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Grad. Studies Home

Supporting Your Argument

Academic writing tends to have two main purposes: to inform (often called "exposition") and/or to persuade (to help the reader accept a belief that he or she didn't have before).

In a perfect world, just informing readers of the facts would be enough to persuade them that these facts are true. Everyone would understand before evaluating and evaluate before deciding. Sometimes that happens, when the facts are clear and comprehensive and non-controversial. Mostly, though, facts need to be presented persuasively so that the reader will even bother to listen to our argument before evaluating it.

All academic writing, in a sense, is an argument: you are trying to make the reader see you as a fair, well-informed expert on your topic.

To write a persuasive argument, follow the general steps below.

1. Think before you write. Ask yourself these questions:

> What is my purpose? (Am I trying to make the reader take some specific action? Believe something new? )

> Who is my audience?

What opinions do they already have (so you can acknowledge these opinions, accommodate them, or refute them)?

How strongly do they hold their opinions? (The stronger the convictions, the more carefully you must argue. It is always good to show that you understand the opposing side of the issue by restating it in terms that will be acceptable to the reader. Try also to state your argument in a way that makes it feel consistent with some belief the reader already holds.)

What aspects of the topic will they most be concerned with? (An argument for legalizing marijuana, for instance, would call for different kinds of proof when presented to a medical association than when presented to a local parent group, because the concerns of these two groups would be different.)

2. Decide what methods you will use to persuade this specific audience.

If you're saying, "This is all Greek to me," you're right on target. Centuries ago, the Greeks broke an argument down into just three parts:

  • ethos (persuasion by winning the trust of the audience through fairness; the English word "ethical" comes from ethos.)

  • pathos (persuasion by appealing to the emotions of the audience; the word "pathetic" derives from pathos.)

  • logos (persuasion by valid, sound reasoning; logos forms the root of the word "logic")

A good argument contains some mix of all three methods: trust, emotion, and logic. Think of ethos as the "driver" of the argument; obviously, you can't get to your destination if there isn't someone reliable at the wheel of the car who knows where the car is supposed to end up. Then, think of the pathos as the starter engine and logos as the steering system. It doesn't help to have the driver start the car if there's no steering system to move it in the direction it needs to travel. Likewise, it doesn't help to have a well-functioning steering system if you can't get the car started in the first place.

Your task is to decide on the appropriate mix of trust, emotion and logic you will need for this audience and this task.

  • trust: Convince the audience that you're knowledgeable (identify appropriate and adequate sources and cite them clearly), show that you are fair (understand and acknowledge all sides of the argument before focusing on your views) free of self interest (show reader that there's no conflict between what's good for you and what's good for others: a pharmaceutical company would have a harder job convincing the audience to legalize marijuana than, for instance, a medical professional because the audience would suspect the company was just hoping to profit from the legalized drug sales.)

  • emotion: Cite authorities whom the readers would agree with, use language that evokes emotional responses (that's why we have a "war on drugs" rather than "a new government campaign against drugs"), personalize the situation (the way tv reporters find "Mary Smith from Detroit, MI" to introduce at the start of a feature on the economy and why we have to do something about rising prices).

  • logic: Make sure that your argument does not contain any logical or emotional FALLACIES. Make sure, too, that your facts are valid, come from reputable sources (published, peer reviewed, not just something found from a Google search), and are adequate to support the claim you make.