What this handout is about...
This handout will define what an argument is and why you need one in most of your academic essays.
Arguments are everywhere...
You may be surprised to hear that the word "argument" does not have to be written anywhere in your assignment for it to be an important part of your task. In fact, making an argument--expressing a point of view on a subject and supporting it with evidence--is often the aim of academic writing. Your instructors may assume that you know this fact, and therefore they may not explain its importance to you in class. Nevertheless, if your writing assignment asks you to respond to reading and discussion in class, your instructor likely expects you to produce an argument in your paper. Most material you learn in college is or has been debated by someone, somewhere, at some time. Even when the material you read or hear is presented as simple "information" or "fact," it may actually be one person's interpretation of a set of information or facts. In your writing, instructors may call on you to question that interpretation and either defend it, refute it, or offer some new view of your own. In writing assignments, you will almost always need to do more than just present information that you have gathered or regurgitate information that was discussed in class. You will need to select a point of view and provide evidence (in other words, use "argument") to shape the material and offer your interpretation of the material. If you think that "fact," not argument, rules intelligent thinking, consider these examples. At one point, the "great minds" of Western Europe firmly believed the Earth was flat. They had discussions about how obviously true this "fact" was. You are able to disagree now because people who saw that argument as faulty set out to make a better argument and proved it. Differences of opinion are how human knowledge develops, and scholars like your instructors spend their lives engaged in debate over what may be counted as "true," "real," or "right" in their fields. In their courses, they want you to engage in similar kinds of critical thinking and debate in your writing. Argumentation is not just what your instructors do. We all use argumentation on a daily basis, and you probably already have some skill at crafting an argument. The more you improve your skills in this area, the better you will be at thinking critically, reasoning, making choices, and weighing evidence.
Making a Claim
What is an argument? In academic writing, an argument is usually a main idea, often called a "claim" or "thesis statement," backed up with evidence that supports the idea. Ninety-nine percent of the time you will need to make some sort of claim and use evidence to support it, and your ability to do this well will separate your papers from those of students who see assignments as mere accumulations of fact and detail. In other words, gone are the happy days of being given a "topic" about which you can write anything. It is time to stake out a position and prove why it is a good position for a thinking person to hold. Claims can be as simple as "protons are positively charged and electrons are negatively charged," with evidence such as, "In this experiment, protons and electrons acted in such and such a way." Claims can also be as complex as "the end of the South African system of apartheid was inevitable," using reasoning and evidence such as, "Every successful revolution in the modern era has come about after the government in power has given and then removed small concessions to the uprising group." In either case, the rest of your paper will detail reasons and facts that have led you to believe that your position is best. When beginning to write a paper, ask yourself, "What is my point"? For example, the point of this handout is to help you become a better writer, and we are arguing that an important step in the process of writing argumentation is...
References: Anson, Chris M. and Robert A Schwegler. The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers. 2nd ed. New York, Longman, 2000.
Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Ede, Lisa. Work in Progress. New York: St. Martin 's Press, 1989.
Gage, John T. The Shape of Reason: Argumentative Writing in College. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. [Not in UNC Libraries; Available on Writing Center bookshelf.]
Lunsford, Andrea and John Ruszkiewicz
Rosen, Leonard J. and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1997.
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