What’s your point?
Why should I care about this topic?
What are you trying to convince me of?
These are the questions that I am consistently asking my students when working with them on their essays. What’s more, I try to answer them from the perspective of my reader whenever I write, too.
I firmly believe that any piece of writing, wheher that be an academic essay, a poem, a novel, or a lab report, should lead to a clear conclusion. Readers seldom read just for the sake of it. Even fiction fans who ‘read for pleasure’ are looking for some underlying meaning. Something to gleam from from the work. The ‘moral of the story’, so to speak.
But having a point — an argument that you’re trying to advance — is more than just about giving your reader a take-away message. It can be a useful tool for keeping focus. It distinguishes between important material and that which is simply padding out the word count. And it offers a guide for structuring your piece from start to finish.
Let’s explore how this works in academic writing…
The idea of having a central argument in your writing is something I cover when working with undergraduates who are writing semi-professionally for the first time. I usually get the same three questions on a regular basis:
- How many references do I need?
- Do I just give a general introduction, arguments for the title, arguments against the title, and then a conclusion?
- What does critical evaluation look like?
Having an argument is a great way to address each of these questions.
Cite to supplement the argument — not for its own sake
References to other people’s work should not appear out of place. In fact, I often warn against describing other work in lots of detail, unless that is the point of your piece.
Seldom is a forensic analysis of a previously published piece of of work necessary, even in academic writing.
References to past literature should inform your argument. This means that you should start your writing tasks by putting the pen down.
(OK, so nobody uses a pen any more, but you catch my drift…)
By reading the literature first, you can begin to build up a picture of the broader landscape that you are writing about. Don’t think about which references you will use in your work — this is not that important and is somewhat arbitrary. We’ll come to this later.
For now, use a reference management program like Zotero to organize your reading and group together sources covering similar topics, or that make a similar point. A.P. Grayson has covered this practice nicely in a post that I’ll link below.
Remember those mind-maps that your teachers used to rave about? Now is the time to pull out those A3 sheets, put a circle in the middle, and start constructing your argument.
After reading widely, you should have started to formulate your own view about what is going on for the essay title you’re addressing. This could be something like:
- Should prisons focus on punishment or rehabilitation?
- Why do people procrastinate on social media?
- What is the best way to study for an exam?
(Yes — I teach psychology… but you can fill in your own essay title here)
Question-based titles like these are great because they force you into constructing an answer. And an answer means taking a position.
This could be something like ‘Based on my reading, I think that prisons should be focused on rehabilitation’. Or ‘The literature appears to support the view that active methods, such as teaching others, is the best way to study for an exam’.
Whatever you decide, this position is your essay’s argument. Write that in the center of your mind-map, and prepare to get colorful.
Critical evaluation ≠ finding fault
Once you have your argument explicitly written down, its time to think about how to support it in the best possible way.
There might be multiple strands of evidence that support your conclusion. In our prison example above, there may be philosophical, economic, moral, and practical reasons for supporting a rehabilitation argument over one focused on retribution. These are all important, but if your word count is limited then you may wish to only focus on one or two of these. Choose the most convincing (to you) and make this the focus of your essay.
Remember that critically evaluating is not just about finding fault with prior work. Sure, it might be a limitation that a study only used a sample of 25 undergraduates to make a sweeping statement, but we’re not focused on this here.
We care about arguments.
Think about what the opposing argument is to yours. Why might somebody favor the view that prisons should focus on punishing people? Try really hard to ‘steel man’ this view, and then write that down as a counterpoint in your essay.
You can then take apart a strong version of the argument that opposes yours, using logic and references to past literature. This type of critical evaluation — driven by your argument — is much more impressive than superficially critiquing individual research studies.
The golden thread will guide the way
Once you have your strands of evidence, counter-arguments, and push-backs to opposing views all on your mind-map, you’re ready to start writing.
Paragraph one should introduce your argument. What are you trying to tell the reader? What should they conclude at the end of your writing?
Write this down in your essay, clearly and explicitly.
By writing this down you give yourself a crutch for the rest of the essay. It is something to refer back to, to remind the reader why what you’re saying is important and relevant to your argument.
Start the second paragraph by highlighting that there are multiple strands of evidence that you could use to support your argument, but that you will focus on one of these (or two, or three, depending on your word limit) for the purposes of the essay.
You might set out this argument over multiple paragraphs, if this makes sense to. It should come naturally for you to write this if you have read enough of the literature. Don’t worry about adding the citations yet. Just highlight where they will go with a comment or other placeholder. I commonly highlight the phrase “[REF]” to mark where I’ll add a reference. I’ll then use Zotero to insert these at the end.
By not adding the references straight away, you remove the temptation to focus on the minutiae. You don’t talk about such details as sample size, because you don’t have that detail yet.
Instead, you’re writing your argument — the golden thread through your essay — that will be supported by the inclusion of key references.
Note, though, that this only works if you know that certain points can be supported by references that actually exist. And that relies on you putting in the reading hours before starting to write.
So there we have it. To summarize my top tips for effective writing:
- Read before you write
- Decide your key argument, and mind-map the various strands of evidence that could be used to support it
- Steel man your ‘opponent’ and take apart that argument
- Explicitly state your conclusion from the outset, and use this as a golden thread throughout your work
By following this approach, your work will become more integrated. More critical. And more convincing. Writing that has these qualities captures the reader’s attention and retains their focus throughout.
And, if this important for you, it leads to better outcomes in terms of grading and readership numbers.