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WRITING ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAYS

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For most people, the true test of their critical thinking skills comes when they write an argumentative essay, one that takes a stand on an issue and uses logic and evidence to convince readers. When you write an argument, you follow the same process you use when you write any essay. However, because the purpose of an argument is to change the way readers think, you need to use some additional strategies to present your ideas to your audience.

A) Planning an Argumentative Essay

1) Choosing a Debatable Topic 

Because an argumentative essay attempts to change the way people think, it must focus on a debatable topic, one about which reasonable people may disagree. Factual statements—verifiable assertions about which reasonable people do not disagree—are, therefore, not suitable as topics for argument.

Fact: First-year students are not required to purchase a meal plan from the university.

Debatable Topic: First-year students should be required to purchase a meal plan from the university.

Your topic should be narrow enough so that you can write about it within your page limit. Remember, in your argumentative essay, you will have to develop your own ideas and present convincing support while also pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of opposing arguments. If your topic is too broad, you will not be able to treat it in enough detail.

In addition, your topic should be interesting to you and to your readers. Keep in mind that some topics—such as “The Need for Gun Control” or “The Fairness of the Death Penalty”—have been discussed and written about so often that you may not be able to say anything new or interesting about them. Instead of relying on an overused topic, choose one that enables you to contribute something to the debate.

2) Developing an Argumentative Thesis

After you have chosen a topic, your next step is to state your position in an argumentative thesis, one that takes a strong stand. Properly worded, this thesis statement lays the foundation for the rest of your argument. One way to make sure that your thesis statement actually does take a stand is to formulate an antithesis, a statement that takes the opposite position. If you can state an antithesis, your thesis statement takes a stand.

Thesis Statement:  Term limits would improve government by bringing people with fresh ideas into office every few years.

Antithesis: Term limits would harm government because elected officials would always be inexperienced.

To make sure your argumentative thesis is effective, ask the following questions:

  • Is your thesis one with which reasonable people would disagree?
  • Can you formulate an antithesis?
  • Can your thesis be supported by evidence?
  • Does your thesis make clear to readers what position you are taking?

3) Defining Your Terms 

You should always define the key terms you use in your argument— especially those you use in your thesis statement. After all, the soundness of an entire argument may hinge on the definition of a word that may mean one thing to one person and another thing to someone else. For example, in the United States, democratic elections involve the selection of government officials by popular vote; in other countries, the word democratic may be used to describe elections in which only one candidate is running or in which all candidates represent the same party. For this reason, if your argument hinges on a key term like democratic, you should make sure that your readers know exactly what you mean.

Be careful to use precise language in your thesis statement. Avoid vague and judgmental words, such as wrongbadgoodright, and immoral.

Vague: Censorship of the Internet would be wrong.

Clearer: Censorship of the Internet would unfairly limit free speech.

4) Considering Your Audience 

As you plan your essay, keep a specific audience in mind. Are your readers unbiased observers or people deeply concerned about the issue you plan to discuss? Can they be cast in a specific role—concerned parents, victims of discrimination, irate consumers—or are they so diverse that they cannot be categorized?

Always assume that your audience will question your assumptions. Even if your readers are sympathetic to your position, you cannot assume that they will accept your ideas without question; they will still need to see that your argument is logical and that your evidence is solid. More skeptical readers will need reassurance that you understand their concerns and that you concede some of their points. However, no matter what you do, you may never be able to convince hostile readers that your conclusion is valid. The best you can hope for is that these readers will acknowledge the strengths of your argument even if they reject your conclusion.

5) Refuting Opposing Arguments 

As you develop your argument, you should briefly summarize and then refute—that is, disprove—opposing arguments by showing that they are untrue, unfair, illogical, unimportant, or irrelevant. (If an opponent’s position is so strong that it cannot be refuted, concede the point, and then identify its limitations.) In the following paragraph, a student refutes the argument that Sea World is justified in keeping whales in captivity.

Of course, some will say that Sea World wants to capture only a few whales, as George Will points out in his commentary in Newsweek. Unfortunately, Will downplays the fact that Sea World wants to capture a hundred whales, not just “a few.” And, after releasing ninety of these whales, Sea World intends to keep ten for “further work.” At hearings in Seattle last week, several noted marine biologists went on record as condemning Sea World’s research program.

NOTE: When you acknowledge an opposing view, be careful not to distort or oversimplify it. This tactic, known as creating a straw man, can seriously undermine your credibility.

Computer Tip For Refuting Opposing Arguments 

As you formulate an argument, you can use your computer to create a table or chart that organizes all the arguments against your position. Using the Table menu in your word-processing program, create a two column table. Label the first column “Opposing Arguments” and the second column “Refutations.” List the arguments against your position in the first column and your refutations of these arguments in the second column. When you are finished, delete the weakest opposing arguments. When you write your essay, discuss only those opposing arguments and refutations that remain.

EXERCISE 1

Choose one of the following five statements, and list the arguments in favor of it. Then, list the arguments against it. Finally, choose one position (pro or con), and write a paragraph or two supporting it. Be sure to refute the arguments against your position.

  1. Public school students who participate in extracurricular activities should have to submit to random drug tests.
  2. The federal government should limit the amount of violence shown on television.
  3. A couple applying for a marriage license should be required to take AIDS tests.
  4. Retirees making more than $50,000 a year should not be eligible for Social Security benefits.
  5. Colleges and universities should provide free daycare for students’ children.

B) Using Evidence Effectively

1) Supporting Your Argument 

Most arguments are built on assertions—statements that you make about a debatable topic—backed by evidence—supporting information, in the form of examples, statistics, or expert opinion. If, for instance, you asserted that law-enforcement officials are winning the war against violent crime, you could then support this assertion by referring to a government report stating that violent crime—especially murder—has dramatically decreased during the past decade. This report would be one piece of persuasive evidence.

Only assertions that are self-evident (“All human beings are mortal”), true by definition (2 + 2 = 4), or factual (“The Atlantic Ocean separates England and the United States”) need no proof. All other kinds of assertions require support.

NOTE: Remember that you can never prove a thesis conclusively—if you did, there would be no argument. The best you can do is to provide enough evidence to establish a high probability that your thesis is reasonable or valid.

2) Establishing Credibility 

Clear reasoning, compelling evidence, and strong refutations go a long way toward making an argument solid. But these elements in themselves are not sufficient to create a convincing argument. In order to convince readers, you have to satisfy them that you are someone they should listen to—in other words, that you have credibility.

Some people, of course, bring credibility with them every time they speak. When a Nobel Prize winner in physics makes a speech about the need to control proliferation of nuclear weapons, we assume that he or she speaks with authority. But most people do not have this kind of credibility. When you write an argument, you must work to establish your credibility by establishing common grounddemonstrating knowledgemaintaining a reasonable tone, and presenting yourself as someone worth listening to.

Establishing Common Ground. When you write an argument, it is tempting to go on the attack, emphasizing the differences between your position and those of your opponents. Writers of effective arguments, however, know they can gain a greater advantage by establishing common ground between their opponents and themselves.

One way to establish common ground is to use the techniques of Rogerian argument. According to the psychologist Carl Rogers, you should think of the members of your audience as colleagues with whom you must collaborate to find solutions to problems. Instead of verbally assaulting them, you should emphasize points of agreement. In this way, rather than taking a confrontational stance, you establish common ground and work toward a resolution of the problem you are discussing.

Demonstrating Knowledge.  Including relevant personal experiences in your argumentative essay can show readers that you know a lot about your subject; demonstrating this kind of knowledge gives you authority. For example, describing what you observed at a National Rifle Association convention can give you authority in an essay arguing for (or against) gun control.

You can also establish credibility by showing you have done research into a subject. By referring to important sources of information and by providing accurate documentation for your information, you show readers that you have done the necessary background reading. Including references to a range of sources—not just one— suggests that you have a balanced knowledge of your subject. However, questionable sources, inaccurate (or missing) documentation, and factual errors can undermine an argument. For many readers, an undocumented quotation or even an incorrect date can call an entire argument into question.

Maintaining a Reasonable Tone.  Your tone is almost as important as the information you convey. Talk to your readers, not at them. If you lecture your readers or appear to talk down to them, you will alienate them. Remember that readers are more likely to respond to a writer who is conciliatory than to one who is strident or insulting.

As you write your essay, use moderate language, and qualify your statements so that they seem reasonable. Try to avoid words and phrases such as never, all, and in every case, which can make your claims seem exaggerated and unrealistic. The statement “Euthanasia is never acceptable,” for example, leaves you no room for compromise. A more conciliatory statement might be “In cases of extreme suffering, a patient’s desire for death is certainly understandable, but in most cases, the moral, social, and legal implications of euthanasia make it unacceptable.”

Presenting Yourself as Someone Worth Listening To. When you write an argument, you should make sure you present yourself as someone your readers will want to listen to. Present your argument in positive and forceful terms, and don’t apologize for your views. For example, do not rely on phrases—such as “In my opinion” and “It seems to me”—that undercut your credibility. Be consistent, and be careful not to contradict yourself. Finally, limit your use of the first person (“I”), and avoid slang and colloquialisms.

3) Being Fair

Argument promotes one point of view, so it is seldom objective. However, college writing requires that you stay within the bounds of fairness and avoid bias. To be sure that the support for your argument is not misleading or distorted, you should take the following steps.

Avoid Distorting Evidence.  You distort evidence when you misrepresent it. Writers sometimes intentionally misrepresent their opponents’ views by exaggerating them and then attacking this extreme position. For example, a senator of a northeastern state proposed requiring unmarried mothers receiving welfare to identify their children’s fathers and to supply information about them. Instead of challenging this proposal directly, a critic distorted the senator’s position and attacked it unfairly.

What is the senator’s next idea in his headlong rush to embrace the extreme right-wing position? A program of tattoos for welfare mothers? A badge sewn on to their clothing identifying them as welfare recipients? Creation of colonies in which welfare recipients would be forced to live like lepers? How about an involuntary relocation program into concentration camps?

Avoid Quoting Out of Context.  A writer or speaker quotes out of context by taking someone’s words from their original setting and using them in another. When you select certain statements and ignore others, you can change the meaning of what someone has said or suggested.

Mr. N, Township Resident: I don’t know why you are opposing the new highway. According to your own statements, the highway will increase land values and bring more business into the area.

Ms. L, Township Supervisor: I think you should look at my statements more carefully. I have a copy of the paper that printed my interview, and what I said was [reading]: “The highway will increase land values a bit and bring some business to the area. But at what cost? One hundred and fifty families will be displaced, and the highway will divide our township in half.” My comments were not meant to support the new highway but to underscore the problems that its construction will cause.

Avoid Slanting. You slant information when you select only information that supports your case and ignore information that does not. Slanting also occurs when you use inflammatory language to create bias. For example, a national magazine slanted its information when it described a person accused of a crime as “a hulk of a man who looks as if he could burn out somebody’s eyes with a propane torch.” Although one-sided presentations frequently appear in tabloids and some popular magazines, you should avoid such distortions in your argumentative essays.

Avoid Using Unfair Appeals.  Traditionally, writers of arguments use three kinds of appeals to influence readers: logical appeals address an audience’s sense of reason; emotional appeals play on the emotions of a reader; and ethical appeals call the reader’s attention to the credibility of the writer.

Problems arise when these appeals are used unfairly. For example, writers can use fallacies to fool readers into thinking that a conclusion is logical when it is not. Writers can also employ inappropriate emotional appeals—to prejudice or fear, for example—to influence readers. And finally, writers can unfairly use their credentials in one area of expertise to bolster their stature in another area that they are not qualified to discuss.

C) Organizing an Argumentative Essay

In its simplest form, an argument consists of a thesis statement and supporting evidence. However, argumentative essays frequently use inductive and deductive reasoning and other specialized strategies to win audience approval and overcome potential opposition.

ELEMENTS OF AN ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY

Introduction

The introduction of your argumentative essay orients your readers to your subject. Here you can show how your subject concerns your audience, establish common ground with your readers, and perhaps explain how your subject has been misunderstood.

Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement can appear anywhere in your argumentative essay. Most often, you state your thesis in your introduction. However, if you are presenting a highly controversial argument—one to which you believe your readers might react negatively—you may postpone stating your thesis until later in your essay.

Background 

In this section, you can briefly present a narrative of past events, an overview of others’ opinions on the issue, definitions of key terms, or a review of basic facts.

Arguments in Support of Your Thesis 

Begin with your weakest argument, and work up to your strongest. If all your arguments are equally strong, you might begin with those with which your readers are already familiar and therefore perhaps more likely to accept.

Refutation of Opposing Arguments

If the opposing arguments are relatively weak, summarize and refute them after you have made your case. However, if the opposing arguments are strong, concede their strengths and then discuss their limitations before you present your own arguments.

Conclusion

Often, the conclusion restates the major arguments in support of your thesis. Your conclusion can also summarize key points, restate your thesis, remind readers of the weaknesses of opposing arguments, or underscore the logic of your position. Many writers like to end their arguments with a strong last line, such as a quotation or a statement that sums up the argument.

D) Revising an Argumentative Essay

When you revise your argumentative essay, you use the same strategies you use for any essay. In addition, you concentrate on some specific concerns, which are listed in the following checklist.

CHECKLIST ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAYS 

  • Is your topic debatable?
  • Does your essay have an argumentative thesis?
  • Have you defined the key terms you use in your argument?
  • Have you considered the opinions, attitudes, and values of your audience?
  • Have you summarized and refuted opposing arguments?
  • Have you supported your assertions with evidence?
  • Have you used relevant visuals to strengthen your argument?
  • Have you documented all information that is not your own?
  • Have you established your credibility?
  • Have you been fair? Have you avoided logical fallacies?
  • Have you constructed your argumentative essay logically?
  • Have you provided your readers with enough background information?
  • Have you presented your points clearly and organized them logically?
  • Have you written an interesting introduction and a strong conclusion?

USING TRANSITIONS IN ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAYS

Argumentative essays should include transitional words and phrases to indicate which paragraphs are arguments in support of the thesis, which are refutations of arguments that oppose the thesis, and which are conclusions.

Arguments in support of thesis:

accordingly, because, for example, for instance, in general, given, generally, since

Refutations

although, admittedly, certainly, despite, granted, in all fairness, naturally, nonetheless, of course

Conclusions

all things considered, as a result, in conclusion, in summary, therefore, thus

Adapted from the online PDF of the following out-of-print handbook:

Kirszner, Lauri and Stephen Mandell. The Holt Handbook. 6th ed., Thomson-Heinle, 2002.