Preparing an Argument Essay

Choosing a Topic, Focusing an Argument, and Planning an Approach

Professor and student reviewing essay in lecture hall
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What are the hot issues now being debated among your friends online or at your school: a new course requirement? a revision of the honor code? a proposal to construct a new recreation center or shut down a notorious nightspot?

As you think about possible topics for your argument assignment, consider issues being discussed by columnists in the local newspaper or by your classmates in the snack bar. (Also consider the suggestions at 40 Writing Topics: Argument & Persuasion.) Then prepare to explore one of these issues, examining both sides of the argument before you outline your own position.

Discovering an Issue to Argue About

Probably the best way to get started on an argumentative essay, whether you're working on your own or with others, is to list several possible topics for this project. Jot down as many current issues that you can think of, even if you haven't yet formed strong opinions about them. Just make sure that they are issues--matters open to discussion and debate. For example, "Cheating on Exams" is hardly an issue: few would dispute that cheating is wrong. More controversial, however, would be a proposal that students caught cheating should automatically be dismissed from school.

As you list possible topics, keep in mind that your eventual goal is not simply to vent your feelings on an issue but to support your views with valid information. For this reason, you might want to steer clear of topics that are highly charged with emotion or just too complicated to be dealt with in a short essay--topics such as capital punishment, for instance, or the war in Afghanistan.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you have to restrict yourself to trivial issues or to ones that you care nothing about. Rather, it means that you should consider topics you know something about and are prepared to deal with thoughtfully in a short essay of 500 or 600 words. A well-supported argument on the need for a campus child-care center, for instance, would probably be more effective than a collection of unsupported opinions on the need for free, universal child-care services in the United States.

Finally, if you still find yourself at a loss for what to argue about, check out this list of 40 Writing Topics: Argument and Persuasion.

Exploring an Issue

Once you have listed several possible topics, select one that appeals to you, and freewrite on this issue for ten or fifteen minutes. Put down some background information, your own views on the subject, and any opinions you have heard from others. You might then want to join a few other students in a brainstorming session: invite ideas on both sides of each issue you consider, and list them in separate columns.

As an example, the table below contains notes taken during a brainstorming session on a proposal that students should not be required to take physical-education courses. As you can see, some of the points are repetitious, and some may appear more convincing than others. As in any good brainstorming session, ideas have been proposed, not judged (that comes later). By first exploring your topic in this way, considering both sides of the issue, you should find it easier to focus and plan your argument in succeeding stages of the writing process.

Proposal: Physical Education Courses Should Not Be Required

PRO (Support Proposal)CON (Oppose Proposal)
1. PE grades unfairly lower the GPAs of some good students1. Physical fitness is a critical part of education: "A sound mind in a sound body."
2. Students should exercise on their own time, not for credit.2. Students need an occasional break from lectures, textbook, and exams.
3. School is for study, not play.3. A few hours of PE courses never hurt anybody.
4. One gym course can't turn a poor athlete into a good one.4. What good is improving your mind if your body is going to pieces?
5. Do taxpayers realize that they are paying for students to bowl and play badminton?5. PE courses teach some valuable social skills.
6. PE courses can be dangerous.6. Most students enjoy taking PE courses.

Focusing an Argument

Focusing an argument begins with taking a clear stand on the issue. See if you can express your point of view in a one-sentence proposal, such as the following:

  • Students should (or should not) be required to pay for a campus parking permit.
  • U.S. citizens should (or should not) be allowed to cast their ballots online in all local, state, and national elections.
  • Cell phones should (or should not) be banned in all classrooms.
    Of course, as you gather more information and develop your argument, you're quite likely to reword your proposal or even change your position on the issue. For now, though, this simple proposal statement will guide you in planning your approach.

     

    Planning an Argument

    Planning the argument means deciding on the three or four points that best support your proposal. You may find these points in the lists you have already drawn up, or you may combine certain points from these lists to form new ones. Compare the points below with the ones given earlier on the issue of required physical-education courses:

    Proposal: Students should not be required to take physical-education courses.
    1. Although physical fitness is important for everyone, it can be achieved better through extracurricular activities than in required physical-education courses.
    2. Grades in physical-education courses may have a harmful effect on the GPAs of students who are academically strong but physically challenged.
    3. For students who are not athletically inclined, physical-education courses can be humiliating and even dangerous.
    Notice how the writer has drawn on both of his original lists, "pro" and "con," to develop this three-point plan. Likewise, you may support a proposal by arguing against an opposing view as well as by arguing for your own.

     

    As you draw up your list of key arguments, start thinking ahead to the next step, in which you must support each of these observations with specific facts and examples.

    In other words, you must be prepared to prove your points. If you're not ready to do that, you should explore your topic further, perhaps in a follow-up brainstorming session, before researching your topic online or in the library.

    Remember that feeling strongly about an issue does not automatically enable you to argue about it effectively. You need to be able to back up your points clearly and convincingly with up-to-date, accurate information.

    PRACTICE: Exploring Both Sides of the Issue

    Either on your own or in a brainstorming session with others, explore at least five of the following issues. Jot down as many supporting points as you can, both in favor of the proposal and in opposition to it.
    1. Final grades should be eliminated in all courses and replaced by grades of pass or fail.
    2. A year of national service with minimum-wage pay should be required of all 18-year-olds in the United States.
    3. States should be allowed to collect taxes on all items sold over the Internet.
    4. The production and sale of cigarettes should be made illegal.
    5. People should be allowed the freedom to exchange music files online without having to pay fees to a subscription service.
    6. To encourage people to maintain healthy eating habits, foods with a high fat content and little nutritional value should carry a special "junk tax."
    7. Parents should discourage their young children from watching television on weekdays.
    8. Students should have complete freedom to select their own courses.