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!


  1. This is a worthy subject, sir!
    I'm especially interested in the part about "appeal to your readers' values." People so often forget to do this and not only "incidentally" offend their audience, but seem to be concerned mostly with shaming their opponents. I believe that's what we accomplish whenever we use ad hominem arguments and straw-men.

    It has me wonder, what do we accomplish by shaming our opponent? There must be something in it for us, at least sometimes, or there wouldn't be so many people doing it. Of course, in a group of people, this method could be used to overcome hesitation of others to side with you in opposition to another member - the bully (or protector, maybe?) shows his strength by flaunting the rules of argument, and so he secures support. The opponent, meanwhile, is put on the defensive and inhibited from action.

    But of course, the real audience in this situation isn't the opponent but the onlookers, and you'd still have to mind their values. It is a different kind of argument when your opponent is your audience....

  2. Thank you. I'm glad it's to your liking. I thought I'd give some advice, because many times people get to arguing over their arguments and they don't realize they haven't even made an official argument.

    Much of Christian apologetics fail on almost every account--they have number 1) God exists. They might put forth 2) laying down groundwork or putting forth an anecdotal story. They normally skip the evidence part or else they consider their position evidence, as I pointed out, a common mistake.

    From here Christian apologists typically give many reasons for believing, but most of them are unfounded, or once again, anecdotal. When called on to bring forth more reliable evidence they offer up denials instead. The denial of evolution or the denial of the universe coming from nothing are a couple good examples. Instead of offering evidence for falsifying these things and giving credence to their claim they often put forth other competing theories such as Intelligent Design.

    Actually, this is a huge no no, since competing arguments complicate your case. For example: intelligent design is not a fact, it's an unsupported hypothesis. So technically they'd need to create a whole other argument for the dependability of the hypothesis before they could resort to incorporating it into their prior argument for God.

    Strangely enough, religious apologists like to use straw-men and ad hominems more than any other genre of writing. Which shows the weakness of their case and lack of understanding the other side's position, as I mentioned. Meanwhile they constantly appeal to those who already believe in their proposition, and making the blanket claim that Christian values are everyone's values. So instead of appealing to others' values, they set their own as the default standard, and then appeal to that.

    Instead of proper refutations the apologist will either offer further denials or else try and reverse the burden of the proof by stating that you can't disprove God.

    However, this takes them outside of their original thesis statement, that God exists. Which means they have to argue back to their position in reverse. They normally do this by denying everything the opposition states and restating their position as the default one, sometimes through counterarguments which derail both sides if it's a bad counterargument, and circular reasoning takes over so they can get back to their initial thesis in order to restate it, God exists. After which they feel their case is solid, and they claim victory.

    This is why religious apologetics is so weak and feeble when it comes to offering good defenses, or plain old arguments for that matter, for the existence of God. Mostly because they're only pseudo-arguments rather than fully developed well thought out arguments.

    I just thought I'd get that off my chest.

  3. This is excellent. Basically, anyone who completed high school should be able to critically construct a basic rhetorical argument. Adding education should just refine the depth and complexity of the argument that you are posing.

    The other issue that you might want to address is how to determine credibility of sources, and how information is selected and extracted during the canonization process. Most religious people that I experience lack critical awareness of the sources that they are citing. This is just as vital to the process.

  4. Actually, I feel that finding credible sources is part of the research process. Many Christians, and believers, just don't do that much research on their subject matter.

    If they quote anything they tend to be apologetic works by just a handful of apologists (most of them aren't even professionals in the field they write about). I can't tell you how many times someone has asked me to read a Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, or J.P. Holding.

    If I even hear these names I ask them to read some real books. But even full fledged historians loose points in my book, because they let their preconcieved biases ruin their objectivity. Norman Geisler's apologetics When Skeptics Ask series and I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist make me think he's never even considered the atheist position in the first place--the thing is--I know he has. So he's doing the whole appeal to Christian morality thing that I mention above, and that's his whole argument!

    So I think citing sources and having adequate reference material is part of the research and formality of supporting your argument. I didn't mention it in detail because without it you could have no argument--it would just be opinion. Which is much of what apologetics is.

  5. That is the thing. I have found, and it has been most useful, that many of them have an opinion. Then, they construct very loose arguments from their opinions and their sources are not feasible. When, it should have been the opposite, read, develop opinions, present material. It is interesting. Which makes me wonder how many of them would actually come out of the real research process with their faith still intact. Even though I would not say I had much faith to start, I certainly had no semblance of it after all of the research had sunk into my brain. Can it really be that easy?


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist