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A Brief Guide to the Art of Persuasion and Argument

When you hear the word “argument,” what do you think of? Maybe you think of a shouting match or a fist fight? Well, when instructors use the word “argument,” they’re typically thinking about something else. What they’re actually referring to is a position supported by the analysis that preceded its conception, not necessarily defending against antagonism.
More to the point, they’re talking about defending a certain point of view through writing or speech. Usually called a “claim” or a “thesis,” this point of view is concerned with an issue that doesn’t have a clear right or wrong answer (e.g., four and two make six). Also, this argument should not only be concerned with personal opinion (e.g., I really like carrots). Instead, an argument might tackle issues like abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, or gun control. However, what distinguishes an argument from a descriptive essay or “report” is that the argument must take a stance; if you’re merely summarizing “both sides” of an issue or pointing out the “pros and cons,” you’re not really writing an argument. “Stricter gun control laws will likely result in a decrease in gun-related violence” is an argument. Note that people can and will disagree with this argument, which is precisely why so many instructors find this type of assignment so useful — they make you think!
Academic arguments usually “articulate an opinion.” This opinion is always carefully defended with good reasoning and supported by plenty of research. Research? Yes, research! Indeed, part of learning to write effective arguments is finding reliable sources (or other documents) that lend credibility to your position. It’s not enough to say “capital punishment is wrong because that’s the way I feel.”
Instead, you need to adequately support your claim by finding:
• facts
• statistics
• quotations from recognized authorities, and
• other types of evidence
You won’t always win, and that’s fine. The goal of an argument is simply to:
• make a claim
• support your claim with the most credible reasoning and evidence you can muster
• hope that the reader will at least understand your position
• hope that your claim is taken seriously
If you defend your argument’s position with good reasoning and evidence, you should earn a high grade, even if your instructor personally disagrees with the views you are defending.
We will be covering the basic format of how to structure an argument. This includes the general written argument structure, and the Position and Proposal variations of that basic form. If you want to make a claim about a particular (usually controversial) issue, you can use the Position argument form. Alternately, if you would like to offer a solution to a particular situation that you see as problematic, such as the rising cost of education, you can get your idea across using a Proposal argument. By adapting one of these three methods, you will be well on the way to making your point. The great thing about the argument structure is it’s amazingly versatility. Once you become familiar with this basic structure of the argumentative essay, you will be able to clearly argue about almost anything!
Bear in mind that argument is a close relative to the gentler art of persuasion. Persuasion is an argument that deftly draws the reader or viewer toward a viewpoint. Argument follows pre-determined rules. Both have a function in writing, but persuasion is the form of argument you most often encounter in the world and it usually comes from a desire to appeal to a consumer. Advertising, editorial newscasts, political speeches, sales pitches, catalog descriptions, websites, and blogs try to shape or world views for a variety of reasons. Some appeal to our prejudices, others our desires, and still others our sense of right and wrong.
Argument tends to focus purely on evidence. The rules dictate the writer cannot use just slaughterhouse photos to convince an audience even if this may work. Instead argument relies on evidence, logic, ethics and empathy. Academic writing is always about persuasion, but argument is the form of argument with which academics use in a battle of ideas.

“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.”  –Kingsley Amis (1922 – 1995)

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Expression and Inquiry by Chris Manning, Sally Pierce, and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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