3 Chapter 3: Building a Basic Argument
Arguments are formed of many different components, frequently involving the use of evidence to support claims. However, there are typically only five pieces to an academic argument, and almost any sentence in a college-level paper should serve on of the following roles.
The purpose of an argument—the central idea on which the rhetor is attempting to change the mind of the receivers—is the primary claim of the argument. Often, a primary claim is called a thesis statement, although not every thesis-based approach is created equal. Additionally, while thesis statements frequently come in the beginning of the paper, some academic writing places its primary claim later in the work.
Overview: The primary claim in an argument tells us the nature and scope of that argument. Most importantly, it determines its receivership. For example, an argument that “the death penalty should be abolished” is not written for those that already dislike the death penalty. Instead, this argument needs to reach out to those that support the death penalty. In other words, coming up with a primary claim tells a writer who he or she is arguing with. A paper that asserts “North America is not the same continent as Australia” has no place in academic writing, because very few people would disagree. An argument is only appropriate to an academic paper if there are people who might disagree and who might do so for understandable reasons.
Application: In academic writing, ideally, the primary claim emerges only after research has been done and the student knows what evidence is available. This is because the argument should be the conclusion of the critical thinking process. A student should begin with a topic, and then the student should decide two things: what arguments exist regarding the topic and which position is best supported by the available evidence. Constructing arguments from the evidence is usually a lot more educational than constructing an argument from personal opinion.
One of the advantages from a research-first approach is that it means students will become informed about their subjects and about those with a variety of beliefs before they begin writing. In other words, they get a head start on understanding their audiences.
What to Avoid: While many students will have been taught to come up with a thesis statement first, with the next stage to be looking for sources to support that thesis statement, all this really does is reinforce whatever biases or prejudices the student had in the first place. For example, if Student A were to begin a paper thinking that “speed limits should be raised” and were then to go out and just find a handful of sources that agree, then the student has not learned anything. All that has happened is the student has shown that a few other people agree. With more than 7 billion people on the planet, finding a few friends might be nice, but it’s not really educational.