A Student's Brief Overview of Argumentative Essays
Tips for writing an argumentative essay. Writing effective argumentative essay requires becoming a complete expert on the issue you're writing about.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The argumentative essay answers the question "how did you reach that conclusion?" The paper sets forth a premise and then takes the reader -- in sequence -- through the writer's thought process to show how the writer arrived at his or her conclusion. Your instructor seeks clear, convincing evidence that you have thought through the matter at hand.
Choose a topic that is controversial, yet well-defined and not too broad. It should be an issue about which you can find sufficient research. Check newspapers, news magazines, TV news, interview, and debate shows (such as the newsmaker shows on Sunday mornings), the nonfiction book bestseller list, and Internet news and blog sites for current and interesting topics.
To write an effective argumentative essay, you must develop expertise on the issue you're writing about, including the side of the issue that does not represent your view. This is a time to question your beliefs because your argumentative essay will be effective only if you've clearly researched and presented both sides. Be sure to maintain a professional, even-handed, not vitriolic or hysterical, tone in your paper.
Support your arguments with:
- your own experience, if appropriate
- quotes from experts
- interviews with those who have opinions or expertise on the issue
- information from scholarly and popular literature
- survey research (if you conduct survey research, make sure it is statistically sound and your survey is well designed)
Acknowledge and address opposing arguments in your essay. Indicate underlying reasons that opponents hold their opinions. You can agree that there is some validity to the opposition's point but that those points are not strong enough to negate your argument. You can also make a case for complete disagreement with the opposing argument or that it is irrelevant.
Various approaches are possible with argumentative essays, including induction, pro and con, cause and effect, and analysis of alternatives. The following shows effective ways to structure argumentative essays based on which approach you take:
- Individual paragraphs, each containing a set of facts and observations related to the premise, including history of the issue, extent of the issue, repercussions/consequences of the issue, arguments that address possible objections to your opinion
- Conclusion that considers all the preceding facts
Pro and Con
- First premise
- Detailed examples of first premise
- Opposing premise
- Detailed examples of opposing premise
- A balanced conclusion
Cause and Effect
- First cause
- Second cause
- Third cause
Analysis of Alternatives
- First alternative
- Second alternative
- Third alternative
The argumentative essay has its roots in the world of logic; thus, the more you know about such logic term as syllogisms premises, and valid deductions, the better you will be at argumentation. Learn more about logic terms and their use at Logic in Argumentative Writing from the OWL at Purdue University.
Experts caution against these pitfalls with the argumentative essay:
- Choosing a topic that has been done to death. Not only will your professor be tired of reading another paper on abortion, gun control, or capital punishment, but also he or she will be quite familiar with all the arguments, which can put your paper in a negative light if you fail to present the arguments well.
- Using first person. Although an argumentative essay is your opinion, your argument will be stronger if you do not present your thesis as, for example, "I believe that we must all take action to slow the progress of global warming." Instead, simply state: "We must all take action to slow the progress of global warming."
- Using examples that the reader can't relate to or that are too narrow or irrelevant.
- Oversimplifying or generalizing too hastily, broadly, abstractly, or superficially in your conclusion.
- Emotional arguments.
Final Thoughts on Argumentative Essays
Argumentative essays are both among the most common college writing assignments and the most tricky. You will likely have an English class early in your college career with a major argumentative component. You'll find it will pay off to be aware of possible pitfalls and professor expectations.
Return to A Student's Brief Overview of Expository Writing.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.