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Composition & Rhetoric


Developing an Argument


Find a Topic

  • If you have to choose your own essay topic or find a specific topic on a general subject, consider these options:

    1. Go back to your sources. Mark any passages that seemed to you particularly interesting, confusing, moving, or unusual. What struck you—was it the writing itself? the ideas? the original perspective? If you’re reading fiction, which character strikes you the most? Why? Underline the parts that you think are most significant.

    2. Go back to your class notes. Chances are your teacher raised many points about the subject and illuminated the significant elements of a few passages in class. What was most interesting to you? What would you like to explore further?

    3. Do some research. Reading what others have said about your subject may spark ideas of your own. Books, articles, and the Internet are all sources of information.

  • After spending time reviewing and researching, you should have an idea of a topic for your essay. Your idea will become more specific as you begin to develop a thesis statement.


Understand the Assignment

  • When you have an assigned topic from a teacher or on a test, you should first figure out exactly what the question is asking. Go through the question and underline each specific idea.

  • When you know exactly what the question requires you to do, you’ll be more efficient when you begin to search the text for evidence with which to structure your response.

  • Example: Discuss Steinbeck’s use of symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath. Which objects or ideas in the text work symbolically? How do these symbols work to highlight Steinbeck’s philosophies, characters, or story? Ultimately, what do these symbols suggest about the characters or the novel as a whole?

    • Again, underline each important part of the question. You know you have to discuss symbols, but an overview of symbols is not enough.

    • Look at the way the questions begin to get an idea of what information you have to include: Which objects or ideas in the text, specifically? How do they work? What do they ultimately suggest?

    • Now it’s clear that you must first identify specific symbols, then analyze how they operate in the novel.


Develop a Purpose for Writing

  • Just as important as coming up with what to write is pinpointing why you’re writing it.

  • To figure out your purpose for writing, think about what you want your essay to accomplish.

    • If you want to illuminate a topic, your purpose is to inform.

    • If you want to prove a point, your purpose is to convince.

    • If you want to change your reader’s minds about a subject, your purpose is to persuade.

    • Other purposes: To analyze, to make a request, to provoke new thought, to move readers to action, to summarize, to express your feelings on a subject, to argue a position.

  • Your purpose for writing usually is determined by your audience. What the audience already thinks, knows, or believes will make a difference in why you write. Their positions will determine your purpose. Figuring out who your essay should or will reach will be important in shaping your purpose.

  • This purpose is not the argument of your essay. Rather, it should tell your readers why your argument is interesting or important. History, commonly held perceptions, and criticism—besides your audience—all are areas you might explore to find your purpose for writing.

  • A statement of purpose usually appears in your introduction, before your thesis statement. Here are two examples:

    • Although The Grapes of Wrath succeeds on a large scale, the small details and symbols are what give the novel its power and longevity.

    • Many people—both farm owners and migrant workers themselves-support migrant labor, but in the past few years there have been too many alarming stories about exploitation and abuse to ignore.


Develop a Position

  • Before you can create a thesis statement, you have to have a position-an opinion or judgment of your subject.

    • Example position: Farm owners often exploit immigrant migrant laborers.

  • Knowing where you stand on an issue is vital before you can construct a thesis.

    • Example thesis based on above position: The federal government should more closely regulate and monitor migrant labor to eliminate exploitation and abuse.

  • A thesis should always be more specific than a position and should appeal to readers.

Finding a position:
  • As you begin developing your position, you may find that you don’t actually know where you stand on a subject.

  • Ask yourself some questions to zero in on your position:

    • What are some possible positions? Turn to readings and discussions to find them.

    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of these positions? What could you change to make the weak points stronger? What makes the strong points strong?

    • What evidence is given to support these positions? Which pieces appeal to you, and why?

  • The more you think about potential positions, the closer you’ll get to finding your own.


Identify Your Audience

Before you begin writing, identify and evaluate your audience. There are many ways to argue a topic, so tailoring your argument to your audience is essential.

Pinpoint your intended readership:
  • For an essay to convince: What are some responses readers might have to your argument? What kinds of readers will be most likely to agree or disagree with you? Which group can you most effectively reach?

  • For a persuasive essay: Whom do you want to persuade? What group is it possible to persuade? What do you want to persuade them to do? Who among your possible readers can themselves influence opinion and behavior?

  • Avoid defining your audience superficially, such as by age, race, or gender. In some cases, however, demographic details may in fact be relevant. For example, the sex or age of your readers might be very important when writing an essay about the effects of day care on children.

Evaluate your audience’s positions:
  • Spend some time figuring out where your audience stands on a subject by answering some or all of these questions:

    • What experience might your audience have had with this topic in the past? How much do they know about it?

    • What opinions or preconceptions might your audience have about your subject? What are their beliefs and values? How do these affect their perception of the subject?

    • What do you and your audience have in common? What are your differences?

    • How does your topic relate to the larger world? Into what ethical, historical, or political framework does it fit?

Put it all together:
  • Next, figure out which positions you’re able to address and which readers you have the best chance of reaching.

    • Based on what you know about your audience, on what can you build your case? If your position differs from your audience’s, how might you best represent your own position while not alienating your audience?

    • Be aware of positions—both your own and your audience’s—for this will help you create a thesis statement and, eventually, select appropriate reasons and evidence to support your argument.


Develop a Thesis Statement

  • A thesis statement notifies your reader of your original idea regarding a topic.

    • While your general argument may be something such as Steinbeck uses symbols to make his characters more universal, your thesis statement must state an original idea about a topic.

    • Your thesis should not be obvious or vague.

A thesis must be controversial or arguable; it should be possible for someone to come up with a reasonable argument contradicting or resisting your own. If your ideas offer no room for resistance or contradiction, your essay probably isn’t worth writing or reading.

  • Literary analysis essays pose a special challenge—resistance isn’t always so evident when you write about literature. Your purpose, therefore, is to reveal the “true” nature of the work, or to illuminate something readers might not otherwise see. You can show that though the text seems to be one way, it actually is another.

  • Weak thesis: There are many symbols in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck uses them to reveal things about the characters.

    • This thesis statement merely states the obvious: it does not say anything about the novel that wouldn’t be immediately clear after reading it. Also, it is not controversial or arguable. It is too vague for anyone to disagree with.

  • Strong thesis: Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy represents the dreams, vigor, and spirit residing within each member of the Joad family.

    • This thesis statement is arguable and controversial: other readings of the novel might interpret Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy as symbolic of foolishness, immaturity, or death.

To find your thesis statement, consider both your purpose for writing and your position on the topic in general. Then decide what specific element of your topic you want to explore.


Thesis Statements in Different Types of Essays

Thesis for an essay to convince:
  • Again, your thesis should be specific and controversial and should present your position clearly and simply.

  • When arguing to convince, you must also consider what your audience may be willing to accept. Does your argument stand a chance?

    • If it seems unlikely that your audience will be convinced, consider how you might revise or redirect your thesis statement so that it has more of a chance of reaching—and convincing—your audience.

    • Qualify your thesis: Proving that something is always true all of the time is difficult, if not impossible.

      • Often, you can make your thesis more convincing by acknowledging that it might not always be true—in other words, qualify your thesis.

      • Effective qualifiers include words like usually, in most cases, andgenerally.

  • Keep in mind that you might sometimes find it worthwhile to get your ideas “on the table” even if it’s unlikely that your argument will win anyone over.

  • Example thesis for an essay to convince: Migrant labor, despite its flaws, keeps farms running smoothly and profitably.

Thesis for a persuasive essay:
  • In a persuasive essay, you want to reach your audience on a deeper, more emotional level.

  • You should make sure your thesis appeals to your readers on more than just a rational level. You should get them to think—but also to feel (see Forms of Appeal).

  • Whereas a thesis for an essay to convince should try to get readers to agree with the argument, a thesis for a persuasive essay should try to get readers to agree and act.

  • Example thesis for a persuasive essay: Migrant labor often keeps farms running profitably—but the detriment to our country’s integrity is irreversible, and it is the duty of any concerned American to raise awareness of problems within this system.

Thesis for a personal essay:
  • A personal essay will also have a thesis of sorts, which usually involves a life change or a newly acquired perspective.

  • However, the thesis in a personal essay may be more implicit. Presenting a slowly unfolding process of discovery is one thing a personal essay can do that others often can’t.

  • Example thesis for a personal essay: Visiting the orange groves in Florida and talking to the workers there changed the way I define “success.”


Placement of the Thesis Statement

  • In general, a thesis statement should be the last sentence of the first paragraph of your essay. Positioning it here gives you a few advantages:

    • You have time to present some background information and let readers know why the topic is important.

    • It steers the rest of your essay in a clear direction.

  • If you decide to put your thesis elsewhere, you should have good reason for doing so. For example, you might need to present two or more paragraphs of background or contextual information before your thesis statement logically fits.

  • Wherever you choose to put your thesis, you should never just drop it in without any introduction. You must include some information on why your topic is important and where your essay fits in the scheme of your topic in general.


Find Reasons to Support Your Thesis

To make a case for your thesis, you must come up with reasons why your argument makes sense. For example, take the thesis statement Migrant labor is both exploitative and immoral, and the government should eradicate it just as it once eradicated slavery from the South. Here are some other places to look for reasons to support the argument behind this thesis:

The audience’s values and beliefs:

What reasons will they find convincing based on what they believe is good or real? An audience might value freedom, right to life, equality, or justice, for example.

  • Example: No one should have to go hungry—especially after putting in an honest day’s work.

Tradition and custom:

What social conventions, beliefs, or traditions can you lean on to support your position? (Look to the Bible, the Constitution, or other well-known works or people who serve as guideposts in our culture.)

  • Example: Migrant labor violates the Bible’s “golden rule”—to treat your neighbor as yourself.

Special rules:

What rules or principles are generally accepted by a particular community, family, workplace, or country?

  • Example: Everyone deserves a fair chance at achieving the “American Dream,” no matter what country they come from or how poor they are.

Expert opinion:

What have authorities said about your topic? What expert voices might add validity to your views? Obviously, you can’t consider everyone with an opinion on your subject an “expert.” In your essay, be sure to explain who the expert is, and why their opinion should mean something.

  • Example: Conditions for migrant farm workers in Florida were once so bad that a documentary called Harvest of Shame was produced in 1960. Not much has changed: According to recent articles in the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post, migrant farm workers are abused in Florida more often than in any other state.

Hard evidence:

What statistics or other facts and figures support your argument?

  • Example: Facts and figures on migrant workers’ health, living conditions, and salaries support the argument that migrant workers are exploited.


Can you support your position by comparing it to another fact, an already widely held belief, or a similar event? Or can you argue your point by illuminating differences between things often thought to be similar?

  • Example: You could draw comparisons between migrant labor and slavery to illuminate injustices, or, for an essay arguing the opposite of our thesis, to suggest that the two are dissimilar.


Can you support your argument by showing how something has been redefined or defined incorrectly?

  • Example: Many times, calling someone a “migrant” implies that he or she is disreputable, shiftless, or suspicious–that he or she is, in some way, “less” than those people who have stable homes. This connotation is much different from the innocuous dictionary definition of “migrant”: “a person who moves regularly in order to find work.”

Likelihood or probability:

Can you support your position by discussing something that is likely true, or likely to happen?

  • Example: If there were better social resources for new immigrants, including language and job training, it is unlikely that so many families would be compelled to join the migrant work force—after all, would anyone do this kind of work for these kinds of wages if they truly had a choice?

Cause and effect:

What is the likely cause or outcome of your topic?

  • Example: If migrant labor is not subjected to tougher laws and regulations, the lives of migrant workers will only get worse, and our entire country will be affected.


Selecting Reasons

When deciding what reasons to include in your essay, you first should think about the type of essay you’re writing.

  • For an essay to convince, you should use reasons based on expert opinion, hard evidence, comparison, definition, likelihood or probability, and cause and effect. These appeal most to the logic and rationality of your audience.

  • For a persuasive essay, you might also include reasons based on values and beliefs, special rules, and tradition and custom. These appeal to the “whole person” of your readers, not just their intellect.

Not all reasons will work all the time. To decide which of these reasons will best support your argument, think about the nature of your claim. For example:

  • Likelihood or probability: Use when arguing for or against a proposed plan or idea, or when you’re defending or opposing one possible account of events.

  • Expert opinion and hard evidence: Use as support when your own experiences are insufficient.

  • Tradition and custom: Works most effectively when readers are familiar with and respectful of the tradition or custom you are drawing from.

  • Special rules: Use when your subject supports, rejects, or undermines established “norms”

In general, it’s imperative to think about which reasons will be most effective in appealing to your particular audience.


Find Evidence to Support Your Reasons

  • Evidence can be facts, figures, quotations from the text, expert opinions, anecdotes, illustrations, or anything else that offers convincing proof for why your reasons are true.

  • You should have at least one piece of evidence for each reason you give. Your most important reasons will probably require several pieces of evidence.

  • When searching for evidence, stay organized. On note cards, in a notebook, or on your computer, keep track of quotations, paraphrases, and the like—including titles of your sources and page numbers. When it’s time to incorporate your evidence into your essay, you’ll have it at the ready.

    • Reason: The Joads’ strong inner lives sustain them in the lowest times, just as Rose of Sharon’s pregnancy sustains her.

    • Evidence: A strong inner life helps Ma push Pa toward anger instead of despair; gives Casy the wisdom to realize what he must do to stop the hunger; and prods Tom into carrying out Casy’s mission.


Forms of Appeal

As you develop and structure your argument, it is essential that you figure out how to appeal to your audience. There are four main ways of appealing to your audience to get their support:

Logical appeal:

Use a thesis, reasons, and evidence to convince your readers.

  • You should have a strategically formulated thesis; strong, relevant reasons; and evidence that shows you take the opposing side seriously.

  • Use in essays both to convince and to persuade. Essays to convince may use this appeal almost exclusively, whereas persuasive essays may use it to a lesser extent.

Ethical appeal:

Establish your own good character and expertise in order to persuade readers to listen to you.

  • Part of creating a positive impression of yourself as a writer includes formulating good reasons and evidence.

  • May be implicit in an essay to convince, and stretched out over the course of an argument.

  • May be more explicit in a persuasive essay. In certain sections, a writer’s character may be addressed directly

Emotional appeal:

Rouse your readers’ emotions to get them to agree with you.

  • An emotional appeal is especially important in a persuasive essay—emotions will move people to act.

  • Emotional appeals should supplement, not replace, an argument. Avoid substituting emotion for logic.

  • Use emotional appeal to draw readers together and create sympathy when appropriate.

  • Avoid rousing emotions by appealing to stereotypes.

Appeal through style:

Construct a strong argument by carefully choosing words and putting sentences together deliberately.

  • Vital to all kinds of essays and inseparable from writing of any kind.

  • Style varies from essay to essay (and from section to section) within an essay.

  • For more information on specific style choices and techniques, see Style.