence you intend to marshal to make your points;
  • the order in which you wish to make your points; and
  • why you wish to make your points.

Answer the question

Like exam essays, supervision essays are in some ways the easiest to structure, because they are a response to a set question. In answering, you need to address the question, not just circle around the topic to which it belongs.

Look at the question set, noting all the words – chances are, none are there by accident. Choose which reading of the question you will tackle (there may well be several different possible interpretations). While it is crucial that you highlight the fact that there are multiple possible interpretations, you will not be able to address all possible readings in a supervision essay.

Break your writing into sections

No matter how long your piece of writing is, it will most likely break into three pieces: introduction, main body and conclusion.

Typically, an introduction:

  • indicates what the question or research question means for you – this includes clarifying the meanings of any jargon words and, in longer pieces of writing, pointing to existing strands of argument;
  • suggests what your answer will be; and
  • previews what evidence and arguments you will present to persuade the reader to follow you there.

The main body typically has several sections, each roughly corresponding to one of the points you wish to make. In supervision essays, each section is probably one paragraph long, but in longer pieces of writing sections may stretch over several paragraphs.

A conclusion typically restates your answer to the question or the research question, but compared to the answer you gave in the introduction it is more full-bodied now. You are now writing to informed, maybe even converted, readers. You can draw some corollary from the points you have demonstrated, but do not wander off into fresh material at this point. In longer pieces of writing, it will often be a good idea to highlight promising avenues for future research.

Make your point

It is tempting to see each essay question, or each research question underlying primary source essays or dissertation, as an invitation to showcase all possible points gleaned from your analysis and reading, from lectures, or from other sources. You cannot include everything. In a supervision essay, you can at most use three or four points to lead you from the introduction to the conclusion, and primary source essays and dissertations are similar even though they are longer. Be concise in your argument.

Choose which points you think:

  • are most relevant to your reading of the specific question;
  • are easiest for you to articulate well in the time allotted;
  • are most likely to persuade the general reader (not just your particular supervisor); and
  • can be linked together somehow so you can lead the reader smoothly from each to the next.

Make your point and clarify your position if several positions are available. The royal 'we', as in 'thus far we have considered x' has come to be mocked, and it is usually better to use the first person singular, 'I', than to rely on passive voice.

Sign-post your argument

In longer pieces of writing you should seriously consider using informative section headings and titles to guide the reader from section to section.

The first and last sentences of a paragraph (or the first and last paragraphs in a section) stand out for those speed-reading your paper. These sentences can warn readers what a paragraph will contain or remind them of how far you have come. You can make your structure and the progression of your arguments clearer by giving the reader 'signposts', e.g. 'firstly... secondly... lastly' or, more sparingly, transitions, e.g. 'Having shown x, I will now demonstrate y'. Be careful: if you over-do authorial interventions of the kind 'having shown... I will demonstrate', you will distract the reader from the argument itself and use up your word count very quickly.

If appropriate, use figures, compiled or copied complete from original papers or books, to illustrate your argument. Images or tables can often present your point very succinctly – if you integrate the figure in your text. If you use figures, you must refer to them. Figures should be numbered consecutively, captioned, and their sources referenced.

Write clearly

Writing styles are highly personal, but you need to keep your readers in mind. You are ultimately writing supervision essays, primary source essays and dissertations in order to persuade others of your argument and your grasp of the material. Write clearly and concisely. Try to be entertaining without being facetious, colloquial, or overly dramatic. Remember that good critics justify their criticism by careful argument.

Cite clearly

In order to avoid any charges of plagiarism you must make clear where you draw from the work of others.

In most cases, you will list each reference (at least) twice: once in the essay itself, either by means of footnotes, endnotes or in-text notes; and a second time in a bibliography or reference list appended to the end of the essay. Footnotes, endnotes and in-text notes count towards the word limit; bibliographies do not. Most HPS students therefore use a short form of author-date-page in the essay itself, e.g. Smith (1992), 32–34, and give the full reference in the bibliography.

Keep track of your citations as you write so that you do not have to spend hours shortly before the deadline hunting for the exact location of the citation now so central to your argument.

All material cited should be identified in a uniform manner. References should be accurate and cited by author and date. Keep in mind that monographs, contributions in edited volumes, encyclopaedia articles and articles in journals are all cited differently. Use (ed.), trans., pp. etc.

The Department is open for you to use any standard citation style (Chicago Manual of Style, Harvard, APA, MLA etc.), but demands you be consistent. Some citation styles will suit certain types of writing better than others, e.g. the Harvard citation style will be very awkward for anything involving extensive citation of archival sources and manuscripts. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, as an example, uses the following system, but you can model your citations after other relevant journals and journal articles held in the Whipple:

  • Alder, K. (1997) Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France 1763–1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  • Foucault, M. (1998 [1976]) The History of Sexuality Volume 1: The Will to Knowledge, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin).
  • Johns, A. (1996) 'Natural History as Print Culture'. In N. Jardine, J.A. Secord and E.C. Spary (eds), Cultures of Natural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 106–124.
  • Lipton, P. (1998) 'The Epistemology of Testimony', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 29A, 1–32.


Credit the work of others

You must credit the work of others. Know the scope of plagiarism and how to avoid it. The golden rule the University adheres to is, 'the examiners must be in no doubt as to which parts of your work are your own original work and which are the rightful property of someone else'.

Plagiarism guidelines

Edit multiple times

Don't panic if your first draft is listless or if you run out of words after writing barely half of the words required. Writing a first draft is widely acknowledged to be drudgery, but a first draft, however awkward, will help you figure out how well certain arguments work or flow. If you prune the first version mercilessly, you will have a framework for developing your second, much more successful draft.

You should always take the time to spell-check and proof-read your work line-by-line. Software programs miss many errors, and you may not have noticed that you erased several key words by mistake.

Try reading your writing aloud – your eye will spot mistakes more easily and your ear will notice if your writing is smooth.

A note for longer pieces of writing

Writing and re-writing takes time. It is more or less impossible to write a polished scholarly essay from scratch. For longer pieces of writing you should allow yourself time for serious editing and for feedback from other readers. If you want your supervisors and others to comment on your work, you need to schedule time for them to read it and comment on it – and for you to integrate those comments into your final essay. If you send work out for review less than a day before the deadline your reviewers will probably not be able to read it in time or they will curb their comments because they know that you will not be able to make significant changes to the essay in the time you have left.

Work backwards from the deadline: for a long piece of writing such as the primary source essay or the dissertation you should have a full, fairly polished draft ready for review at least seven to ten days before the deadline.

Start writing early and (re)write often.