The Argument Essay
The argument essay is the most common type of writing assignment that college students will encounter throughout their academic careers. While there are different variations of the argument essay, the overall foundation is always the same: the writer is tasked with investigating an issue, taking a stand on the issue, and finding and incorporating a multitude of evidence in a logical manner to support the overall claim.
Most of us have experience with arguing, but an argumentative essay is quite different than a verbal argument that arises out of the blue. Verbal arguments often become heated and unreasonable, while the goal of an argumentative essay is the opposite: the argument must be specific, reasoned, detailed and supported with a variety of evidence. Furthermore, a verbal argument often focuses on who is right regarding a specific issue, while a well-written, researched argument essay focuses on what is the right side of a particular issue. In short, an argument essay must be logical from beginning to end.
The following are important elements of a good argument essay:
- Create a clear, firm,and debatable thesis. An effective thesis statement is an important foundational element of any essay, but it is of even greater importance in an argument essay. The reader needs to know exactly what the argument is and why it is important; there can be no confusion. For more on creating a thesis statement, view the thesis statements page.
- Provide the necessary background information on the topic. While an argument essay isn’t the same as a research essay, a bit of background information is often needed early in the essay to understand the argument. For example, if the writer is arguing that a certain amendment to the state constitution should be passed, it is probably necessary to describe what changes the amendment would make and whether or not a similar amendment has been proposed at some point.
- Focus on organization and transitions. While transitions are important in any type of essay, they are particularly important in an argument essay. This is because the argument essay involves multiple reasons and evidence to support the overall thesis, and counter arguments are often discussed and refuted as well.
Argument essays can be organized in a variety of ways. Regardless of the order in which it is organized, all argument essays should explain and support several reasons why the argument is valid, as well as explain and refute several opposing arguments offered by the other side. All writers will benefit from creating an outline to organize all of the information that will be presented, and this benefit becomes even greater with longer argument essays. For more on creating an outline, view the creating an outline page.
- Perform effective and thorough research. Most argumentative essays require incorporating research into the essay. If this is the case with your essay, make sure to perform a significant amount of research before fully committing to a topic. This is important because you need to make sure there are enough credible sources that can be used in your essay. You don’t want to commit to a topic and begin writing the essay only to later discover that you can’t find enough quality sources to make the topic work.
- Incorporate logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is a term that refers to the use of logic in a debate. As a writer, the use of logos should be primary, should appear throughout the essay, and it is the best way to convince someone to adopt a particular stance on any issue. It is also important to avoid using logical fallacies. While logos should be the primary target, pathos - which is the use of emotion - can also be incorporated. Pathos means getting the reader emotionally involved in the argument so that the reader is open to further persuasion. One of the best places to use pathos is in the introduction. Ethos - the use of credibility - is also important. The best way for writers to incorporate ethos is by addressing counterarguments and using credible sources. Additionally, taking a reasonable stand on the issue (as opposed to an extreme one) will also lead to more credibility.
Topic selection is of the utmost importance in an argument essay. The writer should focus on picking a topic that is current and relevant to society and can be argued logically. It is best to avoid moral topics because they do not always support logical discussion. Additionally, any potential topic for an argument essay should be current, debatable, researchable and manageable.
A current topic is one that has not been overdebated and is still being decided by society. Most writers and readers are sick of topics that have been debated for years: abortion, the death penalty, the legalization of marijuana, etc.
A debatable topic is one that has differing viewpoints. In other words, it is a controversial issue. Writing about how child abuse has consequences for society is not debatable since no one would disagree with this thesis. On the other hand, debating whether the common punishments for child abusers are effective or not in deterring crime is debatable and can make for an interesting and well-supported essay.
A researchable topic is one in which the writer can find a variety of credible and current sources. In other words, the writer needs to be able to find a multitude of research performed by qualified individuals to support the overall argument.
A manageable topic is one that can be successfully performed within the page requirements of the essay. Writing about widespread issues such as national or global problems is often unmanageable in just a few pages. To avoid this, most writers should begin with a basic subject and then try to narrow the subject down to a more appropriate level. For example, if a writer is passionate about arguing for or against the Health Care Reform Act that was passed by Congress in 2010, it would be wise to narrow this topic. It isn’t possible to argue for or against the entire law (the bill itself is more than 2,000 pages long). It may be possible to argue for or against one portion of the law.
Using the above criteria as a basic guideline should allow a writer to find a suitable topic.
While some teachers consider persuasive papers and argument papers to be basically the same thing, it’s usually safe to assume that an argument paper presents a stronger claim—possibly to a more resistant audience.
For example: while a persuasive paper might claim that cities need to adopt recycling programs, an argument paper on the same topic might be addressed to a particular town. The argument paper would go further, suggesting specific ways that a recycling program should be adopted and utilized in that particular area.
To write an argument essay, you’ll need to gather evidence and present a well-reasoned argument on a debatable issue.
How can I tell if my topic is debatable? Check your thesis! You cannot argue a statement of fact, you must base your paper on a strong position. Ask yourself…
- How many people could argue against my position? What would they say?
- Can it be addressed with a yes or no? (aim for a topic that requires more info.)
- Can I base my argument on scholarly evidence, or am I relying on religion, cultural standards, or morality? (you MUST be able to do quality research!)
- Have I made my argument specific enough?
Worried about taking a firm stance on an issue?
Though there are plenty of times in your life when it’s best to adopt a balanced perspective and try to understand both sides of a debate, this isn’t one of them.
You MUST choose one side or the other when you write an argument paper!
Don’t be afraid to tell others exactly how you think things should go because that’s what we expect from an argument paper. You’re in charge now, what do YOU think?
…use passionate language
…use weak qualifiers like “I believe,” “I feel,” or “I think”—just tell us!
…cite experts who agree with you
…claim to be an expert if you’re not one
…provide facts, evidence, and statistics to support your position
…use strictly moral or religious claims as support for your argument
…provide reasons to support your claim
…assume the audience will agree with you about any aspect of your argument
…address the opposing side’s argument and refute their claims
…attempt to make others look bad (i.e. Mr. Smith is ignorant—don’t listen to him!)
Why do I need to address the opposing side’s argument?
There is an old kung-fu saying which states, "The hand that strikes also blocks", meaning that when you argue it is to your advantage to anticipate your opposition and strike down their arguments within the body of your own paper. This sentiment is echoed in the popular saying, "The best defense is a good offense".
By addressing the opposition you achieve the following goals:
- illustrate a well-rounded understanding of the topic
- demonstrate a lack of bias
- enhance the level of trust that the reader has for both you and your opinion
- give yourself the opportunity to refute any arguments the opposition may have
- strengthen your argument by diminishing your opposition's argument
Think about yourself as a child, asking your parents for permission to do something that they would normally say no to. You were far more likely to get them to say yes if you anticipated and addressed all of their concerns before they expressed them. You did not want to belittle those concerns, or make them feel dumb, because this only put them on the defensive, and lead to a conclusion that went against your wishes.
The same is true in your writing.
How do I accomplish this?
To address the other side of the argument you plan to make, you'll need to "put yourself in their shoes." In other words, you need to try to understand where they're coming from. If you're having trouble accomplishing this task, try following these steps:
- Jot down several good reasons why you support that particular side of the argument.
- Look at the reasons you provided and try to argue with yourself. Ask: Why would someone disagree with each of these points? What would his/her response be? (Sometimes it's helpful to imagine that you're having a verbal argument with someone who disagrees with you.)
- Think carefully about your audience; try to understand their background, their strongest influences, and the way that their minds work. Ask: What parts of this issue will concern my opposing audience the most?
- Find the necessary facts, evidence, quotes from experts, etc. to refute the points that your opposition might make.
- Carefully organize your paper so that it moves smoothly from defending your own points to sections where you argue against the opposition.