1. A Minimal Five-Part Structure
In this tutorial I’m going to review the minimal five-part structure that an essay has to have to qualify as a good argumentative essay, and talk a bit about strategies for organizing this structure on the page.
Now, by “minimal” I mean that any good argumentative essay is going to have at least these five elements or parts. They can have many more parts, but they can’t have any fewer.
As we’ve seen, an essay will have at least these three parts, an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. We’ll talk more about what should go into the introduction and the conclusion later. Here I want to focus on the main body of the essay.
i. The Main Body
The main body is obviously going to include the main argument of the essay. This is the argument that offers reasons in support of the main thesis of the essay.
Now, technically we could stop right here. We’ve got an essay and we’ve got an argument, so we’ve got an argumentative essay, right?
Well, we’re not going to stop here. Why? Because our aim isn’t just to write an argumentative essay. Our aim is to write a good argumentative essay, and a good argumentative essay is always going to have more structure than this.
In fact, a good argumentative essay is going to contain at least three distinct arguments within the main body.
For starters, a good argumentative essay is always going to consider an OBJECTION to the main argument that was just given, and this objection is itself going to be an argument. The conclusion of this argument, the objection, is that the main argument that was just given is in fact a BAD argument, that the main argument fails in some way. It’s going to argue that the main argument relies on a false or implausible premise, or that the logic is weak, or that it fails to satisfy some other necessary condition for an argument to be good.
ii. The Importance of Considering Objections
Why do we need to consider objections? Remember, we’re aiming for a good argument — we want our essay to give the most persuasive case possible for the intended audience of the argument. But it’s important to remember that the intended audience of the argument isn’t the people who are already inclined to agree with your thesis — that’s what we’d call “preaching to the choir”. If this was your audience then you wouldn’t need to give an argument in the first place, since they’re already convinced of the conclusion.
No, for an argumentative essay, we have to assume that our audience is the people who aren’t convinced yet of the main thesis, who are inclined to be skeptical of the conclusion and will be looking for reasons to reject your argument.
So, if your essay is going to have any hope of persuading this audience, it’s going to have to consider the skeptic’s point of view. That’s whyany good argumentative essay is always going to have a section that deals with objections to the main argument.
Of course raising an objection isn’t going to help your case unless you can come up with a convincing reply to it. If you can’t meet the objection then it’ll have the opposite effect, you’ll be making the case for the opposition. So a good argumentative essay is also going to have a section where you defend your argument by replying to the objections raised.
It’s important to remember that the objection is a distinct argument, and the reply is another distinct argument. The conclusion of the objection is that your main argument is a bad argument. The conclusion of your REPLY is that the objection just given is a bad objection.
So, the main body of your argumentative essay is actually going to contain at least three distinct arguments: a main argument, an objection and a reply.
This is where we get the minimal 5-part structure. The introduction is the first part, then you’ve got at least the three arguments in the main body, giving us four parts, and the conclusion makes five.
I call this a minimal five-part structure because it’s the bare minimum that an essay has to have if it’s going to qualify as a good argumentative essay. You can summarize it by saying that a good argumentative essay is going to have an introduction and a conclusion, and a main body where an argument is presented, objections are considered and replies are offered that defend the argument against the objections.
iii. Consider the Strongest Objections
Here’s a very important point about objections. It may be tempting to pick a weak objection, one that’s easy to refute, and reply to that. But doing this won’t strengthen your argument, because it won’t satisfy a thoughtful skeptic. What the skeptic wants to know is how you would respond to what they consider the strongest and best objections. If you can successfully refute what your audience regards as the strongest objections to your position, then you’ve got the best chance of winning them over.
So, a good argumentative essay is always going to look for the strongest possible objections to its main argument, present them accurately and fairly, and then attempt to systematically respond to those objections.
iv. What If You Can’t Think of a Good Response?
Here’s a question that my students sometimes ask me. Let’s say you’ve developed what you think is a pretty good argument, and then you come across an objection to that argument that really stumps you — it really does seem to point out a weakness in your argument, and you honestly don’t know how you should respond to it. Now what do you do? How do you proceed with the essay?
Well, if you were only concerned with the appearance of winning the argument then you might consider using a rhetorical device, like misrepresenting the objection in a way that makes it look weaker than it actually is, and then respond to that weaker version. But if you’ve been through the tutorial course on fallacies then you’ll know that in doing this you’d be guilty of a fallacy, the straw man fallacy, and more importantly, a thoughtful critic will likely see it as a fallacious move too; it may actually weaken your case in the eyes of your intended audience, which is the opposite effect of what you intended.
I think that if you’re really stumped by an objection, then you can do one of two things.
One, you can change your mind — you can accept that your argument fails, and either give up the thesis or look for a better argument for it.
But maybe you’re not willing to give up your argument so soon. In the face of a tough objection, there’s nothing wrong with saying “That’s a good objection, I’ll have to think about that.”. Maybe with a little thought you can come up with a good response. But until then, in my view, rationality dictates thatyou should at least suspend judgment about whether your argument is really as good as you thought it was. Maybe it is and you can come up with a good defense, but maybe it’s not. What you’re admitting when you can’t come up with a good reply is that you’re not in a position to be confident about that.
v. Organizing the Three Parts of the Main Body
Okay, another question. We’ve got this three-part structure to the main body, with a main argument followed by an objection and then a reply. The question is, should this be the way you actually organize the essay on the page, with a section devoted to the main argument, followed by the objection, followed by the reply?
The answer is yes, you could, but no, you don’t have to. The logical structure I’ve given here is what people will be focusing on when they try to extract the argumentative content from your essay, but just as you can write the same argument in many different ways, you can organize an argumentative essay in many different ways that preserves the same logical structure.
How you choose to organize it will depend on a bunch of different things, like
- whether your audience is already familiar with the main argument
- whether an objection is going to focus on the truth of a specific premise
- whether it’s going to challenge the logic of the main argument taken as a whole
- whether you’re going to focus on lots of different objections rather than one big objection
- whether you’re going to focus more on replies to common objections
and so on.
And some of it will come down to stylistic choices, how you want to lead the reader through the argument. There’s no one set way of doing this.
Just to illustrate, here’s an example of an alternative organizational structure. You start off presenting your main argument. You lay out premise 1 and premise 2 of your main argument, but you anticipate that premise 2 is going to be contentious for some audiences, so instead of waiting to address the natural objection, you deal with it right here. You consider the objection to premise 2, and you respond to the objection right away. Then you move on and finish the argument.
Now your main argument is presented, you’ve dealt with one objection, but maybe now you want to consider another objection, one that turns on the logic of the argument as a whole. So you raise that objection and follow up with a reply.
This is a perfectly good way of presenting the argument to the reader, even though some of the replies and objections are mixed into the presentation of the main argument. Structurally it looks like this:
- Premise 1
- Premise 2
- Reply to the objection
- Premise 3
- Conclusion of main argument
- Objection to the logic of the main argument
- Reply to the objection
This is also a perfectly good way of organizing the essay into paragraphs. Not every element in the reasoning needs its own paragraph, it all depends on context and how much actually needs to be said to make a particular point. For example, sometimes you can state an objection in a single sentence. Let’s say that the objection to premise 2 above can be phrased as a single sentence. Then it might be very natural to combine the reply and the objection into a single paragraph.
There are no set rules for how to do this, and you might find yourself adding and deleting and reorganizing paragraphs as you work through the essay, but however you organize it, the three-part structure of argument, objection and reply needs to be clear.
vi. Summing Up
Okay, we’ve covered a lot here, so lets sum up.
- An argumentative essay has a minimal five-part structure. It has an introduction, a conclusion, and a main body that itself contains at least three distinct arguments.
- The main argument of the essay is a distinct argument, but you also have to consider the strongest objections that you can think of, and offer replies to those objections, and each of these are distinct arguments as well.
- The organization of the logical elements of the main body can vary. You can present a whole argument, then proceed to list objections, then consider replies, or you can consider objections and replies on the fly, as you work through the main argument. Regardless, your final paragraph structure should reflect the logical structure of these argumentative elements, however that logical structure is organized.
Sure, you’re a lover not a fighter. I am too. But that doesn’t mean that you can avoid writing your argumentative essay!
Since you have to write an argumentative essay, you might as well learn how to write it well, right?
I’ve said it time and time again—there’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Putting together an argumentative essay outline is the perfect way to turn your blank document into a ready-to-use template. All you have to do is fill in the blanks!
In this blog post, I’m going to share with you how to create an argumentative essay outline. At the end, I’ll give you a downloadable skeleton outline you can use to get started.
Structure of the Argumentative Essay OutlineIf you distill your argumentative essay outline down to its basics, you’ll find that it’s made of four main sections:
- Developing Your Argument
- Refuting Opponents’ Arguments
That’s not so bad! There’s really nothing to be afraid of.
Here’s how your argumentative essay outline would look if you turned it into a pretty picture:
Each of these four sections requires some important elements. Let’s break those down now.
Argumentative Essay Outline Section 1: Your Intro
Your introduction is where you lay the foundation for your impenetrable argument. It’s made up of a hook, background information, and a thesis statement.
1. Hook. Your first sentence is comprised of a “hook.” Don’t know what a hook is? A hook is a sentence that grabs your reader’s attention just like a good Jackie Chan movie grabs the attention of a martial arts fan.
Let’s say I’m writing an argumentative essay about why American people should start eating insects.
My hook could be, “For those interested in improving their diets and the environment, say ‘goodbye’ to eating chicken, fish, and beef and ‘hello’ to eating silk worms, crickets, and caterpillars.”
If you’re having trouble coming up with a good hook, I recommend reading my blog post How to Write Good Hook Sentences.
2. Background information. The next part of your intro is dedicated to offering some detailed background information on your topic.
Try answering the following questions:
What is the issue at hand? Who cares? Where is this issue prevalent? Why is it important?
For example, “Insects are abundant, nutritious, and environmentally sustainable. Currently, people in the United States shun the idea of eating insects as part of their diets, favoring instead less nutritious and environmentally destructive food options, such as beef and pork. The UN recently issued a statement calling for more world citizens to embrace the many benefits of eating insects.”
3. Thesis. Your thesis typically makes up the last sentence of your intro paragraph. This is where you clearly state your position on the topic and give a reason for your stance.
For example, “A diet of insects can help fix problems related to starvation, obesity, and climate change, and therefore, United States citizens should learn to rely on a variety of insects over chicken, beef, and fish as their main source of protein and nutrition.”
Notice the word “should” in my thesis statement? Using this word makes it clear I’m taking a stance on the argument.
You’ll also notice that my thesis statement sets up the three claims I’m going to expand on later: a diet of insects can help fix problems related to starvation, obesity, and climate change.
Here are even more example argumentative thesis statements.
Let’s talk about adding those claims to our argumentative essay outline now.
Argumentative Essay Outline Section 2: Developing Your Argument
Now that you have filled in the general points of your topic and outlined your stance in the introduction, it’s time to develop your argument.
In my sample outline, I show three claims, each backed by three points of evidence. Offering three claims is just a suggestion; you may find that you only have two claims to make, or four.
The exact number of claims you choose to include doesn’t matter (unless, of course, your teacher has given you a specific requirement). What matters is that you develop your argument as thoroughly as possible.
1. What is a claim? A claim is a statement you make to support your argument.
For example, “Bugs are highly nutritious and eating them can fix the problem of hunger and malnutrition in the United States.”
Great! So I’ve made my claim. But who’s going to believe me? This is where evidence comes into play.
2. What is evidence? For each claim you make, you need to provide supporting evidence. Evidence is factual information from reliable sources.
It is not personal knowledge or anecdotal.
For example, “Researchers at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United States state that ‘Termites are rich in protein, fatty acids, and other micronutrients. Fried or dried termites contain 32–38 percent proteins.’“
My outline shows three pieces of evidence to support each claim, but you may find that each claim doesn’t necessarily have three pieces of evidence to back it. Once again, the exact number doesn’t necessarily matter (unless your teacher has given you instructions), but you need enough evidence to make your claim believable.
Once you have gathered your evidence to support your claims, it’s time to add the next important element of your argumentative essay outline: refuting your opponents’ arguments.
Let’s talk about that now.
Argumentative Essay Outline Section 3: Refuting Opponents’ Arguments
In this section, you state your opponents’ views and then offer a rebuttal.
For example, “Opponents of insect eating from the Beef Council of America say that it is too difficult and time consuming to catch crickets, so it is not easy to gather enough food for a meal, whereas a cow is large and contains a lot of meat for many meals.”
Oh diss! We know the Beef Council just wants us to keep eating McD’s hamburgers and skip the cricket soup. (By the way—I just made that up. The Beef Council did not say that. In your essay, make sure to use real facts.)
Now it’s time to set the opponents straight with a refutation that is full of hard evidence and that will bring them to their knees.
For example, “According to researchers Cerritos and Cano-Santana, the best time to harvest crickets is to catch them in the hour just before sunrise when they are least active. What’s more, it is easy to develop the infrastructure to farm crickets in a way that is more sustainable than cattle farming.”
Booyah! The Beef Council has been served (crickets).
Once you have refuted your opponents’ viewpoints, it’s time to sail to the finish line with your conclusion.
Argumentative Essay Outline Section 4: Conclusion
In your conclusion, you are going to accomplish two important tasks.
1. Restate the importance of your issue. Similar to what you did in your introduction, you want to restate why this topic is critical.
For example, “Simply by incorporating insects into their diets, U.S. citizens can improve the sustainability and nutrition of the American diet.”
2. Paint a picture of the world if your argument is (or is not) implemented. In the final part of your conclusion, make your audience think about the ramifications of your argument. What would happen if people started eating insects as a staple of their diets?
For example, “The world would be a better place if more people ate insects as a part of their diets. Fewer people would go hungry, more people would get the vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients they need to live healthy lifestyles, and our planet would be relieved of the burden of an unsustainable food system.
Closing with a clear picture of the world as you would like it to be can leave your reader convinced that your argument is valid.
Download the Argumentative Essay Outline TemplateOnce you break it down, writing an argumentative essay outline isn’t that daunting.
Download this skeleton Argumentative Essay Outline to get started.
Before you go off into the sunset and use my outline template, make sure that you are following the guidelines specific to your course. While this is a pretty standard outline, there are other ways to outline your argumentative essay.
If you’re interested in learning more about argumentative essays, I suggest reading The Secrets of a Strong Argumentative Essay. Want even more knowledge? Check out this argumentative essay infographic!
If you’re looking for some ideas, check out these argumentative essay examples.
When you have your argumentative essay and outline ready to go, you can always have one of our awesome editors give it a second look.
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