Something often overlooked in academic writing is that a good essay must present a good argument. Admittedly, not a shouting-at-each-other-until-red-in-the-face kind of argument. Rather, it should be a structured set of premises leading to a logical conclusion, backed up by evidence. But what does this mean precisely? Herein, we look at how to argue in an essay.
The Anatomy of an Argument
One key aspect of knowing how to argue in academic writing is understanding what we mean by “argument” in this context: i.e., a set of premises that, together, lead to a conclusion. To explain this further:
A “premise” is any statement you hold to be true.
A conclusion is a position that follows from the truth of the premises.
For example, we could put forward the following premises:
“Dogs are color blind.”
“Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are colorful.”
Then, in light of accepting these premises, we would have to accept the conclusion that “Dogs do not appreciate the brilliance of Vincent van Gogh.”
Deductive vs. Inductive Arguments
Part of knowing how to argue involves knowing what kind of argument you’re making. And there are two main types of argument – deductive and inductive – though both follow the basic formula set out above.
The stronger of these are deductive arguments, since the conclusion of a deductive argument follows from the truth of its premises:
1st Premise: Dogs are mammals. 2nd Premise: All mammals are vertebrates. Conclusion: Dogs are vertebrates.
Simply put, you cannot dispute the conclusion of the above argument if you accept the premises. This makes the argument “valid.”
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The premises of an inductive argument, by comparison, simply present the conclusion as probable, rather than logically necessary:
1st Premise: My dog is furry. 2nd Premise: My neighbor’s dog is furry. 3rd Premise: Every dog I’ve seen so far has been furry. Conclusion: The next dog I see will be furry.
In the above argument, the premises provide a compelling reason to accept the conclusion. However, they don’t show it is certain, since there are hairless dog breeds, even if they’re rarer. As such, the inductive argument is about plausibility or probability, not logical certainty.
Knowing whether you’re making a deductive or an inductive argument is very important, as it affects the kind of conclusions you can draw.
How to Argue Your Point in an Essay
So, how do you put this into practice in your writing? To make a good argument in an essay, you may need to do several things. These include:
Develop a thesis statement. This will outline your premises and the conclusion you will draw. The idea of this to to set up the basic outline of your argument, which you will develop in the main body of your essay.
Link the points in your argument. Depending on the length of your essay, address each part of your argument in a separate paragraph or section. In addition, you should discuss them in a logical order, drawing connections between them where possible.
Include evidence. In an academic essay, this usually means drawing upon past research (e.g., existing studies) or experimental data (e.g., a questionnaire) to support each point. Without evidence, all you have is an unsupported claim.
Consider counterarguments. This lets you address potential objections to your point preemptively, strengthening your own argument.
Create a strong conclusion. This should follow clearly from the preceding points (your premises). It’s important to not just summarize your essay, but to also show how the evidence you’ve presented supports your claim and how each point works with the others to contribute to your argument as a whole.
It’s vital to ensure that everything – from the literature review to the conclusion – supports your main argument. Knowing what you’re arguing and how your points support this will help you to express yourself clearly. Still not sure how this structure should work? Check out this handy graphic we’ve put together.