How to Get From Your Proposal to Your First Draft

Chris Young


You are writing on very different topics, and much of my advice for you over the term will be specific to your own goals, problems, etc.  Nevertheless, a bit of general advice is probably in order.


Your proposal identifies an area of interest, and offers a tentative claim of your own about the matter.  Soon it will be time to get a bit more systematic about arguing for your position, but before you plunge in, it is worthwhile to ask yourself some more general questions, using your proposal as a starting point.  One way to begin asking general questions about your work is to think about what sorts of philosophical objections a reasonable person might have to it.  According to a longstanding Cornell tradition, there are two basic kinds of philosophical objection:


a) Oh yeah? – In other words: Is it true?

b) So what? – In other words: Why does it matter?


Jotting down a few thoughts in response to each of these questions can get you started, and can also provide material that you can later re-work into something more coherent and formal. 


Many of you will be anxious about a); you will feel that it is too early in the game to commit to any particular view.  I confess, I often feel the same way myself.  Nevertheless, if you’re thinking this way, you’re probably overlooking a few things:


            1.  Often the only way to see if you’re satisfied with a view is to spend some time writing as if it’s true.  Think of this as an experiment, rather than as a shameful piece of intellectual dishonesty.  Some students feel like con artists if they commit to paper a view of which they’re not completely convinced.  They needn’t: I promise not to take your written work in this class as your last word on anything.

            2.  If you’re thinking of this process as a waste of time, you’re probably underestimating the amount of time that you ought to be spending on re-writing.  Remember, you’re going to need to re-write anyway. 

            3.  If you come to see later that a view is false, that’s progress.  Reflection on exactly why you’ve changed your mind – and why someone else with your former view might change his or her mind – can lead to a great paper. 


Unfortunately, writers often don’t think hard enough about b).  This makes a difference in both style and substance.  As a matter of style, the best kind of writing engages its reader, often by setting a theme within a broader context.  It’s difficult to communicate to your readers why they should care about your view if you haven’t given b) a fair bit of attention.  The ‘So What’ question is also, inevitably, a question that leads to important substantive issues.  The question asks: If I changed my mind about this issue, what else would I have to change my mind about?  And to consider this involves thinking about all the various (and often quite subtle) ways that the issues under consideration are connected.


There are a few kind of preparatory writing that you may well find useful, as you work on your first draft.


If you’re explicating a text, you might try to take apart an author’s argument and represent it in a sequence of numbered premises.  For example:

            i) If Bob if hungry, Bob will eat a pizza.

            ii) Bob is hungry.

            iii) Therefore, Bob will eat a pizza.


Representing the argument in this way will often help you to figure out whether it is a good one.  You can ask yourself whether any of the premises seem false to you.  This exercise will help you a great deal when it is time for you to explain the argument in your paper. 


Another exercise that you might well find useful is to map out your essay before you begin.  Hint: Don’t just map things out and then launch into it.  Experiment with several different ways of mapping out your essay before you settle on one way.