Developing an argument
What is an argument?
Your argument is the statement of what you think about the question you've been set. It's at the heart of your essay. It determines your structure, evidence, reasoning, quotations, introduction and conclusion. Spend time on it.
- You should be able to sum up your argument in a single sentence.
- You should be able to explain the essence of it to a young child.
- You should be able to write it in a few words on a Post-it Note.
Keep refining the wording of that simple statement until you are convinced it describes what is at the heart of your essay.
Making an argument (Royal Literary Fund).
Talk through your ideas to help work out your argument. Talk to friends, peers, family. Think it through while you're shopping, washing up, on the bus, swimming. Check Evaluating Arguments to see if yours is convincing.
How do I come up with a line of argument?
You develop a line of argument as you plan the body of your essay. You shape it with:
- key themes
- how you are going to illustrate/prove your key themes
- the evidence, examples and quotations you insert
- by showing who you side with and the ideas you set against one another
A line of argument is the expression, organisation and sequence of ideas. When you have identified your key themes and listed them 1. 2. 3. try changing the order of your list to see if it improves your line of argument.
Draw your line of thinking on a large piece of paper to see how direct and logical it looks.
Remember - every stage of your argument needs to be supported with appropriate evidence and examples. All sources must be referenced.
Do I have to be original?
People often worry about this. “How can I have anything new to say about my subject?” Students also worry about challenging published academics.
Originality comes naturally when you think for yourself:
- from your responses to what you read
- from your research findings
- from how you select evidence and present other peoples’ ideas
- from your conclusions.
You do not have to come up with an argument no-one else has thought of but you are expected to think independently.
Rather than worry about whether or not you are being original, think about the kind of essay you are writing. Take a look at the Royal Literary Fund webpages: Different varieties of essay, different kinds of writing.
Criticising other people's ideas/evidence means evaluating strengths and weaknesses of their arguments, how well they are reasoned and backed up. Have a look at the section on Critical Thinking.
The text resources on this page have been adapted from original work by Moira Wilson, copyright 2009.
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Hello, my name is Robin Banerjee and I'm a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sussex. I teach many first year, second year and third year students so if you come into the Psychology department I'm sure I'll see lots of you while you're here. Today I'm going to be talking a little bit about guidelines for writing essays. Now I'm sure that when you've got essays to write you'll find lots of different instructions to follow for the different assignments that you've got, and of course you'll have to pay attention to them. But what I'm going to give you today are some helpful guidelines which I hope will be useful to you as you set about the task of writing an essay.
1. Come up with a clear line of argument
Well, my first guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you have a clear line of argument. If the essay title is in the form of a question -- this might seem obvious -- answer the question. Although it seems like an obvious point, I've read many essays where student simply don't answer the question. They'll talk about lots of things that relate to the question but they don't actually give you an answer to the question. So if the title is in the form of a question, make sure you answer the question. And even if the essay title isn't in the form of a question, make sure that you have something clear that you want to say. Don't just talk in general terms about the subject area. Make sure you have a clear point that you want to communicate in your essay.
2. Make it clear where you are going
All right, so my second major guideline for writing an essay is to make it clear where you are going. The reader needs to know what you're saying and needs to be aware of the path that you are taking in the essay. So don't wait until the very end of the essay to reveal the main point that you're trying to communicate. As I've said before the most important thing in an essay is to come up with a clear line of argument and it's important to tell the reader about that right at the beginning. So set out your plan for the essay at the outset and then use the rest of the essay to actually build up your argument. Use examples and evidence to support the points that you're making. Don't run through a whole range of different examples and pieces of evidence and theories and then at the end say the point that you want to make about it. Make the point first and then use the evidence to support it.
3. Plan your essay
Express your key points in complete sentences
My third guideline for writing an essay is to use a plan. Once you've done all your reading, once you've done all your research you need to step back from it and decide what you're going to say. Come up with your main line of argument, but plan your essay before you launch into the actual writing of the essay. That means that you need to decide exactly what your key points are. So you need a logical sequence of key points that actually build up your argument. It's really important when you've arrived at your key points, it's really important to express them in complete sentences. One of the mistakes that I often see students doing, and one of the things that makes plans a bit problematic for a lot of students, is that when they're coming up with their outline for their essay they just have a list of subject headings: First I'm going to be talking about this, then I'm going to be talking about that, and then last of all I'm going to talk about that. And actually that's not a very good plan, because when you go down to write something you don't know what you're going to say. You know what you're going to talk about, but you don't know what you're going to say about it. So the most important thing about the plan is to decide what your main points are and to express them in complete sentences -- not just what are you going to talk about but what are you going to say about it? Once you've got that sequence of key points expressed in complete sentences you should have a pretty good summary of your essay. And that should be able to stand alone as an answer to your essay question.
Select your evidence
Once you've decided on your sequence of key points, then you can start to flesh out your plan by listing the evidence that you're going to include for each key point. What examples are you going to draw on? What pieces of evidence or empirical work or theoretical work are you going to use to actually support each of those key points? Once you've actually done that you've got a really good framework for writing your essay: you know what your main argument is, you know what each key point is that you're going to use to support that argument, and in turn you know what key bits of evidence or examples or theories you're going to use to make each of those key points.
Review your choice of key points and evidence
One final point about the plans. If you look at your plan and you find that you've got nine, ten or even more key points then think again about whether they really need to stand separate from each other as different points. In an essay, and even in longer essays like 4,000 word essays, you'll usually only need to have a handful of key points. Remember the main objective is to support the main line of argument that you want to present to the reader. That doesn't mean that you have to cover absolutely everything that you've read. It may be the case that there will be material that you've read that really isn't relevant to the point that you want to make in this essay - so decide what the best pieces of evidence are to support the points that you actually want to make in this essay.
4. Ask someone else to read you essay
My next guideline for writing an essay is to make sure that you give it to someone else to read. It's really important to get a second opinion on your essay and sometimes when you've been working on an essay for a long time it can be really hard to adopt a fresh objective stance and look at your essay. So find someone, maybe a friend that you can bribe to read your essay, maybe a family member, long suffering flat mates - whoever you can. Get someone else to read the essay and to try and extract the main points. If you've done your job well -- if you started out with a good plan, with the key points expressed in complete sentences, and you based your essay on that plan -- then when you give that essay to someone else to read and you ask them, ‘Can you pull out the main points from this essay?', their extracted main points should look very similar to the main points that you had in your plan. So that would be a good sign that you've accomplished what you wanted to accomplish in the essay.
5. Show originality in your essay
OK, my final guideline for writing an essay concerns originality. You'll probably see in most of the assessment criteria for essays in different subjects across the university that originality is one of the markers of first class essays. Can you show originality and flair in the way that you write your essay? Well, a lot of students often ask, ‘What do I do to show originality in an essay? Do I just say what my opinion is about the subject matter?' Well, partly -- but it's not just a matter of expressing your personal opinion without justification or rationale. Originality in an academic essay is all about the way that you interrogate the material in front of you and the way that you put the material together. So, regarding the first of those points, if you are dealing with evidence, examples, theories, other people's writing - question it, adopt a critical standpoint, evaluate it, don't just accept it at face value. Regarding the second point -- about how you put ideas together and how you put your points and evidence together in your essay -- that's a really important opportunity to show your originality. It's not so much about waiting until you get to the end of the essay and then coming up with - ‘well I think ... blah blah blah..' But it's about how you put the argument together. That's where you can really show your originality. Have you taken these theories, these different bits of evidence, the different readings that you've done, have you put them together in an interesting and innovative way to answer the question? That's how a student shows originality in an essay!