Starting an Argumentative Essay

Before one begins writing an argumentative essay, it’s quite helpful to have a research question that provides a framework for further investigation. Here is one such question: In the United States, should admission to four-year colleges be based solely on one test score, as is done in China where the gaokao (pronounced “gow-kow”) exam serves that purpose?

Usually, the research question results from information gathered from previously done research. For example, one source for this article is a piece that appeared in The New York Times titled “Inside a Chinese Test-Prep Factory.” Its author, Brook Larmer, an America expatriate, focuses on the costs to the students who attend a “cram academy” in Maotanchang, China, “a memorization factory” with “20,000 students, or four times the town’s official population,” China’s version of an American college-preparatory school, excerpt the school day there runs from “6:20 in the morning” to “10:50 at night,” seven days a week with a three-hour break on Sundays.

The research question can also be used as the starting point for additional questions, such as these:

  • Why does China use the gaokao as its sole admission measure?
  • What happens if someone “fails” the gaokao?
  • What effect does it have on China’s college hopefuls?
  • What are common admission requirements in American colleges?
  • Do any American colleges only have one admission measure?

The goal at this point is to build a personal knowledge base about college admission requirements in both the United States and China—and their effects.

C. S. Lewis: Aslan of the Writing Craft

Though The Voyage of the Dawn Treader might not be the most interesting book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, of the first five books it contains the most interesting chapter: “The Magician’s Book” (Chapter 10). In it, Lucy, after accepting the invisible people’s challenge to find the magic book and recite the spell that makes the invisible visible, begins the task.

LionOnce on the magic book’s first page, to reach the desired spell Lucy must proceed through it page by page. As she was doing it I felt as if I were looking over her shoulder, seeing what she saw. One element that effected that was Lewis’ skill in varying his sentences’ length. In particular, he’s the master of the long sentence. For example, one sentence that begins on page 152 contains 86 words (if I  counted right). It’s embedded between sentences containing 21 and 14 words, not short sentences but short relative to the one between them. The 86-word sentence is an excellent example of how to keep a sentence going without any part of it feeling as if it were dragging. A factor that contributes to the sentence’s success is its parallelism, its phrases that begin with “how to find,” “how to remember,” “how to tell,” and so on. That’s one writing technique that University of Iowa Professor Brooks Landon expounds on his book, Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read, a book worthy of the attention of those interested in the craft of writing.

Finally, if you’re a C. S. Lewis fan, no movie can do justice to his writings. It’s fine to watch the movies, but not at the expense of reading the books.

Purpose of a Thesis Statement

In the typical college essay, the core element is the statement, often one sentence but occasionally more, in which the writer expresses its thesis, the point or claim that the rest of the essay seeks to “prove.” For example, in a baseball essay, a writer could claim that “in 2014 the Philadelphia Phillies will win the World Series.” The claim is but an opinion. It could come true; it might not. Further, it’s a belief on which opposing sides can be taken. Some will agree with it, some won’t. Someone who disbelieves it will happen believes this claim: “In 2014 the Philadelphia Phillies will not win the World Series.”

Hail ThesisReturning to the writer of the claim who believes in it, the purpose of the bulk of his essay will be to try to convince readers that his claim has a good chance of becoming true. He could even start that process in his claim by adding reasons to it, which create an expanded thesis: “In 2014, the Philadelphia Phillies will win the World Series because ____, ____, and ____.” Filling in the blanks, it could read this way: “In 2014, the Philadelphia Phillies will win the World Series because of the team’s hitting, pitching, and fielding.” That claim creates expectation in readers: They will expect the essay to provide information about the team’s hitting, pitching, and fielding that will support its thesis.

Those reasons can also result in the essay’s topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis, a claim that instead of applying to the whole paper applies to a portion of it: one paragraph. A possible topic sentence for the expanded thesis’ first reason is “The Phillies are the best hitting team in the National League.” The paragraph that claim begins then needs to provide evidence for its topic sentence, support that will justify the claim. The writer needs to realize that there will be readers who are skeptical, who believe instead that “The Phillies are not the best hitting team in the National League.” Even if the writer isn’t able to convince those skeptics of his claim, he should seek to get them to consider that even if unlikely, it could be possible.

Overgeneralization in Writing

Writing is about more than slapping words onto a page or screen. It’s about creating logically connected content that’s not victimized by logic errors.

One logic error that can befall text is overgeneralization, the expansion of too few instances to many in a manner difficult to justify. For example: If, after eating a Red Delicious apple for the first time, someone said, “All apples are red,” he would be making an overgeneralization. The statement was made based on insufficient evidence to support it. In contrast, if a high school baseball player who hit below .200 for three straight years says that “I’m not a very good hitter,” he is not making an overgeneralization. He’s reached a conclusion based on sufficient, factual evidence. He’s made a generalization.

Here’s another example of an overgeneralization. This season, the Mets have won only four of their first eleven games. If, based on that, someone states that in 2011 the Mets will lose more games than they’ll win, he’s making an generalization. The evidence is insufficient to support that claim.

A key factor in determining whether a statement is a generalization or an overgeneralization is the validity and sufficiency of the supporting evidence.