Effective Arguments

After rewriting an introduction until I am finally satisfied, I usually enjoy writing the body and arguments of a paper. Suddenly I have more freedom to create and experiment with language. There are fewer restrictions on expected form and function in the body than in the introduction.

The body is not without its own challenges, of course. The arguments carry the weight and meaning of your paper, so they must be well planned and well organized. And, above all, arguments must be convincing.

That statement may seem obvious, but it is worth emphasizing here, since most of the writing you do will be at least partly persuasive in nature. In other words, your goal will be to guide your audience toward a specific conclusion.

In order to develop an effective argument, keep two principles in mind:

  1. You can't just provide your audience with a string of facts and trust them to reach the same conclusions that you have. Instead, you have to interpret the facts in ways that persuade your readers to share your views of the issue at hand.
  2. You have to guide the audience fairly. It is tempting to take shortcuts or to engage in logical fallacies to make your case. Any time you assume the very point you are trying to prove, try to discredit an opinion by attacking the people who hold it, or criticize your opponents for beliefs they have never asserted, you are committing a logical fallacy — even if you don't realize it.

Being able to recognize fallacies will help you read other authors more critically and recognize weaknesses in your own arguments. In general, the strategies for avoiding logical fallacies can be reduced to the following:

  1. Back up every argument with facts.
  2. Appeal to facts and reason before appealing to emotions.
  3. Make no assumptions without supporting facts.

Information from reliable sources is crucial to effective arguments. Most fallacies arise when writers assemble a partial body of facts or simply ignore the ones that undermine their position. Doing good research and planning your paper ahead of time can help you avoid these problems. If you can provide factual support for all of your claims, you are well on your way to an effective persuasive paper.

How Much is Enough?

Unfortunately, in most college writing, completeness is defined by a page limit (or a page goal, for those of us struggling to meet it). These considerations aside, a paper is complete when you are sure that you have made your case effectively and that your readers will have no major questions for you. In other words, a paper is complete when you have covered all the relevant points and provided arguments sufficiently strong and numerous to convince a mild skeptic.

In practical terms, you will usually need between two and five arguments to support a claim thoroughly. How much detail you can give for each argument depends on the length of your paper. In a five-page paper with three major arguments, each argument may receive two or three paragraphs of discussion. Don't be afraid to break out of the old five-paragraph model. Let the paper's needs determine its structure.