When you get into debates with friends or family members, do you tend to win or lose? The art of arguing is closely related to your ability to harness compelling facts, statistics, and concepts that support your viewpoint on a topic. When you lose an argument, chances are you only used opinion to support your position.
Being able to argue in a logical and reasonable way is a great life skill. It will help you to stand up for what you think is right and to get others to pay attention to your reasoning. In this blog post, I’ll teach you the secrets of a strong argumentative essay.
Important Elements of an Argumentative Essay
The goal of an argumentative essay is to convince others that your opinion is valid. Usually, an argumentative essay addresses readers who hold an opposing viewpoint on a particular issue. For example, you might argue the virtues of solar power to a group of city leaders invested in coal and oil.
There are four important elements to consider when constructing an argumentative essay.
#1 Your topic must be debatable.
When selecting an issue to argue, you need to choose a topic that has more than one side.
For example, there is no way you can argue on the topic of whether humans walk on two legs because it’s a known fact with no attached debate.
However, you could argue for days about contentious topics like GMOs, gun control, and even fast food. For example, should the government regulate the sale of sugary beverages? That’s certainly a question up for debate.
#2 You must take a strong stance.
You can’t possibly argue if you don’t take a stance and write a compelling thesis.
Imagine reading an argument about the regulation of sugary beverages that says something like, “I enjoy drinking Pepsi, so I’d like to be able to purchase it as I please, but the government should regulate it because it’s making me gain weight.”
All this does is confuse the reader. Is the author for or against the regulation of sugary beverages?
Take a stance and stick with it. A strong stance might be, “The government should regulate the purchase of sugary beverages because these drinks lead to a higher prevalence of diabetes.”
In this second example, it’s obvious which side of the argument the author is taking.
#3 Your argument must be supportable.
A good argument requires the use of logic and irrefutable evidence. You must be able to back up your statements with facts, statistics, examples, and informed opinions from experts. In the argument for regulating sugary beverages, the author might write something like, “A study by Imperial College London found that drinking just one 12-ounce can of soda per day leads to a 22% increase in a person’s chances of developing diabetes.”
An argumentative essay does not include unsubstantiated opinions. Writing “I think sugary drinks should be regulated because they are unhealthy” is not a valid argument…unless you support it with evidence.
#4 You must refute alternate positions.
The final element of a strong argumentative essay is refuting alternate positions. By addressing opposing positions, you make your argument stronger. It’s best to try to address the most common opposing beliefs.
For example, an opponent might say, “By drinking sugary drinks, I’m only hurting myself, so it’s not the government’s place to ban them.”
To refute this argument, the author might write something like, “The American Diabetes Association reports that the cost of diabetes has risen 41% in five short years, from $174 billion in 2007 to $245 billion in 2012. It’s a social problem that decreases productivity in the workforce and costs taxpayers money.”
By refuting alternate opinions, you make your opponents question their own arguments, which is a powerful tactic indeed.
A Real Argumentative Essay Dissected
To help you wrap your mind around the argumentative essay, I’ll dissect an example from a real argument that I found online.
In a 2013 Slate article, “The End of the College Essay,” author Rebecca Schuman argues against the practice of college teachers assigning essays to students. She follows the four elements of an argumentative essay as I described above. Here’s a table that breaks it down for you:
Now, as an English buff and a fierce believer in the importance of being able to communicate well through writing, I’m definitely against Schuman’s argument. However, she does such an amazing job writing her argumentative essay that I have to admit she makes a compelling point.
And that, my friends, is the mark of a successful argument!
Final Thoughts on the Argumentative Essay
An argumentative essay doesn’t always have to follow a traditional 5-paragraph outline structure. As long as it contains all four of the elements we discussed, you can write a compelling and thorough argument.
Next time you need to write an argumentative essay, simply create an outline that covers the four steps I discussed. It might look something like this:
Need more help? Read How to Create a Powerful Argumentative Essay Outline.
How many points and counterarguments you include will depend on several factors, including your teacher’s requirements, if applicable, and the number of excellent points you can find to support your position in the first place. When in doubt, refer to the requirements of your assignment.
Also, be sure to include a good hook sentence to start off your paper. You’ll definitely lose the argument if no one wants to read your essay.
Finally, an argumentative essay that is polished and edited will be better received than one that isn’t.
Don’t go into your next argumentative essay empty-handed. Instead, gather the supportive evidence you need to argue and win. Good luck!
* Cover Image Credit: Northern Mockingbird juveniles at a bird bath in Austin, Texas. Original photo by Chiltepinster. (Creative Commons license)
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The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.
Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2013-03-10 11:46:44
What is an argumentative essay?
The argumentative essay is a genre of writing that requires the student to investigate a topic; collect, generate, and evaluate evidence; and establish a position on the topic in a concise manner.
Please note: Some confusion may occur between the argumentative essay and the expository essay. These two genres are similar, but the argumentative essay differs from the expository essay in the amount of pre-writing (invention) and research involved. The argumentative essay is commonly assigned as a capstone or final project in first year writing or advanced composition courses and involves lengthy, detailed research. Expository essays involve less research and are shorter in length. Expository essays are often used for in-class writing exercises or tests, such as the GED or GRE.
Argumentative essay assignments generally call for extensive research of literature or previously published material. Argumentative assignments may also require empirical research where the student collects data through interviews, surveys, observations, or experiments. Detailed research allows the student to learn about the topic and to understand different points of view regarding the topic so that she/he may choose a position and support it with the evidence collected during research. Regardless of the amount or type of research involved, argumentative essays must establish a clear thesis and follow sound reasoning.
The structure of the argumentative essay is held together by the following.
- A clear, concise, and defined thesis statement that occurs in the first paragraph of the essay.
In the first paragraph of an argument essay, students should set the context by reviewing the topic in a general way. Next the author should explain why the topic is important (exigence) or why readers should care about the issue. Lastly, students should present the thesis statement. It is essential that this thesis statement be appropriately narrowed to follow the guidelines set forth in the assignment. If the student does not master this portion of the essay, it will be quite difficult to compose an effective or persuasive essay.
- Clear and logical transitions between the introduction, body, and conclusion.
Transitions are the mortar that holds the foundation of the essay together. Without logical progression of thought, the reader is unable to follow the essay’s argument, and the structure will collapse. Transitions should wrap up the idea from the previous section and introduce the idea that is to follow in the next section.
- Body paragraphs that include evidential support.
Each paragraph should be limited to the discussion of one general idea. This will allow for clarity and direction throughout the essay. In addition, such conciseness creates an ease of readability for one’s audience. It is important to note that each paragraph in the body of the essay must have some logical connection to the thesis statement in the opening paragraph. Some paragraphs will directly support the thesis statement with evidence collected during research. It is also important to explain how and why the evidence supports the thesis (warrant).
However, argumentative essays should also consider and explain differing points of view regarding the topic. Depending on the length of the assignment, students should dedicate one or two paragraphs of an argumentative essay to discussing conflicting opinions on the topic. Rather than explaining how these differing opinions are wrong outright, students should note how opinions that do not align with their thesis might not be well informed or how they might be out of date.
- Evidential support (whether factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal).
The argumentative essay requires well-researched, accurate, detailed, and current information to support the thesis statement and consider other points of view. Some factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal evidence should support the thesis. However, students must consider multiple points of view when collecting evidence. As noted in the paragraph above, a successful and well-rounded argumentative essay will also discuss opinions not aligning with the thesis. It is unethical to exclude evidence that may not support the thesis. It is not the student’s job to point out how other positions are wrong outright, but rather to explain how other positions may not be well informed or up to date on the topic.
- A conclusion that does not simply restate the thesis, but readdresses it in light of the evidence provided.
It is at this point of the essay that students may begin to struggle. This is the portion of the essay that will leave the most immediate impression on the mind of the reader. Therefore, it must be effective and logical. Do not introduce any new information into the conclusion; rather, synthesize the information presented in the body of the essay. Restate why the topic is important, review the main points, and review your thesis. You may also want to include a short discussion of more research that should be completed in light of your work.
A complete argument
Perhaps it is helpful to think of an essay in terms of a conversation or debate with a classmate. If I were to discuss the cause of World War II and its current effect on those who lived through the tumultuous time, there would be a beginning, middle, and end to the conversation. In fact, if I were to end the argument in the middle of my second point, questions would arise concerning the current effects on those who lived through the conflict. Therefore, the argumentative essay must be complete, and logically so, leaving no doubt as to its intent or argument.
The five-paragraph essay
A common method for writing an argumentative essay is the five-paragraph approach. This is, however, by no means the only formula for writing such essays. If it sounds straightforward, that is because it is; in fact, the method consists of (a) an introductory paragraph (b) three evidentiary body paragraphs that may include discussion of opposing views and (c) a conclusion.
Longer argumentative essays
Complex issues and detailed research call for complex and detailed essays. Argumentative essays discussing a number of research sources or empirical research will most certainly be longer than five paragraphs. Authors may have to discuss the context surrounding the topic, sources of information and their credibility, as well as a number of different opinions on the issue before concluding the essay. Many of these factors will be determined by the assignment.