Notes on Writing Arguments


            Your goal in argumentative writing is to change the way your readers think about a subject or to convince them to undertake an action that they might not otherwise be inclined to do.  Do not assume that your audience already agrees with you; instead, envision skeptical readers who will make up their minds after listening to both sides of the debate.  To convince such readers, you will need to build arguments strong enough to stand up to the arguments put forward by your opponents.

            Thinking critically about your topic and planning a strategy for an argumentative essay are especially important.  A good way to begin is to list the arguments of the opposition and then consider the likely impact of their arguments on your audience.  If the arguments of the opposition look very powerful, you may want to rethink your position.  Perhaps by claiming less or by proposing a less radical solution to a problem you may have a greater chance of persuading readers to change their views.  If possible, you should talk to someone who disagrees with your view or read some articles that are critical of your position.  By familiarizing yourself with the views of the opposition, you can be reasonably sure you have not overlooked an important argument that might be used against you.

            Once you have listed the major arguments on both sides, think realistically about the impact they are likely to have on your intended audience.  After exploring both sides of an argument, you may decide to modify your initial position.  Maybe your first thoughts about the issue were oversimplified, too extreme, or mistaken in some other respect.  Yet, perhaps, after thinking more about your readers you see little hope of persuading them of the truth or wisdom of your position.

            A thesis is a sentence that expresses the main point of an essay.  In argumentative writing, your thesis should clearly state your position on the issue about which you have chosen to write.  It should be a debatable point, one about which reasonable persons can disagree.  Neither facts nor beliefs can be substantiated by reasons, so they cannot serve as a thesis for an argument.

            Once you have framed a thesis, try to state your major arguments, preferably in sentence form.  Together, your thesis and your arguments will give you a rough outline of your essay.  Some of the sentences in your rough outline might become topic sentences of the paragraphs in your final essay.

            In your introduction, try not to alienate the audience whom you hope to convince.  Where possible, try to establish common ground with readers who may not be in initial agreement with your views.

            When presenting the arguments for your position, you will of course need to back them up with evidence: facts, statistics, examples and illustrations, expert opinion, and so on.  Documentation is needed for evidence based on outside sources (i.e., readings, films, tapes, etc.).  Documentation gives credit to your sources and shows the readers how to track down the source in case they want to assess its credibility or explore the issue further.

            Examples and anecdotes alone rarely prove a point, but when used in combination with other forms of evidence they flesh out an argument and bring it to life.

            Although they are no substitute for careful reasoning of your own, the views of an expert can contribute to the force of your argument.

            Indifferent and skeptical readers may resist your arguments.  To give up a position that seems reasonable, a reader has to see that there is an even more reasonable one.  In addition to presenting your own case, therefore, you should review the chief arguments of the opposition and explain what you think is wrong with them. 

            There is no best place in an essay to deal with the opposition.  You may want to present the arguments of your opponent first and then develop your own arguments.  However, sometimes a better plan is to anticipate objections as you develop your case paragraph by paragraph—the "trading punches" idea.  Wherever you decide to deal with the opposing arguments, do your best to refute them.  Show that those who oppose you are not as persuasive as they claim to be because their arguments are flawed or because your arguments to the contrary have greater weight.  Remember, try not to alienate your reader; try to establish common ground with readers who are not in initial agreement with your views.


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