Constructing arguments is a big part of writing for most people. Whether you’re composing essays for school, proposals for your business, or sales letters for an ad agency, your ability to construct a strong argument will play a critical part in the results you can realize.
Writing a letter to recommend a subordinate for promotion? You need to craft an argument that makes a case for that employee. Same when you’re writing a proposal that’s competing with four other contractors, when you’re soliciting sponsorships for an event you’re organizing, and when you’re looking to convince a local official that a certain policy needs to be adopted locally.
Elements of an Argument
Every argument has two primary elements:
- Claim. The basic starting point of any argument, a claim is an idea you’re putting forward. On its own, a claim doesn’t hold much weight — you’ll need to convince the reader to accept its validity using a variety of persuasive instruments.
- Reason. In order to convince the reader of a claim, you need to back it up with reasons for why you believe it to be true. Without reasons, you don’t have an argument — all you have is an opinion that’s not really worth paying much attention to. All your proof and evidence fall under this element, which will be your main tool for persuading the reader.
An argument is a combination of claims, along with all the reasons you have in support of each claim. Valid arguments attempt to convince the reader on the veracity of the claim by relying on empirical descriptive evidence, statistics and definition to make its case.
Types of Claims
Every claim can be grouped into one of the four categories below. When crafting your arguments, you will want to decide which of these types of claims will best suit the argument and word your claims as such.
- Claims of fact. These claims argue about the certainty of a fact or a definition. Examples: “Nick Diaz beats Paul Daley nine times out of ten”; “Global warming is here and we need to adapt.”
- Claims of cause and effect. These claims argue about either the cause of a result or the effect of an action. Example: “Nick Diaz wins because of his stance, which keeps both feet flat on the ground the entire time to defend against takedowns”; “Global warming is deeply rooted in our unsustainable industrial practices.”
- Claims of value. These claims propose to assign a standard of worth on something, either by rating or categorizing it. Example: “Nick Diaz is the best combat athlete in the world”; “Global warming is one of the three biggest issues facing the planet today and everyone should be very concerned.”
- Claims of solution. These claims argue for specific solutions or policies as the right way to handle a situation. Example: “Want to beat UFC champion George St. Pierre? Put Nick Diaz in with him”; “Reducing our industrial footprint isn’t going to solve global warming — a more radical, more meaningful course of action is necessary.”
Reasons Versus Explanations
It’s important to make a distinction between reasons and explanations. Reasons offer up proof, evidence and facts that seek to validate a claim. Explanations, on the other hand, are causal theories for why something happens — an interpretation, rather than an empirical fact.
So far, the English language hasn’t evolved well enough to make a distinction between reasons (facts) and explanations (theories), so you need to take care when using both. On their own, an explanation can’t be used to make a case for a claim, as an explanation can be true or false. It could add to the claim’s plausibility, though, which is why it’s welcomed in most types of argumentative writing. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons why you would want to include explanations, along with your supporting reasons.
- Humans appear to have a need to understand why something is the way it is and explanations give them a way of making sense of things. It’s our way of rationalizing things around us that pique our curiosity, regardless of whether we know the facts or not.
- People love to theorize. Open any popular blog and you’ll find articles explored entirely through an exploration of possible explanations, rather than cold, hard evidence. And people eat them up like they’re totally correct.
Constructing Your Paragraphs
When presenting an argument, you state the main claim first. This is the most important point that you want to make. In college essays, this will be your main thesis, the primary claim that you will attempt to prove throughout the rest of the paper. For most types of writing, your main claim should appear in the very first paragraph in order to set up the piece clearly.
In most types of writing, you will use two kinds of paragraphs in support of the main claim. One is background exposition, which reveals details (e.g. history, definitions, current events) that allow you to establish a context for the subject. Second are the actual arguments that establish the veracity of the main claim, made up of sub-claims, reasons and explanations.
When structuring each sub-claim paragraph, always lead in with a statement of the point. After that, delve into the evidence. Many people combine evidence with explanation in these paragraphs, which is a good way of both leading the reader into your desired interpretation and giving legs to your explanations (i.e. the supporting reasons make them sound more credible). We suggest doing the same, provided you’re able to highlight the evidence, so readers know you’re actually presenting proof, rather than just spouting off theories.
One of the most effective ways to strengthen your arguments is to include a paragraph or two of counterarguments — that is, anticipating what someone who disagrees with your claim will say and addressing them. You build authority and you further plausibility for your claims this way, allowing you to both shut down potential opportunities for the reader to object and demonstrating a deeper understanding of the different issues surrounding the subject.