Shelley Reid .

Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
Five Approaches for Helping Students Develop Academic Arguments



1. Opinion, rant, argument

Writers often ask, "Do you want my opinion?"

Yes! But not just your opinion. Thoughtful argument develops as writers take additional steps.

Opinions are simple & direct:  "Did not!  Did too!  Is not!  Is too!"

Start there; move from opinion into

"Rant": All the details -- the whole story -- the nitpicky evidence to engage readers -- all the reasons to believe

then move into

Judgment:  A judgment

  • is narrow and focused, tackling a piece or angle of an issue

  • allows for complexity, gray areas

  • addresses alternatives and oppositions

Discussion:  What can you "go off on a rant" about? 
What would you need to do to turn that rant into an academic argument?

2. Classical argument stases

As with most writing heuristics, the categories here blend and overlap; most arguments have elements of each. But stases can be used to help students move from topics to arguments as they begin to craft an essay: what kind(s) of claim(s) does a writer wish to make? what kind of evidence will support that claim?

Claims about facts/interpretation/definition
"X civilians have died in Iraq."
"This poem is about alcoholism." 
"Schnauzers aren't 'real' dogs."

Note: The "facts" of the situation need to be disputable among educated people.  Remember, though, that sometimes what we've been told are indisputable hard facts can indeed be disputed: "Pluto is a planet."

Claims about evaluation
good or bad? 
worthy or unworthy?
thumbs up or thumbs down?

Note: Claims of evaluation may require the author to make his or her criteria explicit: what makes this car better than that one?

Claims about cause/effect
what (un-obviously) caused this? 
what will the (unobvious and crucial) effects be?

Note: Consider moving from proximate to distant effects in order to create a more interesting, more debatable argument. For instance, go from
"Studying by college students causes better exam grades" (obvious) to

"Studying by college students causes [[better exam grades, which lead to higher GPA, which leads to better job, which leads to buying a house in the burbs, which leads to sprawl, which contributes to]] global warming."

Claims about policy/solution
What should be done, by whom, in what way, why?

See next sections on arguing for change to a resistant audience.

Consider combinations:

X caused Y, which is a good thing.  (Cause-effect, evaluation)
X is not as good as Y, so we should go with Y. (Evaluation, policy)

Discussion/exericse:  Try writing two different kinds of claims about your topic, or writing a combined claim.

3. Handling opposing or alternate points of view

Part of what distinguishes an educated argument from a rant is the author's consideration of alternatives or opposing ideas. Part of what distinguishes an educated argument from a summary of "Pro/Con" positions is an author's response to those opposing or alternate points of view. Some argumentation is more combative, some is more negotiative: each approach can be useful depending on the rhetorical situation (audience + purpose) the author faces.

3A: Defensive, line-drawing strategies

Refutation of a significant argument: An author may argue that the other position is . . .

Incorrect (they're not stupid idiots, just misinformed)
Effective but rarely available

Correct, but Irrelevant (the concepts don't apply much in this situation)
Useful but difficult to demonstrate

Correct, Relevant, but Insufficient (A relatively small price to pay for a greater gain)
Very common

The secret-handshake refutation sentence
Concession transition -- Independent Clause -- semicolon -- countertransition -- IC.

Of course, X (or "some scholars") argue(s) that _____ ; however, that point is ______ because ______ ."

To be sure,…; nevertheless….

Certainly,…; yet….

Discussion/exercise:  Try writing a secret-handshake refutation sentence about your topic.  Share with a neighbor/read aloud to the class.


3B. Collaborative, relationship-building strategies

Identify common ground to enlist enthusiasm and assistance

Concede on one issue, sometimes to allow persuasion on another

Compromise on a major issue to move forward at least in some degree

Create a third or fourth option, to allow both sides to gain something

Add complexity to address several issues:  long-term plan (this now, that later), multiple-stakeholders, additional sites of change

Discussion/exercise:  List several issues on which you and your "opponents" agree.  How might you use that overlap to find a way that all of you could work on part of the issue together?

4. Writing for a resistant audience

Writing argument is as much about thinking as about writing. Writers need to "get inside the head" of a typical audience member to anticipate emotional as well as logical objections. After all, if change were easy, it would already have been done, and we wouldn't need anyone else to write about it.  Arguments for difficult change require some attention to the audience's intellectual and psychological state, not just to the facts of the situation.

Why don't people want to change (their minds)?  They may be

Fact-deprived: they

  • Don't know about their options.

  • Don't understand their options.

  • Don't believe what they've heard about the options.

Emotionally-invested: they

  • Have put a lot of time/energy/ego into current ideas/practices

  • Enjoy the results of their current ideas/practices

  • Don't feel that your option is truly better than theirs

  • Are afraid of the risks of new thought/action

  • Belive your option contradicts firmly-held values of theirs

Resource-poor: they

Don't have the time to learn a whole new way.

  -- or don't think they have the time (lack information and/or face strong emotion)

  -- or don't think it's worth spending time this way (information/emotion)

Don't have the personnel to take on a new project

  -- or don't think they have what it will take (information)

  -- or think personnel are more productive elsewhere (information/emotion)

Don't have the money to spend on new processes

  -- or prefer spending the money elsewhere (information/emotion)

  -- or don't think they have as much as they'll need (information)

Have no control over resource allocation

  -- or think they can have no effect (emotion)

Discussion/exercise: What are the top 5 objections someone might raise to your argument? What might be some of the underlying causes of those objections? how might you respond to those resistance points?

5. Organizing Arguments

Audiences can follow the thread of an argument better -- particularly an argument that addresses sub-points and refutes alternative arguments or addresses resistances -- if the author has developed an organizational rhythm that stays steady through the essay.

Organizing Arguments, Oppositions, and Refutations:

Each paragraph or "chunk" of paragraphs should be a mini-essay:  your points + evidence + conclusions

Which organizational pattern below is better if it's a "close game"?  Which is better if the audience is really resistant to this argument? Why?  

Block/all at once organization

Block/all at once organization

Point-by-point or alternating organization

Intro:  Main arg



Arg 1

Opp 1, 2, 3

Arg 1.

Arg 2

Refute 1

Opp 1 + Refut. + Arg

Arg 3

Refute 2 + 3

Arg 2 + Opp + Refut

Arg 4

Additional Arg (opt.)

Opp 3 + Refut + Arg

Opp 1 & 2 + Refut's

Additional Arg. (opt.)

Additional Arg




How might you mix or adapt these strategies? What if you need to give background, or have a particularly thorny point to work through -- where might that come in?

Where do you put the opposition's strongest argument?  why?





Last updated June 2008. Email Shelley Reid