Making arguments

What is an argument?

This post contains a set of exercises that are useful in developing a piece of academic writing like an essay. I focus in particular here on developing an argument about a 'real-world' case study or illustration.

This post doesn't focus much on the mechanics of good writing like grammar, paragraph structure and style. If you feel your writing would benefit with some attention to grammar and style, my suggestion is to check out the UQx English Grammar and Style online course. Writers of all abilities benefit from doing this course.

If you want more advice on the structure of academic essays, check out the UQ Student Services page on assignment writing.

An argument is the spine of good academic writing. An essay needs an argument to give it purpose and structure. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an argument as:

‘A connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position.’ (1393)
‘A process of reasoning.’ (1393)
‘A statement or fact advanced for the purpose of influencing the mind; a reason urged in support of a proposition.’ (1405)
‘A statement of reasons for and against a proposition.’ (1513)
‘To give evidence.’ (1558)

For our purposes then we can begin by defining an argument as a proposition, or series of statements, reasoned with evidence.

An argument has three parts:

  1. A proposition. An argument begins by making a claim.
  2. A purpose. An argument explains why the proposition matters.
  3. Evidence and reason. An argument is defended with evidence and reason.

An academic argument consists of illustrative evidence structured by theoretical reasoning. The illustrative evidence comes from careful discussion of real world events and social relationships. The theoretical reasoning is developed by drawing on theories, concepts and scholarly debate as tools that you use to think and reason with.

In what follows I set out a series of tasks you can undertake to help you develop an argument. The point of these tasks is to shift your beginning point away from a blank computer screen. Start your essay by thinking about the relationship between your proposition, your purpose and your evidence. Develop a clear narrative about the events in the world you are writing about as a precursor making an argument about them. 

Task 1: scribble

Begin with three questions:

  1. Who did what, how, where, when and why?
  2. Why is it important? What consequences does it have? Who does it matter to and why?
  3. What theoretical concept could I use to guide my thinking about this issue or event?

Most of us will find it easier think via real events in the world, and begin there. But really, it doesn't matter which of these questions you tackle first. Tack back and forth between these questions. Jot down quickly all your thoughts about who is doing what, what consequences it has, and how these events in the world relate to theories you are working with.

You might answer the questions 'why does this matter?' and 'what consequences does it have?' from your own perspective or you might think it through from the perspectives of actors in the real-world case or events you are thinking about. You might think about what it was that was motivating people to act in the way that they did in the case you are analysing. The image below is a basic example of a mind map that sketches out an event and how it might be understood in terms of the concept representation. Your mind map will likely be messier and more sketchy than this.

Task 2: sentences

Once you have a rough map. Write three sentences. One sentence that responds to each of the three questions:

  1. Who did what, how, where, when and why?
  2. Why is it important? What consequences does it have? Who does it matter to and why?
  3. What theoretical concept could I use to guide my thinking about this issue or event?

These three sentences are a basic outline of the first paragraph. They give you a basic framework to begin fashioning an essay.

Task 3: plot the story

To write a good argument, you first need a clear narrative of the real-world events you are examining. Events in the world are messy and complicated, they rarely reach clear resolutions, they can be told from many points of view and with differing points of emphasis. If you set about writing your essay, making an argument about real-world events, your writing will likely fill up with details. Those details might start to obscure the argument. So, before you begin writing the argument, sort out what your narrative of the real world events will be.

    Draw a basic narrative spine on a large piece of paper (see the image below). A basic narrative has the following components:

    1. Set-up: equilibrium and disruption. The 'set-up' is the beginning of your story. Identify it as the moment when an important change or disruption happens from which the events you are interested in begin to unfold. This helps set a clear beginning for your story, that will take shape in the first paragraph of your essay.
    2. Turning points (narrow it down to 2 or 3). There may be many events that make up the case you are examining. Here, settle on the 2 or 3 that you think are the most important to understanding the case. Articulate clearly who did what to whom with what effect at these key moments.
    3. Climax. The climax is the moment that makes this case particularly important and interesting, this is a moment which something happens which has real consequence.
    4. Resolution. Events in the real-world are often messy and inconclusive, so often we impose a resolution on our stories. The resolution might not be a particular event, but rather a way in which you or actors in your case drew meaning and consequence from what has transpired.

    Plot the action of the real-world case you are examining. Make the spine ‘down the bottom’ of the sheet of paper so there is room to add details above.

    By plotting the narrative you force yourself to settle on key events, characters and perspectives.

    Sketching the 'set up' helps you identify the key background you need to introduce at the start of your essay for your reader to understand the case and why it matters. Naming the turning points and climax help you identify the specific events in the real work that you will focus your analysis on. Thinking about the resolution helps you articulate how your essay might end, how you might reach a point in the narrative where conclusions and insights can be drawn. Each of these narrative elements impose order and focus on what are often messy social events.

    Once you have a clear narrative, this serves as a guide for thinking carefully about how you might use theory to make a critical and analytical argument about your case.

    Task 4: using theory

    Theories are conceptual tools for constructing logical explanation and analysis of the social world. Theories of society, culture, politics and media are tools to think with. They require critical analysis and judgment. They require adaptation to specific social settings and situations. Theories emerge and develop over time within a discipline of academic scholarship. They are adapted via an open-ended process of intellectual debate. This debate is driven by academics, researchers and students using theory to attempt to make sense of the world they live in.

    There are two elements to using theory. One is identifying, describing and applying a particular concept in your argument. The other is situating your argument in relation to scholarly debate that engages with that concept.

    For instance, the concept of hegemony might help you explain how consensus emerges, or the concept of representation might help you explain how different groups interact with each other to make sense of events in the world.

    This first move involves getting a clear understanding of a concept, and how you might use it to unpack, explain and analyse real-world events. The second move involves thinking about how other scholars have used this theoretical concept to analyse the same or similar events, relationships and situations in the world. Your use of theoretical concepts is enhanced by drawing on the insights of others. Think of this as an intellectual or scholarly conversation that you are contributing to.

    The narrative structure you sketched out above becomes important here. Look to key moments in your narrative, particularly the turning points and climax.

    Consider how you might analyse these events in relation to theoretical ideas you have been working with. For instance, if your narrative is about how groups struggled with each other to represent an event in the world or construct a consensus view about an event then you might decide a concept like representation or hegemony is useful for explaining what was happening.

    1. Identify a theoretical idea that you think works as the foundational idea in your thinking about your case. Write a simple definition of it.
    2. Return to your narrative spine. Place the theoretical idea above turning points or climax where it is useful to explaining the events. Here, you are making out a moment in your narrative about real-world events that is both important and that can be understood and analysed using a specific theoretical idea. For instance, say your one of your turning points was 'students film a protest on their smartphones'. You might decide you can understand this turning point as a moment of representation. Then you can begin to draw on representation as a theoretical framework for analysing this moment.
    3. Develop some layers. You might find a broad theoretical concept like 'representation' underpins much of your narrative, but then within that framework more nuanced and specific ideas and arguments come into play. For instance, a turning point like 'students film a protest on their smartphones' is a moment of representation, but you might then start to consider some of the nuances of using smartphones to document social life as part of our lived experience. This might lead you toward more specific arguments, for instance the concept of 'mediatisation' from a scholar like Nick Couldry or the concept of 'smartphone witnessing' from a scholar like Karen Anden-Papadopoulos. You might place some of these more nuanced arguments about representation then above specific moments on your narrative timeline that they relate to. This helps you think about how you might put your analysis in conversation with other scholars and their arguments.

    As you go through this process, you are constructing an interplay between your narrative about events in the real world, theoretical concepts and scholarly debate. By building these connections you are situating theoretical ideas and scholarly arguments somewhere in your narrative, mapping out where in your narrative scholarly concepts and arguments might help you develop your own argument and analysis.

    This process helps to you clarify which theoretical ideas and scholarly arguments will be of use to you in building your argument.

    Task 5: card sort

    In the tasks above you have developed a clear account of the narrative of your case, and articulated clear connections between specific moments in your case, theoretical concepts and scholarly arguments. From here you can organise the argument and structure for your essay.

    One way to do this is by using a card sorting exercise. Using cards helps you to test and experiment with the structure of your essay in a modular way before you try to write it.

    The way I do the card sort here I use three different coloured cards, to help distinguish between 'argument', 'illustration' and 'theory'.

    1. Write out each step of your narrative on a separate index card. You'll likely end up with 4-5 cards: one with the set-up, one for each turning point, one for the climax and one for the resolution. In the image below the narrative steps are on the green cards.
    2. Write our each theoretical idea you think you'll engage with on a separate index card. In the image below the theoretical ideas are on the yellow cards.
    3. Arrange the narrative steps first. You already have this structure from your narrative spine. Arrange it chronologically down your desk.
    4. Arrange the theoretical ideas next. You should write separate cards for both major theoretical ideas, and also key quotes and claims from scholars whose work you have been reading. To the right of the narrative cards, place the theoretical ideas where you think they are useful in you narrative. 
    5. Prepare a series of cards that are the propositions or claims that make up your argument. Start with a card that makes what you think is the most important proposition in your essay, and then write others. In the image below the propositions are written on the white cards. The first proposition says 'how we represent events matters because it is a means through which we organise the social world', then from there develop other propositions. You might do this by looking to your narrative and thinking about what is the important claim you want to make about specific events that are unfolding. For instance, at the moment where students film a protest using their smartphones yuo might write the proposition 'smartphones change how we represent everyday events'.

    Now you have a series of cards for your illustration, theoretical ideas and propositions. The first step is to arrange your cards vertically. In this step you are developing a logical sequence to your propositions and narrative, and you are marking out where in your argument theoretical ideas are defined and used. You might experiment with moving the order of the theoretical ideas, propositions, and possible elements of the narrative around in order to arrive at the clearest and most logical sequence for your essay. Here are some things you should consider as you reflect on the vertical ordering of the cards:

    • Are parts of the narrative that can be removed or condensed because they are not so important to the argument?
    • Are you introducing the big theoretical concepts at the top, and then the more nuanced ideas as your argument develops?
    • Do your propositions become more specific and detailed as your essay goes along?
    • Do your propositions and narrative have a logical sequence? Does each idea follow clearly onto the next one?
    • Is there any repetition in propositions or narrative that can be removed?

    The vertical organisation of the cards helps you develop a logical sequence to your argument and narrative. It helps get the main ideas to the 'top', develop nuance and detail through the middle, and ensure a logical flow throughout.

    The next step is thinking about the horizontal organisation. Look across each row of the matrix and check that the relationships between proposition, illustration and theory make sense. Check that throughout there is a mix of each element.

    Once you have sorted your matrix vertically and horizontally you have constructed a structure for your essay. In principle, each row of the matrix becomes a paragraph in your essay.

    The card sort helps you ensure that every claim or proposition in your essay is defended with illustrative evidence and theoretical reasoning.

    The image below shows what a basic card sort looks like. Please note, the ideas in this card sort are not fully developed. The column of theoretical ideas for instance are too general, more work needs to be done to narrow down and bring more detail into the matrix.

    Task 6: write

    Write a draft of your essay using the card sort matrix developed above as a guide. The top row of the matrix becomes the first paragraph of your essay. This opening paragraph should contain the main proposition of your essay's argument, the set-up of the narrative, and an outline of the key theoretical idea and how it will be used in the essay.

    Each row that follows in your card sort matrix should make one paragraph. The 2-5 paragraphs that make up the body of your essay should sequentially develop the argument and narrative, developing the nuance of the argument and engagement with theoretical ideas and scholarly arguments as you go along. In the body we should see a clear and sustained engagement with specific ideas and scholars. Think of how your essay funnels toward more specific and nuanced analysis paragraph by paragraph.

    The final paragraph should make a definitive statement about implications of the analysis. The conclusion should not summarise the essay, but rather set out why the argument in the essay matters, what lessons can be drawn from the analysis and narrative, and a reflection on the value of particular theoretical ideas or scholarly arguments to understanding these events.

    Task 7: edit

    Spend time editing your work carefully. Read it aloud for flow and tone. Get someone else to read it to see if they can understand the argument and analysis. A fresh reader will often pick up ideas that are not clearly defined, missing elements of the narrative, or sentences that don't make sense.

    Your editing process should pay attention to the overall structure, each individual paragraph, and the sentences.

    Firstly, check the structure and sequence of claims that make up your essay.

    You might do this by extracting just the topic sentences of each paragraph. Does each topic sentence clearly state the one clear idea that paragraph develops? When you read the topic sentences in a row one after the other does a clear and logical sequence emerge? Does the essay more or less make sense just by reading the topic sentences?

    Secondly, check your paragraphs. Each paragraph should have:

    • A topic sentence that outlines the main claim of the paragraph.
    • One idea.
    • Lead logically on from the last one and into the next one.
    • Contain both illustrative evidence and theoretical reasoning.

    Thirdly, check your voice.

    You might get some highlighters or pens and use different colours to highlight different elements. One to highlight theoretical reasoning, one to highlight illustration and narrative, one to highlight statements about the importance and significance of the events being discussed. Do you see a good balance of colours, and their associated elements, throughout your paragraphs? Do you see places that are predominantly theoretical reasoning or predominantly description and illustration? If so, you might work on integrating the elements more. This task also helps to identify paragraphs that are too descriptive or too theoretical. You should see a good mix of argument, narrative and theory throughout the essay.