Argumentative essays often strike fear deep into the heart of even the most dedicated students; there really is no need. Let’s face it, we all like a good argument every now and again! Everyone’s at it: politicians, news broadcasters, lawyers, and solicitors… even that noisy couple next door who can’t seem to agree on whose turn it is to take the garbage out! But topping the list of supporters of the argumentative form simply has to be teachers and professors. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, the chances are that, at some point during the school year, you will be asked to write an argumentative essay.
Well, fear not, our essay editors have put together just the guide for you, and in a few minutes’ time, you will have the confidence and knowledge to go forth and argue!
So what exactly is an argumentative essay and how angry do I need to be?
It’s a harsh fact of life that human beings do not always agree. Even the most educated, wise and honest members of society suffer from differences of opinion every now and again, and there really is nothing wrong with that. Argumentative essays are important in the land of academia because they offer students an opportunity to develop an argument that is presented in a measured and considered manner. When you write an argumentative essay, you are not angry; in fact, it’s the complete opposite. You are putting forward your opinions in a calm manner that is aimed at convincing others to adopt your stance.
What Should I Argue About?
Quite often your professor will allow you to choose your own topic for your argumentative essays. If so, this is good news, and you will shortly see why. The most important thing you need when composing your essay is the desire to win. Your main objective is to change the opinion of the reader and, to do this, you need to be very, very convincing. To be convincing, you need to be knowledgeable. For this reason, you should have two things in mind when selecting a topic:
- It must be possible to actually win the argument in the first place. It doesn’t matter how strongly you feel about something, if you address issues that are highly contentious then you will find it very hard to emerge the victor. Try and stay away from topics like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research etc. because your teacher will probably have come across essays on these topics a million times before and you will find it difficult to present new arguments.
- You need to know your stuff. To write a strong argument, you need to have the knowledge required to present all the facts and address all the pros and cons. If you have never tried water skiing, then you are not qualified to write argumentative essays that claim water skiing is the best possible form of getting fit. Choose a topic that you are an expert in and, preferably, one that you find interesting.
I Have a Topic, Now What?
There are several steps to writing great argumentative essays:
I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed! -William Shakespeare
Yes, dull as it is, you need to read, read and read some more. To write effective argumentative essays, you need an advanced knowledge of the subject matter because, if you don’t know all the facts, you risk looking like a fool. For some great tips on researching papers, see our free tips for essay writing.
State Your Proposition.
Before you start writing you need to have a focus. The best way to achieve this is to define a short proposition or thesis statement. This is important as it will help you to concentrate on the topic in a productive manner. You may find that your proposition changes as your thought process develops; this is completely normal. Just ensure that you revise your proposition as you progress to ensure that it adequately reflects your thinking.
You should always ensure that your statement makes a debatable assertion. A proposition that states something like “social network sites should be banned,” is far too weak and broad and it doesn’t really inform the reader of what the essay will cover. Stay away from vague generalizations and try and be as precise as possible. For example, you may wish to revise the statement as follows: “Use of social network sites during classroom hours should be banned because they prevent students from concentrating.” Now the reader will know what to expect from the essay and will have a good understanding of the main points of the argument.
Think about the opposition.
The key to writing a good argumentative essay is to remember that someone, somewhere will disagree with your opinion. If not, then there’s no need for the essay in the first place. Your objective when writing argumentative essays is to anticipate what someone who is opposed to your argument may say, and to subsequently counter and overcome their objections. Ask the following:
- Who may disagree with me?
- What points will they disagree with?
- How strong will the opposition be?
- How can I refute their opinions?
- Which points are the most debatable?
By asking questions such as these, you can really understand whether you have a chance of winning the argument and can anticipate the crucial points that could determine your success or failure.
Structure Your Argument.
Think of your essay in terms of paragraphs, with each paragraph addressing a separate element of the argument. A useful structure may look like this:
- Introduction. Set up and establish your proposition. Try and make it interesting and draw the reader into reading your argument.
- Background. Provide a brief background of the topic under discussion. Explain key theories and terms.
- Supporting evidence paragraphs. Create one or more paragraphs that present your argument and supports it using the information you have found during the research process.
- Counterargument paragraphs. Create one or more paragraphs that address potential opposing views to the arguments you have given. Refute these arguments using hard facts.
- Conclusion. Sum up your argument and assert that you have achieved your objective of successfully arguing the facts.
One final point, argumentative essays do not need to be boring. Choose a topic that you’re interested in, and you may just find that writing essays can actually be fun!
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When you write an academic essay, you make an argument: you propose a thesis and offer some reasoning, using evidence, that suggests why the thesis is true. When you counter-argue, you consider a possible argument against your thesis or some aspect of your reasoning. This is a good way to test your ideas when drafting, while you still have time to revise them. And in the finished essay, it can be a persuasive and (in both senses of the word) disarming tactic. It allows you to anticipate doubts and pre-empt objections that a skeptical reader might have; it presents you as the kind of person who weighs alternatives before arguing for one, who confronts difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug, who is more interested in discovering the truth than winning a point.
Not every objection is worth entertaining, of course, and you shouldn't include one just to include one. But some imagining of other views, or of resistance to one's own, occurs in most good essays. And instructors are glad to encounter counterargument in student papers, even if they haven't specifically asked for it.
The Turn Against
Counterargument in an essay has two stages: you turn against your argument to challenge it and then you turn back to re-affirm it. You first imagine a skeptical reader, or cite an actual source, who might resist your argument by pointing out
- a problem with your demonstration, e.g., that a different conclusion could be drawn from the same facts, a key assumption is unwarranted, a key term is used unfairly, certain evidence is ignored or played down;
- one or more disadvantages or practical drawbacks to what you propose;
- an alternative explanation or proposal that makes more sense.
You introduce this turn against with a phrase like One might object here that... or It might seem that... or It's true that... or Admittedly,... or Of course,... or with an anticipated challenging question: But how...? or But why...? or But isn't this just...? or But if this is so, what about...? Then you state the case against yourself as briefly but as clearly and forcefully as you can, pointing to evidence where possible. (An obviously feeble or perfunctory counterargument does more harm than good.)
The Turn Back
Your return to your own argument—which you announce with a but, yet, however, nevertheless or still—must likewise involve careful reasoning, not a flippant (or nervous) dismissal. In reasoning about the proposed counterargument, you may
- refute it, showing why it is mistaken—an apparent but not real problem;
- acknowledge its validity or plausibility, but suggest why on balance it's relatively less important or less likely than what you propose, and thus doesn't overturn it;
- concede its force and complicate your idea accordingly—restate your thesis in a more exact, qualified, or nuanced way that takes account of the objection, or start a new section in which you consider your topic in light of it. This will work if the counterargument concerns only an aspect of your argument; if it undermines your whole case, you need a new thesis.
Where to Put a Counterargument
Counterargument can appear anywhere in the essay, but it most commonly appears
- as part of your introduction—before you propose your thesis—where the existence of a different view is the motive for your essay, the reason it needs writing;
- as a section or paragraph just after your introduction, in which you lay out the expected reaction or standard position before turning away to develop your own;
- as a quick move within a paragraph, where you imagine a counterargument not to your main idea but to the sub-idea that the paragraph is arguing or is about to argue;
- as a section or paragraph just before the conclusion of your essay, in which you imagine what someone might object to what you have argued.
But watch that you don't overdo it. A turn into counterargument here and there will sharpen and energize your essay, but too many such turns will have the reverse effect by obscuring your main idea or suggesting that you're ambivalent.
Counterargument in Pre-Writing and Revising
Good thinking constantly questions itself, as Socrates observed long ago. But at some point in the process of composing an essay, you need to switch off the questioning in your head and make a case. Having such an inner conversation during the drafting stage, however, can help you settle on a case worth making. As you consider possible theses and begin to work on your draft, ask yourself how an intelligent person might plausibly disagree with you or see matters differently. When you can imagine an intelligent disagreement, you have an arguable idea.
And, of course, the disagreeing reader doesn't need to be in your head: if, as you're starting work on an essay, you ask a few people around you what they think of topic X (or of your idea about X) and keep alert for uncongenial remarks in class discussion and in assigned readings, you'll encounter a useful disagreement somewhere. Awareness of this disagreement, however you use it in your essay, will force you to sharpen your own thinking as you compose. If you come to find the counterargument truer than your thesis, consider making it your thesis and turning your original thesis into a counterargument. If you manage to draft an essay without imagining a counterargument, make yourself imagine one before you revise and see if you can integrate it.
Copyright 1999, Gordon Harvey (adapted from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy), for the Writing Center at Harvard University