Constructing an Argument
Section 1: Big Ideas
Many people believe that everything is an argument—every piece of writing, every image you see. That's because every time we write something down—with the possible exception of a private journal entry—we are anticipating that someone else will read or see it, and we hope to achieve some kind of response in that reader or viewer. So even if you are writing a description of your favorite vacation spot, you are probably trying—maybe without even realizing it—to convince your reader that your vacation spot is the most beautiful place in the world. Think about it. When did you read any nonfiction writing that wasn't, finally, trying ...view middle of the document...
Two, your thesis can and probably will change slightly in the course of writing your paper, so don't feel you're stuck with the first thing that sounds good to you.
To get started thinking about your thesis, here's a quick rule of thumb: a good thesis must be both debatable and supportable. What does that look like? Well, a good thesis has to be a statement that not everybody agrees with automatically. It has to be something that provokes the reader's interest, not something they already know. Take underage drinking. Is this a debatable thesis?
Even though the drinking age is twenty-one, many people drink as minors."
Virtually nobody would argue with that.
But is this a debatable thesis?
"The current drinking age of twenty-one keeps rates of alcoholism at a minimum."
I suspect many people would disagree with that—and that's what makes it a debatable thesis. What makes it a workable thesis is that it can be supported by evidence from the scientific community, from the government, and from the history books. That's the second feature of a good thesis—that you can find evidence to support it. You'll probably also come across evidence that contradicts your thesis. But what makes your argument a strong one is that you can refute contrary evidence. The strength of a thesis is not that there's no evidence for the other side. If that were the case, your thesis wouldn't be very interesting—and it certainly wouldn't be debatable!
Once you've got a thesis in place, it's time to start marshalling evidence. There are a number of kinds of evidence you can use. These fall into a few rough categories. First, you have facts. This includes things like historical events and statistics. For our paper on the drinking age, this category might include survey results about people's drinking habits, and information about the history of drinking laws and the campaigns to change them. Facts are pretty effective in most arguments. They're hard to disagree with, and they make it obvious that you've done your homework.
Another category of evidence includes examples, stories, and personal experience. This kind of evidence is useful for keeping a reader's attention—everybody likes to see your ideas in action. So for this paper on the drinking age, you'd want to include things like testimony from recovering alcoholics and quotes from articles about teenage drinking in countries that don't have a drinking age. You might want to bring in details from something you know firsthand—the experience of a friend or a sibling, for example. Evidence like this really brings a piece of writing to life, and if your readers can see your ideas in action, they're more likely to be persuaded by what you have to say.
A third category of evidence is expert opinion or testimony. The basic idea here is that you can boost your own credibility by choosing expert voices to back you up. So if you wanted to argue that the higher drinking age has reduced incidents of drunk driving, you...