Making an Argument
As stated earlier, the academic essay is an exercise in reasonedpersuasion. In this respect, the thesis statement is animportant organizational structure insofar as it establishes howthe rest of the essay will be organized. Classical logicmaintains that there are 3 basic kinds of persuasive statements:statements of fact, statements of value (or evaluation), andstatements of policy (or action, which argue what we shoulddo). Unless otherwise specified, the first of these, thestatement of fact, is the form that the thesis statement for anacademic essay should takethe obvious exception being whenyou write evaluative criticism (which you will NEVER do in mycourse).
Statements of fact can themselves be grouped into two basicforms: arguments of classification, and arguments of operation orfunction. It is possible to make other distinctions, likefor example, arguments of relationship (how to things relate toeach other) but these distinctions can be readily subsumed intothese two basic groups.
Following this norm allows you to cut to the chase. Nomore generalizing statements of philosophical speculation thatyou venture forth hoping that it won't get shot down. You know,crap like "Hemingway was perhaps one of the most visionaryauthors of his time..." or "The Western is perhaps themost uniquely American of all the genres..." Rather,if the purpose of the essay is to demonstrate that you haveappropriated a theory and applied it independently to produceresults, then the function of the introduction becomes morefocused: to introduce the theoryor theoreticalframeworkthat you have decided to use. Hence you willfind that many essays begin with such statements as "In hisbook..." Or, "In her essay..."
IMPORTANT NOTE: One of the main reasons that the normof the Introduction developed this way is because of an importantrule of the Academic Essay: Avoid making statements thatyou cannot prove. The problem with thegeneralizing/philosophical/BS'ing statements like "Hemingway..."and "The Western..." is that they cannot be proventhrough reasoned discourse. Moreover, to even try and do sowould require voluminous amounts of discourse for something thatis not even your thesis: what you actually ARE setting out toprove. As a result, the genre of the Academic Essay hasevolved into the above norm. It still meets anintroduction's purpose of orienting the reader, it just does soin a very specific manner.
Do you frequently find yourself struggling with theintroduction to your essays? Do you not know how to begin theessay? Do you find yourself searching for a generalizingstatement that will get things going, and trying to find adelicate balance between BS'ing and saying somethingmeaningful? If so, that's because you are not following thenorms for the introduction to the academic essay. Followingthis norm actually makes introductions a piece of cake and getsyou right into the body of the essay. Here is the norm:
Beyond that feeling that there is an audience out there, waiting breathlessly for this paper you're working on, it helps to have a clear sense of what you're trying to do for this audience. Are you trying to entertain them? That is surely a lofty purpose: writing to lighten someone's spirits is not a project to be undertaken lightly. Is your paper a matter of self-expression? Do you have opinions or feelings that you need to share with others? Are you trying to persuade others that you have a view of things that is clear-sighted, useful, and needs to be shared? Or that someone else's position is faulty, muddle-headed, or otherwise wrong? Are you trying to provide an exposition of facts or process or definition that others can take advantage of, or are you trying to persuade them of the rightness of a moral or ethical position? Do you want your audience to read your paper and then act, filled with new energy because of what you've told them? The objectivity, mood, and earnestness of your prose will be determined by this attitude or sense of purpose.
The academic essay is merely a specific writing genreasis the love letter, newspaper editorial, or pop-fiction. Asa genre, it functions within a set of norms, rules, andconventions. The purpose of this discussion is to makeclear to you what those rules and norms are, and how to use themto express your argument clearly.
The purpose of the academic essay is to persuade by reasoneddiscourse. Scholars use the essay amongst themselves toadvance ideas. Its value as an instructional tool is toassist students in developing their critical thinkingskills. As you recall, critical thinking is defined as: theability to read theory accurately, appropriate it meaningfully,apply it independently, generate results based on thatapplication, analyze the results, and form a clear argument basedon those results that can be defended with a specific line ofreasoning.
Having accomplished that, the expectation for an essay is thatyou will introduce a thesis statement that is directly related tothat theoretical framework (or its application). As aresult, a major convention of the academic essay is that:
The pressure to write is determined by the relationship between you as writer and the audience you're trying to reach and affect. Let's examine two essay beginnings with an eye toward determining the writer's purpose and how that sense of purpose establishes tone and word choice. Let's say that for a course in Art Appreciation we (there's a bit of pressure right there!) a brief analysis of a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, (c. 1558; Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm; Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels). [Clicking on the image below will call up a larger version of the same painting 179 kb, not recommended with slow connections.] As you read the beginnings, think about the relationship between writer and audience and how this might have influenced how the writer wrote as he or she did.
Tips for writing argumentative essays:
1) Make a list of the pros and cons in your plan before you start writing. Choose the most important that support your argument (the pros) and the most important to refute (the cons) and focus on them.
A banal thesis statement is a statement that does notreally say anythingit is in fact meaningless because it iseither so overly general or so evident as to not be ofsignificance. Here's an example from literature. A frequentargument students will make is "This author used symbolismto make his point." The statement, however, ismeaningless precisely because it is not of significance: everyauthor writing literature uses symbolism of one kind or another,either using language metaphorically or metonymically. Thus, toattempt to single out or make a distinction of a piece for using"symbolism" is to not say anything that even needsproving to begin with.
why you're writing. If your purpose in writing is to please your instructor or to get a better grade, that may not be enough. Many instructors devise strategies to persuade their students to write for a larger community publishing students' best work in a newsletter or online publication, asking students to send their papers to local newspapers, putting their best papers in a collection in the college library something that allows students to feel that more than one person, sitting alone at the kitchen table, is going to read this bit of writing. Knowing that there is more than one person to please, a public "out there," is a motivation in itself to do well, to communicate clearly. It will help establish, also, that consistent sense of that is so important to a paper's success.