Argumentative Essay Writing Tips

When simple arguments are not sufficient, then you must combine the simple forms to make more complex structures. This, in a nutshell, is what is involved in constructing an argumentative essay. An argumentative essay is different from several other types of essays (e.g., descriptive essays or narrative essays) you might write. The difference lies in the fact that in an argumentative essay you are trying to convince someone to agree with a claim you are making and for which you are offering logical arguments. The difference is manifested in the fact that an argumentative essay has a conclusion or thesis. In setting out to write an argument, it is important to be extremely clear about your conclusion. In an argumentative essay, everything you say should be directed to demonstrating the truth of this conclusion. Moreover, what you say must be adequate to the conclusion. Hence, a major task in constructing an argumentative essay is to formulate your conclusion. But before turning to it, there is a preliminary point we must deal with. The goal of an argumentative essay is to convince an audience of a claim. Thus, throughout the task of constructing an argument we must be cognizant of who our audience is. We begin with a brief discussion of what you need to know about your audience in constructing an argumentative essay.

The first thing you need to know about your various potential audiences is what attitude they already have toward the change. Perhaps some of them have no view at all, and perhaps others have very strong views on either side of the issue. Clearly, your time is poorly spent arguing with those who already agree with you. Preaching to the converted is the name commonly given to such useless activity, although here we might rename it arguing to the convinced. Suppose that you find, for example, that the group of clergy agrees with you, and is opposed to the change for many of the same reasons that you are, but that the chamber of commerce president is in favor of the zoning change. Your time is going to be better spent arguing with that person rather than the clergy. However, it will only make sense arguing with the chamber of commerce president if you can find a basis for argument on which the president might be convinced. On some issues, unfortunately, you will find that some audiences are so inalterably set in their ways that they cannot be moved by argument.

If you decide to argue against the chamber of commerce president, it is important that you find out not only why the president is in favor of the rezoning but also some of the other factors listed previously. Finding out the president’s reasons for favoring it will be necessary for structuring a critique of the president’s arguments, but finding out “what makes the president tick” will help you in structuring your demonstrations. The president will probably be very interested in the economic aspects of the rezoning, so if you can show the president that there are economic advantages to not changing the zoning for the club, you may have the basis for convincing the president to support your side. However, the same argument may not be successful with other audiences who do not find the economic consequences to be of major importance in deciding on the zoning. For example, it is unlikely that the local club of teenagers will be moved by them. On the other hand, the age of the teenagers is quite relevant to the reasons you may give them against the rezoning. Pointing out to them that the club will be restricted to admitting only those over 21 years of age, and the package store will only serve those who have already been admitted to the club, may serve to dampen their enthusiasm for the club (if that is indeed what you found their initial attitude to be). However, such facts would probably not serve as reasons for the members of the zoning commission to deny the request for a change. That the club will admit only those over 21 and serve only those already admitted may, in their eyes, be a reason in favor of the rezoning.

Again, if you wish to argue against the rezoning to your fellow citizens of the county, you may find that an inexpensive but effective way of doing this is to write letters to the editors of the various newspapers in the county. But then some research into who reads those newspapers is going to be a prerequisite for structuring your argument. The readers of a large metropolitan daily will have different characteristics than the readers of a small suburban neighborhood weekly. And the interests, views, politics, educational level, and so forth of these two readerships may in turn be different from those of the readers of a small weekly that serves a rural part of the county whose inhabitants are mostly lower-middle-income people with little education. Even the language you use, including your vocabulary, is going to have to be different for these various newspapers. Certainly the shared assumptions, beliefs, and values that you may have with the various readers are going to be different, and you are going to need to determine what they are in order to know what assumed premises you can rely on as a basis for your argument.

The goal of an argumentative essay is to convince your audience of a conclusion. Thus, you must be making a claim of some kind. Insofar as it makes a claim, a conclusion is not the same as a topic or subject matter for an essay. You might choose as a topic cats or psychology or taxation. But specifying such a topic does not yet specify a claim that you are trying to demonstrate to your audience. A conclusion must state something about the topic. For example, “cats should be kept indoors” is a possible conclusion. “Social psychology is a stimulating course” is another. These are claims that one person might try to demonstrate to another person.

You will need to come up with conclusions for each argumentative essay that you are asked to write in this course. For some students this can be an obstacle. But it is actually very simple. Begin with a topic or subject matter about which you are interested and know something. This may be an academic subject in which you have taken a course, or an activity in which you enjoy participating. Or it may be a problem you recognize in your college or society. The task now is to find a claim that you believe to be true, but that is not already believed to be true by your audience. Notice there are two clauses here, both of which must be satisfied. The claim for which you argue ought to be one you take to be true. Otherwise, it will not be possible for you to produce a sound argument for the claim. Second, it must be one that your audience does not already believe. If they already believe it, there is no point to the argument.

There is a further factor that you need to bear in mind in developing a thesis for an argument. This is the amount of room you have in which to present your argument. If you are writing an argumentative essay of five pages or less, you will not want to argue for an overly broad or complex conclusion, because you will not be able to marshal sufficient arguments to convince someone of that conclusion. Thus, you will not want to argue for the repeal of all your country’s welfare programs, or that your country should institute a program of national health insurance. Either one of these might be the conclusion of an interesting argument, but such an argument will require a substantially longer essay. In writing a short essay you need to focus or limit your thesis to something that can be reasonably established within five pages. You might try to show that a particular welfare program is having adverse consequences that outweigh its benefits, or that one type of health care benefit (e.g., a vaccine for a contagious disease such as AIDS) should be provided by the national government.

Students sometimes worry that if they restrict their topic, they will not have enough to say to make a paper. But in fact, the opposite is usually true: The more focused your conclusion, the more material you will be able to identify from which to construct arguments. This is a consequence of the fact that a more specific claim provides a better memory cue, and thus makes it easier to come up with reasons.Let us work through a couple examples of constructing the conclusion of an argument. First we must identify a topic or subject matter. Perhaps you are concerned with the cost of attending school. You might try immediately to formulate a position on this topic: The cost of attending my college is too high. This certainly is an arguable claim. But it is a very general claim. There are a variety of different costs associated with attending a college, and there are numerous different standards against which you might evaluate whether the costs are too high. Consider how you might focus this conclusion. You might focus on one of the costs of attending college — for example, the fee charged for extracurricular activities. The following will then be your conclusion: The fees charged for support of extracurricular activities at my college are too high. This provides one tentative conclusion for an argumentative essay. In the next section we consider some ways to test it for adequacy before we set out to construct arguments.Let us develop one more example. This time we might choose as our topic the surge of commercial development in our neighborhood. We might be upset about it and consider how we might argue against it. This topic, however, is extremely broad, and we need to restrict it before we can develop an effective argument. If we realize that one place to direct our opposition is to the county zoning board, that might help us narrow it. Our topic becomes county zoning policy. Now we must consider what exactly we want to claim about county zoning policy. Here are three possibilities:

  1. The county zoning board ought to put an end to any more commercial development in the county.
  2. The county zoning board ought never to rezone residential areas in the county to make them commercial.
  3. The county zoning board ought not to rezone a particular piece of property.

These are all possible conclusions, but they are clearly not equivalent. In the next section we consider some means for deciding between them.

Testing Possible Conclusions

Once you have formulated a possible conclusion, you are getting close to the point at which you can begin to formulate your argument. But before you do so it is useful to test your conclusion to insure that it is appropriate for the kind of essay that you intend to write. In this section we present seven rules for evaluating the conclusion you have proposed. As you consider these rules, you may be led to revise your conclusion.

1. Never Argue for a Broader Position than Is Necessary

First, we can differentiate claims in terms of how broad or general they are. Some claims apply to many more objects or events than others. Consider the three conclusions about zoning policy we introduced at the end of the previous section. The first conclusion is far more sweeping than the second, for it prohibits commercial development in areas that are now zoned for commercial development. There might be justification for such a policy, but it raises substantial questions beyond those raised by the second conclusion. For instance, the value of land purchased with commercial zoning might go down precipitously, raising the question of whether commercial land owners are being treated fairly. The second conclusion does not raise this issue (except with respect to those who have bought land on the speculation that the zoning might subsequently be changed). Not only is the first thesis far broader, but it might be much more than is required for your purposes. You might be able to halt the growth of commercial development sufficiently by restricting the rezoning of land now zoned as residential. If so, then you are far better off arguing for the second conclusion than the first one, for with the first one you take on a much greater burden of proof. Thus, the first rule to employ in evaluating possible conclusions is: Never argue for a broader position than is necessary.

2. Never Argue for a Narrower Position than Is Necessary

Now consider the difference between the second and third conclusions. Conclusion 2 is again far more sweeping than Conclusion 3. It might be far easier to establish Conclusion 3 than Conclusion 2. But in this case Conclusion 3 might not be adequate for your objectives. It might stop one commercial development, but that is not likely to affect the rate of commercial development in your area significantly. Thus, it would also be a mistake to argue for a conclusion that was narrower than that you needed to establish. So the second rule for evaluating possible conclusions is: Never argue for a narrower position than is necessary.

These first two rules focus on the scope of your conclusion. In the context of writing papers for a course, you are largely in control of the scope of your conclusion. You will want to choose a scope broad enough to make the conclusion interesting, but narrow enough that you can deploy a convincing argument for it. When you are developing arguments in the real world, however, you do not have this luxury. When your boss instructs you to prepare a memo recommending the best computer for your company, the conclusion is going to have to be that such-and-such is the best computer. Your choice as to what the conclusion will be is very limited. In this context, the length of argument you will need to develop is determined by the nature of the conclusion for which you are arguing, rather than the other way around. But even in the practical world, you will want to give some thought to the scope of your conclusion. Within the bounds of what is assigned to you there may still be some latitude in determining your particular conclusion. Subtle differences in wording can often broaden or restrict your conclusion. For example, you might restrict the scope of your conclusion that such-and-such is the best computer for your company by building in some qualifications. You might argue that it is the best computer given available resources for capital expenditures and what computers are available through local vendors. You hereby limit yourself to a specific set of brands and to computers in a certain price range.

3. Make it Clear Whether Your Conclusion is a Demonstration, Critique, or Defense

In addition to evaluating whether your conclusion is too broad or too narrow, you need to test whether the conclusion captures the sort of argument you intend to make. Is your intent to prove or demonstrate that something is or isn’t the case, or is it merely to show that someone’s argument for a different conclusion is inadequate? Or do you intend to show that someone’s critique of an argument on behalf of a conclusion is inadequate? Using the terminology, the first case, in which we are trying to show that something is or isn’t the case, presents an instance of a demonstration. If, however, the goal is to show that someone else’s argument for a different position is inadequate, then we are concerned with developing a critique. Finally, if we are rebutting someone else’s critique, we are engaged in defense. As we have worded our possible conclusions, they will all constitute demonstrations. If what we seek to do, however, is critique someone else’s argument in favor of permitting continued rezoning of residential land, then we need to word our conclusion differently. We will no longer be showing that the county zoning board ought never to rezone residential areas to commercial, but only that the argument in question does not show that this practice should be continued. Thus, we might word our conclusion: Commissioner Doolittle’s argument in favor of continued rezoning is inadequate. If instead we want to rebut a critique of a previously made argument, our conclusion might be Commissioner Doolittle’s objections to our case for no further rezoning are inadequate.

The third rule for evaluating possible conclusions, therefore, is: Make it clear whether your conclusion is a demonstration, critique, or defense. In some cases our mission will be more comprehensive: We might be putting forward an argument for a position (a demonstration), raising an objection to an argument for a contrary position (a critique), and defending against a critique of our position all at once.

4. Make Clear the Kind of Statement for Which You Are Arguing

The fourth consideration focuses on the type of claim you are making in your conclusion. Are you arguing that a particular condition holds or that a state of affairs is true? If so, then the conclusion states a fact, and we will call it a description. It is sometimes claimed that you cannot argue about facts, but this is false. If they are well known, of course we won’t bother arguing for them. But any time the facts are in dispute, we can try to demonstrate them. In fact, we often argue to show that something is the case: You might argue that a higher percentage of land has been rezoned from residential to commercial than vice versa. On the other hand, our conclusion might propose an evaluation. If we contended too much land is being rezoned from commercial to residential, we would be arguing for an evaluative conclusion. The words too much are the key terms that indicate the conclusion is evaluative.

Your conclusion might also take a variety of other forms. You might argue for a prediction, that is, for the claim that something will come to be true. An example would be arguing for the conclusion that Property values for residential homes in this neighborhood will drop over the next 5 years. Or you might argue for a causal claim in which you contend that one thing caused another. Thus, you might contend that Current zoning practices have already caused property values to decline. Another option is to argue for a hypothetical statements. They state that if certain conditions are true, certain other conditions will also be true. In arguing for a hypothetical claim, you are not arguing that either the antecedent or the consequent is true, but that, should the antecedent be true, then the consequent will also be true. An example of a hypothetical conclusion would be: If the county zoning board does not stop rezoning residential land to commercial, this community will become an undesirable community in which to live. (You may note that predictions and hypothetical statements are often closely connected: We generally specify conditions under which a prediction will hold, and these might constitute the antecedent of a conditional.)

Your conclusion may also take the form of a recommendation. You might argue that some action should be taken. Your conclusion then takes the form of an advice statement. In other contexts you might be arguing on behalf of a certain policy, in which case your conclusion has the form of a policy statement. The difference between these is that an advice statement is generally focused on a particular situation. If you were arguing against rezoning a particular tract of land from residential to commercial, that might take the form of advice. A policy statement, on the other hand, once it is adopted, makes certain other conditions true. If the zoning board adopts a policy of never rezoning residential land to commercial, for example, then that would mean that no further rezoning of this sort will take place. Thus, the possible conclusion that the county zoning board ought never to rezone residential areas in the county to make them commercial represents a recommendation as to a policy.

It is important to make clear the sort of statement for which you are arguing, because these statements are very different, and will require different kinds of arguments. For example, note that some commissioners might be convinced that the predictions or hypothetical claims that you advance concerning what will happen if rezoning is allowed to continue are correct, but they might not agree with your policy recommendation. They might claim that although there are undesirable consequences of permitting rezoning, there are even worse consequences of prohibiting rezoning. They might foresee that the county could become involved in prolonged legal controversies that will require enormous tax increases if they adopt the policy. This shows that more needs to be done to prove the policy recommendation than the prediction.

5. Make Sure the Conclusion Is an Arguable Statement

Your goal is to argue for your conclusion, so you need to make sure it is something that can be argued for. As we have seen, there are a wide variety of kinds of statements for which you can argue. What kind of statements, then, are not arguable? There are three kinds of statements that are particularly worth noting: (a) subjective statements, (b) statements that are obviously true, and (c) narrative statements. Subjective statements often begin with words such as I believe, I think, or It seems to me that. It may be of interest that the speakers do or do not believe something, and it will be true or false that they do or do not believe it, but such statements do not constitute appropriate conclusions for arguments. They do not call for proof or evidence of a logical sort. Thus, it is not usually the business of argument to treat them as conclusions in need of demonstration. Notice, however, that it is usually possible to reword a subjective statement into an assertion that can be argued for. If someone asserted as a conclusion, I believe that the county zoning board ought never to rezone residential areas in the county to make them commercial, one could reword it by deleting the words I believe that. Now the truth of the statement does not turn on the subjective state of the speaker, but on whether the proposed policy is correct.

The second kind of unarguable assertion is one we have already discussed. You should not argue for an assertion that is obviously true or known to be true by your intended audience. The goal of an argument is to convince people to accept as true something they do not now believe. For example, if it is widely known that the county zoning board has recently rezoned several pieces of property from residential to commercial, and if it is generally accepted that this rezoning has had adverse consequences, then the statement, The county zoning board has recently rezoned properties from residential to commercial, often with negative consequences would not be arguable.

The third kind of unarguable assertion is a narrative statement. A narrative statement reports on a series of events. Generally, it is not controversial that these events occurred, and hence one need not argue that they did occur. Thus, a narrative such as, The county zoning board met, and after reading and approving of the minutes from the previous meeting, considered whether to accept the application to rezone the Harrison property for purposes of building a shopping center, is generally not controversial. As with all rules, there might be exceptional cases. If the event in question is one in the distant past, or there is some doubt about the order of events, one might proceed to develop an argument. Typically, however, a narration of an event does not require argumentation.

6. Make Sure the Conclusion is Definite

We noted earlier that your conclusion is not just a subject matter; it is a claim. You need to state your claim as precisely and as definitely as possible. If you are recommending the policy of never rezoning land from residential to commercial, then say so. Do not say, “I am going to discuss whether the county zoning board should rezone residential land for commercial use.” Because you are going to argue that it should, commit yourself to defending this position at the outset. If you do not do this, the chances are very great that your argument will wander. Deciding exactly what it is you are going to argue for at the beginning will help to avoid this. If you do not have a claim to advance, then you have no business arguing.

The whole goal of argumentation is to convince your audience. If you are not explicit as to what conclusion you are arguing for, however, you probably won’t convince them of the statement you want them to believe. For example, if your goal is to get a salary increase, but you only say you are going to discuss how you are rewarded for your work, your boss may conclude you merely want more acknowledgment, not an increase in salary. To have a chance of succeeding, your readers must know what it is you are trying to demonstrate. In fact, because getting them to accept your conclusion is the major goal, being explicit about the conclusion is actually as important as the arguments you give. Although you want your readers to accept your conclusion because of the arguments you put forward for it, what matters most is that they accept the conclusion. To have a chance of doing this, your reader must know what your conclusion is, and thus you must make sure the conclusion is definite.

7. Determine Whether the Conclusion Requires Qualification

After formulating your conclusion as clearly as possible, determine whether it requires qualification. It may be that you cannot prove the conclusion you would like to, but that you are able to prove a qualified version of it. The evidence you have at hand may just not support the conclusion that an expenditure of $2 million in advertising will produce increased sales revenues of $4 million, but the evidence may suggest that it is very likely that it will. If your evidence supports only this strong likelihood, then make your argument support the conclusion that an expenditure of $2 million in advertising will have a strong likelihood of producing increased revenues of $4 million. Perhaps this projection is based on past data relating expenditures and revenues. Because examples from the past never guarantee what the future will be like, you should qualify your projection. If you are using modus ponens as your basic argument form, for example, you might want your first premise to read, “If advertising expenditures last year of $1.5 million produced increased revenues of $3 million, then advertising expenditures next year of $2 million are very likely to produce increased revenue of $4 million.” Notice the qualifier in this sentence: You did not say that increased advertising expenditures would produce increased revenues, but that they are very likely to do so. Your second premise will affirm the antecedent, and your conclusion will retain the qualification: “Advertising revenues next year of $2 million are very likely to produce increased revenues of $4 million.” Your evidence here did not guarantee that $4 million would result, so you have compensated for the weakness in your evidence by weakening your conclusion.

Many people are afraid or hesitant to write qualified conclusions, perhaps out of the feeling that such conclusions “don’t say enough.” But usually what qualifying your conclusion (and the appropriate premises to support it) amounts to is following a policy of honesty. If you can’t prove the stronger conclusion you want because the evidence just doesn’t support it, then you are being dishonest if you say that you can. Honesty requires that you qualify the conclusion until it is supported by the evidence you have. Beyond honesty, however, there are practical reasons to make sure you have qualified your conclusion appropriately. If you claim more than you can prove, you open yourself up to a critique on just this point.