Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Writing an Argument Essay

Chapter 1: Section 2, Lesson 9

Argument is a skill people use daily without even realizing it. For example, suppose you wanted to convince a store manager to let you use a coupon that had expired. When making your case with the manager, you could explain that she should accept the coupon because you’re a loyal customer, because it’s a good financial decision for the store, and because it will lead you to visit the store again. All of these points are the reasons behind your opinion.

The argument essay is the most common college writing assignment. At some point in your college career, you’ll be asked to defend your opinion in a piece of writing, relying on a variety of logical reasons. The discussion below covers the parts of a classical argument essay and the strategies that will convince readers to support your views. For information on other types of arguments, such as Rogerian or Toulmin, please see Tools for Arguing.

Essay Structure
An argument essay usually includes a separate section or body paragraph for each of your reasons, or lines of argument. You’ll probably start your argument essay by choosing 1) the main argument and 2) a few specific reasons why the argument is justified or valid.

In some types of arguments, you’ll need to persuade readers to take a specific action. In that case, your opinion might be about what that group of people should do—such passing or overturning a law. In other assignments, you might need to argue whether or not something is effective or fair. The assignment instructions will usually give clues about what type of main argument is most appropriate.

No matter what kind of argument you’re writing, your reasons or arguments should detail why readers should support your position. Don’t get the argument style confused by writing reasons why something happens as you might in a process analysis essay.

In addition to reasons, some arguments require counterarguments, which are body paragraphs that present the opposing viewpoints. If you’re unsure about whether your assignment requires counterarguments, the best person to ask is the instructor.

Planning your paragraph topics before writing a first draft can make the drafting process easier. Below are two examples of outlines for argument papers.


Main argument: Downtown Atlanta needs more bike lanes.
Essay without Counterarguments Essay with a Counterargument
  1. Introduction paragraph
  2. First reason: to reduce cycling accidents
  3. Second reason: to reduce car pollution
  4. Third reason: to reduce car traffic
  5. Conclusion paragraph
  1. Introduction paragraph
  2. First reason: to reduce cycling accidents
  3. Second reason: to reduce car pollution
  4. Third reason: to reduce car traffic
  5. Counterargument: the cost would be high
  6. Conclusion paragraph

In each outline, there are three lines of argument. Depending on your assignment requirements, however, you could develop more than three reasons, as long as they’re all developed separately and logically. Some instructors also require a paragraph of additional background information after the introduction. Consider planning your paragraph topics before writing a first draft and asking a tutor or your instructor for feedback about your plan.

Introduction Paragraph
Most argument essays begin with an introduction paragraph that provides an overview of the topic and the debate and that convinces readers that the debate is significant enough to consider. The introduction also includes a thesis statement, which is described in the next section. One way to prepare readers for your topic is by answering these types of questions:

  • What specific problem are you focusing on? What statistics or other evidence proves that the problem or dilemma is real?
  • Who does this problem or debate affect?
  • Why is this issue significant or worth considering?
  • What are the two main positions about this issue?

Each type of topic requires slightly different background information. A good rule of thumb is to assume that your reader knows little about the topic, so you’re more likely to provide sufficient information.

Thesis Statement
In most argument essays, the introduction also includes a thesis statement that helps readers understand the main argument you’ll defend. Some thesis statements also include a list of the reasons, but a list thesis isn’t always required. Ask your instructor or check the assignment instructions if you’re not sure how to set up your thesis. For some writers and readers, a list thesis can be very useful way to prepare for the body paragraphs. A third option for the thesis is to include the main counterarguments your paper will develop, but this may be less feasible if your paper will discuss two or more counterarguments. For the topic about bike lanes, three different thesis statements could work:

  • Thesis with a main argument only: The city of Atlanta should install more bike lanes on busy downtown streets in order to solve several traffic-related problems.
  • Thesis with a main argument and reasons: The city of Atlanta should install more bike lanes on busy downtown streets to reduce cycling accidents, pollution, and car traffic.
  • Thesis with a main argument, reasons, and counterargument: Even though the financial costs may be high, the city of Atlanta should install more bike lanes on busy downtown streets to reduce cycling accidents, pollution, and car traffic.

Lines of Argument
The reasons or lines of argument make up the foundation of an effective argument. Unless your assignment says otherwise, most of the body paragraphs should focus on reasons why your position is valid. Each reason usually needs to be developed in a separate section or body paragraph. (For an essay that is five pages or less, you can probably develop each reason in a single paragraph.) One way to develop these types of body paragraphs is by following a three-step process:

  • Begin with a topic sentence that states the focus of your paragraph. These topic sentences often include words like one reason, another reason, and because. For example, the first line of argument about bike lanes could begin with the topic sentence: One of the most urgent reasons why Atlanta needs more bike lanes is to reduce the bicycle-related accidents that happen when cyclists and motorists must share the same lanes.
  • Provide several pieces of logical evidence to prove the reason is accurate. Each assignment requires different types of evidence. Some instructors will require the evidence to come from your personal experience while others will ask for evidence from outside sources, such as statistics, expert opinions, recent news events, or research studies. Each time you mention a fact from another source, you’ll need to at least give the author’s name, but you may need to cite other details as well. For more information about citing evidence, consult MLA Style, APA Style and Chicago/Turabian Style.
  • Explain why the evidence proves your main argument. A typical line of argument usually includes some analysis about why certain facts or details prove the main argument is true.

Counterarguments or Refutations
Some argument assignments require a paragraph or more of counterarguments. The purpose is to show readers that you understand the opposing viewpoints, but that your own position is stronger. Counterarguments show readers that you are well-informed about your topic, but they are not always required. When counterarguments are part of the assignment, the requirements can take many different forms. A few possibilities include

  • Briefly describing and refuting a few counterarguments in one body paragraph
  • Describing and refuting one major counterargument in a single body paragraph
  • Including complete body paragraphs for a couple of different counterarguments

Although the length and level of detail for each counterargument can vary, they’re typically developed in three steps:

  • Introduce the counterargument in a transition sentence or topic sentence. For example, a counterargument for the bike lanes paper may begin like this: Some local politicians have argued that the bike lanes will not be feasible because of the construction costs.
  • Describe who has made this claim and why. Which person or group of people has made this claim? Which beliefs or evidence does the counterargument include?
  • Explain why the counterargument is flawed. For example, in a paper about bike lanes, the paragraph with counterarguments would explain why the bike lanes are worth the cost and/or why the costs would not be as high as some believe.

Conclusion Paragraph
Most argument essays end with a conclusion paragraph that summarizes the key points and leaves the reader with some hope or some sense of urgency to support the topic. An argument’s conclusion may include the following parts:

  • A reminder of the main argument or main opinion
  • A summary of the most significant reasons why the opinion is worth considering
  • Insight about how the main argument serves the greater good

As with most papers, the conclusion should avoid introducing new reasons or new evidence but should instead bring closure to what was already discussed.

Think About It

  • What are some issues in your community or in national headlines that you care about?
  • What is your position on one of these issues?
  • For what reasons do you have this opinion?
  • What evidence will prove that these reasons are worth considering?

Answering these questions will help you to brainstorm ideas about how to choose an effective topic, a main argument, and specific reasons.


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