This article from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina explains what argument is in academic writing, why you need it, and how to go about it. It covers making claims, providing evidence for your claims, and using counter-argument. There is also a very helpful section on critical reading. It talks about techniques to help you see the arguments that other authors are making instead of taking what they say as statements of fact. This helps in critically evaluating the evidence they present and helps you learn techniques for making effective arguments yourself.
This blog post by Gordon Harvey from the Harvard College Writing Center is about counter argument in essays but the principles also apply in science writing. An important part of making your argument is acknowledging and discussing counter arguments. As Harvey says: “It allows you to anticipate doubts and pre-empt objections that a skeptical reader might have; it presents you as the kind of person who weighs alternatives before arguing for one, who confronts difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug, who is more interested in discovering the truth than winning a point.”
Evans and his colleagues discuss something they call writing defensively in their book ‘How to write a better thesis’ (p77). They are talking here about looking at your writing from a reader’s perspective and pre-emptively addressing issues that might come up. If you have not made your reasons or meanings clear, then your reader may assume other reasons or meanings and they may get the wrong idea about what you are trying to say. If you have not explained why something is important, then your reader may not care, or, worse still, may wonder why they are wasting their time reading your work. If you have not made your argument clear, or have gaps in your logic, then your reader may not believe you.
It can be hard to see your writing from a reader’s perspective, but things that will help are to
- put it aside and read it another day
- read it out aloud
- put your finger under each word as you read them so you read what you have really written
- make a reverse outline of what you have actually written and see if it makes the points you wanted to make
- remember back to what you found difficult when you were first learning about this topic and make sure you explain the things that will help your reader. Do not assume they know as much as you do about the topic – they don’t!
Other things that will help are to ask others to read it and then listen to what they say. If they think something is not clear then it isn’t. Even if you can’t see how they got it wrong, they did and it means you need to change something. And if you try to predict in advance what will be difficult for them and fix it before you give it to them to read, even better.
Evans, D., Gruba, P., & Zobel, J. (2014). How to write a better thesis (3rd ed.). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
I highly recommend looking at this book if you are writing any sort of thesis or dissertation. It is definitely worth buying but many of you will have access to it through your library either in hard copy or the E-book version.
Your research report argues the case you are making and presents the evidence to support it. Be sure to make all the steps in your argument explicit, even if they seem obvious. Here is an example of an argument that does not follow, because not all the steps are articulated.
- The dog has a high alkaline phosphatase
- Therefore hyperadrenocorticism is a possible differential diagnosis.
What is missing? The second point does not follow from the first unless you also explain that high alkaline phosphatase is common in dogs with hyperadrenocorticism. You need to say so. And hopefully you will back up this statement with evidence from the literature. Without the evidence you are just making an assertion. Another gap can happen if you present the evidence but don’t make the argument. For example,
- The dog has a high alkaline phosphatase
- Dogs with hyperadrenocorticism commonly have high alkaline phosphatase concentrations.
Don’t leave the reader to make the argument or fill in the evidence. It is your job to do this.
You can also read more on being explicit in this post here.
When we write up our findings, its easy to get focussed on presenting the facts and sometimes we forget that we have to also explain what we conclude and how the facts support what we conclude. We can’t just leave it to our reader to add up the facts. We need to add it up for them. And we need to be convincing. You need to imagine what a sceptic would say and make a case for your conclusion. It’s argument. This handout from the Student Learning Centre at Flinders University gives a good explanation of writing as argument.