How to write: Argumentative essays

by Gavin Meichelbock

Anyone can say that McDonald’s has the worst french fries, but knowing how to develop that claim can be hard. This is why the Peer Learning Facilitators at UCLA’s Undergraduate Writing Center, or UWC, are here to help students transform their arguments into argumentative essays.

Lola Jamin, a fourth-year student majoring in psychology, is in her third year of being a writing center employee and knows the struggles of writing a good essay. While she is now helping students develop their papers at the number one public university in the country, Jamin said she was often rejected from English honors classes in high school.

“I would be paralyzed by writing,” said Jamin. “I love writing, but just overthinking everything and insecure and all of that. So whenever students come in and they’re like, ‘Ah, I’m stressed out about this paper,’ I’m like, no, it’s okay.”

According to Jamin, when writing an argumentative essay, it is important to start with the thesis so the writer has an idea of where they are going. The thesis can and should change and develop throughout the process, but the writer should start with a general idea of what they want to argue. Jamin said that a bad thesis is too vague because it does not inform the reader about anything or make an argument they can refute.

“I always encourage people to be more specific,” said Jamin. “Think (that) a toddler is reading your thesis and they’re asking why, why, why? Keep answering … until you have more of a specific argument.”

A good thesis, Jamin said, includes a “what,” “how” and “why.” Jamin said the “what” is the point that the writer is trying to argue. Using the example of McDonald’s french fries, Jamin said the “what” could be that McDonald’s fries are bad. The how is a “how so?” or how the “what” exists, said Jamin. Continuing with the same example, Jamin said the “how” could be that the fries are soggy. Jamin said that the “why” will usually have a greater meaning as to why the writer’s argument is important. In the french fry example, Jamin said the “why” could be used to expose false advertising or the use of bad frying oil.

Once the thesis is down, Jamin said that she likes to work backward and center her hook around the most important aspect of her essay. Hooks should act as a “first things first” that tells the reader what they need to know before getting into the specifics of the essay. Additionally, Jamin said that a common problem she sees when writing a hook is the use of catchy lines or cliches to grab the reader’s attention. While these may be entertaining, it is often fluff that does not prepare the reader for the essay.

There are two effective ways to set up body paragraphs according to Jamin: deductive and inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is when the writer starts with a huge claim and uses the evidence as the nail in the coffin. Going back to the McDonald’s example, Jamin said that deductive reasoning paragraphs would start by saying that McDonald’s is the worst and then use evidence to expand on that claim throughout the paragraph.

A second way to develop a body paragraph is with inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is when the writer starts with evidence and ends the paragraph with a big claim. As an example, Jamin said that starting with the fact that more In-N-Out fries were eaten than McDonald’s fries would leave the reader thinking that people prefer In-N-Out fries. Jamin said that it is sometimes helpful to start with the evidence since it places the facts directly in front of the reader.

Moving onto the conclusion, Jamin said the writer should use it as an opportunity to take care of the reader by helping them make sense of the information. The writer should restate the main points to draw upon the wider implication of their essay and why their argument is worth the reader’s time.

Jamin said that beyond the Webster’s Dictionary cliches and vague theses, the biggest problem she sees with student writing is a lack of confidence.

“People really can do it … writing doesn’t need to be fancy. You don’t need to know big words or be impressive or flowery or poetic,” Jamin said. “Just say what you mean, because what you mean to say is important; I care about it. I just want people to believe, believe that they can do it.”

For more help on how to write argumentative essays, click here for UWC’s handouts and resources. To book an in-person or Zoom appointment with the UWC, click here.

Featured Image via Adobe Stock

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