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Writing in Your Discipline: Writing for Humanities

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Writing in Philosophy values logical reasoning — in other words, Philosophy is interested in how you argue. Writing in Philosophy can include several types of writing tasks, like original arguments, argument reconstruction, objections and replies, and/or thought experiments. As the UNC-Chapel Hill Writing Center’s Philosophy writing guide points out, each type of writing has a different goal to achieve and so needs a different approach from the writer.

For example, an objection to an argument must give reasons for why the argument or its reasoning is flawed: maybe the premises don’t really support the claims, or the argument doesn’t use its terms consistently, or the conclusion relies on unspoken assumptions; etc. When building arguments in Philosophy, writers need to be careful to avoid logical fallacies, which create flaws in an argument and weaken its reasoning. 

Remember, also, that writing in Philosophy often uses specialized terminology with meanings that are specific to Philosophy itself. When defining these terms in an argument — like ‘vague,’ ‘logical,’ or ‘truth’ — writers should not use a standard dictionary. For philosophical terms, look up Philosophy reference materials or even Pryor’s “Philosophical Glossary for Beginners” for a head-start.

Writing in Philosophy should be clear and straightforward so that a reader does not misinterpret the argument. So, writers should use plain prose and a clear structure. To help your reader follow your argument, try to ‘signal’ to them what you’re doing (for example, “As I have just explained” or “Smith’s next premise that…”).


Writing in Music can involve several types of assignments, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center’s Music writing guide talks about approaches for argumentative papers, concert reports, historical analyses, song analyses, and performance or media comparisons. They also give tips for describing music, using music terminology (and terms to avoid), and making arguments about music.

Writers in Music should be careful to avoid common pitfalls, like projecting emotional content, mixing or misusing terminology, or using the wrong tense. When writing technical descriptions of music, explain why the details you’ve described are important — try to avoid giving a “‘blow-by-blow’ analysis.” Duke University’s Writing Studio’s Music writing guide explains more “actions” for writing in Music, including tips like providing the relevant sections of the score in your examples, supporting your evaluations with evidence from the music, and always explaining your examples.

Writing for Humanities

The ultimate goal in writing in the humanities is to explain or understand the human experience and human values. The humanities—also called the liberal arts—include philosophy, religion, art, music, literature, history, and language. These fields are a broad way of studying and understanding how people express ideas, information, and feelings—the experience of what makes us human. Sometimes mislabeled as the “opposite” of the applied sciences or professional programs such as business, the humanities are in fact at the core of every human endeavor to pursue, discover, and pass on knowledge.


A good literature paper has a debatable argument (or thesis) that is well supported. This argument is your own original idea, based on a thorough understanding of the text and supported with careful reasoning. So, what makes a good literature paper? 

An argument: when you write an extended literary essay, often one requiring research, you are essentially making an argument. You are arguing that your perspective-an interpretation, an evaluative judgment, or a critical evaluation-is a valid one.

A Debatable Thesis Statement: like any argument paper you have ever written for a first-year composition course, you must have a specific, detailed thesis statement that reveals your perspective, and, like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable.

  • You would not want to make an argument of this sort:

Shakespeare's Hamlet is a play about a young man who seeks revenge.

That doesn't say anything-it's basically just a summary and is hardly debatable.

  • A better thesis would be this:

Hamlet experiences internal conflict because he is in love with his mother.

That is debatable, controversial even. The rest of a paper with this argument as its thesis will be an attempt to show, using specific examples from the text and evidence from scholars, (1) how Hamlet is in love with his mother, (2) why he's in love with her, and (3) what implications there are for reading the play in this manner.

  • You also want to avoid a thesis statement like this:

Spirituality means different things to different people. King Lear, The Book of Romans, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance each view the spirit differently.

Again, that says nothing that's not already self-evident. Why bother writing a paper about that? You're not writing an essay to list works that have nothing in common other than a general topic like "spirituality." You want to find certain works or authors that, while they may have several differences, do have some specific, unifying point. That point is your thesis.

  • A better thesis would be this:

Lear, Romans, and Zen each view the soul as the center of human personality.

Then you prove it, using examples from the texts that show that the soul is the center of personality.


Research papers are perhaps the most common form of writing you should expect in a history course. As the name suggests, these assignments require you to participate in historical research. After reading through primary and secondary sources, you will need to interpret them in a way that can answer some question about the past.

When writing a historical research paper, your goal is to choose a topic and write a paper that:

      1) Asks a good historical question—your inquiry should capture the complexities of history, examining how certain factors contributed to an event or how an event could be examined or understood in a new light, apart from what previous historians have suggested.

      2) Tells how your ideas connect to previous work by other historians, and

      3) Offers a well-organized and persuasive thesis of your own.

Art History

Evaluating and writing about visual material uses many of the same analytical skills that you have learned from other fields, such as history or literature. In art history, however, you will be asked to gather your evidence from close observations of objects or images. Beyond painting, photography, and sculpture, you may be asked to write about posters, illustrations, coins, and other materials.


Some helpful tips when writing for theology classes:

1. Know what kind of paper you are writing.

  • If it is a spirituality/reflection paper, you can use first person.
  • If it is a biblical studies/analysis paper, use third person only.

2. Be extremely clear. Theological writing is very academic. If it helps, state what you will be doing or the purpose of your paper directly in the thesis/introduction.

  • In this paper, I will _______.

3. Read sources carefully

  • Be able to understand what the author is saying and summarize it in your own words.
  • Read footnotes.
  • Make use of sources frequently in your paper.
  • When including a quote, make sure you explain it and incorporate it into the sentence.

4. Useful sources

  • Commentaries: analyses on scripture
  • Good for: exegesis, passage analysis, biblical studies
  • Examples: Anchor Bible Commentary
  • Practical sources: applying theology to the public sphere
  • Good for: ethics, philosophy, history, spirituality
  • Examples: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Catholic Church catechisms


Writing about theatre or drama includes writing about plays, productions, and performances. UNC-Chapel Hill’s Writing Center’s drama guide explains that “writing about drama often means explaining what makes the plays we watch or read so exciting.” They provide a handout for writing about drama, including mini-guides to what elements to consider and analyze when writing specifically about a play, a performance, or a production. 

For a brief overview of some general principles for writing about theatre, refer to the University of Richmond’s Guidelines for Writing Critiques for Theatre Performances. 

Typically, you should format and organize a theatre paper in the same way you would format a paper for your humanities classes, including English 101 and 102. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Begin with an introduction paragraph that includes your thesis. A good thesis for a theater paper will be an argument or central claim about some aspect of the play, production, or performance (such as the ones discussed above) that is specific, bold, and, most importantly, supportable by the evidence you will present in the body paragraphs of the paper.
  • Evidence includes both primary sources (the play or production itself as well as analysis based on your own interpretation) and secondary sources such as scholarly publications you may consult. 
  • End with a conclusion paragraph that reiterates the main points of the paper and gestures beyond its scope to the larger significance of what you have accomplished.
  • Citations should be in MLA format (unless otherwise indicated by your instructor)
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