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Crafting Strong Arguments
From: Writing Tips by Professor Elizabeth Outka
(printable version here)
Writer's Web

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:

  • Wilfred Owen presents the negative aspects of war in many of his poems.
  • In the poem "Strange Meeting," Owen's speaker descends quickly into Hell, a journey that nevertheless bares traces of a dark quest; when he meets what is essentially an embodied voice, the speaker (and the reader) find an unexpected source of bitter enlightenment, one that moves from exposing harsh truths about war to revealing the speaker's own complicity in that darkness.

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.

2. Tension:

A good argument usually offers some kind of tension that will be considered in your paper. This tension might be presented as :

  • a progression (e.g., "while at the start of the novel, X is true, by the end of the novel, Y seems dominant")
  • a contrast (e.g., "Both characters confront the evils of imperialism, but Kurtz is finally destroyed by his own complicity, while Marlow survives...")
  • a surprise (e.g., "while the narrator at first appears to be X, close attention to Y suggests an alternative reading...")

Compare the following thesis statements:

  • In Greene's The Power and the Glory, the narrative voice has several moods.
  • In Greene's The Power and the Glory, the narrative voice is infused with the desolation and confusion experienced by the priest. As the story unfolds, the voice follows the priest's inner thoughts, shifting from his vague attempts to reestablish his identity, to his memories of his past life, to his own religious struggles. These shifts suggest...

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:

  • Conrad writes about a man who sees the effects of imperialism.
  • Yeats often uses natural imagery in his poems.

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:

  • In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway uses the central relationship between Henry and Catherine to reveal the subtle ways that traumatic experience may alter ideas of romantic exchange. From the courtship to the birth of their child, the two characters move from...

You do not need to write a far-fetched or a wacky argument; concentrate on avoiding an obvious one.

4. Supportable

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:

  • Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness to show that women in his society were weak, and that he himself would not want to be married to someone as naive as Kurtz's Intended.

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 Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Conrad details the profound ignorance of the two "civilized" women: Marlow's aunt and Kurtz's Intended. The aunt embraces the imperialist rhetoric without any knowledge of the Congo or the Company's activities, while the Intended remains firmly and stubbornly misguided about Kurtz's character and actions.

5. Literary

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 narrator deserves his suffering because he acted immorally to many people, and immoral people deserve the punishment they receive.

The above claim is not really about literature, but about broader questions of morality. The following claim, however, is literary:

  • In these three poems, the writer suggests a subtle redefinition of Christian notions of redemption and salvation, repeatedly suggesting that both in soldier's "sins" and his sufferings offer a redemption unavailable to more conventionally "pious" observers.

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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