General Information for
Writing an Argumentative Essay
A General Assignment:
Write an argumentative essay on a controversial issue. Present the issue to readers, take a position, and develop a convincing, well-reasoned argument.
Note: “Straightforward” or “classic” argumentative essays are often called “position papers”; there are, however, other three other types of argumentative essays: proposals, evaluations, and causal analyses. This handout covers information about position papers, but the same information is applicable to other kinds of argumentative essays. Once you have chosen and explored your topic, you will be in a better position to determine which type of argumentative essay will best suit your purpose.
Arguing a position is intellectually challenging. It requires you to think critically about your own assumptions, to separate fact from opinion, and to respect the right of others to disagree with you as you may disagree with them. Reasoned argument depends on giving reasons; it demands that positions be supported rather than merely asserted.
Controversial issues are, by definition, issues about which people feel strongly and sometimes disagree vehemently. Controversial issues have no obvious “right” answer, no truth that everyone accepts, no single authority on which everyone relies. Simply gathering information—finding the facts or learning from experts—will not settle disputes like these, although the more that is known about an issue, the more informed the positions will be. Writers cannot offer absolute proof in debates about controversial issues because they are matters of opinion and judgment. To some extent, people decide such matters by considering factual evidence, but they may also base their positions on less objective factors such as values and principles, assumptions and preconceptions about how the world works and how it should work.
Although it is not possible to prove that a position on a controversial issue is right or wrong, it is possible through argument to convince others to accept or reject a position. To be convincing, a position paper must argue for its position and also counter opposing arguments. When arguing for a position, writers must do more than provide support. They must earn their readers’ trust and build their arguments on common values and beliefs. Counterarguing may involve not only refuting flawed arguments but also learning from reasonable opposing arguments and modifying your position to accommodate them. Even when opponents cannot reach consensus, vigorous debate that sets forth arguments and counterarguments on all sides of an issue can advance everyone’s thinking.
Facts About Argumentative Essays:
Purpose and Audience Considerations:
You may have a variety of purposes for writing a paper that takes a position on a controversial issue. First and foremost, you will write to take a position. But you will do more than simply state what you think; you will also present an argument explaining and justifying your point of view. Although your position paper will nearly always be written for others to read, writing can also lead you to clarify your own thinking. Anticipating others’ views—accepting the points you consider valid and refuting those with which you disagree—will help you to develop your understanding of the issue and confidence in your own point of view.
In addition to stating a position, most position papers are intended to influence other people’s thinking on important issues. Assuming that logical argument will prevail over prejudice, writers try to change readers’ minds by presenting compelling reasons supported by solid evidence and by pointing out flaws in others’ reasoning. They seek common ground in shared interests, values, and principles. They may show that they are reasonable by moderating their own views and urging others to compromise as well.
When agreement seems beyond reach, however, it is highly unlikely that a single essay will be able to change readers’ minds, no matter how well written it is. Addressing an audience that is completely opposed to their position, most writers are satisfied if they can simply win their readers’ respect for their different point of view. Often, however, all that can be done is to sharpen the differences. Position papers written in these circumstances tend to be more contentious than compromising.
Purpose and audience are thus closely linked when you write a position paper. In defining your purpose and developing an effective argumentative strategy, you also need to analyze your readers. You need to determine where they stand on the issue—whether they oppose your position, are undecided, or basically agree with you. You also need to discern how they think about the issue—for example, whether they see it as a moral issue, an issue of civil liberties, or an issue that affects them personally.
Summary of Basic Features:
1.) A Well-Defined Issue:
Position papers concern controversial issues, matters of policy and principle about which people disagree. These issues must be arguable and not subject to absolute proof. They may involve conflicting values and priorities or disagreements about current practices and procedures.
Although position papers strive primarily to influence readers’ views, they also seek to inform readers about issues. In fact, the writer’s initial task is usually to define the issue for readers. How writers define the issue depends on what they assume readers already know and what they want readers to think about the issue.
Writers know that issues can be defined in many ways and that readers’ attitudes vary. Therefore, they try to define the issue in a way that promotes their argumentative strategy. Defining an issue essentially means framing it in a particular context. In addition, sometimes defining the issue also involves marking its boundaries.
2.) A Clear Position:
In addition to defining the issue, the essay should also clearly indicate the writer’s position on the issue. Writers may qualify their positions to show that they understand the issue’s complexity or to accommodate strong objections, but they should avoid vagueness and indecision.
Very often writers declare their position in a thesis statement early in the essay. This strategy has the advantage of letting readers know right away where the writer stands. Sometimes, however, writers gain an advantage by postponing the thesis until later in the essay; this is especially true if readers might need more information before understanding the thesis, or if readers might be more defensive if they know the writer’s position too soon.
3.) A Convincing, Well-Reasoned Argument:
To convince readers, writers must develop an argumentative strategy that will enable them to achieve their purpose with their particular readers. The argumentative strategy determines how they will argue for their position and how they will counter opposing arguments.
Arguing Directly for the Position: Writers argue for their positions by offering reasons and supporting them with evidence—examples, facts, statements from authorities, statistics, or personal anecdotes.
Even when their arguments are complicated and subtle, writers try to make their reasoning simple and direct. The do not merely hint at their reasons, hoping that readers will figure them out. Instead, they make their reasons explicit and explain their thinking in some detail. They usually also offer several reasons because they know that some will carry more weight with readers than others.
Countering Opposing Arguments: As they argue for their positions, experienced writers also argue against the objections and alternative arguments that readers holding differing positions on the issue are likely to offer. Sometimes counterarguing involves (1) acknowledging readers’ objections by simply mentioning them without evaluating or refuting them. More often, writers either (2) accommodate arguments by qualifying their own position, or (3) refute arguments.
Counterarguing can enhance credibility and strengthen the argument. When readers holding an opposing position recognize that a writer takes their reasoning seriously, they are more likely to listen to what the writer has to say. Counterargument can also reassure readers that they share certain important values and attitudes with a writer, building a bridge of common concerns among people who have been separated by difference and antagonism.
4.) An Appropriate Tone:
Position papers often concern highly controversial issues about which writers—and readers—feel very strongly. The challenge for writers, therefore, is to find a tone that adequately expresses their feelings without shutting down communication. Ideally, writers gain readers’ confidence and respect both by the way they reason and by the language they use. Possible tones include calm and thoughtful, informal, or formal (which is typical of academic arguments).
Four Approaches to Argumentative Writing:
There are several different types of argumentative essays, depending on the topic you choose and the approach you wish to take:
A position paper is the most common type of argumentative essay. The writer argues in support of one “side” of a debate and argues against the “opposing side(s)” by pointing out flaws in their arguments or by offering counterarguments to refute their points. A position paper would work well with any of the topics listed above, but other topics are also possible – e.g. universal health insurance or Medicare.
A proposal paper is the second most common type of argumentative essay. The writer first argues that a certain problem exists, and then argues that a certain course of action will “solve the problem” better than another course of action or no action at all – hence, this type of paper is also known as a problem-solution paper. Some of the topics above might work with this approach, but also consider other topics – e.g. the “problem” of prescription drug costs, or the “problem” of insurance carriers not covering “experimental” procedures.
An evaluation paper is another very common type of argumentative essay. The writer looks for both the “pros” (the strengths or the advantages) and the “cons” (the weaknesses or the disadvantages) of something and argues that one “side” outweighs or is more significant than the other. Again, some of the topics above might work with this approach, but also consider other topics – e.g. the pros/cons of the different courses of treatment for a specific disease or condition.
A causal-analysis paper is the fourth common type of argumentative essay. The writer can take two different approaches: analyze the cause or causes of something, or analyze the effect or effects of something. Again, some of the topics above might work well with this approach (e.g. Legalizing Drugs or Cloning), but also consider other topics – e.g. the causes of a disease or condition (if there is controversy about the causes), or the effects of a certain course of treatment, such as a specific drug (if there is controversy about the effects).
A Warning about Topics:
Since this class is focused on academic writing and, thus, on academic argument, logical reasoning and the writer’s ethos will prevail over emotional appeals. Choose a topic that will fit with the form of an academic argument. Avoid topics or approaches that seem to be based in whole or in large part on emotion, or topics that you cannot be objective and unemotional about; similarly, avoid topics or approaches that seem to be based in whole or in large part on religion or theology – using the Bible as a primary source or the theology of a certain belief system does not fit into an academic argument for the purposes of this class.
A Sample Model for
Constructing an Argument
(SMGW, Ch. 6, pp. 203-204)
Should grades be abolished?
Grades should be abolished.
. . . because . . .
We would try to find research studies on testing anxiety. We could include anecdotes from our own experience with testing anxiety. We might ask a few teachers why they rely on tests and how they feel about alternatives to testing, like group projects.
LIKELY OBJECTIONS TO THE POSITION:
Much of this information is taken from Chapter 6 of The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, 5th edition, by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 201-245.