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How can I improve my argument?

The features of a good argument in your assignments include

  • A well-defined point in the introduction that is subsequently sustained in the body of your writing or a clearly defined objective or purpose in the introduction of your report that is then crafted through the body of your report to meet the requirements of your reader.
  • The provision of a rationale for your discussion; that is, your reader knows why your argument/ position is important or why the subject of your assignment is such an issue. (This is also known as the 'so what?' test, or 'why you should care about what I'm writing' – choose your preferred parlance!)
  • A discussion demonstrating your perspective, well-integrated or well supported by the literature of your field.
  • A focus on your reader; that is, good direction to keep your reader in touch with the unfolding of your discussion.

The reader- the writer

As a writer, your job is to help your reader: that means providing sufficient direction so that your reader knows what you're intentions are, what your position is, and how you got from the beginning of your assignment to the end.

Some people focus only on showing their knowledge and ideas and getting that down on paper. They don't take the next essential step which is to write their assignments with their reader in mind. Keeping the reader in mind has two benefits: it increases the likelihood that your marker will understand what you want to show them and reward you for it. And, it also ensures you know what you're trying to say.

One way to check whether your argument is clear is to develop a reverse outline. This involves taking the first sentence of each paragraph in your draft, placing them together on a page and then reading through this outline to see whether you have a sense of the overall argument. If you do, then your reader is more likely to be able to follow you.

If you don't see your argument clearly in the outline, then go back to each paragraph and, in one sentence for each paragraph, write down what you intended the paragraph to say. Use this list of intentions to edit each paragraph, using reader direction strategies.

Writing with confidence

Example

This is an extract from a draft assignment in the discipline of psychotherapy. There are certain features about this extract that give the impression that the writer lacks confidence in what she is saying. What do you think they are?

Click here to reveal (note: when student clicks, text highlighted here in green should be bolded/ change colour on the screen)

It is difficult to measure the benefit of any psychotherapeutic treatment. Is it the client's perception of their progress, or is it the therapist's interpretation of the gains made by the client that should be given consideration, or some combination of both? If so, how do we assess which opinion carries more validity? These are some of the questions that have been raised in relation to the efficacy of psychotherapy and should be kept in mind whilst exploring the therapeutic treatments of PCT and REBT. The opinion of this author is similar to that of Thomas Kuhn, in that the best we can hope to do is to use all of the information we have available to us at this time and to bear in mind that this may or may not be the whole picture….. The approaches that therapists from both of these frameworks explore and encourage their clients to use are both constructive and sensible. The PCT approach can be seen as a more caring approach to the client than REBT. Nevertheless, REBT can certainly lay claim to being valuable I would say due to its recognition of the irrational side of human behaviour, even though the client does not receive the same level of warmth and acceptance as offered by Rogerians. In my opinion, the lack of challenges offered by the person-centred therapist could be considered one of its limitations. In order to make the client aware of a failure or incongruence on their own behalf, the therapist should be responsible for allowing this issue to be dealt with and I fear that the gains to be enjoyed from PCT may not be as long lasting as those offered by REBT. Where REBT stands to offer an advantage over PCT in my mind, is that it attempts to deal with issues on a philosophical level, however, the disadvantage appears to be the subordination of the status of the relationship between the client and therapist in psychotherapy. I feel strongly that clients who participate in counselling do so with the presumption that they will receive support and care and will not be continually bombarded with challenges and contest. This does not mean to say that clients should not be challenged, or that clients must be given total support no matter what they have done: it means that I would feel more comfortable with some type of mix of these two approaches may be more appropriate.

This approach to writing might be appropriate for some reflective journal writing as you work out what you think through the process of writing. However, in presenting your academic writing, it is important not to overstate how cautious you are about something because your writing can then appear unsure.

Don't pose questions in an academic argument; instead, answer them. See how this could be avoided in the example below. Lay out an assured argument for the reader.

The other issue is the use of phrasing such as 'in my opinion' and 'I believe'. In academic writing, an objective tone is adopted in order to reduce the impression that the piece of writing arises out of subjective perspective. This is a persuasive technique that ensures congruence between your irrefutable argument and the language used to support it. In the case of this extract, the problem is that the argument has not yet been supported and the language shows how tenuous the argument is at this stage.

Re-writing with authority.

Notice how the question raised in the draft has been re-written here.

It is difficult to measure the benefit of any psychotherapeutic treatment. The question arises as to whether it is the client's perception of their progress, or the therapist's interpretation of the gains made by the client that should be given consideration or some combination of both….

…..Nevertheless, REBT can lay claim to being valuable due to its recognition of the irrational side of human behaviour, even though the client does not receive the same level of warmth and acceptance as offered by Rogerians. The lack of challenges offered by the person-centred therapist could be considered one of its limitations. In order to make the client aware of a failure or incongruence on their own behalf, the therapist should be responsible for allowing this issue to be dealt with. The gains to be enjoyed from PCT may not be as long lasting as those offered by REBT. REBT stands to offer an advantage over PCT in that it attempts to deal with issues on a philosophical level; however, the disadvantage appears to be the subordination of the status of the relationship between the client and therapist in psychotherapy. Clients whom participate in counselling do so with the presumption that they will receive support and care and will not be continually bombarded with challenges and contest. This does not mean to say that clients should not be challenged, or that clients must be given total support no matter what they have done: it means a mix of these two approaches may be more appropriate.

Notice, too, that the tentative statements have been taken out of the piece of writing, which has had the effect of recasting the discussion as more authoritative. All that is needed now is to expand on the assertions made with evidence and support from the literature. Further illustration on Avoiding assertion is available in How can I write more academically?

See also 'Reflective discussion' with How do I integrate my experience into my assignments? for more on supporting your point of view.

The importance of a clear argument in your assignment preparation is also illustrated in the section 'Taking a position' in How can I improve my marks?.

Further guidance

  • See What does being more 'critical' mean? for further illustration of what a good argument requires.
  • Refer to What's the difference between a pass, credit, distinction and high distinction? for discussion on the difference between a descriptive and critical level of writing.
  • See How can I use the ideas of others? for examples demonstrating the integration of literature into your assignments.
  • And, check What does my lecturer man by 'originality'? for discussion on originality and argument.

Spend some time with Writing in Language and Learning Online for further resources on writing in general, as well as writing in the following subject areas:

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In addition to tutorials and examples of student work in different disciplines, you'll also find guidance on, for example:

You can also conduct a search for further resources in Language and Learning Online by typing in argument in the top right hand corner of the site.

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