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The Art of Writing an Argument Essay

Written by Jincy Kornhauser from Pearson Tutor Services

The argument essay is a common writing assignment. Typically you are asked to read up on a controversial issue, decide which side you find the most persuasive, and write an essay arguing for that side.  Sometimes you are assigned a specific topic and a specific side. Whatever the specific assignment, completing an argument exercise successfully requires that you understand its purpose and its worth.

Why argue? Don’t we get enough of that in the real world?

We get more than enough bad arguments in the real world: shouting matches and online flame wars that basically consist of name-calling and unsupported facts.  This is why writing an argument essay is worthwhile: it shows us how to argue persuasively and to do so without resorting to obnoxious insults and exaggerated claims.

What if I don’t have a “position on a controversial issue”?

You may be wildly uninterested in the usual topics, like mandatory public school uniforms and lowering the drinking age to 18; you may not be allowed to pick issues you do care about  (your instructor may be tired of reading essays on the commonest issues, like abortion and capital punishment). This does not mean that there isn’t a topic out there that could stir you to write.  Pick up a newspaper, or start reading about current events online, and  you’ll come across topics that interest you—stories which get you worked up. Do you think your property taxes should be lowered? Do you think juveniles should be tried as juveniles, or as adults? Should parents allow their children any privacy at all? Are American cars a better buy than foreign cars? You’ll find you do have strong opinions—positions you’re ready to argue for. The argument essay assignment will allow you the opportunity to sharpen your persuasive skills.

What does “controversial issue” mean?

An issue is controversial if reasonable people can disagree about it.  You cannot write an essay arguing that “murder is wrong,” because no reasonable reader would disagree with you.  (We hope not, anyway!) There is no one with whom to argue about that issue: it’s settled.  But you can write an essay arguing that murder in the heat of passion should be punished less severely than murder for profit.  Many people are inclined to agree with this position, but it would not be unreasonable to argue against it. When choosing an issue, make sure it’s arguable.

What if I don’t get to pick my topic, or my position on that topic?

Sometimes an argument essay assignment may require you to argue for a position you do not agree with. This assignment may not be the most enjoyable for you, but in the long run it may well be the most helpful.  Being forced to argue for a position you do not hold teaches you to see issues from different perspectives.  Doing so will help you greatly when the time comes to argue for a position you actually hold.   You cannot argue persuasively if you don’t give your opponent—the person you’re arguing with—credit for having solid arguments of his own. Anticipating those arguments allows you to decide how best to refute them. The more open you are to understanding both sides of a dispute, the more successful you will be in convincing your readers that yours is the more reasonable side.

Who am I arguing with in an argument essay?  Doesn’t it take two to argue?

You are arguing with your reader.

Writers often forget this. They are so wrapped up in conveying their own views, their own arguments, that they forget about their audience.  Remember, your purpose in an argument essay is to persuade your readers that you’re right.  Never assume that your reader is already on your side.  You’ve chosen a controversial issue, which means that your reader may well be one of those people who disagree with you.  Or your reader may not have made up her mind on the issue: she may be on the fence.  Your job is not to persuade a reader who doesn’t need persuasion.  Your job is to show these other unpersuaded readers why yours is the right position.  When brainstorming your arguments and drafting your essay, keep that skeptical reader in mind. Targeting that reader will go a long way toward helping you achieve your purpose.

So: Writing an argument essay teaches us to disagree intelligently and respectfully. We learn to construct careful and thoughtful arguments in support of our beliefs and to credit our opponents with the capacity to reason and learn.

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