English 102 Argumentative Essay Structure

Write a brief phrase to explain how each main point makes a different contribution to the thesis.

Tip: Use content-independent terms—words that describe the essay, not the topic. These include verbs such as explain, prove, show, demonstrate, apply, analyze, define; and nouns such as thesis, topic, term, concept, analysis, definition, support. For example:

  • This section defines two key terms in the thesis and analyzes their relationship.
  • This section applies the analysis from the previous section to the main focus of the thesis.

The goal here is to see how an argument is a series of steps that leads the reader to the conclusion. Each step contributes something unique to the overall idea. You can also think of each main point as proving a different part of the thesis, or proving a point that has to be true if the thesis is going to be true. Stepping away from the content to focus on the essay makes it easier to see how these parts work together.

A finished analysis will combine content-independent terms with content-specific terms (words that refer to the topic of the essay). This step helps make it possible to do that.

uite unlike the ordinary meaning of the word, argument as a term in rhetoric refers to the process of reasoning by advancing proof. Indeed, academic argument can seem dispassionate if one expects that all argument is done with raised voices and heated tempers. Though academic argument often does grow very acrimonious, it is more often the product of careful research and thoughtful consideration of all the facts that one can acquire about the issue. For centuries therefore rhetoricians advocated the writing of an argumentative essay as a means of learning how to think. Argument demands that the writer examine a belief by testing the strength of the reasons for holding such a belief. Argument of this kind forms a "dialectical structure," a dialog, within the essay itself. In this dialog, the writer explores several sides of the issue under consideration with the readers in an attempt to demonstrate why one perspective is the most enlightened. The writer's analysis of the issues (his/her evaluations of the claims, evidence, assumptions, hidden arguments, and inherent contradictions) leads the writer to champion one perspective of the subject at hand, even though reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent people advocate different perspectives.

n short, the writer of an argument essay has several goals: the primary goals is to persuade and move the audience to accept his/her position on an issue, but that is often a very difficult challenge. A secondary, and more modest goal, is for the writer to articulate why s/he chooses the stance that s/he does on an issue. The secondary goal recognizes the fact that to persuade is a difficult objective but that at least the writer can explain his/her reasoning behind his/her position.

Writing Guidelines

or those reasons, many rhetoricians describe the argument as a dialog, set in writing, between the writer and the readers. In this dialog, the writer introduces his/her subject, makes his/her claim, discusses any necessary background information, and then presents the evidence for the position and in rebuttal to other positions.

riters use different patterns to organize their thoughts as they compose the argument. Essentially, the two most common patters of development are the "clustering" and the "alternating" patterns of presenting evidence. In the clustering pattern, the writer collects the evidence in one place, the objections in another section, and the rebuttal in a third section. In the alternating pattern, the writer shifts between evidence, objection, and rebuttal for each separate piece of evidence before moving to the next piece of evidence.

eading through the lists above, you can see the give-and-take, the back-and-forth nature of the argument's dialectic.

Argument vs. Opinion

he single most common misunderstanding in composing an argument is to assume that there is no difference between an argument and an opinion. "But it's all opinion!" we might rightly point out, and, yes, it is true that all claims start out as opinions. (Columbus was thought mad for suggesting that the world was round, remember. The ancients argued that the earth was the center of the universe.) At first glance, it may seem that argumentative essays are "merely" asking you to write your opinion, since there may be no single "correct" way to answer the crucial questions raised by controversial subjects. The crucial difference is that an argument should present a claim (an opinion) supported by reasoning and evidence, which persuades your reader that the thesis your paper advances is a valid one. An opinion is an assertion that is not supported by logic or evidence.

An Example

elow is an essay that I wrote in response to Ossie Davis's interesting and well-written piece entitled "The English Language is My Enemy." (I wish the piece were available to us on the web; it's a good read. You can find it widely anthologized in many different collections of essays in the library.) Davis argues on the basis of an analysis of the meanings associated with the words black and white that the English language is his enemy. My essay argues that Davis's evidence is valid but that his interpretation of the evidence is not.

he example above uses the clustering method of development. I often find the clustering method works better for a short essay while a longer, more complicated argument (with many different pieces of evidence to present) works better with the alternating method of development.


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