Making an argument means trying to convince others that you are correct or persuade them to take a particular action. Important not just in university, that skill will be necessary for nearly every professional job you hold.
Realizing that your research report, essay, blog post, or oral presentation is to make an argument gives you a big head start because right off you know the sources you’re going to need are those that will let you write the components of an argument for your reader.
Components of an Argument
Making an argument in a report, term paper, or other university writing task is like laying out a case in court. Just as there are conventions that attorneys must adhere to as they make their arguments in court, there are conventions in arguments made in university assignments. Among those conventions is to use the components of an argument.
Note: This section on making an argument was developed with the help of “Making Good Arguments” in The Craft of Research, by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
The arguments you’re used to hearing or participating in with friends about something that is uncertain or needs to be decided contain the same components as the ones you’ll need to use in reports and on the job. Arguments contain those components because those are the ones that work—used together, they stand the best chance of persuading others that you are correct.
For instance, the question gets things started off. The claim, or thesis, tells people what you consider a true way of describing a thing, situation, or phenomenon or what action you think should be taken. The reservations, alternatives, and objections that someone else brings up in your sources or that you imagine your readers logically might have allow you to demonstrate how your reasons and evidence (maybe) overcome that kind of thinking—and (you hope) your claim/ thesis comes out stronger for having withstood that test.
EXAMPLE: Argument as a Dialog
Here’s a dialog of an argument, with the most important components labeled.
Marco: Where should we have my parents take us for dinner when they’re here on Sunday? [He asks the question about something that’s unsettled.]
Rupi: We should go to The Cascades! [She makes her main claim to answer the question.] It’s the nicest place around. [Another claim, which functions as a reason for the main claim.]
Marco: How so? [He asks for a reason to believe her claims.]
Rupi: White table cloths. [She gives a reason.]
Marco: What’s that have to do with how good the food is? [He doesn’t see how her reason is relevant to the claim.]
Rupi: Table cloths make restaurants seem upscale. [She relates her reason for the claims.] And I’ve read a survey in Columbus Metro that says the Cascades is one of the most popular restaurants in town. [She offers evidence.]
Marco: I never read the Metro. And Dino’s has table cloths. [He offers a point that contradicts her reason.]
Rupi: I know, but those are checkered! I’m talking about heavy white ones. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it.]
Marco: My dad loves Italian food. I guess he’s kind of a checkered-table-cloth kind of guy? [He raises another reservation or objection.]
Rupi: Yeah, but? Well, I know The Cascades has some Italian things on the menu. I mean, it’s not known for its Italian food but you can order it there. Given how nice the place is, it will probably be gourmet Italian food. [She acknowledges his point and responds to it. There’s another claim in there.]
Marco: Ha! My dad, the gourmet? Hey, maybe this place is too expensive. [He raises another reservation.]
Rupi: More than someplace like Dino’s. [She concedes his point.]
Marco: Yeah. [He agrees.]
Rupi: But everybody eats at The Cascades with their parents while they’re students here, so it can’t be outlandishly expensive. [She now puts limits on how much she’s conceding.]
Order of the Components
The order in which the components should appear in your persuasive reports, presentations and other assignments may vary, but one common arrangement is to begin with an introduction that explains why the situation is important—why the reader should care about it. Your research question will probably not appear, but your answer to it (your thesis, or claim) usually appears as the last sentence or two of the introduction.
The body of your paper follows and consists of:
- Your reasons the thesis is correct or at least reasonable.
- The evidence that supports each reason, often occurring right after the reason it supports.
- An acknowledgement that some people have/could have objections, reservations, counterarguments, or alternative solutions to your argument and a statement of each.
- A response to each acknowledgement that explains why that criticism is incorrect or not very important. Sometimes you might have to concede a point you think is unimportant if you can’t really refute it.
Let’s take a look at how this might work in a short persuasive email.
To: Ralph Niblet, CEO
From: Hannah Vuong, Communications Manager
Subject: Migrating to MailChimp
Date: Sept. 1st, 2018
Last week, you asked me to research whether we should switch our email marketing software from Constant Contact to MailChimp. I think that we should go with MailChimp for the following reasons:
- MailChimp is free for a business of our size, while Constant Contact costs us $57 a month.
- MailChimp integrates with Salesforce and would allow us to use our database more effectively. I spoke to Sam Cho, who currently administers our Salesforce account, and he shared many exciting ways that we could integrate the two platforms without much effort. He also offered to host a webinar to train our staff.
- MailChimp allows us segment audiences more effectively. I’ve included some links to a few blog posts that illustrate what we could do. A lot of our current unsubscribes happen because we can’t target emails to specific groups of customers effectively. Our email marketing report from last quarter showed that 70% unsubscribed because of emails that were “not relevant.”
Some colleagues have voiced the objection that they already know how to use Constant Contact and they find MailChimp less intuitive. We will also have to migrate our existing data and clean it. I believe, however, that these barriers can easily be overcome with employee training and good data migration practices.
I am happy to show you a demo of MailChimp this week if you are free.
In this short space, Hannah uses a few sources:
- A price comparison done on MailChimp and Constant Contact’s websites
- A discussion with Sam Cho.
- Blog posts
- The company’s email marketing report.
- Interviews with colleagues.
She also uses all of the components of a good argument. First, she states her thesis. Then, she gives reasons and provides her evidence for believing these reasons. In her last paragraph, she acknowledges objections and responds to these objections.
Sometimes when we’re researching, it can be tempting to reach for sources that agree with you. You will likely be rushed on time, or you really want to convince your boss or a coworker of your opinion. But a crucial part of working with sources is that they should help you to reach the right decision. Finding a source that disagrees with you is a gift because either:
- You are able to think in advance about what objections your audience might have and prepare a response. You won’t be surprised at a meeting. For example, if you’re considering buying a new piece of software, you should read negative reviews. You might find out that the people who had a bad experience had a business context that you don’t share. Maybe they’re in a different industry or they’re trying to use the software for a different purpose.
- If you can’t come up with a response, you might have to change your initial plan. It’s better to make this discovering in the research phase, rather than wasting time and money doing something that’s not a good idea. For example, if you find a lot of negative reviews of a piece of software, you might choose not to purchase it. Or you might ask the software rep for a longer time to try it out.
Understanding the parts of the argument can be tricky. Test your knowledge by matching each sentence to which part of the argument it represents.