The 15 Most Common Mistakes in Humanities Essays

And how to avoid them

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One. The one thing you should never do in a liberal arts paper is ‘just answer the question’. At the least, you’ll need to explain how you the question: what the ‘background’ to it is, what the key terms mean, and the importance of the question to issues in the background.

Take the question ‘Discuss the Russell-Strawson debate on definite descriptions’. Your introduction should explain what the ‘Russell-Strawson debate’ is (the background), define ‘definite description’ (and other key terms), and show how the question relates to problems addressed by Russell and Strawson.

You would be expected to discuss the secondary literature and situate your answer within the larger debate, both in your introduction (in outline) and throughout your paper (in more detail). To avoid wasting time in blind alleys, it’s highly recommended to plan your paper beforehand.

In some cases, you may need to question the question — interrogate its underlying assumptions and discuss any internal contradictions, modifying your answer accordingly (while remaining relevant to the question).

For instance, the question ‘Does ethics owe more to nature than to nurture?’ implies that biological and social categories are mutually exclusive. You may wish to question this assumption, perhaps mentioning that aspects of ‘nature’ (such as the environment, and differences between the sexes) have been shaped by social evolution over millennia (then explain how this affects your answer).

After you’ve done all the above, that’s pretty much your introduction. It starts off as an outline, sufficient to guide you in writing the rest of the paper. The complete introduction (and conclusion) will usually have to wait till your main arguments are done.

Two. Many humanities papers suffer from being overextended, making too many sweeping generalizations, and vague or ambiguous assertions.

You don’t have to be absolutely definite about everything, providing you qualify your arguments by pointing out limitations, boundaries, assumptions, and exceptions (while avoiding ‘death by a thousand qualifications’!).

As you write, ask yourself how someone might misunderstand, misconstrue, misapply, or otherwise ‘twist’ your arguments and conclusions. Then add the corresponding caveats, signposts, and disclaimers along the way.

Three. If you have an idea, find out who thought of it first, then find out what others said about it. The importance of a literature survey cannot be overemphasized. Whatever your arguments, you need to relate them to what has gone before, and show how you’ve made a contribution to the debate.

The best way to explore the literature is by following the references in the most recent articles, then going backwards. This technique allows you to track the of the debate, something you don’t see easily in an alphabetical (and possibly incomplete) bibliography.

Four. Instead of arguing for and against ad infinitum, try to show how the pattern of arguments and counterarguments exposes an underlying synthesis, middle way, or alternative route.

Michelangelo once said every block of stone has a statue trapped inside, and the sculptor’s task is to release it. Your paper should explore the literature in the same expository way, and taking apart arguments to release underlying truths, rather than smashing arguments together to see what comes out. A bad paper looks like a bad sculpture, contrived and unnatural, with arguments just stuck together like bits of clay.

Five. Even if a quote says exactly what you want to say, you’re better off paraphrasing it in your own words and adding ‘value’ with your own observations. Unless, of course, you’re quoting for the record.

Some humanities topics (e.g. in philosophy or literary theory) are quite abstract. In which case, it pays to anchor your arguments in concrete examples and realistic thought-experiments, provided you’re not using them arguments.

A well thought-out example is priceless in embedding your arguments in reality, but on it own, it explains nothing. Examples have to be thoroughly explicated and grounded in arguments, not just thrown in as an afterthought. Be mindful of potential counter-examples and discuss them too.

If you’ve done a good job of explaining what you mean, you don’t need a lot of hints like ‘thus’, ‘therefore’, ‘however’ and so on. Such conjunctive terms are often too vague for the purpose, giving an impression of intellectual laziness. You’re better of spelling out the connection. There will be times when you absolutely can’t avoid using such terms, but try to keep it to a minimum.

Six. The meaning of a word is never exhausted by its definition. Definitions serve to narrow the scope of an expression in order to highlight those aspects of it that you wish to discuss. For example, “I am referring to representational art, not the merely decorative kind.”

Only define a term if you think it may be misunderstood, and remember that the way you define it is contentious. You may need to discuss how others define it, and the pros, cons, and implications of competing definitions.

Seven. Don’t assume that because a term is used a certain way by one scholar, that it’s used that way by all of them (or by the same scholar the same way twice!).

Many technical terms have more than one meaning (e.g. ‘ego’ — is that the Cartesian or the Freudian ego?), and many terms have a different meaning in the literature than they do in a dictionary. Even specialized dictionaries may not capture the full sense or all meanings of an expression.

The only fairly safe way to discern the meaning(s) of a technical term is to follow it through the literature from its first use onward, noting any variations that you may need to mention in your paper to avoid confusion.

Eight. Two (or more) concepts are conflated when we use them interchangeably when we shouldn’t. One classic example (arguably) is the conflation of ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ in the argument that mental activity is nothing more than brain activity.

Often, concepts are conflated because they are hidden under a vague or ambiguous ‘covering term’ (for instance, Gottlob Frege attempted to de-conflate the covering term ‘meaning’ by splitting it into two conflated underlying concepts, ‘sense’ and ‘reference’).

To avoid conflating concepts, always ask yourself if a particular difficulty could be resolved by splitting a vague or ambiguous concept into several that are more precise. Conversely, watch out for ‘death by a thousand distinctions’! Only make a distinction if it really clarifies your point.

Nine. Avoid them where possible, as they tend to to be vague and ambiguous. If you absolutely have to use some, be sure to point out in what respects A is analogous to (or a metaphor for) B, and mention any potentially misleading .

Think of the New York subway map, it’s analogous to the actual subway in the order of stations, but not in distances between stations (it isn’t a precise scale model). All analogies and metaphors are potentially misleading in that way, hence the danger in their use and the need to carefully delimit their application.

Bear in mind that the same applies to many concepts! For example, it’s difficult to think ‘mind’ and not think of a container with ‘ideas’ in it, like sweets in a jar, a highly misleading comparison (though useful in some contexts).

Ten. Sometimes unavoidable, but try to avoid it as best you can. Intuitions are and often highly , though some are widely held. Never appeal to intuition alone, always use other supporting arguments. Arguments solely based on what ‘people generally think’ or what seems ‘self-evident’ just don’t cut any ice, unless you can believing the relevant intuitions.

Eleven. This is more of a grammatical point, but an ambiguous indexical like ‘it’, ‘this’, or ‘that’ can be fatal where subtle distinctions make a big difference. An indexical floats when it isn’t clear what it refers to, as in the statement ‘The reference of an expression is its meaning’.

Is the statement saying ‘The reference of an expression is whatever the expression means’ or ‘The meaning of an expression is whatever the expression refers to’? A good example of subtle conflation (point eight above), thanks to one floating ‘its’. This often happens when you’re referring back to a previous statement. Instead of saying something like, “This proves…”, you might want to spell out what ‘this’ refers to.

Twelve. Academics love to dig out hidden unquestioned assumptions or logical fallacies that may be fatal to your thesis. Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire way of uncovering hidden premises, just try to make sure you’ve thoroughly excavated and justified the assumptions in your argument.

Use more than one argument to make the same point; if all roads lead to Rome, it matters less if one gets blown up! To insulate yourself further, use a range of argument apart from the formal syllogism (‘x entails y’). It may help to study argument forms in other disciplines (such as law, literary studies, history, or psychology). More about this in the next point.

Thirteen. Most scholars are wary of straying beyond their discipline in terms of subject-matter and (especially) methodology, so you’ll need to be careful not to offend them when bringing in data or methods from other disciplines. However, many interesting and important questions arise from encounters with other disciplines.

For example, psychology experiments are cited for and against philosophical arguments about human nature. By referencing other disciplines in your paper, you show that you’re thinking for yourself and pushing the boundaries. The best place to look would be literature at the margins of your discipline, so you don’t stray too far into unfamiliar territory and lose your fellow travelers.

Fourteen. Think of your paper as an hourglass. It starts off broadly with a survey of the literature and gradually narrows down to the core of your thesis. The paper then broadens out again after you sum up your arguments and conclusions, as you discuss the wider implications (in amending or supplementing the literature, and raising issues for further study). This way, your paper comes full circle and re-connects with the Great Conversation. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a dead-end.

Fifteen. More of a logistical point. It’s tempting to jot down your references on the go, in short-hand on little scraps of paper. But this gives you less time to write your paper, since you’ll have to prepare your bibliography at the end. More than likely, you’ll end up rushing your bibliography and making a mess of it.

There are plenty of tools (like Endnote, Mendeley or Paperpile) to record your references as you go, and automatically create a bibliography. I prefer to use Google Scholar’s My Library, and you can read here about how I use it along with Google Docs to organize my research. You may also find mind-mapping software useful for planning essays (I don’t, but some folks swear by it). Just search for ‘mind-mapping tools’ to try some out.

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Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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