How to Write an Argumentative Essay

Please consult the following guidelines throughout the preparation of your essay. I am open to other formats, but these must be discussed with me in advance. The checklist, which you fill out, sign, and turn in with your paper, helps remind you of these guidelines.

The first set of guidelines below is in the form of questions. In the best essays every question could be answered "yes.

1.     Is your essay addressed to the precise topic? Do you see the topic as posing a complex problem without an easy answer? (If not, you should probably choose another topic.)

2.     Do you clearly state your position (central thesis)? Do you precisely state it in one sentence in either the last sentence of your first paragraph or in your second paragraph? Does everything in your essay in some way relate to this central claim? Do you show exactly how it relates? Have you mercilessly deleted everything that does not really relate?

3.     Do you begin your next paragraph with a statement of your first argument for your position? Does the first sentence of this paragraph state what this first argument is, not just what it is "about"? Does the rest of that paragraph develop the idea expressed in the argument? Does everything in this paragraph involve a development of this exact argument?

4.     Does your next paragraph begin with a statement of an objection to your first argument? Are you careful to be sure that your objection is specifically an objection to the argument you just offered and not an objection to your general position? (There is a place for these objections later; see item 6 below.) Is this the strongest objection you can think of? Does the rest of your paragraph develop that objection to the point where a reader can see why a thoughtful person might believe it? Are you careful to phrase the paragraph so that the reader knows that it is in fact an objection, not a claim that you support (in conflict with the previous paragraph)?

5.     Does your next paragraph offer a response to the objection? Does the first sentence of the paragraph state exactly what the response is? Does the rest of the paragraph develop that response? Is the response much more than a restatement of the original argument? Does it support the original argument, taking into account the objection?

6.     Does the remainder of your essay adhere to this format of presenting specific arguments, objections, and responses? Optional: do you discuss and respond to an objection to your overall position (after discussing each of your individual arguments in the argument-objection-response form)?

7.     Do you have a concluding paragraph that briefly ties together what you have done in your essay?

8.     Does your essay take into account all relevant arguments from the texts? Is your essay rooted in these texts? Does it cite exact page numbers right in the place in your essay where you use the source? (This is instead of or in addition to a general bibliography at the end. You need the general bibliography mainly if you consult other works but you have not used a specific idea from them.)

9.     Have you worked over your sentences to be sure that they are clear, precise, and grammatical? Have you used a dictionary? Have you proofread for errors?

10.  Did you really have to wrestle with the issues when writing your paper? Were you ever tempted to think that the opposing position might actually be the stronger one? Do you consider the topic more complex now than before you wrote the essay?

Summary of the Recommended Format for Major Essay

1.     Statement of your position (thesis) either at end of short introductory paragraph or in a separate second paragraph of its own, following your introductory paragraph.

2.     First argument for your position. [Generally, the very next paragraph.]

3.     Objection to first argument for your position.

4.     Response to objection to first argument for your position.

5.     Second argument for your position.

6.     Objection to second argument for your position.

7.     Response to objection to second argument for your position.

8.     (Optional) Objection to position.

9.     (Optional, but required if #8 included) Response to objection to position.

10.  Short concluding paragraph.


There may be more than 2 arguments (but probably not more than 3). There may be more than one objection to your position. There may be several responses to one objection. Or several objections to one argument. (If so, a response should be given immediately after each objection.) A good, probing essay will usually need at some point to follow a response to an objection with an objection to that response, and then there will be a response to that further objection. This might even continue for several "rounds." Think of this as like a good, probing conversation. Come in and discuss an outline or draft.

Most Common Problems to Avoid: Grade-lowering minefields to avoid (from past experience)!

1.     Trying to discuss too many arguments and not discussing any in depth. (Limit yourself to the strongest arguments and the strongest objections.)

2.     Not using specific arguments from the articles in the text. Taking into account all relevant arguments from the text is essential. (These need not and usually should not be directly quoted, but exact page references must be given each time an idea is derived from a source, including our text.)

3.     Beginning an argumentative paragraph with something other than a statement of the argument. Example: "My second argument revolves around the issue of privacy." My comment will be "What IS the argument?" First state exactly what the argument is in one clear sentence. Then go on to discuss it. The exact same thing applies to objections and responses. Your first sentence should state what the objection or response is.

1.     Not choosing strong objections or not developing the objection well enough to show why a thoughtful person would hold it. If a case cannot be made for the objection to the extent that one can see why a thoughtful person might hold it, then it is not an objection worth raising. Each objection should be developed in a paragraph of its own.

2.     Having a response that just repeats the original argument. The response should support the original argument, taking into account and responding to the exact objection raised.

3.     Using as an objection to an argument for your position something that is really a criticism of the general position rather than a criticism of the specific argument that was just given. Sometimes an objection could be looked at either way. If so, just show in your wording why it can be considered the way you have chosen to regard it.

4.     Note this one especially. Not making it clear what is an argument for your position and what is an objection. This kind of essay reads as if it is just contradicting itself, giving one argument in one paragraph and then an opposing argument in the next. Use transitions to make it clear to your reader what is happening in the essay. A transition might be something like "A possible objection to this argument is that..."

5.     Common mistakes: argument (not "arguement"); existence (not "existance"). Unless you mean "it is," there is no apostrophe in "its." There is no such word as "irregardless." You probably mean "regardless."

6.     Minor but worth mentioning: Don’t refer to what an author “feels.” (You don’t know and it doesn’t matter.) Say what authors “claim,” “argue,” “assert,” etc. Don’t refer to every claim or argument (yours or an author’s) as a “theory.” A theory is more than just a claim.

You must document!

You must document every idea you use, whether you quote it or not, whether you use it directly as you found it or modify it, whether you are endorsing it or arguing against it. If the source is not required reading for this class, you must use a regular footnote. If the source is one of the required readings, it is sufficient for you to put the author and page number in parenthesis in the text of your paper; e.g.: (Mill, pp. 64-65). In a complete reference, book titles are underlined or italicized, while titles of articles are in quotation marks (not underlined).

Important Warning and Protection

If you have in mind doing something risky and differentoriginal and brilliant, you hope, but not exactly following these instructions, talk to me first. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Matters of form  (Not following these is a clear sign that you have ignored the instructions)

1.     Please type/computer-print, double or 1.5 spacing. (In Microsoft Word: Ctrl-A selects everything, then Ctrl‑2 double-spaces.) Use your best quality, most readable font, at least 12 point, and leave margins wide enough for comments. For most classes: include the required checklist, filled out and signed. “Checking something” you have not done is heavily penalized. For major essays, include a title.

2.      Please number your pages (so my comments can refer to particular points in your essay).
In Microsoft Word: click on menu item Insert, then Page Numbers.

3.     Please staple pages together at the upper left-hand corner. (Never just fold the edges together!) Do not put your paper in any kind of folder or binder.

4.     Always retain a separate copy of your finished essay in case your paper is misplaced or stolen. (This is more likely to happen if you hand in your paper at a time different from others in the class.)

5.     Know what plagiarism is in all its forms—ask ask questions if in doubt—and realize that in fairness to all students, any cases of cheating will be dealt with very harshly. (See syllabus.) Always be prepared to defend your essay orally. You may be asked to discuss your paper orally for many reasons; this is not necessarily an accusation of plagiarism.

6.     Late papers will be accepted until the next class session with a reduction in grade; usually ½ grade. (An A, which is recorded as 11, would become 10.5, which is halfway between an A and A-.) Also, I will not read late papers until I have read on-time work in all my classes, so there may be a very substantial delay in returning late papers. Papers due in the last 2 weeks of class must be on time if you wish to be sure of receiving a course grade. If your printer breaks down, email your paper first, to meet the due date, and then print it later. (In a pinch, give me the file on a flash drive that I can return to you.)

7.     If you "find yourself" in the unfortunate position of still working on or finishing up your paper at the last minute, please do not avoid class on the day the paper is due. (It's going to be late either way since papers are due at the beginning of class.) Come to class and take the time later to finish writing and proofreading your paper.

8.     Never turn in two different writing assignments at the same time since a major purpose of writing assignments (or outlines or prospectuses) is for you to learn from the comments on your earlier effort(s). For my part, if your first assignment is on-time, I will always return it with comments well before your second one is due (or postpone the due date).

9.     If a paper is sloppily presented and clearly not proofread, it is not finished. It will be returned to you for completion, and you will need to turn it in as a late paper. (I’m reasonable: I’m not going to return your paper because there is a typo or missing comma.) Take the time to proofread with a dictionary. If you have a computer spell-checker, use it; however, be aware that doing so does not replace careful proofreading.

10.  Take advantage of office hours to discuss outlines or first drafts of your essay. Have these typed or written legibly if you want me to read them (which is usually the idea!). Come at a point when you still have time to make some substantial revisions. Expect to be challenged. The worst thing that can happen (not usual) is that I tell you that your paper is totally on the wrong track. But that’s still good news: you didn’t turn it in.  With further work, your final paper will be much more likely to be a good one, which means it should earn a higher grade. (I will even help you with some of that work.)

11.  Always feel free to talk over any problem you may be having in writing your paper. Remember, the whole purpose of papers is to help you learn.