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Writing About Contoversy

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According to Timothy W. Crusius and Carolyn E. Channell, "Argument is the process of making what we think clear to ourselves and to others. It takes us from a vague, private viewpoint to a clearly stated position that we can defend publicly in speech or writing." They add, "Argument in this sense of seeking clarity has a two-part form or structure: (1) the statement of an opinion and (2) the statement of one or more reasons for holding that opinion" (3). In other words, they say, "Argument is not in itself an end or purpose of communication, It is rather a means of discourse, developing what we have to say". 1

An argumentative or persuasive piece of writing must begin with a debatable thesis or claim. In other words, the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on. If your thesis is something that is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact, then there is no reason to try to persuade people. 2

Consider the six strategies when writing an argument.

Audience

When you don't know your audience personally, assume that:

  • They are thoughtful people of good will who might be persuaded by clear and cogent arguments.
  • They are not as familiar with the material as you, so you will need to explain concepts and terms as well as what the problem/issue is.
  • They have not read the texts you have in class, so you need to provide background information and establish context for what you say.
  • They do not know your thesis, so you must tell them your thesis early in the essay so they will know how to interpret what you say.
  • Some of your readers are skeptical about your thesis before they read your essay.
  • Some of your readers are undecided about the issue.
  • Because some of your readers do not know you personally, you must prove to them that you are a thoughtful, intelligent person who has carefully considered all sides of the issue before writing the essay.
  • You must explain your opponents' major arguments and then demonstrate that their arguments are flawed (i.e., refute them).
  • If an opponents' point is not flawed, you must concede the point explicitly and then try, if possible, to minimize the importance of that point.
  • You must treat your opponents and readers with respect, showing that you realize that they too are intelligent people of good will.
  • You must explain your reasons and evidence fully, always giving the credentials of authorities that you quote.
  • At least one of your readers is your professor, and he or she probably has particular goals for any writing assignment-- e.g., he or she probably wants you to demonstrate knowledge of some particular material, the ability to analysis and interpret that material, the ability to manipulate that material into a convincing argument. To accomplish these tasks, you need to explain concepts and show your logical thought processes (how you got from point A to point R); think of it like doing a math problem-- the professor wants to see your "work" (the process you used to get to the answer), not simply the answer itself. 

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Goal

Your ultimate goal is to win belief rather than simply win the argument. So your argument's primary goal is always to persuade readers that your position is the most viable, logical, moral, and practical. This can be accomplished:

  • by accommodating your readers (some of whom are always skeptical).
  • by revealing the flaws in the assumptions, reasons, and evidence of the opposition (e.g., by refuting the opposition's main points).
  • by explicitly stating and exploring your own assumptions and major reasons for adopting your position.
  • by supporting and proving your reasons with explicit evidence.
  • by using various types of evidence including expert testimony, statistics, logical demonstration, personal experiences, real life examples (from current affairs or history), fictional examples (from novels, plays, movies, TV), hypothetical examples, legal documents and concepts, codes of conduct.
  • by using logical, ethical, and emotional appeals.

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Content

Your topic must be one that is complicated and for which there is no easy solution. If you cannot see the value of arguments on both sides of the issue, select another issue. If you are not personally conflicted about the issue, select another topic. Writing this essay should help you clarify your ideas and to recognize the difficulties of finding any answer to the issue: Do not select a topic about which you believe you already know the truth and "have the answer"- such a topic will result in a high-school-level essay. Ideas must be developed, explored, examined, analyzed, and prodded.

  • You must engage with the opposition.
  • You should develop each idea beyond simply saying it.
  • You need to consider and explore the implications of your idea and see at what point you might no longer support that idea.
  • You also need to consider what opponents to your thesis would say about your idea, what objections they would raise to it, and then you need to answer those objections-- do all this within your argument so your readers can follow the process.
  • You need to prove your assertions with evidence (e.g., expert testimony, statistics, facts, hypothetical and real life examples, logical demonstration).
  • Part of accommodating your audience is explaining all relevant concepts (e.g., if you invoke a concept such as utilitarianism, you must summarize explain the concept to your readers).
  • Your essay must have a clear and explicit thesis (your position on the issue) and must demonstrate a clear awareness of the opposition's counter-thesis.
  • If it helps, think of yourself as a defense attorney. You and the prosecutor have the same information (e.g., eyewitness accounts, forensic evidence) and know that there are conflicts (e.g., various accounts of where the accused was at the time of the crime). Yet each of you creates a different interpretation-- you draw different inferences and conclusions from the same data.
  • Your essay must be logical and must effectively use various types of evidence.
  • The ideas must be well developed; there must be evidence to support them and your exploration of the implications and limitations of your ideas.
  • Your essay should cause us to think about the issue more deeply than we ever have before.
  • Your essay must be interesting.
  • It must consider nuances of the issue, not merely present a "black-and-white" view. It needs to display your critical thinking and analytical skills.

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Your Position/Thesis

Most of us begin the argument process about a topic with our minds already made up, our position in mind (perhaps we are even totally committed to that position). Almost inevitably, that initial position is based on our core beliefs, upon unproven assertions and assumptions, and our position is rather general and sweeping. For example, a person might feel that "all welfare should be abolished immediately." That is a very sweeping generalization. What can we do to deepen and refine that thesis?

  • One of the major purposes of doing research is to test our thesis against the best arguments of the opposition. For instance, our anti-welfare position might be based on the unproven belief that anyone receiving welfare is a lazy bum who doesn't want to work.
  • When our library research reveals evidence that some people on welfare are mentally incapable of holding a job, we might alter our position slightly to "We should abolish all welfare except that given to mentally incompetent people who have no one else to help them." Then, of course, we need to define the concept of "no one else to help them." Does that refer only to immediate family members? To charity groups?
  • But then we discover that many of the people that we assumed were "lazy bums" are actually holding full-time jobs but still cannot afford even to feed their families. They do not have the education or training to get jobs that pay above minimum wage. Perhaps our thesis is modified again to be "Welfare payments should go only to poor people who hold full-time jobs and those who are mentally incapable of working and have no one else to help them."
  • And then we learn that many of the biggest American corporations receive huge subsidies called "corporate welfare" and that the companies receive such gifts basically because they are already rich and hence have a great deal of political power. How does this new information impact on our thesis?
  • This active engagement with the opposition refines and deepens our thesis. Now our thesis might be metamorphosed into "People or companies should receive welfare payments only when they can prove serious need." And we would have to suggest ways that "serious need" could be "proven."

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Research

Research has three primary purposes in writing: provide factual information, provide arguments for your position, and provide arguments against your position.

  • Crucial, but least important, is research intended to provide background information (the current situation, pending proposals or laws, suggested solutions, statistics).
  • Research that locates the logic behind your position and the reasons and extrinsic evidence (e.g., testimony, data) for your position is very important. Rarely can any one person think of all the reasons for supporting a position or find all the relevant evidence supporting those reasons. Even more rarely can only one person think of all the different strategies for approaching an issue or for attacking counter-theses and counter-positions.
  • Similarly, research is crucial that locates not only your opposition's arguments (e.g., major points, the moral and practical reasons for supporting it, evidence) but also the opposition's underlying assumptions.
  • Your essay must use appropriate research. Consult the reference librarian for help in locating sources.
  • Your essay must use all the resources available to you-- not only extrinsic proof (statistics, expert testimony, legal documents and concepts) but also intrinsic proof (e.g., hypothetical examples, historical and fictional examples, logical demonstration).
  • Use the MLA in-text citation format and a Works Cited page.
  • Internet sources must be evaluated very carefully.

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Arrangement

The essay must have an effective, clear, and logical structure. It must use transitional words, phrases, and devices (therefore, however, now, etc.) to make explicit connections between ideas and between paragraphs. The organization exists to present your ideas in the most effective manner possible to your readers. 1

Sources

  1. MIT OpenCourseWare » Writing and Humanistic Studies » Rhetoric, Fall 2002
  2. Establishing Arguments

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Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factcouraud. (2007, May 22). Writing About Contoversy. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/English/introduction-to-writing-academic-prose/writing-about-contoversy.html. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License