Tips for good argumentative writing
Daniel Solomon, Teaching Assistant
Department of Government, Georgetown University
Last updated 10 June 2021
In introductory undergraduate political science and government courses in the United States, professors frequently assign students short argumentative essays to (1) refine their writing skills and (2) demonstrate familiarity with key arguments in the course. These assignments are important tools for teaching and pre-professional training, but students often arrive to their undergraduate education with less training in structured essay-writing than professors assume.
This document offers a few recommendations about structuring effective argumentative essays in English---that is, medium-length (< 2,000 words) writing that involves a thesis statement or core argument, a clear paragraph structure, and a conclusion. With select exceptions, I do not offer suggestions about prose style or sentence structure. For more on these topics, consider consulting a style book such as Dreyer’s English. Although I frame these suggestions in the context of essays for coursework, the suggestions are also applicable to other forms of medium-length writing that students may encounter throughout their professional careers, such as policy memos, emails, and argumentative speeches.
Here’s a table of contents for these tips:
Introduce the topic quickly 1
The foundation of your essay is the thesis statement 2
Structure the rest of your essay around the thesis statement 2
Thoughtful illustration is often best 3
Cite, cite, cite 3
Use first-person pronouns and phrases strategically 4
If you use this resource in your own teaching or education, or have recommendations for improving it, please let me know at [email protected]. All errors and mistakes are my own.
1. Introduce the topic quickly
Why is the central question important? What are the competing arguments that scholars and practitioners advance in response to this question? The introduction should provide the reader with a guide to the topic you’re writing about; it should not provide a grand theory of the topic or trends in its occurrence throughout history.
2. The foundation of your essay is the thesis statement
The thesis statement guides the reader through your essay’s core arguments. A complex thesis statement involves a what, an explanation, and a why. Your professors aside, most readers will not read the entirety of your writing. Given limited attention spans, a reader should be able to summarize your core arguments and your evidence within the first couple of paragraphs of your essay. Policymakers---especially those with military experience---often refer to this argument as the “bottom line up front,” or BLUF.
For example, consider an essay about the growth of the welfare state in postwar Europe, a common topic for undergraduate political science courses. A simple thesis statement explaining the rise of the welfare state might read, “Welfare states grew in postwar Europe because of a growing consensus around left-wing policy options.” A more complex statement might say, “Welfare states grew in postwar Europe because the combination of (1) proportional representation systems that emboldened center-left participation in electoral politics, (2) ideological support for social protection and market regulation among dominant parties, and (3) new constituencies for welfare reinforced the strategic value of social protection policies for European leaders.”
The first statement captures the what (welfare politics) and the explanation (policy support), but it doesn’t tell you much about why this consensus emerged. The second statement also highlights that three mechanisms (why factors) contributed to this consensus: labor politics, party ideology, and welfare constituencies. This way, the casual reader comes away with a more thorough understanding of the topic than the first statement provides.
Notice that I numbered the why factors in the complex version of the thesis statement. Lists may seem simplistic, but they can be a helpful way of guiding your reader through a complex argument.
3. Structure the rest of your essay around the thesis statement
If the thesis statement is the foundation of your essay, the subsequent body paragraphs are the pillars. The statement tells the readers which arguments to expect, and your paragraphs should follow suit. Tie back each of the paragraphs or paragraph blocks to the why factors you highlight in your thesis statement. You might set up the historical or political context for your argument in the first body paragraph, but every other paragraph should link back to these why factors. If that link is missing, consider whether the paragraph needs to be in the essay, or whether you can redistribute its contents to other paragraphs in the essay.
In the welfare state example, the body paragraphs would center on the three factors you highlight in your thesis statement. (1) The first paragraph or block of paragraphs would detail the emergence and influence of mass labor politics in the postwar period; (2) the second, patterns of party ideology; and (3) the third, how welfare policies created new constituencies for social protection that encouraged these policies to persist.
4. Thoughtful illustration is often best
Sometimes, “showing” is a more effective way of arguing than “telling.” Rather than restating arguments from your readings, consider illustrating these arguments with examples that the readings discuss, that the professor has raised in course lectures, or with which you’re familiar because of reading beyond the course. Think carefully about these examples: they should demonstrate the what, the explanation, and the why in ways that a straightforward discussion of the general argument cannot. Simply acknowledging the example is insufficient; explain how it applies to the theory or explanation you’re advancing.
To return to the welfare state case, for example, an effective illustration of point (2)---the influence of party ideology---on welfare politics might describe how the principles of Catholic social teaching led Konrad Adenauer’s Christian Democratic Union to embrace public works, social programs, and market regulation as the basis for Germany’s postwar economic reconstruction.
5. Cite, cite, cite
If you rely on other authors as the basis for your arguments---you almost certainly do!---be sure to cite their work. Scholarship and argumentation are communal activities, not individual ones, and citations demonstrate that your writing interacts with and relies on ideas from others. The specific format of your citations is probably less important than their clarity. Readers should know where you acquired the information in your essay so that they can check your work, understand your influences, and explore further if your essay topic is of particular interest.
In the welfare state example, we can associate each of the three arguments with a different body of scholarship about the growth of the welfare state. For point (1), you might reference Torben Iversen and David Soskice’s (2006) work about electoral systems and redistribution. For point (2), you might reference Stephanie Mudge’s (2011) work about the shift from social politics to neoliberalism during the postwar period. For point (3), you might reference Paul Pierson’s (1994) work about welfare constituencies.
Read before you cite: it’s important not to cite just for the sake of having citations. Cite work because you’ve grappled with it, considered the author’s arguments, and incorporated them into your understanding of the topic at hand.
As you read and cite work about your topic, consider the well-established imbalances in whose work gets cited on the topics about which you’re writing. If you have the option to engage work by scholars whose work is underrepresented in your academic or professional field, spend the extra time to identify those scholars and understand how their ideas might advance or revise the (often White, often Global Northern, often male, or often cis-gender) canon of research knowledge in unexpected ways. Your work and our academic and professional communities will be better for these efforts.
6. Use first-person pronouns and phrases strategically
It’s not true that first-person pronouns are inappropriate in argumentative writing, but you should use them with care. Phrases like “In this essay, I argue” or “I collected information” are always more direct than “It is argued” or “Information was collected” because they inform the reader that the essay relies on your opinions and arguments.
At the same time, try to steer clear of “I think” or “I believe” language that may make your argumentation less direct. In informal communication such as emails, these phrases can be an effective way to qualify or soften your writing style. However, those are stylistic choices that it’s best to avoid in formal argumentative writing.
Iversen, Torben, and David Soskice. 2006. “Electoral Institutions and the Politics of Coalitions: Why Some Democracies Redistribute More than Others.” American Political Science Review 100 (2): 165–81.
Mudge, Stephanie Lee. 2011. “What’s Left of Leftism? Neoliberal Politics in Western Party Systems, 1945—2004.” Social Science History 35 (3): 337–80.
Pierson, Paul. 1994. Dismantling the Welfare State?: Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.