I. Identify an Issue
To have an argument in a formal sense, you must begin with an issue, a subject about which there are at least two clearly differing opinions. For example, “drunk driving” is not an issue for debate. However, reasonable people disagree about which policies are most likely to discourage people from driving while intoxicated. Use the following questions to determine whether you have chosen an issue worth pursuing in your writing:
1. Is the issue clearly debatable?
2. Can you explore the issue with something more than pure speculation? (Claims that can’t be verified often make for interesting philosophical discussion, but they don’t lend themselves fully to argument.)
3. Is the issue more than a matter of pure taste or preference? (An author’s own values and beliefs need to be supported in argumentative writing with sound reasoning or evidence.)
4. Does the issue avoid assumptions that are so deeply or universally held that they cannot be argued?
II. Articulate Your Stance
An argument is an attempt to resolve disagreement, not to defeat everyone who has an opinion other than yours. A good argument is positive: you attempt to persuade people to accept your opinion, but you don’t attack them for having another point of view. In order to argue effectively, you first need a clear idea of your own opinion and the reasons why you hold it. Identify particularly emotional opinions you may have about the issue(s). Rather than basing your arguments and wording on these emotional opinions, be sure you have logical reasoning, facts, examples, etc. to express and support your standpoint.
III. Focus on a Purpose and a Thesis
Try to limit the scope of your argument. If your issue is too broad, you will have a hard time covering it in a reasonable space and an equally difficult time persuading readers to agree with you. To construct an effective argument, you need to recognize your specific purpose for arguing and to focus on this purpose. Try putting your argument and purpose into one sentence. This is an early thesis statement.
IV. Develop Supporting Evidence
Supporting evidence includes: examples from your personal experience, examples from other people’s experiences, quotations and ideas from recognized authorities on a subject, technical information and statistics, data from surveys and interviews, background and historical information, and comparisons to similar situations or problems. Also be sure to recognize which types of evidence are going to be the most valid and the most persuasive for your points.
V. Recognize and Respond to Counterarguments
Traditional argumentation is like a debate: You imagine an adversary, someone who doesn’t go along with your ideas, and try to undermine that adversary’s points or counterarguments. Your point should be not so much to “win” as to acknowledge other people’s perspectives yet still try to convince them of the validity of your views. You need to also anticipate your readers’ reactions.
VI. Use Critical Thinking to Strengthen Your Argument
Try to assemble your points and supporting evidence into a valid chain of reasoning which supports your proposition (thesis). I always suggest that students stack their points so that the weakest arguments are first, and the strongest arguments are last. There may be other ways that your argumentation should be arranged, however, to provide the most coherent argumentation.
VII. Recognize and Avoid Misleading and Illogical Reasoning
1. Faulty Cause-Effect Relationship (post hoc fallacy): This type of argument suggests that just because something happens after another, the first event causes the second.
2. False Analogy: When you make comparisons between things that at first seem similar, but really are not. Example: Raising the national speed limit is like offering free cocktails at a meeting of recovering alcoholics.
3. Misleading Language/Misleading Evidence (equivocation/slanted statistics): A writer can use misleading language by beginning with one definition of a term (usually one that everyone agrees with), then shifting to another sense of the word, one that supports the writer’s argument but that not all readers may agree with.
4. Red Herring: Similar to misleading evidence, it is something that distracts readers from the real argument.
5. Ad Populum Fallacy: An argument that appeals to the audience’s biases instead of using rational support. Just because everybody seems to think a thing is so, does not necessarily make it so.
6. Ad Hominem Fallacy: Personal attack on the opponent rather than a debate on the issue. To attack the person, rather than his or her argument.
7. Bandwagon: This argument tries to convince you everyone else agrees with the idea already, so you ought to join in.
8. Overgeneralization/Hasty Generalization: Presents assumptions as if they were facts. Avoid phrases like: obviously, certainly, clearly, people always/never.
9. Either/Or Fallacy: Oversimplification of an issue, making it seem as if it has only two sides.