Essay Guide

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More definitions

It’s more than one, two, three, four, five, six

These three important facts make it sound as if making an argument is like taking the numbers six, one, two, five, four, three and deciding whether to order them one, two, three, four, five, six or six, five, four, three, two, one. Or like deciding to write about the odd numbers one, three and five; and then the even numbers two, four and six. This is true up to a point – making an effective argument is about deciding on the best possible order. However, it’s not the whole story.

More key words

Let’s go back to our four original definitions and pick out some more key words and phrases. They are: ‘aimed at demonstrating a truth or falsehood’ and ‘intended to support or establish a point of view’. These, then, are the reasons for getting your material in the best possible order so the reader can move from a starting point to a conclusion in a way that seems logical and developmental. Now, of course, not all essays are designed to show whether something is true or false; but they are designed ‘to support or establish a point of view’.

What’s the big idea?

Saying that an essay should support or establish a point of view is another way of saying that it needs to have a central idea. This ‘big idea’ needs to be apparent at the beginning and visible throughout the essay. The reader should feel they know what it is and what you have said about it when they get to the end. The reader should feel that you have reviewed relevant evidence and views and come to a conclusion based on them.

Tell me a story

In Writing at University: A Guide for Students, Phyllis Crème and Mary R. Lea suggest that a good way of thinking about how to make an argument is to think of it in terms of telling a story. They are referring to the fact that stories start somewhere and end somewhere and have a recognisable and summarizable plot. Stories are satisfying to readers if they have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order. Read your essay back – does it read in that way?

I can drink more than you…

Another way of understanding what an argument is and how it works is to think about the differences between an argument and an assertion. Let’s take a commonly expressed assertion: I can drink more than you and still stay sober. If two people had a conversation about this they might do little more than express contradictory opinions based on anecdote and hearsay. However, imagine the two people set out to prove the statement and to write up the results and conclusion in an essay. They would have to consider all sorts of material:

They would have decide what they meant by ‘drink’: wine, beer or spirits or a mixture of all three.

They would have to state the age, gender, height, weight and overall health of the drinkers as all these factors can influence alcohol consumption.

They would have to decide where and when and over what period of time the test was going to take place and explain why.

They would have to decide whether the drinking was going to be done on an empty stomach or whether the two drinkers could eat before and during the test; and, again, they would have to explain those decisions.

They would have to decide what the ‘more’ in ‘drink more’ meant – one drink or ten drinks. They would have to decide whether to use the recommended weekly intake of alcohol units as a benchmark or whether to ignore it. If they decided to ignore it, they would have to justify that decision.

They would have to decide what ‘sober’ meant and how they were going to test it. If they decide that the test for being sober is the ability to walk a straight line, are they going to allow any variations e.g. does a slight stagger mean someone isn’t sober. They might also decide to investigate whether there are any standard, widely used tests for deciding whether someone is still sober; and whether to use one or several of those tests. Again, they would have to explain why.

All these decisions and what the essay said about them would contribute to the argument. What the essay said about these decisions would help to support and establish a point of view.

Silly example, serious points

An essay about who can drink more and still be sober is a silly one, chosen deliberately to get you to think about what is involved in making an argument. Even this silly essay sets out with a proposition and then attempts to prove it using evidence and theories. It reviews different theories and views and attempts to choose the most relevant and useful. In doing so it positions itself within an existing body of knowledge and within the conventions of that knowledge. It defines terms and sets limits to its discussion. It will use all these different activities – reviewing, choosing, positioning, defining and setting limits – to explore the original proposition and come to a conclusion about it. The conclusion that the essay comes to will seem logical, reasonable – possibly even authoritative – because all these different activities have contributed to it.