Crafting Strong Arguments
1. Specific Terms, Narrow Claims:
Be sure your thesis can be reasonably argued in the space you have. Avoid broad terms like "good," "evil," "negative," "positive," "mankind," etc.; the more specific you can be, the better. In a short essay, you cannot expect to cover how imperialism affects modernist literature, for example, or how Joyce uses language.
Compare the following two thesis statements:
The first argument is too broad: What does the author mean by "negative"? What aspects of war will be discussed? The second argument is better, offering a reader a much more specific picture of the argument that will follow.
A good argument usually offers some kind of tension that will be considered in your paper. This tension might be presented as :
Compare the following thesis statements:
The first argument is bland and offers the reader little sense of progression, contrast, or surprise. The second argument offers a sense of progression and contrast.
3. Not Obvious
In order to be effective, an argument should not be obvious. That is, it should be the sort of statement with which a reasonable, well-informed person might conceivably disagree. By contrast, if no reasonable person can disagree with your argument, then the argument is already obvious, and there's little point in writing about it.
To test your argument, negate it. That is, put the word "not" in it. If no reasonable, well-informed person can believe your negated argument, then the original argument is obvious, and it's unlikely to produce an interesting essay. The following arguments, for example, are obvious:
Both of these statements are true, but neither one makes an argument that could be contested. They simply state the obvious.
By contrast, consider this argument:
You do not need to write a far-fetched or a wacky argument; concentrate on avoiding an obvious one.
An argument is supportable if it is possible to find evidence to back it up. In literacy criticism, evidence sometimes comes from information about the author's life and historical moment, but more often it comes from the text itself - the story, poem, or play that the claim is about. As a rule of thumb, if your argument cannot be supported by observations about the text at hand, then your argument is probably not supportable. For example, the following argument cannot be supported:
Unless you are going to take a detailed look at outside information, you can't prove that Conrad wrote his novel to show that women are weak. Base your arguments on evidence from the text at hand:
In a literature paper, arguments must be literary. That is to say, they must be about literary texts, their authors, or the cultural circumstances in which they are produced and studied. They should not be about human nature in general, the state of over-all society, general claims about morality, etc. Though certainly interesting in their own right, these topics are not strictly literary. So avoid arguments such as the following:
The above claim is not really about literature, but about broader questions of morality. The following claim, however, is literary:
Both claims are in the sense about morality, but the second claim is literary, because it focuses on "morality" as it is represented in a specific work of literature.
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