Online Writing Lab

The Argument Essay

The argument essay is the most common type of writing assignment that college students will encounter throughout their academic careers.  While there are different variations of the argument essay, the overall foundation is always the same: the writer is tasked with investigating an issue, taking a stand on the issue, and finding and incorporating a multitude of evidence in a logical manner to support the overall claim.

Most of us have experience with arguing, but an argumentative essay is quite different than a verbal argument that arises out of the blue.  Verbal arguments often become heated and unreasonable, while the goal of an argumentative essay is the opposite: the argument must be specific, reasoned, detailed, and supported with a variety of evidence.  Furthermore, a verbal argument often focuses on who is right regarding a specific issue, while a well-written and researched argument essay focuses on what is the right side of a particular issue.  In short, an argument essay must be logical from beginning to end.

The following are all important elements of a good argument essay:

  • Create a clear, firm, and debatable thesis – An effective thesis statement is an important foundational element of any essay, but it is of even greater importance in an argument essay.  The reader needs to know exactly what the argument is and why it is important; there can be no confusion.  For more on creating a thesis statement, view the thesis statements page.
  • Provide the necessary background information on the topic – While an argument essay isn’t the same as a research essay, a bit of background information is often needed early in the essay to understand the argument.  For example, if the writer is arguing that a certain amendment to the state constitution should be passed, it is probably necessary to describe what changes the amendment would make and whether or not a similar amendment has been proposed at some point.
  • Focus on organization and transitions – While transitions are important in any type of essay, they are particularly important in an argument essay.  This is because the argument essay involves multiple reasons and evidence to support the overall thesis, and counter arguments are often discussed and refuted as well. 
    Argument essays can be organized in a variety of ways.  Regardless of the order in which it is organized, all argument essays should explain and support several reasons why the argument is valid and explain and refute several opposing arguments offered by the other side.  

    All writers will benefit from creating an outline to organize all of the information that will be presented, and this benefit becomes even greater with longer argument essays.  For more on creating an outline, view the creating an outline page.  
  • Perform effective and thorough research – Most argumentative essays require incorporating research into the essay.  If this is the case with your essay, make sure to perform a significant amount of research before fully committing to a topic.  This is important because you need to make sure there are enough credible sources that can be used in your essay.  You don’t want to commit to a topic and begin writing the essay only to later discover that you can’t find enough quality sources to make the topic work.
  • Incorporate logos, pathos, and ethos – Logos is a term that refers to the use of logic in a debate.  As a writer, the use of logos should be primary, should appear throughout the essay, and is the best way to convince someone to adopt a particular stance on any issue.  It is also important to avoid using logical fallacies.  While logos should be the primary target, pathos, which is the use of emotion, can also be incorporated.  Pathos means getting the reader emotionally involved in the argument so that he/she is open to further persuasion.  One of the best places to use pathos is in the introduction.  Ethos, meaning the use of credibility, is also important.  The best way for writers to incorporate ethos is by addressing counter arguments and using credible sources.  Additionally, taking a reasonable stand on the issue (as opposed to an extreme one) will also lead to more credibility.

Topic Selection

Topic selection is of the utmost importance in an argument essay.  The writer should focus on picking a topic that is current and relevant to society and can be argued logically.  It is best to avoid moral topics since they do not always support logical discussion.  Additionally, any potential topic for an argument essay should be current, debatable, researchable, and manageable. 

A current topic is one that has not been over-debated and is still being decided by society.  Most writers and readers are sick of topics that have been debated for years: abortion, the death penalty, the legalization of marijuana, etc. 

A debatable topic is one that has differing viewpoints.  In other words, it is a controversial issue.  Writing about how child abuse has consequences for society is not debatable since no one would disagree with this thesis.  On the other hand, debating whether the common punishments for child abusers are effective or not in deterring crime is debatable and can make for an interesting and well supported essay. 

A researchable topic is one in which the writer can find a variety of credible and current sources.  In other words, the writer needs to be able to find a multitude of research performed by qualified individuals to support the overall argument.  

A manageable topic is one that can be successfully performed within the page requirements of the essay.  Writing about widespread issues such as national or global problems is often unmanageable in just a few pages.  To avoid this, most writers should begin with a basic subject and then try to narrow the subject down to a more appropriate level.  For example, if a writer is passionate about arguing for or against the Health Care Reform Act that was passed by Congress in 2010, he would be wise to narrow this topic.  It isn’t possible to argue for or against the entire law (the bill itself is over 2,000 pages long!), but it may be possible to argue for or against one portion of the law. 

Using the above criteria as a basic guideline should allow a writer to find a suitable topic.