Techniques Writing Argumentative Essay

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Argumentative Essays


The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.

Contributors: Jack Baker, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli
Last Edited: 2013-03-10 11:46:44

What is an argumentative essay?

The argumentative essay is a genre of writing that requires the student to investigate a topic; collect, generate, and evaluate evidence; and establish a position on the topic in a concise manner.

Please note: Some confusion may occur between the argumentative essay and the expository essay. These two genres are similar, but the argumentative essay differs from the expository essay in the amount of pre-writing (invention) and research involved. The argumentative essay is commonly assigned as a capstone or final project in first year writing or advanced composition courses and involves lengthy, detailed research. Expository essays involve less research and are shorter in length. Expository essays are often used for in-class writing exercises or tests, such as the GED or GRE.

Argumentative essay assignments generally call for extensive research of literature or previously published material. Argumentative assignments may also require empirical research where the student collects data through interviews, surveys, observations, or experiments. Detailed research allows the student to learn about the topic and to understand different points of view regarding the topic so that she/he may choose a position and support it with the evidence collected during research. Regardless of the amount or type of research involved, argumentative essays must establish a clear thesis and follow sound reasoning.

The structure of the argumentative essay is held together by the following.

  • A clear, concise, and defined thesis statement that occurs in the first paragraph of the essay.

In the first paragraph of an argument essay, students should set the context by reviewing the topic in a general way. Next the author should explain why the topic is important (exigence) or why readers should care about the issue. Lastly, students should present the thesis statement. It is essential that this thesis statement be appropriately narrowed to follow the guidelines set forth in the assignment. If the student does not master this portion of the essay, it will be quite difficult to compose an effective or persuasive essay.

  • Clear and logical transitions between the introduction, body, and conclusion.

Transitions are the mortar that holds the foundation of the essay together. Without logical progression of thought, the reader is unable to follow the essay’s argument, and the structure will collapse. Transitions should wrap up the idea from the previous section and introduce the idea that is to follow in the next section.

  • Body paragraphs that include evidential support.

Each paragraph should be limited to the discussion of one general idea. This will allow for clarity and direction throughout the essay. In addition, such conciseness creates an ease of readability for one’s audience. It is important to note that each paragraph in the body of the essay must have some logical connection to the thesis statement in the opening paragraph. Some paragraphs will directly support the thesis statement with evidence collected during research. It is also important to explain how and why the evidence supports the thesis (warrant).

However, argumentative essays should also consider and explain differing points of view regarding the topic. Depending on the length of the assignment, students should dedicate one or two paragraphs of an argumentative essay to discussing conflicting opinions on the topic. Rather than explaining how these differing opinions are wrong outright, students should note how opinions that do not align with their thesis might not be well informed or how they might be out of date.

  • Evidential support (whether factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal).

The argumentative essay requires well-researched, accurate, detailed, and current information to support the thesis statement and consider other points of view. Some factual, logical, statistical, or anecdotal evidence should support the thesis. However, students must consider multiple points of view when collecting evidence. As noted in the paragraph above, a successful and well-rounded argumentative essay will also discuss opinions not aligning with the thesis. It is unethical to exclude evidence that may not support the thesis. It is not the student’s job to point out how other positions are wrong outright, but rather to explain how other positions may not be well informed or up to date on the topic.

  • A conclusion that does not simply restate the thesis, but readdresses it in light of the evidence provided.

It is at this point of the essay that students may begin to struggle. This is the portion of the essay that will leave the most immediate impression on the mind of the reader. Therefore, it must be effective and logical. Do not introduce any new information into the conclusion; rather, synthesize the information presented in the body of the essay. Restate why the topic is important, review the main points, and review your thesis. You may also want to include a short discussion of more research that should be completed in light of your work.

A complete argument

Perhaps it is helpful to think of an essay in terms of a conversation or debate with a classmate. If I were to discuss the cause of World War II and its current effect on those who lived through the tumultuous time, there would be a beginning, middle, and end to the conversation. In fact, if I were to end the argument in the middle of my second point, questions would arise concerning the current effects on those who lived through the conflict. Therefore, the argumentative essay must be complete, and logically so, leaving no doubt as to its intent or argument.

The five-paragraph essay

A common method for writing an argumentative essay is the five-paragraph approach. This is, however, by no means the only formula for writing such essays. If it sounds straightforward, that is because it is; in fact, the method consists of (a) an introductory paragraph (b) three evidentiary body paragraphs that may include discussion of opposing views and (c) a conclusion.

Longer argumentative essays

Complex issues and detailed research call for complex and detailed essays. Argumentative essays discussing a number of research sources or empirical research will most certainly be longer than five paragraphs. Authors may have to discuss the context surrounding the topic, sources of information and their credibility, as well as a number of different opinions on the issue before concluding the essay. Many of these factors will be determined by the assignment.

We can still use many techniques from Classical Rhetoric when we argue in writing.  The two presented here are Status and Appeals.  The first helps you clarify your issue and the second shows you how to argue through organizing and addressing readers’ values.

Isolating Your Issue

Status in Latin means “a stand.”  Many students in high school write book reports, but these writing exercises don’t prepare them to take a stand.  Classical rhetoricians like Cicero and Aristotle posed the following 4 questions to work through before writing:

  • Conjecture:  Is there an act to be considered?
  • Definition:  How can the act be defined?
  • Quality:  How serious is the act?
  • Procedure:  Should this act be submitted to some formal procedure?

Will you get your paper written just with these questions?  No, but if you begin here, you will clarify what you are going to argue, and that leads to a high quality paper.

Rational Appeals

In ancient Greece and Rome, orators spent a great amount of time on status and on figuring out which of the appeals below best fit the subject.  They are classified by the type of organization they provide.  This list is taken from Four Worlds of Writing (2nd ed.) by Janice M. Lauer et al.

Descriptive Techniques

  • compelling descriptive example
  • specific applications or illustrations of a principle you hold or advocate
  • set up or refer to a model for action or behavior you propose
  • set up an ideal for an action or behavior you propose

Narrative Techniques

  • show one event is the cause or the effect of another
  • show that an act or event causes favorable or unfavorable consequences
  • show that one thing is the means and the other the end
  • argue waste would occur if some action already begun is abandoned or if some talent or presence is lost
  • show the direction of any stage in a long process
  • show the connection between persons and their actions or the lack of connection between them
  • use the authority of a person, based on his or her creditable actions or experience
  • use a narrative example to support your focus

Classification Techniques

  • use an analogy (a way far out comparison), showing how a relationship in one sphere that resembles a relationship in another sphere that supports your focus
  • classify someone in a group and show the implications of membership in that group
  • use a comparison or contrast to support your focus


Persuasive writing is the most challenging type of writing because you have to answer arguments sometimes (called rebuttals).  If you want to argue something commonly held, you can use the above rational appeals, and you can, if you have quotes, fully quote the opposition before you argue it.  Allow yourself to point out at least one valid claim the opposition has before you argue it.  Arguing without doing so makes your argument unbalanced and your thinking ungenerous.

Affective Appeals

Imagine your reader after he or she has read your paper:  what do you want to have happen (e.g. an A on your paper, agreement with your position, some type of action taken that you’ve proposed)?  What do you have to do in your writing to evoke that response? 

If your audience is a college professor seeking to enhance your upper-division writing skills in a WAC course, I imagine that that professor will want the following things:

  • clear, reasoned appeals based on reasonable evidence
  • excellent critical thinking skills
  • demonstration that you are willing to learn more about advanced thinking and writing in this course
  • appropriate style and vocabulary (no contractions, no clichés, a variety of sentence patterns, correct grammar, correct spelling, appropriate format, diction more formal than informal, the appearance of the paper professional—dark print, no stains)

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