What is an argument?

What is an argument?

While researching for a new poem sequence, I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I found myself constructing an argument for a possible essay or article. Why did Victor Frankenstein end up creating a monster? What part was played by his education? Later, preparing writing workshops for MA Literature students and looking back over essays from previous years, the problem of argument recurred frequently in a sample of markers’ comments. Students were advised to ‘argue rather than illustrate’ or were told: ‘Your paragraphs and arguments don’t have a clear discursive shape’. Not being clear about the basic outline of the argument means that an essay lacks direction, with consequences for the quality of the writing.

Alerted to this problem, I went back to Frankenstein. Could I retrace my steps? Victor’s studies began at home in his early teens with alchemy, investigating works by Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. Entering the university at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Germany, his tutors introduced him to ‘natural philosophy’.

Constructing an argument involves identifying its main concepts, establishing their exact meaning, where they occur, their provenance and background, plus any further relevant research. This information can be presented as a concept grid.

A concept grid works well for humanities students at any level. Visualising the material helps us discover connections, oppositions, pathways and links, out of which a complex argument can emerge. The grid below is just a simplified version of what could be a spreadsheet or a message-board in an incident room. As you define your concepts and see where they lead, you will be able to take your reader with you. Under Alchemy: Content, we might enter ‘transmutation of metals, elixir of life, philosopher’s stone’, all of which are consistent with a belief in magic. ‘Natural philosophy’ – what we would now call science – would have exposed the young Frankenstein to a whole new set of procedures based upon experiment, observation and probability. Victor’s problem was not to progress from one form of knowledge to another, but to embrace them both. He had to find a way to transmute mortality, and used modern science as his means.

So what went wrong at Ingolstadt? The last two sentences above could serve as an attempt to frame the argument, with further questions to follow. An argument is a vehicle able to carry you far into your topic, opening up new spaces for exploration. Concepts clarified in detail stimulate research, generate insight, and bring to writing a ‘clear, discursive shape’.

Title: What part did Victor Frankenstein’s education play in the creation of his monster?


1 March 2017
Why is an essay like a kebab?

Why is an essay like a kebab?

A good essay is like a shish kebab. It has a handle (your introduction). It offers bite-sized chunks of nourishing meat (your main points, organised in paragraphs). Peppers and onions (evidence and quotations) accompany each chunk, in careful balance. The kebab is seasoned with salt (meticulous writing) to bring out the flavour, and a little pepper (a sprinkle of style) – but never too much. Most importantly, a skewer (your argument) holds the whole assembly together, guiding you along its length towards a sharp point (your conclusion). Once when I offered this analogy to a student, she looked at me scornfully before replying, ‘But I’m a vegetarian.’ Tofu works well too.

James McConnachie
8 February 2017

Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Paragraphs: stepping stones through your argument

Image credit: Christopher Collins

When I’m talking with students about how paragraphs function within an argument I sometimes use the metaphor of stepping stones across or along a river. I like to offer a local image when I can. Last year, teaching at the University of the Free State in South Africa, I found some great pictures of the Orange River. This year, at a business conference at the University of Bath, I used photos of the River Avon (or the ‘Riv Raven’ as we West Country folk call it) to illustrate my point.

The metaphor is flexible. Sometimes the stepping stones/paragraphs take the reader across the flow of water – the raw material out of which the essay is created – to the far bank. Sometimes the reader will step from one paragraph to the next to follow the flow of the argument down the river to the sea.

Recently, my own writing has thrown up more river metaphors. I’m writing a biography of three people who were in Africa at the time of the Anglo–Boer War. It wasn’t until I was revising my first draft that I appreciated how important a role rivers play in their stories. One of my subjects writes about sabotaged rail bridges, and having to push train carriages one by one across a narrow wooden bridge built to take ox wagons. Another describes a river choked with human corpses and animal carcasses. Both of these, I realised, work as metaphors for various stages in my own laborious writing process.

The process always involves a struggle across broken bridges and through carcass-choked rivers to produce a seamless final draft, which appears as a sweeping onward flow or a clear path of dry stepping stones. This finished stage is illustrated by the third subject of my biography, who writes of the joy and exhilaration of paddling a canoe down a moonlit river in West Africa, swooping past the menacing tree- and liana-crowded banks on either side. Now that’s an image I’d like to find and share with students in my next workshop.

18 January 2017
Encapsulate the essence of your argument

Encapsulate the essence of your argument

Writing tipsAlways ask yourself: ‘what am I actually trying to say?’ Then attempt to say it as concisely as possible. This might sound self-evident but it is often forgotten. Students get so involved in the detail of their research findings that they fail to encapsulate the essence of their arguments. My best advice, in this context, is to find a reader who knows absolutely nothing about your subject and then ask that person to read your work and explain the main argument back to you in two sentences. If they can’t, you need to clarify your main points.

Esther Selsdon
19 October 2016

Maintaining your focus

Maintaining your focus

Writing tipsIf you’re finding it hard to maintain the focus of an argument throughout your thesis or other long piece of writing, here are two exercises that might help. Firstly, answer some simple questions. What is this thesis about? Why is this research valuable to the world? What is the story I am trying to tell? What am I trying to prove/disprove/change/advance? Write down a sentence in response to each question. Your argument is right there, in those answers. The second step is to identify the points that contribute to your overall argument. Imagine you are building a path for your reader to follow from A, a position of open mindedness, to E, a position of being persuaded absolutely by your argument. This argument is made up of a series of points in a logical order that help your reader to arrive at a conclusion; play around with the order of the points until you are satisfied with the structure. These exercises will help you to reconnect with the core ideas of your thesis and stay focused.


Anna Barker
10 August 2016
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