The Study Dude—Writing the Argumentative Essay

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There are four types of essays you will commonly write at a college or university: argumentative, narrative, expository, and descriptive.  Let’s examine how to write an argumentative essay.  Argumentative essays use research to support and form an opinion.  So these essays rely heavily on data-driven citations to craft a view.

As a disclaimer, some argumentative essays can be funded by lobbyists, the government, industries, or businesses with vested interests in a specific research conclusion.  That doesn’t mean, however, that you are not entitled to your opinion.  It just means that you should know it’s not ethical to publish biased views based on funding from those with vested interests.  However, some of the literature has evolved from such biased research.

So what are the differences between argumentative essays and other similar types?  First, the difference between argumentative essays and their close relatives, expository essays, is that the argumentative essay takes a side and attempts to convince, whereas expository essays should present both sides of the argument without bias.

There is also a difference between argumentative and persuasive essays, and it is that argumentative essays are opinions driven by facts and data, whereas persuasive essays are more emotion-premised.

With that said, let’s explore the structure of an argumentative essay:

First, introduce your thesis statement.  As argumentative essays are attempts to convince, they often have an overt or hidden “should” in the thesis.  For instance, you could say that “Mental health days are valuable to companies due to lower employee turnover, better workplace culture impacts, and long-term company cost-savings.” The hidden “should” is “Companies should offer mental health days.”

Second, present your claims.  Here you give your claims.  For example, you could say that “mental health days are invaluable for several reasons” and then list the reasons.

Third, support your opinion with data.  After you present your claims, find quotes in the literature that support them.  You’ll want at least one quote to support each claim, but three is even better.  For instance, one paragraph could start with your opinion that mental health days contribute to a better sense of work-life balance, and then you support it with three citations that suggest the same.

Fourth, present the counterclaim.  Here you indicate the opponents’ views.  For example, you could say, “Mental health days lead to lower productivity in the short term” and “can reflect poorly on the employee’s reputation and perceived competence.”

Fifth, disprove or invalidate opposing viewpoints.  Use research to support your rebuttal of your opponent’s views.

Sixth, conclude.  Summarize key arguments while supporting your thesis.  Also, restate your thesis.  Try to end with a thought-provoking comment or an indication of what your findings mean for the greater good.  “The widespread adoption of mental health days may not just impact corporate culture but also help alleviate stigma.”

You don’t have to stick strictly to this structure.  For example, you could combine the counterclaim and invalidation of the counterclaim in one paragraph.  Then you’d present the next counterclaim and rebuttals in the next paragraph, and so forth.

To strengthen your argument, have more arguments in favor of your view than against it.   But if your essay has no clear winner, you may want to structure your essay as follows:

First, introduce your thesis statement.  For example, you could say in your thesis, “While proponents of mental health days suggest work-life balance, employee satisfaction, and employee turnover are beneficial, opponents cite cost-savings, stigma, and ineffectiveness as critical disadvantages.  Despite this seeming duality, both sides of the argument may be in agreement when considering a long-term perspective.”

Second, present the opponent’s argument.

Third, present your argument.

Fourth, support both arguments while finding balance.  For instance, you could say the following about workplace mental health days: “Proponents of the view claim that several psychological benefits arise, while opponents of the view focus on the detriment to business cost-savings.” And then support each side without tipping the scale in favor of one over the other.

Fifth, end with a conclusion that finds a middle ground.  You could say, “Although opponents of mental health days rightfully cite short-term impacts on cost-savings, mental health days in the long term can lead to greater profitability due to the prevention of the onset of stress- and anxiety-related mental health conditions.”

Lastly, when writing your argumentative essay, ensure it’s premised on facts rather than emotions.  For example, choosing neutral words such as “Opponents of this view suggest that …” rather than, “The opponents make the ridiculous claim that …”.

But before we go: more on the disclaimer.  If you get funded by a tobacco company to give your perspective on the safety of smoke-free tobacco, consider sitting in a room filled with smoke-free smokers before committing to the study.  If your lungs can withstand the smoke, only then is the paper worth writing.

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