Expressing Hard Ideas Clearly

Revealing Your Argument

by Heather Jane McWhinney

Students often ask me what the most common problem is in academic writing. They are surprised when I don’t say subject-verb agreement, comma splice, or some other grammatical error. To be sure these mistakes can be annoying—and they will be topics of future blogs—but they are not the biggest problem. That distinction belongs to a paper’s argument or, more precisely, to the lack of it.

In the undergraduate years, factual answers to questions and descriptive essays are often acceptable. But in graduate school, students are expected to display original thought and advance a compelling argument.

An academic argument consists of an umbrella debatable claim—or thesis—supported by evidence from the literature and your own analysis.

As Ann Blair, a history professor at Harvard, puts it,

“A good thesis isn’t just describing something that happened. It’s about arguing for a position, ideally when there are multiple interpretations possible, and you choose one that matches your understanding of the evidence, and you draw out the evidence to support your argument.”  Source:­‐an-­‐argument/

An academic argument is seldom confrontational: It resembles a polite conversation between you and your imagined readers. Think of your imagined readers as skeptical and knowledgeable friends. They may raise objections or offer alternative points of view or evidence. Alternative views are known as counterarguments and evidence for these views as counterevidence.

An argument has a destination. You are taking the reader on a journey to a new place by making original connections or by showing them that they can look at something in a new way. This argument probably won’t break entirely new ground. Most academic papers make modest claims that refine existing knowledge.

These refinements might be theories, methods, or models. Maybe you are solving a problem by looking at it from a different angle or through the lens of a new theory. Or maybe you are refining a model for predicting the future climate. No matter the argument, your job is to convince your readers that you have considered every possibility.

The trouble is that often writers don’t convince their readers of anything because the argument is unclear. The source of an unclear argument might be poor organization or insufficient explanation. You might know where your paper is going, but your readers don’t.

How can you clarify your argument for readers? First, make sure you have one. How do you know you have an argument? Ask yourself if you have taken a position and if someone could argue a contrary position. Which of these statements reveals the paper’s position?

Statement 1: This paper discusses the use of transdisciplinary research in the study of river ice in northern climates.

Statement 2: Transdisciplinary research offers the most appropriate methods for studying river ice at a time when rivers, their ecosystems, and the communities they sustain are increasingly threatened by climate change.

Statement 1 is purely descriptive. The verb “discuss” doesn’t reveal a position. Statement 2 makes an argument. How do you know? Because the statement is debatable. The author could write that another kind of research offers the most appropriate methods to study river ice.

Second, keep your argument top of mind as you revise your paper. Ask yourself how every paragraph advances your argument. How, for example, does a paragraph that defines a key term advance your argument? It advances the argument because your reader needs to know your definition of this term to follow your argument. How does a paragraph about a climate model that competes with your preferred model advance your argument? By revealing the weaknesses of this model, you are advancing the argument that your model is better for predicting the future climate. If a paragraph doesn’t relate to or advance your argument, throw it out.

Third, advance your argument by talking to your readers about your paper. Lead them through your argument by making connections that aid their comprehension or by providing cues. A cue might be an introduction that provides a roadmap to a paper. It might be transition words like “first,” “second,” and “third,” which tell the reader how a passage is organized. Or it might be phrases like “in other words” and “put another way,” which indicate you are clarifying meaning. It might even be phrases like “I argue that …” or “this paper argues that …,” which leave your readers with no doubt about your argument.

A paper without an argument is like a lamp without a lightbulb. The reader is kept in the dark. Watch for future blogs about how to shine a light on your argument.

Thanks to a former student for the example about transdisciplinary research.

Heather Jane McWhinney

Heather McWhinney is a long-time academic editor and writing coach. Formerly graduate writing specialist at the University of Saskatchewan, Heather has helped thousands of students and professors become better writers. Her blog offers tips for expressing hard ideas clearly.
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