All College Writing is About Argument
Many students graduate from high school thinking a “thesis” is a main idea. Like, “My thesis is, ‘Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.'”
That isn’t a thesis; it’s a fact.
So it can come as a shock to students in college (or good high school writing programs) when they’re asked to “be more original.”
Plus, like any sport or skilled activity, it’s easy to execute on the basics (grammar, organization) when the overall level of difficulty is low. If I need to write a piece on Lincoln, I’ll (basically) summarize a Wikipedia article on Lincoln and a review of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie. Done. Probably my grammar etc will be quite coherent.
But what if I try to argue that Lincoln never wanted to free the slaves? That he only freed the slaves from a calculated, military motivation?
Or what if I argue that Lincoln was a bigot, who wanted to colonize the Carribean with freed slaves to avoid having blacks and whites live together in the US? That Lincoln:
knew that there was no point in “[freeing black Americans] and [keeping] them among us as underlings.” Therefore, he decided the only solution, once slavery ended naturally, was to send all the black people in America “back” to Africa, “their own native land.” This despite the fact that America was their own native land.
These are both argumentative positions, and they would require significant logic and eloquence to build compelling cases around. Rather than riding a bicycle down the street at 10mph (the equivalent of writing a summary of Lincoln’s life), you’re suddenly plunging down a mountainside at 40mph, with one hand on the handlebars, trying to keep a far-fetched and argumentative (and potentially offensive) essay going.
You could challenge why this is the case. There are many good answers:
- The nature of the human condition is dialog
- Academic work (all learning, really) is about challenging the status quo and inventing knowledge
- Debate is worth practicing because all good jobs require you argue your case etc
At its essence, argumentative and persuasive writing is about identifying the conventional wisdom on a matter, creating an argument for a different viewpoint, then supporting your point of view with quality evidence and analysis. That’s all!
How to Write an Argumentative/Persuasive Essay That Will Earn a Good (Better) Grade
Argumentative writing will challenge most student writers. The first draft results won’t be satisfactory. You’ll feel that your work lacks “flow.”
Here are some VERY actionable steps for you to assure the best outcome for your writing:
1) INVENT AN ARGUMENTATIVE THESIS
- Assuming you’ve written a few traditional essays in your day (“what I did for the summer” etc), and have passed English classes before, focus on the argument, not the grammar.
- Spend your time brainstorming an interesting take on whatever the subject matter at hand might be. Write out what the conventional wisdom is for your current subject, and then play devil’s advocate. Just think up crazy arguments in opposition to the conventional wisdom. Some will make sense, some will be impossible to argue. That’s okay. Examples:
- Conventional Wisdom:
- Americans like automobiles because of the freedom they impart.
- Arguments against the Conventional Wisdom:
- Americans like cars because, in high school especially, they provide an escape and a private place to do drugs, have sex, and generally act like a teenager.
- Americans like cars because they are told to like cars; the automotive industry has always been on the forefront of marketing and advertising, and have brainwashed the American people into putting a dramatically high portion of their disposable incomes into buying new cars they can’t afford.
- Switch “oil companies” for “automotive industry” and you have an alternative version.
- Americans love their cars because we are a nation of immigrants and movers. The car symbolizes our ability to pick up and relocate, quickly, to pursue a better life.
- Conventional Wisdom:
- Shoot your professor an email asking for some thoughts on your proposed thesis.
- This gets you massive brownie points, and converts you from a nameless student to a student who cares and who has interesting (if whacky) ideas.
- You’ll get a warm fuzzy on whether your “teenagers like cars so they can have sex” argument will be offensive or welcome. In general, teachers are quite capable of dealing with R-rated content in student writing. In fact, it comes as a welcome respite from the G-rated stuff that most students think is expectetd.
Notice how a few of these (really all of them) are variations on the conventional wisdom “freedom” argument. You don’t have to completely contradict the conventional wisdom; you only have to come up with a solid nuance (this is the kind of thing academics – professors – do for a living) and focus on it throughout your essay.
If you have a hard time coming up with creative arguments, seek out help! There’s probably a kid in your class who argues with the teacher constantly – make friends with them, and have them throw out some ideas. Some people are just idea generators, and this kind of stuff comes more naturally when you talk about it with other people (which is exactly what your teachers hope happens!).
2) ACKNOWLEDGE A COUNTERARGUMENT
Mature college and high school writers understand that there are legitimate points of view that differ from theirs. They realize that it doesn’t necessarily weaken their argument to acknowledge this. In fact, including a counterargument in your writing is a key differentiator between “B” essays and “A” essays. And counterarguments are awesome fodder for those difficult to write introductions or conclusions.
- If we decided our argument was going to be #1 above (teenagers love cars because they can do illicit things in them), a number of counterarguments come to mind:
- “While some might argue that automobiles are highly regulated by state and local government, we know that teenagers LOVE rebelling and often see these rules as a challenge to be overcome.”OR
- “Some parents would argue that the family car gives them control over their teenager. By having the power to deny or approve the use of a car (‘can I have the car tonight, mom?’), parents have major leverage over their children. While this is a fiction that many teenagers are happy to see continue, they know that parents are too exhausted to monitor car usage. Or parents are so happy to finally escape driving a carload to the mall every Saturday that they gladly pass along the keys.”
Notice that we used key phrases, like “While some might argue” and “Some would argue.” These are great lead-ins to stating a primary objection to your main point. But we then take apart the counterargument while acknowledging that it has some merit. We are giving the counterargument some respect, but ultimately begging to differ. This is the heart of debate and dialog, and a key skill for any writer.
These sorts of statements make very good closing paragraphs, especially if you feel a bit stupid writing, “In conclusion…” and then repeating everything you’ve just written about for 4 pages.
3) FOCUS LIKE A LASER ON YOUR ARGUMENT
This is the shortest section of advice.
Many students will start with an interesting idea, but then they drop back to The Land of Summary. They expect their readers to do all the work.
Imagine we started with the argument about teenagers loving cars because they can do all sorts of illegal and immoral activities in them. But then our body paragraphs just quote statistics about car sales, car accidents, etc. WHAT?
Every paragraph should CLEARLY tie back to the thesis. Don’t leave anything to your reader’s imagination. Use the same language (or close to the same language) in every paragraph to hammer your point home.
Tell them. Tell them again. Tell them what you already told them.
So when you’re quoting statistics, add a sentence or two that interprets that evidence to support your argument.
Example (color coding added for clarity):
For how much the media will dwell on local high school students killed in a car wreck, especially if alcohol is involved, the statistics on accidents involving alcohol indicate there is a signifant problem. While teenagers love the freedom of the automobile so they can get away from supervision of all kinds, alcohol is clearly a top escape. For instance, in 2009, 18.8 percent of fatal accidents with drivers in the 16-20 year old age group involved alcohol (Census.gov). That year, over 5,000 16 to 20 year old drivers involved in fatal crashes had a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) over 0.08. While a slightly lower overall number and percentage than older age groups, this is still a very large number, especially given the relative amount of miles driven by the age group. Teenagers are using their cars to engage in activities they would never be allowed to enjoy at home. And that love of freedom carries over into adulthood. In America, the automobile it the gateway to petty criminal behavior (that sometimes ends in tragedy).
The orange text is all factual stuff. The green is the analysis and connection back to the thesis. Many students will stop after the orange section, resulting in a weak overall argument and a poor grade – even if the writing, at the grammar and syntax level – is competent.
We could debate the logic of this argument – there are many reasons why teens get in car wrecks (inexperience etc) and no data is provided for the “relative amount of miles driven” claim. Still, your average English teacher isn’t going to go and research the numbers to contradict your point, and the argument feels like common sense. So the connection between illicit alcohol use and cars is fairly made, and the entire paragraph ties back to the main point about freedom and the nuance around cars=freedom. The author also makes an effort to avoid condoning this behavior in teenagers (“that sometimes ends in tragedy”) which will endear them to the authority figures doing the reading and grading.
Once you’ve got a draft completed, go through every paragraph looking for explicit connections back to your argument. If there isn’t one, write a few sentences like the ones in green above. If you can’t think of any way to tie your paragraph back, delete it.