The Art of Writing an Argument

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If you’re a high school or college student, at some point you’ve most likely been assigned an “Argument Essay.” While most of us know the simple definition of argument, many individuals new to academic writing are often confused as to what exactly defines an argument. Defining what an argument is not is a great place to start.

An argument is not a debate. Politicians debate, hoping to come out a winner. With an argument, there are no winners and losers. The foundation of an argument is a desire for truth. For an argument to be successful, there must be cooperative inquiry, or consideration on both sides of a position. The outcome of a successful argument is to find the best solution to a problem as well as the best course of action.

In writing an argument, finding solutions to conflicts or complex problems and an effective course of action, the writer must appeal to reason. You, in writing an argument, can only present an effective argument if you clarify and support the reasons you present in favor of your position. This is often referred to as the “because clause” that supports the claim.

Often when closely studying reasons, the writer will re-examine their own line of reasoning as well as their long-held beliefs and assumptions. They might have to rethink their line of reasoning if their argument is not persuading their intended audience. As the argument becomes clearer, the writer can begin to more effectively appeal to their audience’s values and beliefs, and develop reasons that appeal to that audience.

Let’s break this down into a common dispute. A sixteen-year-old wants to stay out as late as she wants. The parents say no. A dispute ensues.

Daughter: BUT I’M SIXTEEN AND ALL MY FRIENDS STAY OUT AS LATE AS THEY WANT!

In this line of reasoning, the unstated assumptions are that (1) The age of sixteen automatically renders teens responsible enough to stay out late and (2) this family’s rules should be dictated by what other family rules are. Not a very effective argument. Why? A poor line of reasoning.

What might be a better line of reasoning to convince the intended audience (parents) that their sixteen-year-old should stay out so late?

Taking the values and beliefs of the audience into consideration, the daughter might appeal to their assumption that she is too young or immature to stay out so late.

Daughter: I should be allowed to stay out late on a trial basis because I need the opportunity to demonstrate my maturity and show you I won’t get into trouble.

In this example, the daughter needed to clarify her reasons to appeal to the values of her intended audience, her parents.

The parent in the example held an underlying assumption that the daughter was too young and immature to stay out so late. Once the daughter appealed to this belief with a more effective line of reasoning, her audience could be more effectively persuaded.

Consider your topic, and especially how you are going to appeal to your intended audience. What are their underlying values and beliefs? How will your line of reasoning best appeal to those values and beliefs.

Practice creating effective supporting reasons for an extremely disagreeable audience with the claims below.

  1. Video game manufacturers should be allowed to sell games without restrictions on age.
  2. The Electoral College is obsolete and should be abolished.
  3. Medical marijuana should be legalized nationally for distribution and use in all 50 states.

 

Works Consulted: Writing Arguments. Ramage, Bean, Johnson. Pearson Education, New York, 2004.  

 

 

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Writing the Response Essay

To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
– Kenneth Burke

 

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In college, you will probably be expected to write a paper in response to another text often referred to as a Response Essay. The text could be in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, a government or business report, a book, or even visual texts, such as magazine advertisements. (For our purposes here, we will not be covering responses of literary texts.)

Instructors often assign response essays to not only encourage a deep reading of a text, but also empower students to form critical opinions of their own in response to others’ opinions. Responding to texts requires students to carefully consider how they feel about often controversial issues, perhaps issues students have never considered before. Often, the outcome for students of writing response essays can be a new understanding and appreciation – even a passion – for a topic.

How to Begin

The first step is the obvious – read the text carefully. But this step is often glossed over too rapidly. It’s not enough to read through a text once; read it enough times that you thoroughly understand the topic, the writer’s opinions, the main ideas, the minor details, and can articulate them without re-reading the text. This may take several reads before you fully understand the entirety of the text.

Annotate, Annotate, Annotate

As you read through the text, note in the margins what each paragraph is communicating. Some instructors will ask to see your annotations to make sure you’re taking notes. One way to gain a thorough understanding of the key points as you read is to note what each paragraph is saying, and what each paragraph is doing.

Annotating what the paragraph is saying is to simply summarize briefly the main idea in each paragraph. This helps you to retain the information and aids you in finding key points. Annotating what a paragraph is doing is to take note of what the author’s intention is. Does the writer argue a main point? Does the author prove his point with facts or statistics or other evidence? Does the paragraph cite background and history? Notice that when you annotate what your paragraphs “does,” you’ll use verbs to show action. This will demonstrate what rhetorical strategies the author is using to build his or her argument, and will play a key role in how you analyze the text.

Identify Major and Minor Details

Once you’ve done a thorough read-through and annotated the paragraphs, it’s a good idea to read again and highlight the details. You might use a color marker to highlight the major details of the paragraph, and then use a different color marker to highlight the minor supporting details. Although this sounds easy, this step is where students often fail. It is imperative to be able to identify the key major details that are moving the argument forward, and differentiate them from the minor details that only offer supporting evidence.

Ask Questions

Now that you have read through the text a few times, you might be thinking about some inconsistencies, contradictions, or lapses in information. This is the time to jot down questions you might have. Are you finding holes in the writer’s argument? Does the writer fail to fully communicate the full scope of the problem, or fall short of explaining other key points? Do you feel the writer is fair and unbiased, or leaning heavily toward one side without giving voice to the opposition? Does anything surprise or puzzle you?

What do YOU Think?

The objective of a Response assignment is to respond, so you’ll be asked to communicate what your opinions are. As you carefully consider your response to the text and author, think about how you feel about the text.

Do you agree or disagree?
What exactly do you agree or disagree with?
Can you recall a similar personal experience or do you have prior knowledge of the topic?
What key ideas might you want to evaluate  more closely?

Once you have a clear idea what you think about what you’ve read, now it’s time to put it all together.

Drafting: Organize your Thoughts

If you’ve followed all of these steps to prepare your response, congratulations! If you’ve taken careful notes, annotated the text thoroughly, and have an informed opinion, you may find you have the skeleton of your response paper written.


Putting it all Together

The Intro

Begin the paper by introducing the author and title of the text, as in the following example:

In Victor Frisk’s article, “No Way Out,” the author states that the US should detain all travelers coming into the country from destinations that have been proved to have Ebola cases within the last year.

This first sentence does many things: it introduces the author; introduces the article title, and gives the author’s main argument or idea.

The following sentences in the intro should briefly summarize the text. This should be a very brief summary of what you read. It’s not unusual for instructors to ask you to skip the summary, so follow your guidelines carefully.

The final sentence in the intro will state your thesis, a concise focused opinion of where you stand. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s premise?

The Body

There are several ways to organize the body of a response. Most instructors ask students to include textual evidence in the body. You might do this by inserting an author quote, contextualizing the quote, then commenting on the quote with your response. Regardless of how you organize it, the body paragraphs should contain only one idea each, and connect back to your thesis. What you include in the body will be determined by your assignment guidelines, but remember to  always relate back to the thesis as you go.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is a restatement of your thesis and how it fits with the original text’s argument. Reinforce your thesis, but avoid restating it word for word. You might leave the reader with a thoughtful comment or question to consider, or a prediction of future consequences or outcomes. Avoid inserting new information or quotes in the conclusion.

Response essays pose special challenges for students, but with several close readings and careful note taking, you’ll be well on your way to a successful paper.