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.
Arguments in an Essay on Literature
These sections describe in detail the assignments students may complete when writing about literature. These sections also discuss different approaches (literary theory/criticism) students may use to write about literature. These resources build on the Writing About Literature materials.
Contributors: J. Case Tompkins
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:27:30
One of the great struggles for writers in literature is making and sustaining coherent arguments in their papers. Although argument is an essential part of all papers, the literary paper has aspects of rhetoric that are all its own.
Other OWL Resources:
A good argument in an essay on literature has:
A tight, specific focus
Rather than broad sweeping statements, a good argument teases out a single aspect of a piece of literature and analyzes it in minute detail: literature under the microscope.
Example: Loose: “Characters in this novel spend time a great deal of time looking at each other, and an examination of those gazes can give us great insight into the characters."
- Too big. You would have to write a book to do the subject justice.
- Too general. Whose gaze is being considered? Are we considering the object of the gaze? The person doing the looking? What insight exactly is to be gained?
Tighter: “When the protagonist turns her gaze upon her former lover in their final meeting, it is her own fears, her emotional blindness, and her refusal to learn from the past that can be read in her eyes as she looks upon him."
- Small. Rather than gazes in general, this statement focuses on one event.
- Specific. It makes an arguable claim about the implications and suggests a close reading to support those claims.
A step beyond the teacher’s assignment
Some may tell you that a good paper rephrases a writing prompt as a statement rather than a question. Do not believe it. Instructors want to see evidence that you have read the work in question with enough seriousness to reply to the prompts given in your own way. Remember: If an answer seems obvious, keep digging.
A gaze that remains fixed on the work in question
When your argument ceases to discuss the work itself and begins to focus on the personal (your own reaction) or the biographical (the author’s life), you need to get back on track. Make no mistake: a sense of audience and information about the author can be important. When these details become central to the essay, however, you are no longer writing on literature.
Example: “One of the worst parts of this book begins in chapter three when . . .”
This statement reflects a personal reaction to the work. If you want to show that a particular piece or part of a piece is better or worse than others, begin with your evidence rather than starting with emotion.
“This could be a result of the time the author spent in jail in 1938. On the 30th of April he was arrested on charges of . . .”
Although evidence is vital to a sound paper, the statement above focuses on historical rather than critical evidence. If you include biographical information, always be ready to direct that information back into the main point of the essay. Stray from your topic only as long as is strictly necessary.