What Do We Mean by Argument and Argument Writing?
This tutorial explains how to write the best argument for writing with the best examples. And also explores the various sources and techniques of argument writing.
Before proceeding to some defining features of the argument, we should also note that arguments can be either explicit or implicit. An explicit argument directly states its controversial claim and supports it with reasons and evidence. An implicit argument, in contrast, may not look like an argument at all.
But like an explicit argument, it persuades its audience toward a certain point of view.
The argument is both a process and a product. (2) Argument combines truth-seeking and persuasion.
Argument Is Both a Process and a Product
An argument can also be viewed as a product, each product being any person’s contribution to the conversation at a given moment. In an informal discussion, these products are usually short, whatever time a person uses during his or her turns in the conversation.
Under more formal settings, an orally delivered product might be a short, impromptu speech (say, during an open-mike discussion of a campus issue) or a longer, carefully prepared formal speech (as in a PowerPoint presentation at a business meeting or an argument at a public hearing on a city project).
Similar conversations occur in writing. Roughly analogous to a small-group discussion is an exchange of the kind that occurs regularly online through informal chat groups or more formal blog sites.
In an online discussion, participants have more thinking time to shape their messages than they do in a real-time oral discussion. Nevertheless, messages are usually short and informal, making it possible over the course of several days to see participants’ ideas shift and evolve as conversants modify their initial views in response to others’ views.
Roughly equivalent to a formal speech would be a formal written argument, which may take the form of an academic argument for a college course; an online blog posting; a guest column for the op-ed* section of a newspaper; a legal brief; or an article for an organizational newsletter, popular magazine, or professional journal.
In each of these instances, the written argument (a product) enters a conversation (a process)— in this case, a conversation of readers, many of whom will carry on the conversation by writing their own responses or by discussing the writer’s views with others. The goal of the community of writers and readers is to find the best solution to the problem or issue under discussion.
Argument Combines Truth Seeking and Persuasion
Rarely is either focus ever completely ignored, but their relative importance shifts during different phases of the argument’s development. We could thus place arguments on a kind of continuum that measures the degree of attention a writer gives to subject matter versus audience.
At the far truth-seeking end might be an exploratory piece that lays out several alternative approaches to a problem and weighs the strengths and weaknesses of each.
At the other end of the continuum would be outright propaganda, such as a political campaign advertisement that reduces a complex issue to sound bites. (At its most blatant, propaganda obliterates truth-seeking; it will do anything, including distorting or inventing
What Exactly Is an Argument?
Extended written arguments make more demands on their readers than most other kinds of writing.
They expand our knowledge with the depth of their analysis.
They lead us through a complex set of claims by providing networks of logical relationships and appropriate evidence.
They build on what has been written previously by providing trails of sources.
Finally, they cause us to reflect on what we read, in a process that we describe shortly as critical reading.
Explain the role of inquiry in the argument.
Many times when confronted with an issue or a topic, you’re not ready to formulate an argument. You might not yet know much about that issue. Your thinking on the topic might only come from your experience, or the arguments and perspectives you’re familiar with might all come from one “side” of the debate.
Effective and strong arguments are made when writers reflect on what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to find out. Asking good questions about the topic allows writers to think critically about an issue and arrive at persuasive arguments supported by good reasons.
This practice of asking and pursuing answers to questions about an issue is called an inquiry, and inquiry is a critical part of the argument process. Before you set out a thesis and construct an argument, you want to pause and ask some important questions about the topic.
These questions should range from your familiarity with the issue to ways to explore the issue with depth and complexity. There are several types of inquiry that can help you to begin building effective arguments.
Questions About Personal Knowledge and Experience
What do I know about this issue already?
How did I come to this knowledge?
What experiences do I have with this issue?
How might these experiences shape my understanding of this issue?
How do others experience this issue?
What positions might they hold and why?
What is my initial position on the issue, and why am I taking this position?
Questions About the Issue
How do people define this issue? What is the problem?
How do people evaluate this issue?
What do people see as good, bad, effective, ineffective, right, or wrong?
What are the causes of the problem?
What are the consequences of the problem?
Whom does the problem affect, and how?
What possibilities are there for change?
What are possible solutions to the problem?
Who would these changes affect, and how?
What is the feasibility of this solution?
As you move through this process of inquiry, you’ll likely start to formulate your own position on the issue and craft an argument about it. As you begin to do so, you will want to make sure you are arguing responsibly.
When you begin an argument by saying “in my opinion,” you are making a similar announcement. First, the phrase is redundant. A reader assumes that if you make a claim in writing, you believe that claim. More important, a claim is rarely only your opinion. Most beliefs and assumptions are shared by many people.
If a claim truly is only your opinion, it can be easily dismissed. If your position is likely to be held by at least a few other people, however, then a responsible reader must consider your position seriously. You argue responsibly when you set out the reasons for making a claim and offer facts to support those reasons.
You argue responsibly when you allow readers to examine your evidence by documenting the sources you have consulted. Finally, you argue responsibly when you acknowledge that other people may have positions different from yours.
How can you argue respectfully?
Our culture is competitive, and our goal often is to win. Professional athletes, top trial lawyers, or candidates for president of the United States either win big or lose. But most of us live in a world in which our opponents don’t go away when the game is over.
Most of us have to deal with people who disagree with us at times but continue to work and live in our communities. The idea of winning in such situations can only be temporary. Soon enough, we will need the support of those who were on the other side of the most recent issue.
You can probably think of times when a friendly argument resulted in a better understanding of everyone’s views. And probably you can think of a time when an argument created hard feelings that lasted for years.
Usually, listeners and readers are more willing to consider your argument seriously if you cast yourself as a respectful partner rather than as a competitor.
The questions you ask as you’re exploring possibilities for your argument should position you to think not only about the positions others might hold but why they hold those positions. You want to speak with those people and consider those positions respectfully.
Put forth your arguments in the spirit of mutual support and negotiation—in the interest of finding the best way, not “my way.” How can you be the person that your reader will want to join rather than resist? Here are a few suggestions both for your written arguments and for discussing controversial issues.
Try to think of yourself as engaged not so much in winning over your audience as in courting your audience’s cooperation. Argue vigorously, but not so vigorously that opposing views are vanquished or silenced. Remember that your goal is to invite a response that creates a dialogue and continuing partnership.
Show that you understand and genuinely respect your listener ’s or reader ’s position even if you think the position is ultimately wrong. Remember to argue against opponents’ positions, not against the opponents themselves. Arguing respectfully often means representing an opponent’s position in terms that he or she would accept.
Look for ground that you already share with your opponent, and search for even more. See yourself as a mediator. Consider that neither you nor the other person has arrived at the best solution.
Then carry on in the hope that dialogue will lead to an even better course of action than the one you now recommend. Expect and assume the best of your listener or your reader, and deliver your best.
Cultivate a sense of humor and a distinctive voice. Many textbooks about argument emphasize using a reasonable voice. But a reasonable voice doesn’t have to be a dull one. Humor is a legitimate tool of argument.
Although playing an issue strictly for laughs risks not being taken seriously, nothing creates a sense of goodwill quite as much as tasteful humor. A sense of humor can be especially welcome when the stakes are high, sides have been chosen, and tempers are flaring.
Reading critically depends on understanding why a particular text was written. The more distant the text in time, the more detective work is required to determine its meaning, as is the case for Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Recognize that controversies often involve many nuanced positions.
People, in general, agree on broad goals for their society: clean water, abundant healthy food, efficient transportation, good schools, full employment, affordable health care, safe cities and neighborhoods, and peace with others near and far.
However, people often disagree on how to define and achieve these goals. Controversies surround major issues and causes.
Often controversies are portrayed in the media as pro and con or even take on political labels such as conservative and liberal.
But if you read and listen carefully to what people have to say about a particular issue, you usually find a range of different positions on the issue, and you often discover nuances and complexities in the reasons people offer for their positions.
Online subject directories can help you identify the differing views on a large, general topic. Try the subject index of your library’s online catalog. You’ll likely find subtopics listed under large topics.
Also, your library’s Web site may have a link to the Opposing Viewpoints database, or you may try CQ Researcher. The “Room for Debate” section of The New York Times’ webpage is also a great resource for exploring the day’s most pressing issues and conversations.
Use specific strategies to read an argument critically.
After you survey the landscape of a particular issue, turn to a careful reading of individual arguments, one at a time, asking questions about the argument and the issue.
Before you begin reading, ask these questions:
Where did the argument first appear? Was it published in a book, newspaper, magazine, or electronic source? Many items in library databases and on the Web were published somewhere else first.
Who wrote this argument? What do you know about the author: his or her expertise, experience, education, relationship to the audience, and the issue?
What does the title suggest that the argument might be about?
Read the argument once without making notes to gain a sense of the content
When you finish, write one sentence that sums up the argument.
Using a blog search engine or an online newspaper, find a blog by an author, politician, or news columnist. Answer as many of the questions for critical reading in this blog as you can.
Write a summary of the blog entry.
What kinds of reasons do blog writers give for their responses to what they read?
How are blogs and online book reviews like or unlike traditional book reviews in print?
Read the argument a second and third time, asking more questions and making notes
Go back through the text and underline the author’s thesis.
Do your sentence and the author’s thesis match? If not, look at the text again and either adjust your sentence or check if you underlined the correct sentence.
How is the argument organized? How are the major points arranged?
What reasons or evidence does the writer offer in support of the thesis?
How does the writer conclude the argument? Does the conclusion follow from the evidence presented?
Who is the intended audience? What does the writer assume the readers know and believe?
Do you detect a bias in the writer’s position?
Where do the writer’s facts come from? Does the writer give the sources? Are the sources reliable?
Does the writer acknowledge other views and unfavorable evidence? Does the writer deal fairly with the views of others?
If there are images or graphics, are they well integrated and clearly labeled?
Annotate what you read
Mark major points and key concepts. Sometimes major points are indicated by headings, but often you will need to locate them.
Connect with your experience. Think about your own experiences and how they match up or don’t match up with what you are reading.
Connect passages. Notice how ideas connect to one another. Draw lines and arrows. If an idea connects to something from a few pages earlier, write a note in the margin with the page number.
Ask questions. Note anything that puzzles you. What questions does the argument prompt for you? What do you need to learn more about? Consider words you don’t know and need to look up.
Map a controversy
Read broadly about an issue and identify three or more sources that offer different points of view on that issue; The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” pages, mentioned earlier, can be a great place to start.
The sources may approach the issue from different angles or raise different questions instead of simply stating differing positions on the issue. Draw a map that represents the different views. The map on the next page shows some of the different positions on sustainable agriculture. Map of different issues about sustainable agriculture.
Identify and define the fallacies of logic, emotion, and language.
Recognizing where good reasons go off track is one of the most important aspects of critical reading. What passes as political discourse in the United States is often filled with claims that lack evidence or substitute emotions for evidence.
Such faulty reasoning often contains one or more of what are known as “logical fallacies.” (Actually, they are not really “fallacies” or “illogical”—but rather are common shortcomings in the argument that have been recognized for many years.)
For example, politicians know that the public is outraged when the price of gasoline goes up, and they try to score political points by accusing oil companies of price gouging.
This sounds good to angry voters—and it may well be true—but unless the politician defines what price gouging means and provides evidence that oil companies are guilty, the argument has no more validity than children calling each other bad names on the playground.
Following are some of the more common fallacies.
Fallacies of logic
Begging the question Politicians are inherently dishonest because no honest person would run for public office. The fallacy of begging the question occurs when the claim is restated and passed off as evidence.
It’s on the Internet
Although people at times use fallacies to score political points or to gain the attention of those who feel passionately about a topic, most fallacies occur because of faulty evidence. And while the Internet is a valuable research tool because of the wealth of information available, a lot of that information is misleading or factually incorrect.
Because anyone can post on the Internet, and because many Web sites repost information without attribution, bad information can spread quickly across the Web. You may have heard of videos going viral on the Web, but the same thing can happen with misinformation. One Web site posts a story that is then reposted on several other sites.
The Basics of Arguments
A reason is typically offered in a because clause, a statement that begins with (or implies) the word because and that provides a supporting reason for the claim. Jeff’s first attempt is to argue that students should have health insurance because health insurance is a right.
The word because of signals a link between the reason and the claim. Every argument that is more than a shouting match or a simple assertion has to have one or more reasons. Just having a reason for a claim, however, doesn’t mean that the audience will be convinced.
Find a Topic
When your instructor gives you a writing assignment, look closely at what you are asked to do. Assignments typically contain a great deal of information, and you have to sort through that information.
First, circle all the instructions about the length, the due date, the format, the grading criteria, and anything else about the production and conventions of the assignment. This information is important to you, but it doesn’t tell you what the paper is supposed to be about.
What Is Not Arguable
Claims of personal taste. Your favorite food and your favorite color are examples of personal taste. If you hate fresh tomatoes, no one can convince you that you actually like them. But many claims of personal taste turn out to be value judgments using arguable criteria.
Statements of belief or faith. If someone accepts a claim as a matter of deeply held religious or cultural belief, then for that person, the claim is true and cannot be refuted.
Whenever an audience will not consider an idea, it’s possible but very difficult to construct a convincing argument. Many people claim to have evidence that UFOs exist, but most people refuse to acknowledge that evidence as even being possibly factual.
Select one of the possible topics. Write it at the top of a sheet of paper, and then write nonstop for five minutes. Don’t worry about correctness. If you get stuck, write the same sentence again.
When you finish, read what you have written and circle key ideas.
Put each key idea on a sticky note. If you think of other ideas, write them on separate sticky notes. Then look at your sticky notes. Put a star on the central idea.
Put the ideas that are related next to one another. You now have the beginning of an idea map, one that you could use to begin generating, arranging, and refining supporting reasons for your argument.
Think about what interests you
Your assignment may specify the topic you are to write about. If your assignment gives you a wide range of options and you don’t know what to write about, look first at the materials for your course: the readings, your lecture notes, and discussion boards. Think about what subjects came up in class discussion.
Narrow your list
Put a check mark beside the issues that look most interesting to write about or the ones that mean the most to you.
Put a question mark beside the issues that you don’t know very much about. If you choose one of these issues, you will probably have to continue with the inquiry process by doing in-depth research—by talking to people, by using the Internet, or by going to the library.
Select the two or three issues that look most promising and ask even more questions. Here your inquiry might look like this:
Who is most interested in this issue? Whom or what does this issue affect?
What are the pros and cons of this issue? Make two columns. At the top of the left one, write “YES, because.” At the top of the right one, write “NO, because.”
What positions are possible beyond “YES” or “NO”? Maybe? Yes, except for X and Y? Possibly, due to A or B? And what reasons would correlate with these claims?
What has been written about this issue? How can you find out what has been written?
Demonstrate how to visualize a topic.
When you identify a potential topic, make a quick exploration of that topic, much as you would walk through a house or an apartment you are thinking about renting for a quick look. One way of exploring your topic is to visualize it by making a map.
If you live in a state on the coast that has a high potential for wind energy, you might argue that your state should provide financial incentives for generating more electricity from the wind.
Perhaps it seems like a no-brainer to you because wind power consumes no fuel and causes no air pollution. The only energy required is for the manufacture and transportation of the wind turbines and transmission lines.
However, your state and other coastal states have not exploited potential wind energy for three reasons:
Aesthetics. Some people think wind turbines are ugly and noisy.
Hazard to wildlife. A few poorly located wind turbines have killed birds and bats.
Cost. Wind power costs differ, but wind energy is generally more expensive than electricity produced by burning coal.
To convince other people that your proposal is a good one, you will have to answer these objections.
The first two objections are relatively easy to address. Locating wind farms 10 kilometers offshore keeps them out of sight and sound of land and away from most migrating birds and all bats.
The third objection, higher cost, is more difficult. One strategy is to argue that the overall costs of wind energy and energy produced by burning coal are comparable if environmental costs are included. You can analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each by drawing maps.
The skeptic: Disagreeing with a source
It’s easy to disagree by simply saying an idea is dumb, but readers expect you to be persuasive about why you disagree and to offer reasons to support your views.
Can you argue from value?
Evaluation arguments usually proceed from the presentation of certain criteria. These criteria come from the definitions of good and bad, of poor and not so poor, that prevail in a given case.
Can you argue from consequence?
Another powerful source of good inquiry comes from considering the possible consequences of a particular position: Can you sketch out the good things that will follow from a position?
Can you establish that certain bad things will be avoided if a position is adopted? Thinking through responses to these questions will enable you to arrive at your argument and give good reasons for doing so.
The key to her argument is the causal chain that explains how animals and people are poisoned. Carson describes how nothing exists alone in nature. When a potato field is sprayed with DDT, some of that poison is absorbed by the skin of the potatoes and some washes into the groundwater, where it contaminates drinking water.
Another poisonous residue is absorbed into streams, where it is ingested by insect larvae, which in turn are eaten by fish. Fish are eaten by other fish, which are then eaten by waterfowl and people. At each stage, the poisons become more concentrated.
Proposal arguments also stem from the inquiry that considers effects and consequences. What should we do about A? What action should we take? What would happen if we did X instead of Y? What are the positive and negative consequences of pursuing this line of action? As you think through these questions, you’ll come to a proposal argument.
In a proposal argument, you cannot stop with naming good reasons; you also have to show that these consequences would follow from the idea or course of action that you are arguing.
For example, if you are proposing designated lanes for bicycles on the streets of your city, you must argue that they will encourage more people to ride bicycles to work and school, reducing air pollution and traffic congestion for everyone.
Can you counter objections to your position?
Another good mode of inquiry that helps you identify your argument and the good reasons to support it is to think about possible objections to a possible position.
If you can imagine how audiences might counter or respond to an argument, you will probably start to see the validity of the argument you want to make and the ways you’ll need to address readers’ particular needs and objections.
If you are successful, your readers will be convinced that you are right. You’ve no doubt had the satisfying experience of mentally saying to a writer in the course of your reading, “Yeah, but what about this other, contradictory idea?”—only to have the writer address precisely this objection.
You can impress your readers if you’ve thought about why anyone would oppose your position and exactly how that opposition would be expressed.
If you are writing a proposal argument for a computer literacy requirement for all high school graduates, you might think about why anyone would object, because computers are critical for our jobs and lives. What will the practical objections be?
What about philosophical ones? Why hasn’t such a requirement been put in place already? By asking such questions in your own arguments, you are likely to develop robust because of clauses.
Sometimes, writers pose rhetorical questions. You might say, “But won’t paying for computers for all students make my taxes go up?” Stating objections explicitly can be effective if you make the objections as those of a reasonable person with an alternative point of view.
But if the objections you state are ridiculous ones, then you risk being accused of setting up a straw man—that is, making the position opposing your own so simplistic that no one would likely identify with it.
Find Evidence to Support Good Reasons
Explain the importance of supporting evidence for good arguments.
Good reasons are essential ingredients of good arguments, but they don’t do the job alone. You must support or verify good reasons with evidence.
Evidence consists of hard data, examples, personal experiences, episodes, or tabulations of episodes (known as statistics) that are seen as relevant to the good reasons you are putting forward. Thus, a writer of arguments puts forward not only claims and good reasons but also evidence that those good reasons are true.
How much supporting evidence should you supply? How much evidence is enough? As is usual in the case of rhetoric, the best answer is “It depends.” If a reader is likely to find one of your good reasons hard to believe, then you should be aggressive in offering support. You should present detailed evidence in a patient and painstaking way.
As one presenting an argument, you have a responsibility not just to state a case but to make a case with evidence. Arguments that are unsuccessful tend to fail not because of a shortage of good reasons; more often, they fail because the reader doesn’t agree that evidence that is being presented is either sufficient enough or relevant enough (or both) to effectively support the claims and good reasons.
For example, nearly all major cities in the United States and Canada have a shortage of affordable housing for full-time working families. Many families are overburdened with rent and mortgage payments, which consumes more than 30 percent of their income. But providing affordable housing is quite difficult to achieve.
Various solutions have been tried without significant success, including housing vouchers, tax rebates, and requirements to make available a percentage of affordable housing for any new construction.
Relevance refers to the appropriateness of the evidence to the case at hand. Some kinds of evidence are seen as more relevant than others for particular audiences.
On the one hand, in science and industry, personal testimony is seen as having limited relevance, while experimental procedures and controlled observations have far more credibility.
On the other hand, in writing for the general public on controversial issues such as affordable local housing, personal experience is often considered more relevant than other kinds of data.
Sufficiency refers to the amount of evidence cited. Sometimes a single piece of evidence or a single instance will carry the day if it is especially compelling in some way—if it represents the situation well or makes a point that isn’t particularly controversial. More often, people expect more than one piece of evidence if they are to be convinced of something.
A personal example supported by a statistic from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that more than twelve million American households pay more than 50 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments makes the point that the cost of housing puts extreme stress on buying the necessities of food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.
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Some writers make detailed outlines before they begin writing. Others sketch the major sections and work from these notes. Still, others start by freewriting and then identify key ideas and organize them. What is your most frequent planning strategy?
Think About Your Purpose
Identify a purpose for your argument.
The first step in writing is to identify your purpose. When your instructor gives you a writing assignment, look closely at what you are being asked to do. Circle the information about the required length, the due dates, the format, and other requirements. You can attend to these details later.
Does your assignment contain words like analyze, compare, define, evaluate, analyze causes, or propose that signal your purpose?
Identifying key terms can help you understand how to focus your argument. However, people rarely set out to define something in an argument just for the sake of definition or to compare things simply for the sake of comparison.
Instead, they have an overall purpose in mind, and they use the kinds of argument that—as a means to an end. Most arguments use multiple approaches and multiple sources of good reasons.
State and Evaluate Your Thesis
Once you have identified a topic and purpose and have a good sense of how to develop your topic, the next critical step is to write a working thesis. Your thesis states your main claim. Much writing that you will do in college and later in your career will require an explicit thesis, usually placed near the beginning.
Focus your thesis
The thesis can make or break your paper. If the thesis is too broad, you cannot do justice to the argument. Who wouldn’t wish for fewer traffic accidents, better medical care, more effective schools, or a cleaner environment? Simple solutions for these complex problems are unlikely.
Stating something that is obvious to everyone isn’t an arguable thesis. Don’t settle for easy answers. When a topic is too broad, a predictable thesis often results. Narrow your focus and concentrate on the areas where you have the most questions. Those are likely the areas where your readers will have the most questions too.
The opposite problem is less common: a thesis that is too narrow. If your thesis simply states a commonly known fact, then it is too narrow. For example, the growth rate of the population in the United States has doubled since 1970 because of increased immigration.
The U.S. Census Bureau provides reasonably accurate statistical information, so this claim is not arguable. But the policies that allow increased immigration and the effects of a larger population—more crowding and higher costs of health care, education, and transportation—are arguable.
Arguably: Allowing a high rate of immigration helps the United States deal with the problems of an increasingly aging society and helps provide funding for millions of Social Security recipients.
Arguably: The increase in the number of visas to foreign workers in technology industries is a major cause of unemployment in those industries.
Evaluate your thesis
Once you have a working thesis, ask these questions:
Is it arguable?
Is it specific?
Is it manageable given your length and time requirements?
Is it interesting to your intended readers?
We should take action to resolve the serious traffic problem in our city.
Is it arguable? The thesis is arguable, but it lacks a focus.
Is it specific? The thesis is too broad.
Is it manageable? Transportation is a complex issue. New highways and rail systems are expensive and take many years to build. Furthermore, citizens don’t want new roads running through their neighborhoods.
Is it interesting? The topic has the potential to be interesting if the writer can propose a specific solution to a problem that everyone in the city recognizes.
When a thesis is too broad, it needs to be revised to address a specific aspect of an issue. Make the big topic smaller.
The existing freight railway that runs through the center of the city should be converted to a passenger railway because this is the cheapest and quickest way to decrease traffic congestion downtown.
More than 60 percent of Americans play computer games on a regular basis.
Is it arguable? The thesis states a commonly acknowledged fact. It is not arguable.
Is it specific? The thesis is too narrow.
Is it manageable? A known fact is stated in the thesis, so there is little to research. Many surveys report this finding.
Is it interesting? The popularity of computer games is well established.
Nearly everyone is aware of the trend.
There’s nothing original or interesting about stating that Americans love computer games. Think about what is controversial. One debatable topic is how computer games affect children.
Computer games are valuable because they improve children’s visual attention skills, literacy skills, and computer literacy skills.
Analyze your potential readers.
Thinking about your readers doesn’t mean telling them what they might want to hear. Instead, imagine yourself in a dialogue with your readers. What questions are they likely to have? How might you address any potential objections?
Understand what your readers know—and do not know
Your readers’ knowledge of your subject is critical to the success of your argument. If your readers are not familiar with the necessary background information, they probably won’t understand your argument fully.
If you know that your readers will be unfamiliar with your subject, you have to supply background information before attempting to convince them of your position. A good tactic is to tie your new information to what your readers already know. Comparisons and analogies can be very helpful in linking old and new information.
Write about it
Write a thesis arguing in support of a ban on cell phones while driving, against a ban, or in support of a more limited position such as banning cell-phone use for drivers age 18 and under.
Think about the audience that would tend to oppose your position. For example, if you support a ban on talking while driving, think about the likely responses of high school students, salespeople who spend much of their workday driving from place to place, and workers who receive assignments by phone. What good reasons would convince readers who hold an opposing view?
What reasons would people who oppose your position likely offer in response? What counterarguments could you give to answer these objections?
Understand your readers’ attitudes toward you
To get your readers to take you seriously, you must convince them that they can trust you. You need to get them to see you as:
Concerned: Readers want you to be committed to your subject. They also expect you to be concerned about them. After all, if you don’t care about them, why should they read what you write?
Well informed: Many people ramble on about any subject without knowing anything about it. College writing requires that you do your homework on a subject.
Fair: Many writers look at only one side of an issue. Readers respect objectivity and an unbiased approach.
Ethical: Many writers use only the facts that support their positions and often distort facts and sources. Critical readers often notice what is being left out. Don’t try to conceal what doesn’t support your position.
Understand your readers’ attitudes toward your subject
People have prior attitudes about controversial issues. You must take these attitudes into consideration as you write or speak. Imagine, for instance, that you are preparing an argument for a guest editorial in your college newspaper.
You are advocating that your state government should provide parents with choices between public and private secondary schools.
You plan to argue that the tax dollars that now automatically go to public schools should go to private schools if parents so choose. You have evidence that the sophomore-to-senior dropout rate in private schools is less than half the rate in public schools. Furthermore, students from private schools attend college at nearly twice the rate of public school graduates.
You intend to argue that one of the reasons private schools are more successful is that they spend more money on instruction and less on administration. And you believe that school choice speaks to the American desire for personal freedom.
Not everyone on your campus will agree with your position. How might the faculty at your college or university feel about this issue? How about the administrators, the staff, other students, and interested community members who read the student newspaper? What are their attitudes toward public funding of private schools?
How are you going to deal with the objection that many students in private schools do better in school because they come from more affluent families?
Even when you write about a much less controversial subject, you must think carefully about your audience’s attitudes toward what you have to say or write. Sometimes your audience may share your attitudes; other times, your audience may be neutral.
At still other times, your audience will have attitudes that differ sharply from your own. Anticipate these various attitudes and act accordingly. If these attitudes are different from yours, you will have to work hard to counter them without insulting your audience.
Organize Your Argument
Use a formal or working outline to organize your argument.
Asking a series of questions can generate a list of good reasons, but even if you have plenty, you still have to decide which ones to use and in what order to present them. Thinking about your readers’ knowledge, attitudes, and values will help you to decide which reasons to present to your audience, and in what order.
Sometimes the organization of a paper is determined by its genre, just as a lab report is expected to follow a certain pattern. And sometimes one reason is tied closely to another so that they should be presented one after the other.
But if you have the freedom to order your supporting good reasons in several different ways, resist the temptation to present them in the order in which they occurred to you.
Instead, think about putting your strongest arguments in the first and last positions. Or put your least controversial reason first in order to build your audience’s trust.
Writing plans often take the form of outlines, either formal outlines or working outlines. A formal outline typically begins with the thesis statement, which anchors the entire outline.
Read at your normal rate the first time through without stopping. When you finish, you should have a clear sense of what the writer is trying to accomplish. Try writing the following.
Main idea: Write a sentence that summarizes what you think is the writer’s main idea in the draft.
Purpose: Write a sentence that states what you think the writer is trying to accomplish in the draft.
Write about it
Identify an older building or space in your city, town, or campus that has been converted to a new use. How successful is the revision? One measure of success is how many people use the converted building or space. Not all revisions succeed. Go to the site and observe how many people visit and what they do when they get there.
Go to the oldest part of your city or town. Take a notebook or a tablet with you. Learn as much as you can about the history of a particular building or buildings through observing.
Many buildings have visible signs of their past, such as the name of a former business on the front facade. Note as many details as you can identify. Then write about the history of the building or space from what you can infer from the details.
In your second reading, you should be most concerned with the content, organization, and completeness of the draft. Make notes in pencil as you read.
Introduction: Does the writer’s first paragraph effectively introduce the topic and engage your interest?
Thesis: What exactly is the writer’s thesis? Is it clear? Note in the margin where you think the thesis is located.
Supporting Arguments: How does the writer support the thesis for the essay? Note any instances where you’re not seeing a logical connection between a claim and the evidence that supports that claim.
Where is the writer engaging in faulty reasoning? What suggestions can you offer so that the supporting arguments are persuasive and effective?
Focus: Does the writer maintain focus on the thesis? Are the various “good reasons” apparent? Note any places where the writer seems to wander off to another topic.
Organization: Are the sections and paragraphs arranged effectively? Do any paragraphs seem to be out of place? Can you suggest a better order for the paragraphs?
Completeness: Are there sections or paragraphs that lack key information or adequate development? Where do you want to know more?
In your third reading, turn your attention to matters of the audience, style, and tone.
Audience: Who are the writer ’s intended readers? What does the writer assume the audience knows and believes?
Style: Is the writer’s style engaging? How would you describe the writer’s voice?
Tone: Is the tone appropriate for the writer’s purpose and audience? Is the tone consistent throughout the draft? Are there places where another word or phrase might work better?
When you have finished the third reading, write a short paragraph on each bulleted item above. Refer to specific paragraphs in the draft by number. Then end by answering these two questions:
What does the writer do especially well in the draft?
What one or two things would most improve the draft in a revision?
Revise Your Draft
Revise your draft using outside feedback and your own analysis.
Sharpen your focus whenever possible. You may have started out with a large topic but now find that most of what you write concerns only one aspect. If so, revise your thesis and supporting paragraphs.
Check if key terms are adequately defined. Locate your key terms. Are they defined precisely enough to be meaningful? Have you provided other necessary background information for your readers? Make the necessary adjustments.
Develop your ideas where necessary. Key points and claims may need more explanation and supporting evidence. Look for new evidence that you can add without being redundant. Do you have enough good reasons to accomplish your aim? Do you see any instances of faulty reasoning? Make sure you rectify logical missteps.
Check links between paragraphs. Review any places where you make abrupt shifts and rewrite to make the transitions better. Make sure you signal the relationship from one paragraph to the next.
Consider your title. A good title makes the reader want to see what you have to say. Be as specific as you can in your title and, if possible, suggest your stance.
Consider your introduction. In the introduction, you want to get off to a fast start and convince your reader to keep reading. Make sure your introduction cuts right to the chase.
Consider your conclusions. Restating your thesis usually isn’t the best way to finish; conclusions that offer only a summary bore readers. The worst endings say something like “in my paper, I’ve said this.” Effective conclusions are interesting and provocative, leaving readers with something to think about. Rework your conclusion if necessary.
Improve the visual aspects of your text. Is the font you selected easy to read? Would headings and subheadings help to identify key sections? If you include statistical data, would charts be effective? Would illustrations help to establish key points?
Edit and proofread your draft.
When you finish revising, you are ready for one final careful reading with the goals of improving your style and eliminating errors.
Edit for style
Check connections between sentences and paragraphs. Notice how your sentences flow within each paragraph and from paragraph to paragraph. If you need to signal the relationship from one sentence or paragraph to the next, use a transitional word or phrase (e.g., in addition, moreover, similarly, however, nevertheless).
Check your sentences. Often you will pick up problems with inpidual sentences by reading aloud. If you notice that a sentence doesn’t sound right, think about how you might rephrase it.
If a sentence seems too long, consider breaking it into two or more sentences. If you notice a string of short sentences that sound choppy, consider combining them.
Eliminate wordiness. Look for wordy expressions such as because of the fact that and at this point in time, which can easily be shortened to because and now.
Reduce unnecessary repetition such as attractive in appearance or visible to the eye to attractive and visible. Remove unnecessary words like very, really, and totally. See how many words you can remove without losing the meaning.
Use active verbs. Make your style more lively by replacing forms of being (is, are, was, were) or verbs ending in -ing with active verbs. Sentences that begin with There is (are) and It is can often be rewritten with active verbs.
In your final pass through your text, eliminate as many errors as you can. To become an effective proofreader, you have to learn to slow down. Some writers find that moving from word to word with a pencil slows them down enough to find errors. Others read backward to force themselves to concentrate on each word.
Know what your spelling checker can and can’t do. Spelling checkers are the greatest invention since peanut butter. They turn up many typos and misspellings that are hard to catch. But spelling checkers do not catch wrong words (too much for too much), missing endings (three dogs), and other similar errors.
Check for grammar and punctuation. Nothing hurts your credibility more than leaving errors in what you write. Many job application letters get tossed in the reject pile because of a single, glaring error.
Readers probably shouldn’t make such harsh judgments when they find errors, but often they do. Keep a grammar handbook beside your computer or mobile device, and use it when you are uncertain about what is correct.
DESIGNING AND PRESENTING ARGUMENTS
The good reasons you use to support an argument can vary greatly in form. When arguing about a particular topic, you might type several sentences that present a logical sequence of statements that lead your readers to a conclusion.
In arguing about other issues, however, you might determine that a striking photograph presents a good reason that will persuade your audience, or you might find or create a table or graph that presents data leading your audience to a specific conclusion.
When working on a different issue, you might see that a person or group’s activities offer a good reason to support your argument, so you decide to get their permission and video-record them.
And at still other times, you might audio-record an interview with a community member and decide that not only what the person said but also the emotional tone in which she said it presents a compelling reason in support of your argument.
Because these good reasons vary in form—text or typing, visuals, videos, audio-recorded speech—the skilled writer or speaker will design the argument in a way that takes the best advantage of the particular medium.
Learning to use effective strategies for integrating text, images, audio, or video into your arguments will help you to make your arguments more engaging, compelling, and persuasive.
Know When to Use Visual Evidence
Analyze how an image, graphics, or video communicates to an audience.
Personal computers, digital cameras, scanners, printers, and the Web have made it easy to include images and graphics in writing and to link to audio and video. But these technologies don’t tell you if, when, or how images and graphics should be used.
Think about what an image or graphic communicates
What is the purpose of an image or graphic? Does it illustrate a concept? Does it highlight an important point? Does it show something that is hard to explain with words alone? If you don’t know the purpose, you may not need the image.
Where should an image or graphic be placed in your text? Images should be as close as possible to the relevant point in your text.
What will readers focus on when they see the image? Will they focus on the part that matters? If not, you may need to crop the image.
What explanation do readers need in order to understand the image? Provide informative captions for the images and graphics you use, and refer to the images in your text.
What are your readers’ expectations for the medium you are using? Decide whether your readers would welcome the appearance of visual evidence in the text you are creating. Most readers expect Web sites and brochures to contain many images, while they expect fewer or no images at all when reading an essay.
Think About the Argument an Image Makes
Describe the argument made by an image, graphics, or video.
Images don’t speak for themselves, but if they are referenced in your text and captioned, they can make supporting arguments. Think strategically when you include visual arguments.
Say, for example, you are making a proposal argument for more students to become involved in feeding homeless people in your city. Students are aware that there are homeless people, but many students are not aware of organizations that deliver food to hungry people. You might want to photograph the volunteers instead of homeless people.
Think about the argument a chart or graph makes
Charts and graphs are useful for visually representing statistical trends and for making comparisons. For example, the U.S. Department of Education uses a bar chart to show how a college or career school education increases your chances of making more money and having more job opportunities. This bar chart offers a direct comparison of earnings and unemployment rates for each level of education.
Think about the argument a video makes
Videos can allow your audience both to see and hear good reasons for your argument. For example, a video clip showing a bicycle rider arguing with a passing car could support your argument for adding a bike lane along a heavily used road near campus.
Seeing the problem you are describing, such as the conflict between drivers and cyclists, makes it come alive for your audience. Most cameras and smartphones give you the capability of recording short videos, which you can embed in your multimedia project.
Analyze how an audio interview or recorded sounds communicate to an audience.
Cell phones, laptops, personal digital assistants, and iPods have made it easy to record conversations and sounds in your daily life. Knowing when and how to use them in your multimedia argument can help you to showcase the good reasons supporting your argument.
Think about what sound communicates
What is the purpose of the recording of speech or other sounds? Does it deliver information? Does it highlight the emotional intensity of a person’s argument? Does it present an example?
Does it illustrate a concept? Does it show something that is hard to explain with words alone? If you don’t know the purpose, you may not need the sound.
Where should an audio clip be placed in your text? Readers should encounter sound clips as close as possible to the relevant point in your text.
What will readers focus on when they listen to the audio clip? Will they focus on the part that matters, whether it is a person speaking or a specific sound in an environment? If not, you may need to shorten the audio clip or work with sound editing tools to reduce other background noises.
What explanation do readers need in order to understand the sound? Provide informative explanations (spoken if producing an audio essay or written if creating a digital, multimedia text) for the audio clips that you use. Determine whether readers need to hear or read those explanations before or after hearing the audio.
What are your readers’ expectations for the medium you are using? Decide how your readers would likely react when they encounter audio in your argument.
Listeners to podcasts, of course, expect to experience a rich array of speech and other sounds, and readers of Web sites, blogs, and online essays likely welcome sound when integrated thoughtfully into an argument.
Think about the argument an audio interview makes
While writers can transcribe word-for-word what a person said in an interview, a multimedia argument can also integrate an audio recording of the person speaking. These sound clips can help your audience to experience a greater connection with that person’s words and gain deeper insight into the person’s attitudes toward and emotions on the topic.
Think about the argument that sounds make
Sometimes writers can record sounds in order to capture the experience of a particular person or place. For example, a writer might record the early-morning chirping of birds in a cluster of trees and use it as a good reason to support the preservation of those trees as a valued community resource.
Think About Your Good Reasons and the Best Media for Delivering Them
Identify the best media for delivering good reasons for your audience.
Most college assignments specify the medium in which you must present an argument, which is typically a printed paper that you submit to the instructor. In other classes, as well as in the workplace and in life outside college, you can be more purposeful and strategic with your choice of medium.
What types of good reasons have you generated or assembled: statistics and analysis, photos, videos, audio? And where and when do you want a particular audience to encounter your argument?
For example, if you want to make an argument about how your neighborhood should transform an abandoned lot, you could generate good reasons by photographing and analyzing the limitations or potential in the existing space, such as the size or boundaries, and you could create a drawing and compose a description that illustrates a new vision for how the space could be used.
Once you pull together those good reasons, you’ll need to think about the best ways to deliver them to your readers. Would a brochure best showcase your argument? A Web site? Something else?
Indeed, you may have a clear sense of your message and the good reasons to support that message. But no matter how good your argument, nothing will happen unless you can command the scarcest commodity in our multitasking world—the attention of your audience.
Think, then, about your options for the media, both in terms of how you can best showcase your good reasons and how you can reach your intended audience where and when they need to take in your argument.
Think about your options.
Advantages: Complex, in-depth arguments are possible. Visual images can be inserted alongside text. Low technological requirements to produce.
Disadvantages: Video and audio cannot typically be embedded. Also, unless published in an established forum like a newspaper, it can be difficult to get people to read the argument.
Advantages: Allows good reasons in the form of images, video, audio, and animations to be embedded alongside text, and it is inexpensive to create.
Disadvantages: How do people find your Web site among the millions of other sites?
Advantages: Images, video, and audio can easily be embedded alongside typewritten text. Inexpensive to create, and many sites host blogs.
Disadvantages: Requires a strategy to attract readers to your blog, and requires frequent, interesting content to keep those same readers coming back.
Advantages: Can allow the audience to hear people talk and hear distinct features of a particular area or activity. When scripted in an engaging style, podcasts can focus readers’ attention. Inexpensive to create and can be downloaded from a Web site.
Disadvantages: Requires scripting so that the argument is easy to follow when listening, and producing the podcast requires some audio editing skills. Like other Web-based media, you have to have a strategy for getting people to listen.
Advantages: Allows viewers to see and hear an event, experience, or activity. Requires careful thought about how to sequence video clips and how they can be uploaded to sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
Disadvantages: Producing quality original video takes time, equipment, and editing skills. Requires careful thought about how to sequence video clips and, in many cases, integrate text or audio arguments to build the larger argument.
Design Multimedia Arguments
Create effective multimedia projects involving images, Website production, audio, and video.
Digital technologies now make it possible to create on your home computer multimedia projects that formerly required entire production staffs.
You can publish multimedia projects on the Internet (either as Web sites or as downloadable files), as stand-alone media distributed on CDs and DVDs, or in print with posters, brochures, and essays with images.
College viewers and listeners expect the content of multimedia projects to be high in quality. They expect:
Your project to be well organized and free of errors.
Your claims to be supported with evidence.
Your analysis to be insightful.
Your sources to be documented.
Your work to be clearly distinguished from the work of others.
Creating multimedia projects
If you decide to create a multimedia project, find out what resources are available for students on your campus. Many colleges and universities have digital media labs, which offer workshops and can provide video and audio studios, technical assistance, equipment, and software. Look for links to digital media services on your college’s Web site.
ESSAY WITH IMAGES
Example project: Evaluation argument concerning the poor condition of parks in your city
Plan: Visit several parks, make notes, and take photographs.
Produce: Write the project. Edit your images with an image editor and insert them into your project with captions.
Edit: Revise with the comments of classmates and your instructor.
Example project: Website making a definition argument that censorship of the Internet is a violation of the right to free speech
Plan: Collect all the materials you will need for your site including text; digital images; graphics; and audio, video, and animation files.
Produce: If you don’t have a Web editor on your computer, find a campus lab that has Dreamweaver or similar software. Upload your site to a server. Many colleges offer server space to host student Web sites.
Edit: Test your site to ensure that all links are working and all images and other files are showing up correctly. Edit with a Web editor.
Example project: Oral history of neighborhood residents making a causal argument about why a neighborhood declined after a freeway was built through the middle of it
Plan: Arrange and record interviews and write a script.
Produce Reserve a campus audio production labor record on your computer.
Create an audio file by combining the interviews with your narration.
Edit: Edit with an audio editor. Export the video into a format that you can put on the Web or share as a downloadable file.
Example project: Proposal to create bike lanes on a busy street near your campus
Plan: Identify locations, get permission to film if necessary, and write a script.
Produce Shoot video of the street with cars and bikes competing. Interview cyclists, drivers, and local business owners about their sense of urgency of the problem and the effects of creating bike lanes.
Edit: Edit with a video editor. Export the video into a format that you can put on the Web or share as a downloadable file.
Design arguments for print
List the important elements for designing a print page.
Writing on a computer gives you a range of options for designing a page that is appropriate for your assignment. Thinking about design will lead to a more effective presentation of your argument.
Choose the orientation, size of your page, and a number of columns. You can usually use the defaults on your computer for academic essays (remember to select double-spacing for line spacing if the default is single-spaced).
For other kinds of texts, you may want a horizontal rather than a vertical orientation, a size other than a standard sheet of paper, and two or more columns rather than one.
The paragraph is the basic unit of extended writing, but also think about when to use lists. This list is a bulleted list. You can also use a numbered list.
Use left-aligned text with a ragged right margin. Fully justified text aligns the right margin, which gives a more formal look but can also leave unsightly rivers of extra white space running through the middle of your text. The ragged-right text is easier to read.
Be conscious of white space. White space can make your text more readable and set off more important elements. Headings stand out more with white space surrounding them. Leave room around graphics. Don’t crowd words too close to graphics because both the words and the visuals will become hard to read.
Be aware of MLA and APA design specifications. MLA and APA styles have specifications for margins, indentions, reference lists, and other aspects of paper formatting.
Plan a Presentation
Explain the steps for creating an effective presentation.
If you are assigned to give a presentation, look carefully at the assignment for guidance on finding a topic. Finding a topic for a presentation is similar to finding a topic for a written assignment. If your assignment requires research, you will need to document the sources of information just as you do for a research paper.
Start with your goals in mind
What is the real purpose of your presentation? Are you informing, persuading, or motivating? Take the elevator test. Imagine you are in an elevator with the key people who can approve or reject your ideas. Their schedule is very tight. You have only 30 seconds to convince them. Can you make your case?
This scenario is not far-fetched. One executive demanded that every new idea had to be written in one sentence on the back of a business card. What’s your sentence?
It’s all about your audience
Who is your audience? In college your audience is often your instructor and fellow students—an audience you know well. Many times you will not have this advantage.
Take a few minutes to answer these questions.
Will my audience be interested in the topic?
Why does it matter to them?
What are they likely to know and believe about the topic?
What are they likely not to know?
Where are they likely to disagree?
What do I want them to do?
How much time do I have?
If they remember only one thing, what should it be?
Start with pen and paper before you begin creating slides. Sticky notes are another useful planning tool.
Make a list of key points. Think about the best order for your major points.
Plan your introduction. Your success depends on your introduction. You must gain the attention of your audience, introduce your topic, indicate why it’s important, and give a sense of where you are headed. That’s a tall order, but if you don’t engage your audience in the first two minutes, you will lose them.
Plan your conclusion. You want to end on a strong note. Stopping abruptly or rambling on only to tail off leaves your audience with a bad impression. Give your audience something to take away, a compelling example or an idea that captures the gist of your presentation.
Content alone does not make a presentation successful, but you cannot succeed without solid content. Support your major points with relevant evidence.
Facts. Speakers who know their facts build credibility.
Statistics. Effective use of statistics can tell the audience that you have done your homework. Statistics can also indicate that a particular example is a representative.
Statements by authorities. Quotations from credible experts can support key points.
Narratives. Narratives are brief stories that illustrate key points. Narratives can hold the attention of the audience—but keep them short or they will become a distraction.
Design Visuals for a Presentation
Design visuals for a presentation and use audio and video clips strategically.
Less is more with slides. One text-filled slide after another is mind-numbingly dull. Presentations using slides don’t have to be this bad.
Keep it simple
Imagine you are making an argument that fewer animals would be euthanized at animal shelters if more people in your city knew that they could save a pet’s life by adopting it. You could fill your slides with statistics alone.
Or you tell your audience the facts while showing them slides that give emotional impact to your numbers. Simple design rules! Keep in mind these principles.
Which slide makes the point most effectively?
But what if you have a lot of data to show? Make a handout that the audience can study later. They can make notes on your handout, which gives them a personal investment. Keep your slides simple and emphasize the main points in the presentation.
Use audio and video clips strategically
Short audio and video clips can offer concrete examples and add some variety to your presentation. An audience appreciates hearing and even seeing the people you interview.
PowerPoint, Prezi, Keynote, and other presentation software make it simple to embed the files within a presentation. Be careful, however, in using built-in sound effects such as canned applause. Most sound effects are annoying and make you come off as inexperienced.
Deliver an Effective Presentation
Understand how to deliver an effective presentation. If you are not passionate about your subject, you will never get your audience committed to your subject, no matter how handsome your slides. Believe in what you say; enthusiasm is contagious.
It’s all about you
The audience didn’t come to see the back of your head in front of the slides. Move away from the podium and connect with them. Make strong eye contact with individuals. You will make everyone feel as if you were having a conversation instead of giving a speech.
Prepare in advance
Practice your presentation, even if you have to speak to an empty chair. Check out the room and equipment in advance. If you are using your laptop with a projector installed in the room, make sure it connects.
If the room has a computer connected to the projector, bring your presentation on a flash drive and download it to the computer.
Pay attention to the little things.
Proofread carefully. A glaring spelling error can destroy your credibility.
Be consistent. If you randomly capitalize words or insert punctuation, your audience will be distracted.
Pay attention to the timing of your slides. Stay in sync with your slides.
Don’t leave a slide up when you are talking about something else.
Use the “B” key. If you get sidetracked, press the “B” key, which makes the screen go blank so the audience can focus on you. When you are ready to resume, press the “B” key again and the slide reappears.
Involve your audience. Invite response during your presentation where appropriate, and leave time for questions at the end.
Add a bit of humor. Humor can be tricky, especially if you don’t know your audience well. But if you can get people to laugh, they will be on your side.
Slow down. When you are nervous, you tend to go too fast. Stop and breathe.
Let your audience take in what’s on your slides.
Finish on time or earlier. Your audience will be grateful.
Be courteous and gracious. Remember to thank anyone who helped you and the audience for their comments. Eventually, you will run into someone who challenges you, sometimes politely, sometimes not. If you remain cool and in control, the audience will remember your behavior long after the words are forgotten.