What is an argument and why do I need one?


By Bronwen Durocher

So your professor has asked you to write a thesis-driven essay.

In high school, teachers simply asked you to regurgitate information you learned in class. Being able to clearly articulate the main points of a subject or idea may have earned you that elusive A in the past.

But you’re in college now.

Ack! “You mean to tell me that if my essay shows that I was actually paying attention and not instagramming the back of my classmates head I still might not get an A?” That’s right. Most professors will want you to analyze the information you’ve absorbed so that you can articulate an original claim you must then support with details from the work you are studying. Sound hard? College is supposed to help you become a questioning, freethinking person. Nobody said it was easy!

We’re here to help.

So, what is a claim or an argument? An argument-driven essay can come in the form of an explanation of an opinion, a discussion of a literary interpretation, or an evaluation of a certain cultural or literary phenomenon (among many, many other options). Simply put, a claim or argument is something you can prove. For thesis-driven essays, your claim must be specific and it must be debatable.

What’s the “So what?”

Any effective thesis statement argument should also have stakes. Ask yourself why your argument is important, relevant, or interesting to you. You should be excited to prove to your readers why your claim matters. What does your claim illuminate about the novel, poem, film, or other subject in question? Being able to answer the “so what?,” my friends, is the secret to writing an effective thesis statement.

Ineffective thesis statement:

There is a lot of symbolism in The Grapes of Wrath.

Is this debatable? Is it specific? Does it show that you’ve analyzed the novel?

More effective thesis statement:

John Steinbeck sets up a contrast between the natural world and a budding industrial economy in The Grapes of Wrath.

Is this debatable? If so, why is it important? Are there stakes? What’s missing here?

Effective thesis statement:

Through its use of symbolism, The Grapes of Wrath suggests that in order to endure the suffering and poverty of the new industrial economy, one must return to more natural human instincts.

This suggests an analytical reading based on evidence from the novel. It also tells us why the argument might be important to readers. It answers the “so what?” so many professors are wont to ask.

Make your supporting details work for you!

Remember that any argument you make must be supported by evidence. Supporting evidence might come in the form of historical data, secondary criticism, or a primary literary (or nonliterary) source. These supporting details are the meat and potatoes of your essay. Each piece of evidence should be included in your paper in a way that gives credence to the specific claim you are making. Simply inserting a detail without explaining why it relates to your thesis won’t work. Each quote or reference must be analyzed, interpreted, and integrated into your essay so that it helps convince your reader that what you are arguing is valid and well researched. (For help with citations, check back for another blog post or ask your favorite tutor.)

Phew, we’re done here for now. If you’re still having trouble writing a thesis statement and building evidence to support it, come in and talk to one of our lovely writing tutors. Good luck and happy writing!