Saturday, March 13, 2010

How to Craft a Good Argument

Writing with Persuasive Rhetoric: How to Craft a Good Argument

Part of winning a debate or getting people to agree with you is by having the clearest and best reasoned argument possible. Here I will share with you some of the basic techniques for improving your arguments, backing up your claims, and supporting your position with evidence according to the critical method. I’ll be referring to The Norton Field Guide to Writing, by and far the best book on reading, writing, and rhetoric for college level writers that I have come across. If you’re a serious writer, or looking to be, this is a more than valuable resource.

According to The Norton Field Guide to Writing, in part 9 of section 2, we find the section heading that reads “Arguing a Position.” I’ll be doing a paraphrased summary of pages 97-98 and page 105, breaking down the key points in sequence and sharing with you the skill set required for crafting the best possible argument you can. So without further ado, the key points to keep in mind when making your case are:

1)         A clear and arguable position

-This is relatively straight forward. Make your case, make it short and sweet, and remember simple is always better. Normally the position you’re arguing for or against takes the form of your thesis.

2)                  Necessary background information

-Inform your reader or audience as to the necessary details which they may need to know about when you set up your main argument or factor in any vital details so that they will be clear about where you stand with regard to your position.

3)                  Good Reasons

-By itself, a position does not make an argument; the argument comes when a writer offers reasons to back the position up.

4)                  Convincing evidence

-It’s one thing to give reasons for your position. You then need to offer evidence for your reasons: facts, statistics, expert testimony, textual evidence, and so on.

5)                  Appeal to reader’s values

-Even though it may sound good to you, don’t forget to keep in mind the moral sensibilities of others. Instead of incidentally offending your audience, try to win them over by appealing to their values. In other words, know who you’re audience is.

6)                  Trustworthiness & Credibility

-Know what you’re talking about, use credible sources, and don’t over exaggerate too much. Being correct doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll have the best argument; your job is to convince others that you’re correct. So remember to do your research in advance and be prepared to think on your feet. This will make you look good and give others the impression that you’re at the top of your game.

Just a quick side note: if you know little to nothing on a specific topic then it’s better to admit that you don’t know than to speak out of your hat. Getting caught speaking out of your hat will put an end to your credibility really fast and leave the audience with the notion that your whole argument was erroneous, and that it was just your over-glorified opinion. And looking foolish, arrogant, or both is not the way to win others over to your side of the argument.

7)                  Consideration of other positions

-No matter how reasonable and careful we are in arguing our positions, others may disagree or offer counterarguments or hold other positions. We need to consider those other views and to acknowledge and, if possible, refute them…

Refuting the opposing position

  State the (opposing) position as fairly as you can, and then refute it by showing why you believe it is wrong. You may choose to point out its weaknesses, such as: faulty reasoning, inadequate evidence, or incredibility.

  Avoid the fallacy of attacking the person making the contra argument/claim. This is known as an ad hominem attack. Frankly, it’s not only bad form, but it typically is a sign that you’re either unprepared to answer in turn, have not considered the other position fully enough, or are trying to get in cheap shots, which might get a few brownie points with those already on your side, but it does nothing to make your case more convincing and consequently it takes away from your trustworthiness.

Important Reminder:

  Before you start writing out your brilliant essay or speech, remember to 1) qualify your thesis, 2) organize your argument(s) coherently, 3) in your conclusion summarize your main points, propose a course of action which coincides with your statements, and don’t forget to frame your arguments, and last but not least, 4) cite your sources.

[For more writing techniques see The Norton Field Guide to Writing: With Readings and Handbook, Second Edition, 2010.]

Now that you know a few of the tricks of the trade, you can apply these methods and will, in no time, begin making better arguments. However, a word of the wise, there is no guarantee you’ll win any of those arguments. Like anything else writing clearly and arguing keenly takes some practice. Just be sure to do your best, never give up, keep on honing those writing skills, and don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Good luck!

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist