A Brief Guide to Writing Argumentative Essays
The art of argumentation is not an easy skill to acquire. Many people might think that if one simply has an opinion, one can argue it effectively, and these folks are always surprised when others don’t agree with them because their logic seems so correct. Additionally, writers of argumentation often forget that their primary purpose in an argument is to “win” it–to sway the reader to accept their point of view. It is easy to name call, easy to ignore the point of view or research of others, and extremely easy to accept one’s own opinion as gospel, even if the writer has not checked his or her premise in a couple of years, or, as is the case for many young writers, never questioned the beliefs inherited from others.
When students pick a topic, they should avoid writing about issues that cannot be won, no matter how strongly they might feel about them. The five hottest topics of our time seem to be gun control, abortion, capital punishment, freedom of speech, and probably the most recent, euthanasia, or the right to die. If possible, avoid writing about these topics because they are either impossible to “win,” or because most instructors are probably sick of reading about them and know all the pros and cons by heart (this could put students at a serious disadvantage). The topics may be fine reading material, however, because most people are somewhat aware of the problems and can then concentrate on understanding the method of argument itself. But care should be taken that if writers read one side, they also should read the other. Far too many individuals only read the side that they already believe in. These issues cannot be won for good reason: each touches on matters of faith and beliefs that for many people are unshakable and deeply private.
- So, what do people write about? Pick a well-defined, controversial issue. (Spend some time with the latest copies of several news magazines, watch 60 Minutes, or listen to National Public Radio to generate ideas.) Readers should understand what the issue is and what is at stake. The issue must be arguable, as noted above. After stating a thesis, the writer will need to discuss the issue in depth so that his/her readers will understand the problem fully.
- A clear position taken by the writer. In the thesis sentence, state what the position is. Students do not need to say: “I believe that we should financially support the space station.” Using the first person weakens an argument. Say “Funding for the space station is imperative to maintain America’s competitive edge in the global economy.” The thesis can be modified elsewhere in the essay if it is necessary to qualify a position, but avoid hedging in the thesis.
- A convincing argument. An argumentative essay does not merely assert an opinion; it presents an argument, and that argument must be backed up by data that persuades readers that the opinion is valid. This data consists of facts, statistics, the testimony of others through personal interviews and questionnaires or through articles and books, and examples. The writer of an argumentative essay should seek to use educated sources that are nonbiased, and to use them fairly. It is therefore best to avoid using hate groups as a source, although writers can use them briefly as an example of the seriousness of the problem. Talk shows fall into the same category as they are frequently opinionated or untrue.
- A reasonable tone. Assume that the reader will disagree or be skeptical. It is important, therefore, that the tone of the paper is reasonable, professional, and trustworthy. By anticipating objections and making concessions, the author inspires confidence and shows good will.
Argumentation/Proposals: Anticipating Objections and Making Concessions
When writing an argumentative research paper, it is helpful to include two important writing strategies: anticipating objections and making concessions.
- Anticipating objections–
- When students anticipate objections to their own argument or proposal, they are making an effort to see the others’ viewpoints. By making an effort,writers actually state other viewpoints. In this way, writers are also troubleshooting problems that they must overcome to write a thorough proposal or position paper.
- Making concessions–
- When making a concession, students actually give in to part of the other person’s objections or views. The writer admits that he/she is half right, perhaps, or that he/she has a valid concern. Then students overcome that concern by logic and/or a solution.
If writer cannot find any objections or concessions, then they are probably not writing an argumentative paper.
Without anticipating objections and making concessions, students are making many statements about themselves that they may not be aware of. They may be saying, for instance, that they are narrow-minded, lazy, or opinionated. Writers could be, in fact, proving their own ignorance (or lack of it) by what is left in and what is left out of a paper. Such a paper is revealing, and, as such, can be dangerous to future employment health.Since one of the reasons for writing a position paper is to persuade another person to take the writer’s side, if the writer ignores other sides, he/she may antagonize his/her readers and insult their intelligence. If an audience feels that writers are not interested in their viewpoints, then there is no reason for them to continue reading. If a proposal is being written, the audience might dismiss the proposal altogether if it lacks these points. If students have not anticipated objections and made concessions, then they run the risk of seeming to have shallow ideas.
Making concessions and anticipating objections also gives writers a built-in checklist to make sure that they have covered all the bases in order to write a thorough proposal or position paper.
The practice also enlarges thinking, forcing writers to realize that they are only a small part of a very complex universe and that other points of view not only exist, but have validity.
- You are writing a position paper about censorship. Begin with your introduction and thesis (position). Then write several paragraphs in which you discuss censorship and support your viewpoint. After discussing your viewpoint, write a single paragraph like the following:
While censorship is dangerous to a free society, some of the concerned citizens who are in favor of censorship may have valid points when they object that children should not be exposed to television violence. [Here you have made a concession and anticipated an objection in one sentence.] Indeed, often there is too much violence on television [Again, a concession, a point of agreement.] Perhaps the answer is for all networks to establish the same guidelines of self-censorship [Here I offer a partial solution most can agree on.] If the networks were more responsible and tried to avoid material that is in poor taste, governmental officials, religious groups, and concerned parents might not feel the need to be involved in their decisions at all.
Notice that in the above paragraph I did not call the opposition “ridiculous” or “absurd,” which would automatically antagonize them. I called them “concerned citizens” because from their point of view, that’s exactly what they are.
- You are writing a proposal to your boss in order to show the merits of buying computer hardware instead of word-processing hardware for your office. Begin with an introduction and thesis (proposal). After writing several explanatory paragraphs about computers, complete with support, insert a different paragraph:
It is true, word-processors are less expensive than computers. [You meet the big objection dead on. The concession is your agreement.] However, we must also consider the cost of servicing and supplies, which are much higher for word-processors than they are for computers, making word processors less expensive only in the short run. Additionally, a computer is capable of many tasks, while a word-processor alone is not. As our business grows, we can easily expand our computer software to meet new needs, such as spreadsheet and desktop publishing capabilities. [Here is also your opportunity to actually compare costs; this shows you’ve really done your job thoroughly.]
Adapted from: Jennifer Jordan-Henley at Roane State Community College