Crafting Strong Arguments
From: Writing Tips by Professor Elizabeth Outka
(printable version here)
1. Specific Terms, Narrow Claims:
Be sure your thesis can be reasonably argued in the space you have. Avoid broad terms like "good," "evil," "negative," "positive," "mankind," etc.; the more specific you can be, the better. In a short essay, you cannot expect to cover how imperialism affects modernist literature, for example, or how Joyce uses language.
Compare the following two thesis statements:
- Wilfred Owen presents the negative aspects of war in many of his poems.
- In the poem "Strange Meeting," Owen's speaker descends quickly into Hell, a journey that nevertheless bares traces of a dark quest; when he meets what is essentially an embodied voice, the speaker (and the reader) find an unexpected source of bitter enlightenment, one that moves from exposing harsh truths about war to revealing the speaker's own complicity in that darkness.
The first argument is too broad: What does the author mean by "negative"? What aspects of war will be discussed? The second argument is better, offering a reader a much more specific picture of the argument that will follow.
A good argument usually offers some kind of tension that will be considered in your paper. This tension might be presented as :
- a progression (e.g., "while at the start of the novel, X is true, by the end of the novel, Y seems dominant")
- a contrast (e.g., "Both characters confront the evils of imperialism, but Kurtz is finally destroyed by his own complicity, while Marlow survives...")
- a surprise (e.g., "while the narrator at first appears to be X, close attention to Y suggests an alternative reading...")
Compare the following thesis statements:
- In Greene's The Power and the Glory, the narrative voice has several moods.
- In Greene's The Power and the Glory, the narrative voice is infused with the desolation and confusion experienced by the priest. As the story unfolds, the voice follows the priest's inner thoughts, shifting from his vague attempts to reestablish his identity, to his memories of his past life, to his own religious struggles. These shifts suggest...
The first argument is bland and offers the reader little sense of progression, contrast, or surprise. The second argument offers a sense of progression and contrast.
3. Not Obvious
In order to be effective, an argument should not be obvious. That is, it should be the sort of statement with which a reasonable, well-informed person might conceivably disagree. By contrast, if no reasonable person can disagree with your argument, then the argument is already obvious, and there's little point in writing about it.
To test your argument, negate it. That is, put the word "not" in it. If no reasonable, well-informed person can believe your negated argument, then the original argument is obvious, and it's unlikely to produce an interesting essay. The following arguments, for example, are obvious:
- Conrad writes about a man who sees the effects of imperialism.
- Yeats often uses natural imagery in his poems.
Both of these statements are true, but neither one makes an argument that could be contested. They simply state the obvious.
By contrast, consider this argument:
- In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway uses the central relationship between Henry and Catherine to reveal the subtle ways that traumatic experience may alter ideas of romantic exchange. From the courtship to the birth of their child, the two characters move from...
You do not need to write a far-fetched or a wacky argument; concentrate on avoiding an obvious one.
An argument is supportable if it is possible to find evidence to back it up. In literacy criticism, evidence sometimes comes from information about the author's life and historical moment, but more often it comes from the text itself - the story, poem, or play that the claim is about. As a rule of thumb, if your argument cannot be supported by observations about the text at hand, then your argument is probably not supportable. For example, the following argument cannot be supported:
- Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness to show that women in his society were weak, and that he himself would not want to be married to someone as naive as Kurtz's Intended.
Unless you are going to take a detailed look at outside information, you can't prove that Conrad wrote his novel to show that women are weak. Base your arguments on evidence from the text at hand:
- In Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Conrad details the profound ignorance of the two "civilized" women: Marlow's aunt and Kurtz's Intended. The aunt embraces the imperialist rhetoric without any knowledge of the Congo or the Company's activities, while the Intended remains firmly and stubbornly misguided about Kurtz's character and actions.
In a literature paper, arguments must be literary. That is to say, they must be about literary texts, their authors, or the cultural circumstances in which they are produced and studied. They should not be about human nature in general, the state of over-all society, general claims about morality, etc. Though certainly interesting in their own right, these topics are not strictly literary. So avoid arguments such as the following:
- The narrator deserves his suffering because he acted immorally to many people, and immoral people deserve the punishment they receive.
The above claim is not really about literature, but about broader questions of morality. The following claim, however, is literary:
- In these three poems, the writer suggests a subtle redefinition of Christian notions of redemption and salvation, repeatedly suggesting that both in soldier's "sins" and his sufferings offer a redemption unavailable to more conventionally "pious" observers.
Both claims are in the sense about morality, but the second claim is literary, because it focuses on "morality" as it is represented in a specific work of literature.
Other Disciplines |Writer's Web | Writing Center | Make an Appointment | Library | Department of English
All three war poems actually describe war with a sense of irony. One thing to keep in mind as you read and analyze these poems is that, prior to World War I, war was thought to be glorious. The Ancient Greeks and Romans saw war as a chance to prove their bravery and to die bravely for the sake of a noble cause, as seen in ancient texts like Homer's Iliad. Individuals continued this line of thinking and similar lines of thinking right up to World War I. As Ammon Shepherd phrases it, the countries of "England, France, and Germany saw war as a glorious engagement. The prevailing thought by those who joined the military [at the start of WWI] was that they would be home by Christmas" ("Europe and World War I"). Shepherd further indicates that young men saw war as an opportunity to do something new, different, and challenging, simply because they were bored with their own lives: "Young men were bored with the good qualities of life so were eager to prove themselves and their new sense of national identity" ("Europe and World War I"). However, advances in war technology--"machine guns, tanks, large guns, airplanes"--made World War I unexpectedly devastating. So, suddenly, no one could continue seeing war as glorious but as rather a devastating, life-taking tragedy. Hence, all three poems were written to express the tragic irony of at first seeing war as glorious but now being forced to face the truth--war isn't glorious at all. All three poems use both imagery and diction to express the ironic contrast between thinking war is glorious and war's true reality.
In "Dulce Et Docurm Est," Wilfred Owen paints vivid imagery to show the devastation of WW I such as the image of the troops "march[ing] asleep" and the verbal warning of poisonous gas having been fired at the troops. His vivid imagery about the death and agonies of war stands in sharp contrast with the diction choices of the famous Latin saying Owen uses at the end of his poem, "Dolce et Decorum est Pro patria mori," which translates to, "It is sweet and right to die for your country" ("Dolce et Decorum Est," footnote #1). All in all, Owen is saying that if one knew how horrible war was, one wouldn't dare tell children the "old Lie" that it is glorious to die in war for the sake of your country. In doing so, he clearly expresses the irony behind the old belief that war was glorious and contrasts it against the clear reality that war is horrible.
The same irony expressed through imagery and diction can be seen in Wislawa Szymborska's poem "The End and the Beginning" as well though a bit more subtly. Szymborska uses distinct and imagery to paint the remains of a war-torn city after the war has ended, such as the phrases "push the rubble," "corpse-filled wagons," and "get mired." In the fourth stanza, we see Szymborska's first use of both diction and imagery to express irony. He uses the diction choice of "photogenic" and the image that "all the cameras have left" to show mankind's old belief that war is glorious. The cameras were at the war documenting the battle as if it was something to be remembered for all time when in reality, it's not. Hence, just like Owen, Szymborska is also showing the irony in thebelief that war is glorious and the contrast between the belief and the reality of war.
Steven Crane also uses his final four lines to show that same ironic contrast:
Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.
However, unlike the previous two poets, Crane fills his poem with imagery to paint war's glory, such as "Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment" and then ends with the sorrowful image of a mother mourning the death of her son and the satirical refrain, "War is kind," to paint the ironic contrast between beliefs about war and actuality.
Hence, if we were to write a thesis arguing the above, the following would be one possibility:
- Poets Owen, Symborska, and Crane all use imagery and diction to show the ironic contrast between the old, commonly held belief that war is glorious and war's bitter, harsh reality.