In this tutorial I’m going to review the minimal five-part structure that an essay has to have to qualify as a good argumentative essay, and talk a bit about strategies for organizing this structure on the page.
Now, by “minimal” I mean that any good argumentative essay is going to have at least these five elements or parts. They can have many more parts, but they can’t have any fewer.
As we’ve seen, an essay will have at least these three parts, an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. We’ll talk more about what should go into the introduction and the conclusion later. Here I want to focus on the main body of the essay.
The main body is obviously going to include the main argument of the essay. This is the argument that offers reasons in support of the main thesis of the essay.
Now, technically we could stop right here. We’ve got an essay and we’ve got an argument, so we’ve got an argumentative essay, right?
Well, we’re not going to stop here. Why? Because our aim isn’t just to write an argumentative essay. Our aim is to write a good argumentative essay, and a good argumentative essay is always going to have more structure than this.
In fact, a good argumentative essay is going to contain at least three distinct arguments within the main body.
For starters, a good argumentative essay is always going to consider an OBJECTION to the main argument that was just given, and this objection is itself going to be an argument. The conclusion of this argument, the objection, is that the main argument that was just given is in fact a BAD argument, that the main argument fails in some way. It’s going to argue that the main argument relies on a false or implausible premise, or that the logic is weak, or that it fails to satisfy some other necessary condition for an argument to be good.
Why do we need to consider objections? Remember, we’re aiming for a good argument — we want our essay to give the most persuasive case possible for the intended audience of the argument. But it’s important to remember that the intended audience of the argument isn’t the people who are already inclined to agree with your thesis — that’s what we’d call “preaching to the choir”. If this was your audience then you wouldn’t need to give an argument in the first place, since they’re already convinced of the conclusion.
No, for an argumentative essay, we have to assume that our audience is the people who aren’t convinced yet of the main thesis, who are inclined to be skeptical of the conclusion and will be looking for reasons to reject your argument.
So, if your essay is going to have any hope of persuading this audience, it’s going to have to consider the skeptic’s point of view. That’s why any good argumentative essay is always going to have a section that deals with objections to the main argument.
Of course raising an objection isn’t going to help your case unless you can come up with a convincing reply to it. If you can’t meet the objection then it’ll have the opposite effect, you’ll be making the case for the opposition. So a good argumentative essay is also going to have a section where you defend your argument by replying to the objections raised.
It’s important to remember that the objection is a distinct argument, and the reply is another distinct argument. The conclusion of the objection is that your main argument is a bad argument. The conclusion of your REPLY is that the objection just given is a bad objection.
So, the main body of your argumentative essay is actually going to contain at least three distinct arguments: a main argument, an objection and a reply.
This is where we get the minimal 5-part structure. The introduction is the first part, then you’ve got at least the three arguments in the main body, giving us four parts, and the conclusion makes five.
I call this a minimal five-part structure because it’s the bare minimum that an essay has to have if it’s going to qualify as a good argumentative essay. You can summarize it by saying that a good argumentative essay is going to have an introduction and a conclusion, and a main body where an argument is presented, objections are considered and replies are offered that defend the argument against the objections.
Here’s a very important point about objections. It may be tempting to pick a weak objection, one that’s easy to refute, and reply to that. But doing this won’t strengthen your argument, because it won’t satisfy a thoughtful skeptic. What the skeptic wants to know is how you would respond to what they consider the strongest and best objections. If you can successfully refute what your audience regards as the strongest objections to your position, then you’ve got the best chance of winning them over.
So, a good argumentative essay is always going to look for the strongest possible objections to its main argument, present them accurately and fairly, and then attempt to systematically respond to those objections.
Here’s a question that my students sometimes ask me. Let’s say you’ve developed what you think is a pretty good argument, and then you come across an objection to that argument that really stumps you — it really does seem to point out a weakness in your argument, and you honestly don’t know how you should respond to it. Now what do you do? How do you proceed with the essay?
Well, if you were only concerned with the appearance of winning the argument then you might consider using a rhetorical device, like misrepresenting the objection in a way that makes it look weaker than it actually is, and then respond to that weaker version. But if you’ve been through the tutorial course on fallacies then you’ll know that in doing this you’d be guilty of a fallacy, the straw man fallacy, and more importantly, a thoughtful critic will likely see it as a fallacious move too; it may actually weaken your case in the eyes of your intended audience, which is the opposite effect of what you intended.
I think that if you’re really stumped by an objection, then you can do one of two things.
One, you can change your mind — you can accept that your argument fails, and either give up the thesis or look for a better argument for it.
But maybe you’re not willing to give up your argument so soon. In the face of a tough objection, there’s nothing wrong with saying “That’s a good objection, I’ll have to think about that.”. Maybe with a little thought you can come up with a good response. But until then, in my view, rationality dictates thatyou should at least suspend judgment about whether your argument is really as good as you thought it was. Maybe it is and you can come up with a good defense, but maybe it’s not. What you’re admitting when you can’t come up with a good reply is that you’re not in a position to be confident about that.
Okay, another question. We’ve got this three-part structure to the main body, with a main argument followed by an objection and then a reply. The question is, should this be the way you actually organize the essay on the page, with a section devoted to the main argument, followed by the objection, followed by the reply?
The answer is yes, you could, but no, you don’t have to. The logical structure I’ve given here is what people will be focusing on when they try to extract the argumentative content from your essay, but just as you can write the same argument in many different ways, you can organize an argumentative essay in many different ways that preserves the same logical structure.
How you choose to organize it will depend on a bunch of different things, like
and so on.
And some of it will come down to stylistic choices, how you want to lead the reader through the argument. There’s no one set way of doing this.
Just to illustrate, here’s an example of an alternative organizational structure. You start off presenting your main argument. You lay out premise 1 and premise 2 of your main argument, but you anticipate that premise 2 is going to be contentious for some audiences, so instead of waiting to address the natural objection, you deal with it right here. You consider the objection to premise 2, and you respond to the objection right away. Then you move on and finish the argument.
Now your main argument is presented, you’ve dealt with one objection, but maybe now you want to consider another objection, one that turns on the logic of the argument as a whole. So you raise that objection and follow up with a reply.
This is a perfectly good way of presenting the argument to the reader, even though some of the replies and objections are mixed into the presentation of the main argument. Structurally it looks like this:
This is also a perfectly good way of organizing the essay into paragraphs. Not every element in the reasoning needs its own paragraph, it all depends on context and how much actually needs to be said to make a particular point. For example, sometimes you can state an objection in a single sentence. Let’s say that the objection to premise 2 above can be phrased as a single sentence. Then it might be very natural to combine the reply and the objection into a single paragraph.
There are no set rules for how to do this, and you might find yourself adding and deleting and reorganizing paragraphs as you work through the essay, but however you organize it, the three-part structure of argument, objection and reply needs to be clear.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot here, so lets sum up.