Be Your Best


By the time you finish this you unit, you should:
  • know how to transform an outline into a draft;
  • be familiar with topic sentences, levels of generality, and transitions; 
  • be conversant with terms and concepts of argumentation 
  • know how to identify strengths and weaknesses in arguments;
  • know how to write an effective claim.



The following Internet and print sources can help you with the concepts covered in this unit:

Be Your Best: Writing Schedule contains an example of a schedule for writing a long research project. 

Updated August 22, 2001
© Mark Canada, 2001


You probably have been writing for about as long as you have been tying your shoes.  Now, a decade or more later, you can tie your shoes perfectly without thinking, but writing probably remains tedious, frustrating, even maddening for you--as indeed it does for many other people of all ages.  What's so hard about writing?  For starters, writing is a more complex task than shoe-tying, requiring several advanced cognitive skills.  Also, the challenges have increased since you began writing.  In the beginning, it was enough to write a description of your house or a letter to a friend.  By the time you are in college, professors are requiring you to compose various types of arguments and support them with material gathered from research.  Although writing these types of essays will never be easy, it can be made easier.  The information below can help.

Developing an Argument

Like language itself, argument is something you have known nearly your entire life.  The first time you tried to talk your parents out of making you go to bed, you are were arguing.  Since that time, you have formed a few hundred other arguments--that it was your sister's fault and not yours, that you should be able to stay out until midnight instead of 11 p.m., that the teacher's test was unfair, that UNCP should admit you, that you are eligible for financial aid.  Indeed, every time that you try convince someone that something is true or persuade someone to do something, you are engaging in argument.  Most of the time, you probably use words, either written or spoken, but you also may have used pictures, gestures, facial expressions, and other tools.

Argument, then, is nothing new.  Still, just as college composition classes help you to improve language skills you already have, these same classes--and others in history, psychology, chemistry, and every other discipline--can help you to polish your argumentative skills.  In fact, argument is at the core of the kind of study that goes on in college.  Both you and your professors use argument when you study a subject, interpret the facts and opinions about it, reach a conclusion, and then try to convince others that your conclusion is the right one.  Unlike high school, which tends to emphasize the learning of facts, college focuses on the skill of interpretation.  You still have to try to absorb a lot of information, but now you have to think a great deal about it, synthesize various details, and draw conclusions.  Indeed, one of the most important--and most difficult--lessons that college has to teach is that truth is in most cases a matter of interpretation.

In college, you study and practice the various steps for making an effective argument.  That is, you will learn how to collect and evaluate evidence, how to state a clear claim, and how to organize and present compelling support for this claim.  Before beginning to develop these skills, however, you can prepare yourself for success by studying a few basic principles of argument.  For example, effective argument is built on solid reasons and evidence.  Whereas your early arguments over bedtime may have amounted to shallow pleading--"Pleeeeease, just five more minutes!"--the type of sophisticated arguments you will do in college, on the job, and in your communities must be logical and grounded if they are to be effective. 

In his discussions of rhetoric, the art of communicating effectively, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three particular means of making an argument: logos, the appeal to the audience's sense of logic; ethos, the invocation of the speaker's character; and pathos, the appeal to the audience's emotions.  Of these three means, the first two are the most useful in academic argument.  When making the first, you often will have to present evidence--that is, factual material or other people's interpretations. 

As you examine this evidence in your various sources, you will want to beware of logical fallacies.  These errors in reasoning actually serve to mislead or distract readers and thus do not belong in honest argument; nevertheless, they are quite common.  Politicians, for example, are notorious for a type of fallacy called an ad hominem attack, which is aimed at a person rather than an issue.  Many people are guilty of using the post hoc fallacy, which implies that one event caused another simply because it came first.  Other logical fallacies include begging the question, which involves using unproven evidence to support a claim; the false dilemma, which implies that someone must choose from a limited number of options even though others actually exist; and a red herring, which merely distracts the audience from the issue by introducing something not directly related to the argument at hand.

Finally, once you have examined and thoughtfully considered the evidence, you are ready to draft your own argument.  First, you will want to write a working claim.  Similar to a thesis, a claim is a statement that offers an interpretation of the evidence.  In their book The Craft of Research, Joseph Williams, George Colomb, and Wayne Booth explain that a strong claim has four qualities.  First, they say, it should have substance.  In other words, it should relate to something meaningful to someone.  A second quality of a good claim is contestability.  That is, it should be open to discussion and disagreement and not be simply a statement of fact.  The third quality is precision, or the degree of specificity in a claim.  Finally, a claim must exhibit exceptional clarity.  Because the claim sets up your entire argument, your readers should know exactly what it is saying. 

Claims and arguments come in different varieties.  A definition, for example, deals with the nature of something.  An article about Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman might argue that it is or is not an example of a tragedy.  An evaluation offers an assessment of someone or something's value.  Movie reviews are examples of evaluations. Causal arguments try to show how one person, thing, or event resulted in something.  Historians, for instance, can argue about causes or consequences of wars, recessions, immigration, and the like.  A proposal suggests a course of action.  Politicians often make proposals about tax policies and other government matters. 

Strategy for Drafting

Start early. When you begin right away, you lengthen the amount of time you have to write a strong paper. With this extra time, you can stop when you get tired or stuck and come back to it later. Extra time also means you have a better chance of getting interlibrary loan items in time to use them in your paper.

Make a schedule. Instead of thinking of a paper as a huge project, think of it as a series of manageable stages, such as taking notes, creating an outline, writing a draft, revising this draft, and proofreading. Make a schedule in which you commit yourself to completing each of these stages by a certain date; then, break down each stage further into steps and schedule a specific day and time when you will complete each step. See the sample schedule.

Take notes. Rather than write your research notes by hand, set up an outline in a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word. As you read your sources and review the findings of your interviews or observations, type notes directly into your outline. Each note should appear on a separate line and should be a complete sentence containing a statistic, anecdote, observation, response to a survey or interview, a paraphrase or quotation of expert testimony, or perhaps another form of evidence. 

Organize your outline. After you have taken extensive notes on five or more sources, look for patterns among this evidence. For example, you may notice that two statistics, a quotation from a survey respondent, and a paraphrase of a scholarly journal all refer to the same type of support for your claim. Create a heading for this branch of support and move all of the related evidence under this heading. If a piece of information does not support your working claim but rather merely contains a definition or other background material, place it under a heading called "Background." Continue this process until every point is under a heading. Look for ways to combine or divide headings and points so that they occur in bunches of three to five. Read your entire outline and then write a working claim based on the information it contains. At the top of your outline, create a heading called "Introduction" and place this working claim under it. Now read your outline again. Move headings and points until the outline seems relatively logical and well-organized. See the sample outline.

Write effective paragraphs. For each point in your outline, write a paragraph. The most important unit in a paper, the paragraph presents organized support for your claim. There is no single way to write an effective paragraph, but I suggest that beginning writers start each paragraph in the body of a paper with a topic sentence, a sentence that both summarizes the material in the paragraph and refers back to the claim to show the reader how this material supports the claim. In other words, a good topic sentence looks both forward and backward. The remaining sentences should support this topic sentence and should appear in a logical order. Again, your outline will guide you. If you have taken thorough, accurate notes in your outline, you can even save yourself a lot of typing by simply cutting and pasting points from your outline into your draft. The sentences in an effective paragraph should be organized according to levels of generality. That is, a paragraph should contain perhaps three to five sentences that are only slightly more specific than the topic sentence; each of these sentences may be followed by other sentences that are even more specific, and so on. Finally, add transition words to indicate connections among the sentences in your paragraph. In this paragraph, for example, I used words and phrases such as "In other words," "Again," and "Finally" to help the reader see the direction of my ideas.

Don't give in to writer's block. Because you have typed your notes directly into an outline, you do not have to confront the ugly and terrifying blank page. If you still have trouble getting started, however, you may be worrying too much about minor things such as style and grammar. To free your mind of these distractions and focus on getting a draft done, try writing a "speed draft." Give yourself two uninterrupted hours to write the entire paper. Set an alarm to go off when your time is up. Even better, use a watch that beeps every fifteen minutes or half-hour. Force yourself to produce a complete draft in this time. The finished product will be very rough, of course, but you will have a chunk of material to revise, which is easier to do than to write.


  1. Argument: What is academic argument? How is it different from other types of argument? Why do we need argument? What do John Ramage and John Bean mean when they say, in Writing Arguments: "In the twentieth century, absolute, demonstrable truth is seen by many thinkers, from physicists to philosophers, as an illusion" (14)? How are persuasion and "truth-seeking" related to argument?
  2. Logical Fallacies: Identify logical fallacies you have encountered in political debates, advertisements, or other forms of argument.
  3. Parts of Argument: In your own words, define "claim," "evidence," "warrant," "rebuttal," and "qualifier." Illustrate your definitions with examples.
  4. Preparation: Complete "How to . . . Focus a Research Project" in Section 47a of The Ready Reference Handbook as a means of getting ready to write a draft.
  5. Writing Practices: Use the questions in Option 1 on page 75 of Writing Arguments to explore your own writing process.
  6. Audience: Use "Adapt your argument to your audience's needs and interests" to sketch some information about your audience.
  7. Working Claims: Using your research as a guide, write three "working claims" for your research paper. For help, refer to "Writing a tentative claim" and "Converting a tentative claim to an arguable assertion" in Section 57a of The Ready Reference Handbook. Under each one, sketch a list of supporting materials for this argumentative claim. Choose one of these working claims and revise it until it is substantive, contestable, precise, and clear.
  8. Outlines: Trade outlines with a partner and review his or her outline. Write out answers to the following questions:
    1. Is the claim substantive, contestable, clear, and precise? If necessary, suggest changes.
    2. What material will the writer use to support this claim? Evaluate the relevance and amount of this support.
    3. Evaluate the credibility of this support. What are the credentials of the authors whom the writer quotes or paraphrases? Has the writer referred to surveys or experiments with adequate and representative samples?
    4. Has the writer divided this support in a logical way? Do any of the major points overlap?
    5. Is each minor point relevant to the major point over it?
    6. What appears to be the writer's strongest support? Is it in an appropriate place in the outline?
  9. Draft: Using the tips above, write a draft of your paper. Focus on writing effective topic sentences and organizing supporting sentences according to levels of generality.
  10. Reflection: Using Section 50a of The Ready Reference Handbook as a guide, write "planning notes," in which you revise your claim, jot down ideas for supporting it, reorganize your outline, and otherwise prepare to improve your latest draft.
  11. Topic Sentences: Write a sentence for each of the main points supporting your claim.
  12. Levels of Generality:   Label the levels of generality in the paragraph below by placing a number 1 in front of the most general sentence, a number 2 in front of each sentence that is a little less general, a number 3 in front of each sentence that is a little less general that the number 2's, and so on.
    1. The emphasis on literature's value to the public, as opposed to its value to its creators, can be found in America's early copyright laws.  The first of these laws, passed by the Connecticut legislature in 1783, was called an "Act for the encouragement of Literature and Genius."  The law recognized that "every Author should be secure in receiving the Profits that may arise from the Sale of his Works," but it also proclaimed that "such security may encourage Men of Learning and Genius to publish their Writings, which may do Honor to their Country, and Service to Mankind" (Lehmann-Haupt 104).  In both name and purpose, then, this law suggests that the indirect contribution it makes to the expansion of knowledge is at least as important as the protection it provides to authors.  More telling is an additional clause that allowed the Superior Court to revoke the author's copyright if he or she failed to "furnish the Public with sufficient Editions" of the work or set the price too high (Lehmann-Haupt 104).  Thus, writers' control over their material disappeared if they neglected their duty to enlighten the public.  The first federal statements on copyright show the same commitment to public enlightenment.  The Constitution's provision for copyright gives Congress the right to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing, for limited times, to authors and inventors, the exclusive right to their respective writings and discourses" (Lehmann-Haupt 107).  Both this provision and "An Act for the encouragement of learning," passed by Congress a few years later, show residual concerns about public access to great ideas.
  13. More Levels of Generality: Label the levels of generality in at least one paragraph in the draft in front of you.  A well-organized and well-supported paragraph generally should have at least two level-2 sentences, each followed by one or more level-three sentences and perhaps even level-4 and level-5 sentences.  For example, you might label an effective paragraph in this way: 1-2-3-3-2-3-2-3-4-3-4.  According to this guideline, is the paragraph you are evaluating well-organized and well-supported?  If not, suggest moving or adding sentences to improve it.