An argument is a claim about a topic that is supported by reasons and evidence. Many academic assignments ask you to make an argument, even though the word “argument” never appears in the directions. For example, if you’re writing or giving a persuasive speech about solar power, you might try to convince your audience that the federal government should invest more money in solar energy technology—you give your reasons and support them with evidence.
Choose a Topic
Avoid “obvious” arguments that no one is likely to dispute, such as “Racism comes from historical attitudes and events.” Also, avoid subjects that can’t be addressed logically and that can’t be proven with evidence from unbiased academic sources, such as “Unicorns are real.” Some arguable topics, such as abortion, provoke such strong reactions in an audience that they can be hard to discuss in a measured, thoughtful way. An ideal topic probably falls in the middle of those extremes: something that can be debated without being overly controversial.
Analyze Your Audience
Consider who your audience is and what might convince them to agree with you. Will they be fellow students, consumers, concerned citizens, or scholars and researchers in your field? What do they already know about your topic? Do they already have an opinion on the issue? What are their biases?
Build an Argument
Your basic argument, also called a claim or a thesis, should be stated in your thesis statement. Your thesis statement succinctly puts forth the position you intend to prove. Although a thesis statement is usually only one sentence, it can be a bit longer.
Topic: Writing requirements for incoming freshmen
Summary of the issue: The academic community is rethinking how freshmen are given writing instruction.
Sample Thesis: Incoming freshmen should be required to complete an introductory writing course during their first semester, so they’re adequately prepared for their future courses.
In addition to calling for action, an effective thesis might offer an explanation (“The Tories lost the election because . . .”); give a definition, (“The ideal training routine for a weightlifter includes . . .”); or compare two or more things (“Chemotherapy would be a more effective treatment than surgery in this situation because . . .”).
Evaluate and Develop Evidence
To organize your ideas, jot down a list of reasons that support your thesis. Think about how each reason relates to your audience. What will be the most helpful in proving your point for them? As you conduct your research, eliminate reasons that can’t be supported by unbiased sources and decide which of the remaining are strongest.
Next, develop evidence to support your reasons. There are many kinds of evidence. An academic audience will be most persuaded by proven facts, research findings, and the authority of experts. The authority you cite must be qualified to comment on the topic as an expert.
Use reputable, scholarly, and unbiased sources. Name calling, personal attacks, or distortions discredit you and your argument. Avoid using sources that employ such tactics and never resort to them yourself. Skilled academic writers avoid distortion, inaccuracy, or inflammatory language. Instead, they find solid, logical, fair, and relevant evidence. If you find, as you do the research, that your thesis can’t be supported, modify it.
You have to logically connect the evidence to your reasons. Let’s say you’re arguing that General Motors should market an electric car within the next decade, and one of your primary reasons is that it would position them to improve their market share. You would need to know their current market share, something about who else is selling electric cars, what the probability is that people would buy them, how the technology is progressing, and so on. You would do research to find out as much as you could about electric cars and the market for them. You would use facts and expert opinion to make your case.
You also might use another tactic, called an emotional appeal. But keep this tactic low key and reasonable, especially for an academic audience. So, in arguing that GM should develop an electric car, you might paint a picture of long lines at gasoline pumps, or mention the possibility of vast stretches of beaches closed because of tar balls—not a point that needs to be “proven,” but one that may arouse your audience’s anger.
For every reason that supports your thesis, develop as much evidence as you can. The quality, depth, and amount of support will depend on the scope of the argument and the expectations of the audience. If you state a fact and cite its source, you probably don’t need elaboration. But if you make a statement involving judgment, you may have to elaborate and explain that statement. The more opposition you anticipate, the more you should explain.
Skilled researchers also don’t ignore evidence that disagrees with or seems to disprove their thesis; they address it. Anticipate the counterarguments your readers might raise and consider your response. Doing so will help your understand and anticipate your audiences’ viewpoints and enable you to find the best ideas, evidence, and phrasing to persuade them. Addressing the other side of the issue in your paper can strengthen your position and help readers see that you’re a reasonable person who has thought carefully about the topic. If you can’t find a way to address a strong counterargument, you can adjust your thesis.
Structure Your Essay
There are many ways to structure an argument. In the western academic tradition, however, the most common is to begin with an introduction that clarifies your topic and announces your thesis statement. From there, present each reason and the evidence for it in logical order. Another effective option is to begin with your reasons and evidence and lead up to your thesis.
You should also consider the arrangement of your reasons and supporting evidence. Do some of your reasons lead naturally into one another? Does your audience need to agree to one point before they will accept the next? Which reason seems to be the strongest? Typically, you should give the second strongest reason in the first paragraph, the weakest reason(s) in the middle, and save their strongest point for last.
Create a Memorable Conclusion
In your conclusion, repeat or restate your claim and drive home the importance of your reasons. Help your audience understand why your viewpoint matters. You can achieve this by relating your claim to a wider perspective or by discussing your topic in terms of future applications. Using an emotional appeal at this point can have great impact because you have shown that you can approach the topic logically. A strong conclusion will leave your readers feeling informed, prepared to take your ideas away with them, and maybe even moved to make a change.