How to Write an Argumentative Paper

Test Your Topic

Without a good topic, an argumentative paper will fall flat, no matter how well it is executed. If you've been assigned a topic, ask if you are expected to further narrow it. If you have chosen your own, determine if it is truly debatable and realistic for your assignment. To do this, turn your topic into a question; this is your central or research question. For example, if you are writing about gun control, you might ask "Should background checks be more extensive?" or "Do gun buyback programs decrease the number of illegal guns on the street?" Then, to make sure the issue is truly debatable, determine:

  • whether or not educated, rational people disagree on the answer
  • to whom the issue matters and why, and if the consequences are significant  
  • if you  can you adequately address this issue within the space given for the assignment

You can probably provide the answers on a topic like gun control pretty easily, but less frequently discussed issues, such as whether or not there is a viable substitute for antibiotics, may require you to do some preliminary research. That will also help you make sure that the information you need is available.

Research Your Topic

Even if you already have an opinion about the topic, try to keep an open mind. The issue is likely unsettled because it is a difficult one. Smart people have thought deeply about it and come up with different solutions. Look at reputable sources representing those differing views, so you can present opposing views in your paper accurately, answer their concerns, and show why your side makes the most sense or is the best solution. How much research you need to do depends on the topic, your base of knowledge and how long you have to complete the assignment. You will probably need to know more than will actually end up in your paper so you can write with confidence and make choices about what is best to include.

Make an Outline

While you need not create a formal outline with Roman numerals, it helps to create an informal, or scratch outline, to guide you as you write. Every essay should have an introduction, a body composed of several major points supported by your logic and evidence, and a conclusion. Make sure your outline indicates what you will discuss in each of these sections and organizes the body points. A common way to organize the body of the argument is to present the opposing views first and respond to them as you present your own views. Another approach reverses that order: your argument comes first, then the opposing views, followed by your response to them. You'll also need to decide how to order the points in favor of your argument. For example, you might compare and contrast gun buyback programs in several cities before you argue how they should be run, if you advocate them. The outline will help you stay on track, but if you are inspired to add a new point or piece of evidence or to reorganize your points, feel free to change the outline.

Create an Interesting Introduction

The first sentence of the introduction needs to grab the reader's attention. For example, you may begin a gun control paper by describing a neighborhood shooting. Or you could use an interesting quote or startling statistic. The introduction is the place to give background information -- things the reader should know at the outset. Establish that there's a problem in need of a solution. While there are some argumentation styles that withhold the thesis until later in the essay, unless your instructor has asked you to do that, your best bet is to end the introduction with a thesis statement, a single sentence -- no more than two -- clearly stating your answer to the central question. Build a sense of the debate into your thesis. For instance, instead of writing "Gun buyback programs have limited impact on guns in American cities," you might write, "Despite the popularity of gun buyback programs, in order to significantly decrease the number of illegal guns on our cities' streets, we need to attack the problem's root: illegal gun trade."

Write the Body Paragraphs
Present Opposing Views

Giving voice to opposition ideas shows that you are knowledgeable and have looked at the problem from various angles. If you present opposing ideas respectfully and fully, it will also show that you are fair-minded and dealing with the issue logically rather than emotionally, so your tone is critical. Make the opposition's best arguments and use their evidence. If gun buyback programs have been wildly successful somewhere, say so, even if you plan to argue that they do not address the issue sufficiently. If you agree with some points, you can acknowledge that in the next section. Give some of the opposing argument in the exact words of people who support it.

Build Your Argument

While it's best not to refute the opposition as you present their ideas, responding to them should be a part of arguing for your beliefs. Tell readers what's good about opposing ideas and where they fall short. For instance, their solutions may create other problems, or perhaps ignore part of the problem. You might suggest that gun buyback programs give communities a false sense of security and cite gun crime that follow such events. With well-organized and well-supported points, make your argument, addressing readers' concerns as you do. Use a variety of types of evidence such as authority quotes, statistics and examples, and include more than one type per point. Introduce and cite your sources as you use them, throughout the paper.

Conclude Your Argument

End strong. Do not merely restate your thesis. In a short essay, there is no need to run through the points you've already made unless the subject is quite technical and the audience needs the reminder. Some of the same strategies you use for an introduction can also be used as part of the conclusion, such as a gripping quote or a startling statistic. The end is the time to look to the future or give a call to action. For instance, if you've identified gun trade as the real problem, you might briefly suggest how we begin addressing that problem. If you've told part of a story in your opening, finish it at the end, giving a sense of having come full circle

About the Author

From elementary school students to adults, Gail Radley has been teaching since 1991. The author of 21 books for young people, she has also contributed to "NEA Today" among other publications. Radley earned a master’s degree in English.