Demystifying the Argumentative Essay

Demystifying the Argumentative Essay

Learning how to write stronger arguments is essential to academic success. Whether you are relaying the results of an experiment, reviewing literature, analyzing a policy proposal, or making the case for a particular interpretation of a historical event—you will join an academic or social conversation and create your own unique argument.

To put things into perspective, here is an insightful quote from “They Say/I Say": The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing:

Good argumentative writing begins not with an act of assertion but an act of listening, of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who think differently from us…Academic writing in particular calls upon writers not simply to express their own ideas, but to do so as a response to what others have said.
— Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein

While each academic discipline has its own nuances and requirements, many elements of the argumentative essay are common across fields. To make sure you’re covering each important element of your assignment, we’ve put together a quick reference guide to compare your essay with. 

Narrowing Your Topic/Issue

Your issue is the general topic your essay covers. You want it to be focused and as narrow as possible. Rather than trying to cover all of capital punishment, for example, you might focus instead on whether demographics play a disproportionate role in determining who receives the death penalty.

Creating a Clear Purpose

To get an A, right? Impressing your professor is a worthy goal, but to do that, you will want to consider how your essay can reach beyond the classroom. Are you hoping to make the readers reconsider their opinions? Are you trying to change someone’s behavior? If all your essay does is deliver information, you need to revisit your purpose.

Audience Customization

When considering audience, think about who has a stake in the issue. Who cares about your topic, or who has the power to enact change based on your argument? Knowing your audience allows you to tailor your evidence, reasoning, and voice to them.

Taking a Unique Angle

Set your essay apart from others that have interrogated your issue. Have recent events changed the landscape of your topic? Or perhaps you have a unique perspective because of your personal experience. Whatever the case, look for a particular angle that makes your essay worth reading.

Building a Strong Thesis Statement

A solid thesis statement is arguable and takes the rhetorical situation (issue, purpose, audience, angle) into account. It can include a mapping statement. This outlines your main points and shows how you will develop your argument. The goal of an argumentative paper is to present a debatable claim that you try to prove with strong evidence. It should not be a statement of fact. (Contrary to what you might hear on the news, facts are not arguable.) It also should not be a matter of personal taste. You know why if you have ever argued about music or who makes the best burger. Your goal is to answer the question (or approach the problem) in a surprising or new way.

Consistent Argument Structure

You should put some thought into the order in which you reveal information. Will you set the scene with anecdotes then support them with data? Will you provide general information about the issue before revealing your thesis? There is no single right way to structure an argument, but be sure to consider the rhetorical situation.

Airtight Logic and Reasoning

Strong logic leads to strong argumentative essays. The claims you make should follow from the evidence you present. You don’t need to memorize a list of logical fallacies, but you should look at some of the most common errors so your argument doesn’t fall apart from faulty reasoning.

Reliable (and Convincing) Evidence

Even the most logically sound argument needs evidence.  It might take the form of statistics, experimental results, or excerpts from an author’s text. The type you use will depend on your discipline, audience, and purpose.

Providing Counterarguments/Concessions

During an in-person debate, you have the opportunity to ask questions or challenge points by the opposing side. In an essay, you must anticipate your reader’s counterargument and address their concerns. Imagine what a group of naysayers would claim about your arguments—then spend a little time in the essay addressing their arguments.

Offer a Unique Voice

How you say something is often as important as what you say. Some fields allow for more personality; others prefer dry, information-heavy writing. In all disciplines, however, you will benefit from incorporating Concision, Clarity, and Logic into your work. Try WriteLab for assistance in strengthening these crucial aspects of your writing.

While this list doesn’t cover every facet of argumentative essays, it is a good beginning to demystifying them. Use it as a refresher before and after writing your essays to ensure that your argument works.


WriteLab is an online writing platform that offers immediate, actionable responses to your prose as you draft, revise, and polish your writing.


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