By John Lynskey
As a PhD student, forming an original argument has been an essential part of constructing my research. I still recall my early days of undergraduate study when I realised my secondary education had not quite prepared me for the rigours of university learning. Professors and tutors expected essays and other assessments that contained developed, effective, and persuasive arguments—and they did not show me how to write them. Once I developed my skills in this area, it became a lot easier to write these assignments and achieve academic success.
In a majority of your university essays, you will need to make some claim or “argument” and support this claim with secondary evidence. This will allow you to show the reader (usually your professor or tutor) your viewpoints on a subject and how well you can engage with the topic being discussed. Instructors might already assume you already know this and therefore might not explain the importance of having a valid argument in your essay.
Having worked as an undergraduate tutor during my PhD, I have quite an insider’s knowledge of what some professors and tutors might look for when assessing written work. When an assignment lacks a valid argument and presents a mere statement of facts, I tend to give this student a lower mark than an assignment that does the opposite. But never fear! The following are some guidelines to help you form an argument when writing an essay or assignment to achieve a higher mark.
Make your argument
When you begin to write your essay or assignment, ask yourself “What is the point I am trying to make?” The answer to this could be your argument or thesis statement. A thesis statement is the main declaration of your argument, usually presented in a single sentence near the beginning of your essay in the introduction. This is the roadmap of your essay, as it tells the reader the exact argument you will make and its significance.
The claim you make in your argument should be clear and straightforward, using clear and concise language and structure.
Take the following as an example. Say your argument is about the effects of pollution on changes in the environment and global warming. You want to give exact reasons for making such a claim.
Bad example: “Global warming has had a negative impact on the environment.”
This claim is very broad and vague. You need to give more specific detail about exactly what you will argue.
Good Example: “The effects of global warming have negatively affected the environment, specifically in changing weather patterns and temperatures across the globe.”
This claim is much stronger. It gives specific ways in which global warming has negatively affected the environment and informs the reader of the precise claim you will be making. You should then engage with this topic and prove your claim with relevant evidence.
When marking an essay, instructors are usually on the lookout for two things in your argument:
Proof that you understand the material
A demonstration of your ability to engage critically with the material
By making a valid and clear argument, you are showing your marker you understand what they have taught on the course and that you can think and write critically about the subject.
Structure your argument
A clear argument also gives your essay structure. To present this argument efficiently, you also need to structure your essay in a way that presents your argument most clearly. Most great argumentative essays should have the following structure:
Introduction: This is one of the most important parts of your essay. It should outline the topic, provide background information necessary to understand your argument and outline the evidence you will present and state in your claim.
Thesis Statement: This should be in the first paragraph of your introduction. It is, as described above, a one-sentence summary of your key point or claim.
Body paragraphs: The remaining paragraphs of your essay should give exact evidence to support your argument. Each body paragraph should cover a different idea or piece of evidence that explains why the reader should agree with your claim. In body paragraphs, back up your claim with examples, existing research, analysis, statistics, and in-text citations. This helps you add credibility to your argument.
Conclusion: This is one paragraph at the end of your essay that restates your claim and summarizes the argument you made in your body paragraphs. Be sure not to introduce new facts and arguments but provide an ending to the claim you have been making.
Support your argument
Supporting your argument with secondary sources and existing research not only shows that you can critically engage with the topic at hand but that your argument has strength. Every academic field has slightly different requirements for acceptable evidence, so familiarise yourself with arguments in your field rather than just applying the evidence you like best. You could pay close attention to your textbooks and your instructor’s lectures to see what type of evidence and argument is being used.
Finding appropriate evidence usually involves critical reading and research outside of your coursework. Your instructor might present additional readings in your course syllabus that might be of use, or you could perform a deep dive into your university’s library catalogue. Google Scholar can also be a useful resource, but always remember to check if your source is from a reliable academic publisher or journal that has undergone peer review. NEVER cite sources from Wikipedia, for instance, as anyone with a computer can edit and add information to a Wikipedia page.
When citing a secondary source to support your argument, make sure that all words, data, or research that you reference are cited with relevant in-text citations and a bibliography. Preferred citation styles vary between subject areas and countries, so always check with your instructor or tutor about what citation style to use if this is not clear. The most common citations styles are:
MLA (Modern Languages Association) style, typically used in the Humanities
APA (American Psychological Association) style, typically used in Education, Psychology, and Sciences
Harvard style, also typically used in Sciences
Chicago/Turabian style, typically used by Business, History, and the Fine Arts
Be sure to use a consistent citation style throughout your essay. Remember that any words taken from the work or research of others (i.e. not your own words) need a proper citation, or you could face a failed mark for plagiarism.
Finally, do not worry if you feel as though your argument is changing and developing as you write your essay. This is very common in academic writing. Just be sure to change your claim or thesis statement accordingly so that it matches the rest of your essay. Most of all, try to write about something that interests you or that you are passionate about (if at all possible). It will make forming your argument and writing your essay a lot easier!
John Lynskey is a PhD researcher in Film Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He received an MPhil in Literatures of the Americas from Trinity College, Dublin, as well as an MA in Film Studies from University College Dublin. He has presented his work at numerous conferences, including Cine-Excess and Film-Philosophy, and acted as the conference co-organiser for Don’t Look: Representations of Horror in the 21st Century. His research interests include cult cinema, queer audiences, horror cinema, and cinema spectatorship.