Essay Guide

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Are you looking for an argument?

“My tutor read my essay and said he couldn’t find one”

One of the most common criticisms that tutors make of student essays is that they don’t have an argument. However, because ‘argument’ is a word that has obvious meanings in everyday speech, it can be difficult trying to understand this sort of feedback. As with other sorts of feedback, it can also be confusing because tutors in different subjects – and even in the same subject – look for different things. A Social Science tutor might look for clear, logically-ordered writing, relating theory and case studies. An English Studies tutor will be looking for evidence that students have read and understood a particular text – e.g. Oliver Twist – and can use well-chosen quotations to help answer the question.

Does ‘evaluate’ mean the same as ‘critically analyse’?

Understanding what tutors mean by an argument is also confusing because different essays appear to be asking you to do different things: ‘evaluate‘, ‘critically analyse’, ‘review the evidence for’, ‘trace the outline of’, ‘justify the reasons for’.

To put this another way, if your tutor asked you to write an account of your weekend in a clear, logical order that described what you did and why, you wouldn’t have any problem doing it. If your tutor then asked you to compare what you did at the weekend with national studies of popular weekend activities, you wouldn’t have any problem with that either. However, if your tutor asked you to ‘evaluate your weekend activities against the background of at least two recent studies of national leisure activities’ you might feel less certain about how to do it.

All arguments are different but they all do the same thing

As with lots of things in this guide, there isn’t just one answer to the question ‘What is an argument?’ It’s not just different subjects that require different types of argument – different types of material do too. An essay looking at the history of scientific paradigms in psychology from 1900 to 2000 will make a different sort of argument than an essay looking at current ideas about scientific paradigms in psychology.

However, there is one thing that we can say with certainty: essays with effective arguments arrange their material and the discussion of it in the best possible order. This also tells us that argument is closely related to structure – in fact, it’s almost inseparable. A really good argument will be invisible to the reader if all your material is in any old order.
What follows in this section are a number of ways to get you thinking about what an argument is and how to make one. I will then look at different types of argument.