Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2016

How to Write a Great Argumentative Essay

Politics, social movements, laws, and religion—these topics, among others, are often approached through argumentative discourse, among individuals with diverse experiences and perspectives. While potentially tense, arguments are a great way to learn about the world around you, as well as the perspective of others in it.

Debate is a necessary skill for anyone in law or education careers, and it is a useful one in just about every profession imaginable. Being able to learn from (and negotiate with) others through clear, well-researched, concise discussion is important for leaders, especially since this type of skill is often needed on a day-to-day basis in leadership positions.

So what is an argumentative essay?

You should think of an argumentative essay as essentially the written form of a well-thought-out debate. Just as would be the case in spoken arguments, it's important to start with solid evidence without the need to fabricate anything to support your claims. When your statistics and data are fabricated, anyone who looks up those facts for themselves will immediately dismiss your opinion. On the other hand, when you've done your research and have credible data as evidence, your argument (or argumentative essay) has a much greater chance of "winning."

What topic should I choose?

If you're writing an argumentative essay on a topic you're passionate about, consider yourself lucky. Those are the easiest type of argumentative essay assignments to write, because we tend to have a lot of background knowledge on the topic through past reading, experiences, or conversations. So the answer in this case would be to pick a topic that's important to you, whether that's conservation of the planet, politics, race problems, etc.

If you have been given a topic to write about—or worse, discover the topic for the first time for an undergraduate or graduate entrance exam—knowing the right outline to use to create a great argumentative essay is going to be a life saver. Even if you're not passionate about (and therefore, have little background knowledge of) the given topic, you'll at least have a road map for navigating through the process.

What needs to happen before I start writing?

The key to writing an exceptional argumentative essay is research. A lot of it. And this isn't limited to researching studies done by those who side with you on the issue—you also have to research a few of the most prevalent arguments opposing yours. You need to know the significant evidence they use, and consider their point of view. It is essentially planning ahead, like in a game of Chess, to determine where the other side is likely to move and the strategy they are likely to take.

A chess game
Planning ahead and playing smart is what makes a great argumentative essay.

Now research, then research some more

Thomas Paine, an English-American philosopher and political theorist, wrote some of the most influential political pieces of the American Revolution. In his series of pamphlets entitled The American Crisis, he wrote: To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead…

The point here is that you should focus on two things as you research:

  • Evidence that supports or disproves your side of the issue
  • Evidence that supports or disproves the other side

This is approaching an argument from a logical, grounded perspective, which is crucial for writing a great argumentative essay. The research you do before writing even begins will make or break your argument.

Your goal is to win the debate — ethically

One of the best ways to win an argument is to know the most significant facts and recent data published on the issue, and how to direct your reader to it. Logic—presented correctly—will win almost every time, unless your audience isn't logical themselves. Despite this, when writing an argumentative essay, you need to approach the process with logic as your guiding principle. You should also be extremely careful to avoid including any fabricated data, since this is both unethical and a sure way to lose credibility when your audience discovers you did it.

Research is key
Research all of the facts to win the debate.

Dig for data

How do you build logic into your essay? Simple. Know what the experts have said—on both (or all) sides of the debate. Find data that has been published in reputable journals by experts in their chosen field. Look at statistics gathered from trustworthy sources, or, if they are unavailable, conduct your own survey to gather them. If you take the latter approach, keep in mind that fabricated data is a big risk and could result in failed classes or being denied entrance into a university. Your teachers are likely able to spot the difference—especially when it's statistics related to the field they know so well.

Research is done – now what?

After conducting thorough research, you're ready to start outlining. If you were able to conduct research beforehand, it should allow you to quickly complete the outline and start writing. Even if you are taking an entrance exam and are under significant time constraints, an outline will speed up the process of writing and keep your logic on the right track. You shouldn't spend more than five minutes or so in doing this if there is time pressure, but it will more than make up for your lack of research and background knowledge on the issue.

Argumentative essay outline
You should create an outline before writing an argumentative essay.

Introduction

Step 1 — Find a hook

As with any genre of writing, the hook you choose to open the first paragraph needs to grab the reader's attention. It needs to convince them to continue reading because you've opened the "discussion" with a startling statistic or brutally honest question. Most readers can't resist either one.

Examples:

"11 adolescents die every day from the number-one killer of American teenagers: texting while driving."

"When was the last time you used your phone while driving?"

Step 2 — Summarize background of the topic

If you've researched your topic thoroughly, it should be all downhill from here. Following your hook, you need a summary of the topic as a whole. Why is it important? Why is it worthy of further scrutiny and debate? Who are some of the well-known people, in the present or in history, who have focused on it? This is how you provide a background and give readers a concise summary of the topic.

Step 3 — Include your Thesis

At the end of this summary is where your thesis will most naturally fit, as you state (in one sentence, preferably) the position you choose to take on the subject. This thesis sentence will be one of the most important sentences of the essay if logic is your aim (which it should be!). Your readers need a solid, easily understood thesis to form a foundation for any kind of logical discourse.

Body

Here is where the real fun starts, especially if you enjoy debating and expressing your opinion often. The body of a five-paragraph essay generally consists of three paragraphs exploring three points you want to make that back up your thesis. The same holds true for a five-paragraph argumentative essay. In the first paragraph of the body (the second paragraph in a five-paragraph essay), you should begin by stating the first point you'd like to make to back your thesis. Following that statement, you need to include solid, credible evidence that supports your claim.

Now, remember at the beginning, when I said that your level of research can make or break your argument? Here's why. If you are stating claims about an important topic, you need to have a reason for those claims. No one should just take your opinion as truth—your readers need to know that you have solid evidence to back up your opinion.

This evidence most often comes in the form of statistics and data gathered from credible sources. Such sources could include data published on .gov websites, information printed in peer-reviewed professional journals, and reports released by nonprofit organizations that specialize in providing services and resources related to the topic.

Keep in mind that for this section of the argumentative essay, it's best to present one claim per paragraph. In a five-paragraph essay, you could most easily express two claims, followed by evidence supporting them. These would make up paragraphs two and three in a five-paragraph essay. In a longer essay, several claims could be made, as well as more than one paragraph dedicated to each of them.

The final step for writing the body of an argumentative essay is acknowledging opposing arguments. Remember: your goal here is to briefly introduce these opposing opinions to provide context. In addition to acknowledging opposing arguments, you will need to explain briefly the evidence that is typically used to support that side.

This is another place where thorough research is important—a necessity, even. If you have researched your topic in depth, you will know both sides of it, and can therefore summarize both sides of it. This section is meant to provide your reader with a birds-eye view of the topic, in addition to your individual perspective on it.

While the primary goal of an argumentative essay is certainly to argue your point (thesis), without presenting the opposing view you're not providing a logical argument for your reader. You're also approaching unethical territory in your writing. Your audience deserves to know that there are others out there who feel differently than you do, why they feel that way, and (potentially) significant research or data that supports their side.

Conclusion

Now that you've reached the end, don't make the mistake of thinking that an essay's conclusion is simply restating the introduction. Sure, you might have been taught this in middle school, but it's also middle-school level writing.

The conclusion is the end result of all of the work you have done in the process of researching and writing the essay. It's also the paragraph that will make the most significant impression on your reader, partially due to the fact that it will be the last words of the essay (and, therefore, will resonate in the mind of the reader for minutes, hours, even days afterwards). So here is where you have the best chance of winning over others to your side of the argument, or making a great grade on the argumentative essay assignment. A simple re-wording of the introduction—in this light—comes across as lazy and a missed opportunity to hit a home run.

Rather than restating your introduction using different words, use your conclusion to synthesize your thesis and the evidence you have provided that supports it. Revisit only the strongest evidence that supports your claims, and refute the opposing side respectfully, without fabricated data or statistics. Restate your thesis but restate it in a way that will stick in the mind of the reader—a more powerful expression of the original—and make them think… wow, I never thought of it that way!

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