About Reading Essays
PHIL 320 – Professional Ethics
You will write four reading essays for this class. A reading essay is a three-part analytic essay
that focuses on some aspect of an assigned reading. One goal of the reading essays is for you to
become adept at recognizing arguments or claims that can serve as points of discussion.
Another goal is for you to exercise your skills at close analysis of a text. These essays are short,
however, and thus are not the place for proposing or defending significant philosophical theses
These essays should be two to three pages long (or around 500-700 words). In general, you may
select any part of the assigned reading since the due date of the last essay as your topic. I will
distribute sample topics for the first two reading essays, which you are free to make use of or
select your own topic; for the last two, you should choose your own topic.
You will need to find a topic for your reading essay. This topic should be small enough to
support no more than 700 words of discussion. It should be clear, from the length constraint,
that these essays should be quite focused. The best way to find a topic to write about is to
identify a single argument (i.e., a conclusion, or a claim that an author makes, and supporting
reasons that are supposed to compel you to accept the conclusion) and address that argument.
Reading essays need not address the entire scope of a target article; you are encouraged to
focus your reading essay more narrowly on a single argument without trying to summarize the
After doing the necessary reading and selecting your topic, you will need to convert your
thoughts about it into a three part essay. Use the following structure for your essays:
1. Reconstruction. A reconstruction is an answer to the question, “What is the author’s
argument?” The reconstruction is a careful, concise, and accurate paraphrase of the
argument in the original text – a ‘recasting’ of the author’s argument in your own words.
To write a successful reconstruction, you should identify the relevant steps of the
argument – both those steps made explicit in the reading and those left implicit. Once
you have identified the relevant steps, describe how these steps fit together into a
whole argument. This section should be complete and concise. Don’t leave out anything
essential to understanding what the author is trying to say, but feel free to leave out
inessential details. A test for whether your reconstruction is a good one might be to see
whether you can succinctly explain the argument to a non-philosopher – someone who
isn’t in the class. (around 1-2 paragraphs)
2. Analysis. The analysis is an answer to the questions, “What is the author’sargumentative strategy? How is the argument supposed to work?”
Once you have
constructed your argument, you need to comment on how the argument works. The
author of this argument crafted it in order to change how you think about the topic. The
reasoning they use is intended to compel you to accept their conclusion. So, does it
compel you to do so? How is it supposed to convey you from its premises (i.e.,
supporting reasons) to its conclusion? What does the author expect you to find
persuasive about it? Are the premises independently plausible? Does the logical
structure of the argument lend it force? Write about how the argument is intended to
work as an argument. Analyze its logic and language. (around 1-2 paragraphs)
3. Comment. Once you have analyzed how the argument is supposed to work, have
something positive or negative to say about it. In this section, you can either criticize
what the author says, or develop their point further, perhaps by recognizing a significant
implication of the argument or by supplying an alternative argument for the same
conclusion. Also, you must defend (i.e., provide reasons for) what you say here. You
should make a claim or two and back them up. As with the essay more generally, it is
important here to narrowly focus what you say. (around 2-3 paragraphs)
Tips for Writing Reading Essays
1. No summaries; minimal quotes. An argument reconstruction is not a summary. Here’s
how the two are different: a reconstruction is a paraphrase or a recasting of the
argument’s premises and conclusions in your own words, representing the argument
accurately without copying it. A summary is a truncated version of the argument;
perhaps nothing more than a simple statement of the argument’s conclusion. You should
identify the argument’s conclusion and its associated reasons. Quotes should be used
sparingly, if used at all.
2. Don’t write introductions. I know that many of your English composition and college
writing courses have stressed the need for an engaging, lengthy introduction. The
reading essay, however, is not a standard college essay; it is a specialized tool meant to
promote certain skills. In reading essays, it’s important to come straight to the point and
get on with the business of reconstructing and analyzing arguments. So there is no need
to write long (i.e., paragraph-length) introductions to the subject.
3. Clearly label the premises and conclusions. It helps to outline and number the steps of
the argument as well, especially when you are preparing to write your reading essay. You
probably aren’t in a position to write an effective reconstruction if you cannot do this.
4. Apply the paragraph rule. Try to choose an argument that is contained within one
paragraph of your target text. If the text contains many arguments, don’t feel compelled
to write about them all. Pick an argument that you think is central and focus on thatargument; make it explicit that you are doing this, so
that I know you are aware that you
are skipping things.
5. Note the page number. In your reconstruction, give the page number where the
argument you are analyzing can be found. A simple “(p. 321)“ will suffice.
6. Defend your claims. Your comment should not be a simple expression of approval or
disapproval. Instead, it should include an argument or two from you.
7. Keep the use/mention distinction in mind. If you mention a word, quote it. Here’s an
“Word” has four letters, which makes it a very small word.
As you can see, the first occurrence of “word” is a mention, where the second
occurrence of “word” is a use.
8. Use section headings to keep things clear. You can divide the paper up into distinct
sections. Don’t get fancy: “Reconstruction,” “Analysis,” and “Comment” will do.
9. Want feedback? In general, I’m happy to look at preliminary drafts. If you would like me
to do so, attach your draft to an email and ship it to me (via regular USD email, please,
not via D2L’s email system). Please understand, however: I offer this service to you as a
favor, not as a guaranteed part of the course assignment structure. Additionally,
commenting on rough drafts is time-intensive. Because I teach several classes per
semester, my ability to give early feedback depends upon what the rest of my workload
looks like. If I have many tasks that I must do for your class or other classes, I may
prioritize those tasks over commenting on your rough draft. Hence, the more advance
time you give me, the more likely it is that I will look at it and offer feedback. If you send
your draft in too close to the deadline, I may decline to give it feedback. For example, a
paper sent in five days ahead of the deadline is far more likely to receive feedback than a
paper sent in one day before the deadline.