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College Writing Tips: Constructing Good Arguments

By Joseph Flynn Michigan State University

What kinds of essays will I write in college?

Argumentative essays: These essays ask you

to state and support a position about an issue or selected reading(s). For example: Which branch of government can be considered the most powerful? What role did stem-cell research play in the 2004 presidential election? Or, explore the construction of race through Toni Morrisons The Bluest Eye. Each of these require you to build an argument to show the instructor that you know the information and can logically think through it to clearly express a point or position.

Types of essays, cont.

Analytical essays: These essays ask for a close reading of a book, essay, or research paper and typically asks you to seek outside sources to support your reading. With these essays you can assume the reader is familiar with the text, but a short synopsis is always useful. You select details and passages from the text not to inform the reader but to support your interpretation. Again, although this is not an argumentative essay you are still providing an argument (your interpretation of a work or aspect of a work). You may want to ask the person giving the assignment for clarity about sources; one may want you to consult outside sources while others may not require this, especially for shorter papers.

Types of essays, cont.

Synthesis essay: This type of essay requires taking a number of readings (2 or more) and using them to explore or draw out a shared perspective. In most classes you will have weekly reading that centers on a particular theme for the course, or a collection of readings that deal generally with a subject. Often instructors will ask what a collection of readings have to do with each other. This is a synthesis: For example, let us say you are taking an English class on the work of Toni Morrison. You could be asked to explore four of Morrisons novels and draw out main themes or devices she employs across the texts. Again, although this is not an argumentative essay you are being asked to make an argument.

Types of essays, cont.

Important Note!!! Students tend to get in trouble because they are not really sure of what an assignment is asking them student to do. Talk to your instructor for clarity before writing and leave yourself enough time to proofread and revise!

What is an argument?
An argument is a set of reasons or evidence (premises) in support of a conclusion. An argument is not merely a statement of views, nor is an argument simply a dispute. Arguments are attempts to support certain views with reasons (Weston, x).

Arguments cont.

In other words, students make a common mistake in their writing. They only provide their opinion about a text or topic. Instructors are less concerned with your opinion and more concerned with your argument. Opinions tend to not have any relevant support or the supporting evidence is not strong. Instructors want to know what you are thinking, how you produced your ideas (where do they come from), and how you apply those ideas (can you use ideas from legitimate sources to support an argument you are trying to make).

Arguments cont.

To write a top-notch paper you must explore the arguments on the opposing sides (and sometimes there are more than two sides); then you must write the essay itself as an argument, defending your conclusion with arguments and critically assessing some of the arguments on the opposing sides (Weston, xii).

7 Guidelines for Composing Arguments

These guidelines are specifically for short arguments, a paragraph or two. However, longer arguments follow the same basic ideas. Mastering the short argument provides a solid foundation for longer arguments. In fact there are many types of arguments: arguments by example, arguments by analogy, arguments by authority, causal arguments, inductive arguments, and deductive arguments. Unfortunately we do not have enough time to address those today but you should be aware of them and learn more about them.


Distinguish premises from conclusion. The conclusion is what you are arguing for. Another way of looking at it is your thesis statement is your conclusion. The reasons that support your conclusion are your premises.


Present your ideas in a natural order. You can put your conclusion first and then your premises or the other way around. Regardless, make sure the paragraph follows logically and the reader has a straight line of thought to follow rather than going all over the place.


Start from reliable premises. This is especially important. The easiest way to tear apart an argument is through faulty premises. Consider the following:
Nobody in the world today is really happy. Therefore, it seems that human beings are just not made for happiness. Why should we expect what we can never have?

Is this plausible? It is easy to point out people that are happy. Reliable premises typically come from well known examples (The Holocaust and the African Slave Trade are two examples of human atrocity) or informed authorities (Dr. Martin Luther King idea that if we live by an eye for an eye then we will all go blind is useful in thinking about the virtue of nonviolent revolution).


Use definite, specific, concrete language. Do not use vague language. Be clear! State what you mean. The worst thing you can do is have your reader unclear on what you are discussing because the language is vague. And yes, it is possible to use your own voice while being direct. Big words are great but mean nothing if used improperly or unnecessarily. Long sentences are only effective if that is what the sentence needs.

Avoid loaded language. A handy way of thinking about this is listening to people talk about controversial issues, like abortion. You tend to hear comments like, If you are pro-choice you are a baby killer. This is loaded because the language is meant to shock the reader and not illuminate an argument. Not that you cannot argue against a perspective. In fact you should. But it is more effective to understand the other perspective, treat it respectfully, represent it accurately, and then express your reasons against.


Use consistent terms. This is really important. Here is an example, often people fuse liberal, left-leaning, and progressive. In an essay you need to show why you are using multiple terms for an idea. For instance I was writing an essay in which I used African American, Black, and Negro. I told my reader that I was using these terms based on the popularity of their use at a particular time in history. When discussing events in the 1950s I used Negro. In the 1970s I used Black. And in the 1990s I used African American. Shifting your terms can confuse readers. So be clear and let the reader know why and how you are using terms.


Stick to one meaning for each term. Similar to the last point, you do not want to confuse the reader. For example, if you are writing a paper about race it is not wise to oscillate between race and ethnicity (especially since both mean different things). To escape this trap define your terms early and stick to the definitions. Usually different writers may employ different definitions. If that is the case you will need to either pick one and justify why you are employing that particular definition or you will have to synthesize a definition based on your interpretation of the reading.

Special Guideline

The best way to become a good writer is to be a good reader. If you do not know what good writing sounds like or how a good essay is structured it is much more difficult to craft one yourself. Writing is a skill and you only get better at it by reading and doing it!

Analytical Reading
Use the following simple questions to read for class. In a nutshell these are the points instructors want to know, not whether or not the book was bad because it was boring. In fact the instructor probably already knows the book or article is boring. Rather they are interested in the ideas represented in the book. Hence, the questions are designed to get inside the text. Use these. I guarantee they will help your reading and your own argument construction.

Analytical Reading Questions

What is it? (In other words, what is the text about? What point(s) is the author(s) trying to express through the text)? Who says? (Whose and what ideas or theories is the writer using to make and back up the argument)? Whats new? (This is the relational question. How is this text similar/different from other texts read in class or in the field)? So what? (What is important or interesting about the text? A more crude way of asking this question is who cares? Explain why someone needs to pay attention to the themes and/or ideas of the text, or not pay attention for that matter).

Further reading/Resources
Booth, William., Williams, J., and Colomb, G. (2003) The Craft of Research, 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press. Kehrwald Cook, Claire. (1986) Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin. Weston, Anthony. (1992) A Rulebook for Arguments, 3rd edition. Hackett Publishing Company Williams, Joseph. (1995) Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. University of Chicago Press.