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Preparing an Argument Essay

Choosing a Topic, Focusing an Argument, and Planning an Approach


What are the hot issues now being debated among your friends online or at your school: a new course requirement? a revision of the honor code? a proposal to construct a new recreation center or shut down a notorious nightspot?

As you think about possible topics for your argument assignment, consider issues being discussed by columnists in the local newspaper or by your classmates in the snack bar. (Also consider the suggestions at 40 Writing Topics: Argument & Persuasion.) Then prepare to explore one of these issues, examining both sides of the argument before you outline your own position.

Discovering an Issue to Argue About

Probably the best way to get started on an argumentative essay, whether you're working on your own or with others, is to list several possible topics for this project. Jot down as many current issues that you can think of, even if you haven't yet formed strong opinions about them. Just make sure that they are issues--matters open to discussion and debate. For example, "Cheating on Exams" is hardly an issue: few would dispute that cheating is wrong. More controversial, however, would be a proposal that students caught cheating should automatically be dismissed from school.

As you list possible topics, keep in mind that your eventual goal is not simply to vent your feelings on an issue but to support your views with valid information. For this reason, you might want to steer clear of topics that are highly charged with emotion or just too complicated to be dealt with in a short essay--topics such as capital punishment, for instance, or the war in Afghanistan.

Of course, this doesn't mean that you have to restrict yourself to trivial issues or to ones that you care nothing about. Rather, it means that you should consider topics you know something about and are prepared to deal with thoughtfully in a short essay of 500 or 600 words. A well-supported argument on the need for a campus child-care center, for instance, would probably be more effective than a collection of unsupported opinions on the need for free, universal child-care services in the United States.

Finally, if you still find yourself at a loss for what to argue about, check out this list of 40 Writing Topics: Argument and Persuasion.

Exploring an Issue

Once you have listed several possible topics, select one that appeals to you, and freewrite on this issue for ten or fifteen minutes. Put down some background information, your own views on the subject, and any opinions you have heard from others. You might then want to join a few other students in a brainstorming session: invite ideas on both sides of each issue you consider, and list them in separate columns.

As an example, the table below contains notes taken during a brainstorming session on a proposal that students should not be required to take physical-education courses. As you can see, some of the points are repetitious, and some may appear more convincing than others. As in any good brainstorming session, ideas have been proposed, not judged (that comes later). By first exploring your topic in this way, considering both sides of the issue, you should find it easier to focus and plan your argument in succeeding stages of the writing process.

Proposal: Physical Education Courses Should Not Be Required

PRO (Support Proposal) CON (Oppose Proposal)
1. PE grades unfairly lower the GPAs of some good students 1. Physical fitness is a critical part of education: "A sound mind in a sound body."
2. Students should exercise on their own time, not for credit. 2. Students need an occasional break from lectures, textbook, and exams.
3. School is for study, not play. 3. A few hours of PE courses never hurt anybody.
4. One gym course can't turn a poor athlete into a good one. 4. What good is improving your mind if your body is going to pieces?
5. Do taxpayers realize that they are paying for students to bowl and play badminton? 5. PE courses teach some valuable social skills.
6. PE courses can be dangerous. 6. Most students enjoy taking PE courses.
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