The Dos and Don’ts of Argumentative Writing

Crafting an argument is central to what most professionals do in their writing. You have a message or main idea that you are trying to communicate to an audience, using evidence. But how do you do that effectively? Read this quick refresher on the dos and don’ts of argumentative writing.

DO: Understand the purpose of your argument

Not all arguments are created equal. As Andrea Lunsford, John Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters write in their book Everything’s an Argument, an argument can range from the very subtle to the overtly aggressive. What are you trying to accomplish with your argumentative writing? If, for example, you are trying to make a case for why someone should donate to your holiday charity drive, coming in aggressively is not likely to be the right approach. Make sure the tone of your argument matches the purpose of your argument.

DON’T: Come to an argument without evidence

An argument based on feelings, and not fact, isn’t likely to carry water in your field. What counts as evidence will depend on what is valid in your profession, but there’s no getting around it: You. Need. Evidence. There are some people that can use their life experiences as evidence; these people are generally high up in their field or are innovative enough to get away with giving their opinions as facts. However, those people are generally well established in their field. In the meantime, use your evidence until you establish yourself.

DO: Define the kind of argument you are making

There are lots of different types of arguments you can make. But, using the Everything’s an Argument framework again, arguments are usually about four things.

  1. Facts
  2. Definitions
  3. Evaluations
  4. Proposals

Arguments about facts ask whether or not an event happened (i.e. Did the suspect flee the scene?).

Arguments about definitions ask about the nature of what happened (i.e. Why was that man considered a suspect?).

Arguments that evaluate ask questions that use criteria and measures to understand an event or idea (i.e. Is the policy of police profiling effective?).

Finally, arguments that are proposals ask about what should happen in the future (i.e. Should we adopt the new city council policy for police-community interactions?).

While evaluative arguments are the most common, it is easy to see how arguments can build on each other. Be clear about what type of argument you are making in argumentative writing.

DON’T: Make your argument do too much

Because you can’t make your argument about everything, be sure to narrowly define what you are trying to say. I find it helpful to have a clear question that I am answering when I am crafting an argument (and I try to put that question in one of the argument types I listed above).

If it’s difficult for you to ask a single question about your piece of writing, it’s likely too big.

DO: See these resources on argumentative writing

Follow up this refresher of arguments with Magoosh’s Professional Writing lessons as well as my blog posts on thesis statements and writing a research paper, as the ideas are closely related.

And if you want to geek out a little bit more about argumentation structures, check out this TED-ed lesson about the Toulmin Model of argumentation.

P.S. Become a better writer. Find out more here.

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