Section 2: Writing and the Structure of Argument

A primary ability for any writer in academic and professional writing contexts is constructing effective arguments. Although necessarily brief, this page provides an introduction to the basic elements of argument and strategies for constructing effective arguments.

A typical argument contains three primary elements:

  1. a claim or thesis
  2. statement(s) of reason(s)
  3. evidence / support / proofs / counterarguments

Claim/Thesis

The claim or thesis is a clear statement of the position that you are asking your readers to accept. A claim can encompass the entire text, a particular section of the text, an individual paragraph, or a single sentence. Ideally, claims presented in each of these instances should be consistent throughout the text. The claim includes information you are asking readers to accept as true, or actions you want them to accept and enact, and must be supported by specific reasons, along with evidence that supports those reasons.

In planning an argument, the first step is to define your position and make a claim. Obviously, your stance is your opinion, for your arguments should reflect your point of view in some way. Once you define your position and make a claim, you need to consider the context of the argument—the setting—as well as the data or assumptions that are agreed upon or incontrovertible within that context. This will help your readers understand the background of the argument and the accepted or understood positions.

Statement(s) of Reason(s)

Your reasons state why you are taking this position, why you believe what you do. You must spell it out for the reader, for an argument requires more than a good thesis. Any argument will have a list of supporting reasons and evidence. These reasons should be concrete and supported with evidence. Each statement of reason should include the following elements: the (supporting) reason; an explanation/definition of the reason; evidence; an explanation of the value of that evidence.

Remember your claim needs to be supported by your reasons: your ideas. The key to a strong argument is to start with your ideas, not those of your sources. If you start with the ideas of your sources, it's easy to fall into the trap of writing a paper that mostly summarizes what other people think or say. To avoid this, start planning your argument by listing your supporting reasons. Under each reason, list the information you need to provide in order to explain it. Some of this information will be evidence from your outside sources, but some of it could be based on your own experience or your own explanations of why you think something is important.

Also, as discussed in Writing as Cognitive Process and Social Practice, keep your audience in mind as you develop your supporting reasons.

  • What do they know about your topic?
  • What do they think about it?
  • What kinds of ideas and evidence will they find most persuasive and interesting?
  • What questions would they ask about your claim, and would they challenge any part of what you have to say?

From there, you can create a rough outline, listing your main supporting reasons, the evidence you want to use to explain those reasons, and any questions or challenges you need to answer in order to persuade your readers. A rough outline can help you figure out what kind of research you still need to do or help you notice sections of your argument that need more support, or that already have plenty of evidence.

Evidence/Support/Proofs/Counterarguments

A good argument will explain how each piece of evidence relates to the argument and why the evidence is valuable and credible. The primary purpose of support is to explain why your reasons are legitimate ones. While support may take many forms, you should always think of support as a logical explanation.

Usually, supporting evidence includes facts, ideas, and quotes from current research and/or experts, examples of cases related to your topic, and quotes from people who are affected by it. As you can see, supporting evidence often arises from source material, but never use a quotation or paraphrase without explaining its relevance to your reason immediately, never let a source do the talking for you, and never let a source have the last word in your argument.

In general, the evidence/support that you use in academic writing takes three basic forms:

  1. Facts (information that has been verified— proved true and information that is not based on personal opinion, though one can have an opinion about it);
  2. Authoritative Opinion (the testimony of experts on the topic—often found through research—but care must be taken to identify any bias in the position of the source that would affect the validity of the opinion, for the validity of the opinion depends on the authority of the source);
  3. Logic (logical evidence is created by thinking about facts and authoritative opinions; logical evidence offers proof of a thesis by demonstrating a relationship between the thesis and facts or authoritative opinions; logical evidence is created in the mind of the person making the argument).

Rhetorical Appeals/Proofs: Ethos, Pathos, Logos

Another way to think about the evidence that you provide to support your argument are the rhetorical appeals or proofs. In the Rhetorica, Aristotle identifies the three canonical modes of artistic proof: ethos, pathos and logos. He states that in order to persuade, one must exude good character, move the audience by appealing to emotions, and advance good reasons. Whenever you read an argument you must ask yourself, “Is this persuasive?” Rhetorical appeals are prevalent in almost all arguments and can provide the tools for analyzing and understanding effective argument practices.

Ethos: The Writer's Image

Ethos can be roughly translated as ethics or ethical practice, but a more accurate use of the term would be the “image” of the writer. Aristotle uses ethos to refer to the speaker's character as it appears to the audience, for he believes that if the audience accepts that a speaker has “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill,” they are more inclined to believe what that speaker says. While we might also define ethos in terms of appropriate expertise or authority, the key is for the writer to establish and project credibility to the audience. As such, a writer's ethos is created largely by word choice and style, which can be a problem for novices who may be asked to create texts as if they have authority to speak persuasively, when in fact they may be relative newcomers to the subject matter and the larger field. To develop ethos, you need to use language that is suitable to the rhetorical situation—including an appropriate vocabulary and correct grammar—and offer a sincere and fair-minded presentation of the information. In doing so, you will demonstrate your reliability, competence, and respect for the audience's ideas and values.

Pathos: The Emotions of the Audience

Pathos is the appeal to emotion, for the writer must also stir the emotions in order to move the audience to action. They may be any emotions: love, fear, patriotism, guilt, hate, joy, etc. The more people react without full consideration for the why of an argument, the more effective that argument might be. Although the pathetic appeal can be manipulative, it is the cornerstone of moving people to action. Many arguments are able to persuade people logically, but the apathetic audience may not follow through on the call to action. Appeals to pathos touch a nerve and compel people to not only listen, but to also take the next step and act in the world. To appeal to the emotions of the audience and evoke an emotional response, the writer should use vivid, concrete, and figurative language.

Logos: Logical Arguments

Logos is the appeal to reason and refers primarily to any attempt to appeal to the intellect. Since logic and rationality are highly valued in our society, logos is usually privileged over ethos or pathos. But as a rhetorical appeal, logos is most often based on probabilities rather than certain truth, for we often cannot know a thing with absolute certainty, yet we must act anyway. To appeal to logic and evoke a cognitive, rational response, the writer often uses more theoretical or abstract language that includes literal or historical analogies, definitions, factual data and statistics, quotations and citations from experts and authorities, and informed opinions. Persuasion, to a large extent, involves convincing people to accept our assumptions as probably true. Similarly, exposing questionable assumptions in someone else's argument is an effective means for preparing the audience to accept your own contrary position.

Counter-Arguments

Despite the careful construction of an argument, there may still be counter-arguments that can be used. These may be rebutted either through a continued dialogue, or by pre-empting the counter-argument by presenting a rebuttal as an integral part of your own argument. Remember, any rebuttal is an argument in itself, and thus may include all the elements of an argument.

In short, remember that when addressing a possible counter-argument, you need to know the opposing arguments, refute them by formulating responses to them, and follow all the rules of evidence that you used to support your argument. If you can do this, your argument will be much stronger.