What is an argument and how do you make it?

As a lazy person, I don’t like answering the same questions in every class I teach. And while there are great introductions to academic writing, it is really hard to convince students to read books on writing, when they are busy mastering the actual content. So, in the Academic Basics series, I tackle some of the key issues of academic writing. Please feel free to use this as a teaching resource (or refresher).

Me: “Do you have an argument?”

Student: “Sure. Basically it’s women in Dickens’s early works.”

That, dear student, is not an argument. It’s a topic. When students get a little further, they realise that “women in Dickens” won’t fly and instead they say “a post-feminist approach to patriarchal power-structures in Dicken’s juvenilia” or some such bullshit. But it’s still not an argument. “Dickens undermines patriarchal power-structures” or “Dickens enforces a gender binary in which women are seen as both purer and weaker than men” are arguments (quite bad ones but that’s ok).

What is an argument?

Arguments argue. They do not describe a topic; they try to make a point about a topic. In the humanities arguments can range from “this academic’s position is wrong” to “academics should be looking at this instead of that” to “this piece of evidence (that I discovered) is important when we talk about this topic” etc. What all arguments have in common is that they, in some way, try to change, challenge or develop how others in the field think about a topic. So, if your topic is “women in Dickens” then your argument should in some way change the way that others look at women in Dickens’s writing.

Why do you need an argument?

Arguments are really important for academic writing because they guide the writer in writing and the reader (or listener) in reading and evaluating a paper.

If the topic is “women in Dickens”, there is too much material for a comprehensive reading. But if the topic is narrower, say “the role of women in Dickens’s Hard Times,” the writer still needs to include some evidence from other works by Dickens (otherwise the essay is too flat) but not from all (otherwise it becomes chaotic). Having an argument helps the writer decide what evidence to include and what to omit. So if the argument is “Louisa Gradgrind’s sexual deviance undermines patriarchal power-structures,” then the writer should include whatever they feel helps them make that specific argument and omit everything that does not help make the argument. Similarly, the reading of secondary sources and the writing process should be guided by a simple question: What do I need to do in order to convince my reader of this argument?

But an argument also helps the reader follow and evaluate the paper. If the writer clearly announces their argument in the introduction of the paper, the reader will know what to look for in the remainder of the paper. If the evidence in the paper supports the claim made in the argument and if the writer manages to convincingly sell his argument throughout the paper, then the paper is well written. If the paper does not convincingly argue what it pretends to argue, the reader can conclude that the paper is bad.

This evaluation has nothing to do with whether the reader agrees with the writer’s view. The only question is whether the writer has successfully argued what they claimed they’d argue.

How do you make an argument?

A good argument is specific, original and suited to the topic; which is why a good argument is hard to find. That being said, there are some simple tricks to finding an argument.

A lot of the time, when students begin to understand what an argument is, what they end up doing is to reproduce arguments they found in the critical literature. They will find a paper arguing that, from a Kantian perspective, realist art can never be truly beautiful and then they will write an essay arguing the exact same thing. While the argument might be a good one (which is why it was published), when they reproduce it they fail to change, challenge or develop the way academics talk about the topic (though the argument was challenging when it was first published).  A challenging argument is challenging only once.

As students mature they start doing the opposite: they find a critical essay and violently disagree with it. Disagreement is the most obvious case of arguing. Unfortunately, it often looks a bit childish (like sitting in class and saying “no,Lebowski you’re wrong,” when somebody suggests something).

When you violently disagree with something you also risk looking either
boring or stupid.
If the original essay that you disagree with is fantastic then you probably have to omit a lot of evidence or make really silly claims in order to disagree. If the original essay that you disagree with is badly argued, then you aren’t really challenging or changing anything because most people already agree that the essay you’re tearing apart is crap.

The easiest way to make your own argument is to find a strong argument in the critical literature and develop it further. This development might include some agreement or some disagreement – you might say something like “scholars are correct to claim that x is the case but they omit to consider y” or “Leavis’s argument is flawed because x but could be salvaged by considering y”.  The point is that you take part in a conversation and develop what has been said before you.

The best way to make an argument is to consider your essay as part of a conversation. You don’t want to be the person who repeats what someone else just said and you don’t want to be the asshole who tears other people down. You want to be the person who listens attentively (i.e. reads the arguments others have made) and then picks up on their arguments and develops them further.

So what have I forgotten? Do you have advice on how to make arguments and how to teach it? What Academic Basics should I cover next?


About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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3 Responses to What is an argument and how do you make it?

  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    Thanks for a thoroughly considered post. I think “arguments … challenge” is your keynote. I once gave incoming freshmen a cartoon and asked for a descriptive paragraph, an analytical thesis, and an argumentative thesis. The idea is that the each type of writing engages a different muscle group; e.g.,

    Description: “The cartoon depicts Uncle Sam handing a stack of bills to …”
    Analytical thesis: “The cartoon suggests that the U.S. government is mishandling…”
    Argumentative thesis: “The cartoon rightly/wrongly suggests that the U.S. government is mishandling…”

    The idea was to get them to see – or rather to feel in their own writing – how proving the argumentative thesis would require different kinds of evidence (probably involving statistics and real-world implications) and a different skill set than proving the analytical thesis (mainly close reading of the various details in the cartoon itself).

    It’s a discussion-starter anyway.


  2. This is a really helpful post, thank you. As an early PhD student it is also extremely useful in thinking about how to devise a (good) research question for my thesis!


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