Methods of Developing Arguments: The Process of Writing

Papers and essays and other kinds of professional writing are arguments, though it might not seem so at first. Are these arguments?

  • A textual reading for an English course
  • A essay analyzing a historical event for a history course
  • A presentation of survey results for a marketing course or psychology
  • A lab report for a biology course
  • A review of leadership theories for a political science course

These are all arguments. In each case your job is to persuade your reader that your account or explanation is an appropriate and sensible way to understand whatever it is you’re looking at – that you’ve perceived a plausible pattern, drawn on pertinent data, and ordered your material in a sensible and useful pattern. Now to call an paper an argument means something rather different than that the writer disagrees with somebody else. It means more than taking a side or “winning.” In the context of writing a professional essay, good argument means fair-minded consideration and rational persuasion. The word rational is key. Good college essays, by and large, fall within an intellectual tradition of rational discourse: claim, evidence, consideration and rebuttal of objections, and conclusion, all intended to appeal to the reader’s open mind and reasoned judgment. Different types of essays may be more or less informal in their tone and sources and have all sorts of superficial differences, but the basic argumentative framework tends to remain.

Adding complexity to this is that different audiences and even individual writers will have different standards about what constitute interesting claims, pertinent evidence, and reasonable consideration of opposing views. In general the kinds of scholarly audiences students write for are open-minded about claims, but have high expectations about the quality of the evidence and the reasonableness of the assumptions linking evidence and claims.

Methods of developing arguments

Sometimes students are required to construct a particular kind of argument like a lab report or a compare-and-contrast essay. But more often college students must decide what sort of claim to make, and how to develop it. Here are the main methods of developing arguments:


One of the most common writing tasks is to define something: Mannerism is marked by complex perspective, elongated forms, and intense color. Arguments typically require clear definitions upon which to build. If for instance you’re writing a political science paper attacking public opinion polls as harmful to American politics, you’ll need to establish early on what an opinion poll is.

Definitions can be presented in a variety of ways:

Type of definitionExample
From a dictionaryThe Random House Dictionary defines a contract as “an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified.”
By etymologyA deductive argument (from the Latin de + ducere, “to lead away from”) begins with one or more premises (initial assumptions). It then “leads away” from this starting point, using it to determine whether a particular conclusion is valid.
From an authority“War”, Clausewitz famously observed, “is a continuation of policy by other means.”
By synonymAlienation is disaffection with or isolation from society.
By exampleThe Indo-European group includes such languages as English, French, Russian, and Hindi.
By contextIndo-European, the world’s largest family of languages, includes languages spoken by about half the world’s population.
By functionA cyclotron uses magnetic fields to accelerate nuclear particles along circular paths.
By contrastTerrorism differs from other kinds of political protest in three main ways: . . .

The biggest problem students tend to have with using definitions is drawing them too narrowly. In college essays good definitions are those which suggest further lines of inquiry, not those which close off further thinking. As you write a definition, remember that it is perfectly reasonable to think of it as provisional and something to be fine-tuned rather than the last, graven-in-stone word on the subject.


Description is in a sense painting a picture with words. This is obvious when you think about describing a physical object like a tree or a building, but it applies even to descriptions of abstract things. As with pictures themselves, space is the essential dimension for most descriptions. As you write, think spatially. Follow some sort of order: from high to low, left to right, front to back, most easily seen to smallest detail, light to shadows, etc. Not all orders are equally good; think about which one might make the most sense given your argument, or which might be easiest for your reader to follow.

In describing abstract things the idea of finding some sort of quasi-spatial order holds: go from big to little, obvious to not-so-obvious, ideal to actual, formal to informal, general to specific, positive to negative, and so on. Often the abstract thing you’re describing will give suggest its own ordering principle. A description of the American Constitution, for instance, would probably work best by respecting the document’s own organization. The Constitution’s first clause discusses the Congress; the second clause discusses the presidency; and the third clause discusses the judiciary. Following this order in a description, rather than jumping around, will likely make the description easier to follow by giving its abstract content a more concrete, spatial quality.

Good ordering principles help turn descriptions from static records to engines of further thinking. Consider that possible description of the U.S. Constitution. Attuned to the document’s own organization, we might start to muse on the significance of the order: Does the fact that the Congress is discussed before the presidency imply something about the founders’ view of the balance of power in the federal government? Does it say something about their attitude toward representation and democracy? Does being sensitive to this ordering principle help us understand the document and its ideas better? (Yes, yes, yes.)

One suggestion about descriptions of abstract concepts and things: human beings crave the concrete. No matter how abstract the thing you’re describing, try not to go too far (no more than two or three sentences) without anchoring the description to some vivid image or example. If you’re writing about the nature of male friendship in Hemingway, for instance, don’t stray too far from examples from the text.


Narration describes not a single event or idea, but a sequence over time. Time is the critical factor in narration, and chronological order is the natural way to organize a narrative. You need not slavishly follow chronological order, though; playing a bit with flashback and reordering may be a good way to emphasize key concepts. For instance, a paper on the rise and fall of the Aztec Empire need not begin with the earliest historical records, but at some critical moment chosen to illustrate a major theme or themes in the argument. Nor do you need to cover the whole chronology: feel free to cut and compress the flow of time to give the argument maximum impact (in practice this tends to mean focusing more on change than on continuity).


Analysis means breaking something complex down into simpler parts. It’s one of the most important intellectual skills for making sense of the world.

Sometimes the categories will be straightforward, at least once you’ve studied a topic:

     There were, to simplify somewhat, four general orders of political being in precolonial Tabanan: parekankawulaperbekel, and punggawa.
parekan was a man (or, more exactly, a family) completely dependent upon a lord. . . : a totally resourceless servant.
The kawulas were far and away the most numerous among the Balinese. . . . A kawula was a man, not a member of the ruling elite: . . . a subject.
perbekel was, as mentioned, a man who had a larger or smaller number of kawulas directly attached to him; he was responsible for their duties as subjects: a political foreman.
And finally, a punggawa was, as also mentioned, a lord of the realm, insofar as there was a realm, to whom were attached a larger or smaller number of perbekels and, through them, anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand kawulas. . . .
Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 63.

Note that the author here follows a natural way to present these four orders, from lowest to highest, presenting each in its own paragraph. He also ends each of the first three descriptive paragraphs with a short definition by synonym, to make sure the reader has gotten the point. By the last paragraph, he’s ready to start exploring the relationships among the four orders.

More often, deciding what categories or divisions to use requires a great deal of thinking. For instance, in an essay about Shakespeare’s As You Like It, one might explore the play by paying attention to different settings (court or forest), different kinds of writing (prose, blank verse, songs), or different kinds of characters (young or old, men or women, courtiers or commoners). None of these is “right”; all might generate interesting studies of the play.


Synthesis means putting pieces together, or showing the unity between apparently separate units.

Often analysis and synthesis go together: in the work from the above example is taken, the author first breaks Bali’s political order into four distinct orders; then he undertakes to show how the four orders worked together in a single political system.

Process mapping

A process means, of course, a combination of steps and activities that fit together in some specified fashion. Most often the natural way to describe a process will be to organize it along the dimension of time, from first to last. But complex processes may require further thinking, as different steps will overlap. The essay writer finds herself having to describe several sequences occurring at the same time, eventually flowing together. Descriptions that draw clear distinctions between these sequences will read much more easily. For suggestions on what kind of ordering principles to use, see the comments above on Description.

Cause and effect

Cause and effect implies the passage of time, so the most obvious ordering principle is chronological. Complexity arises when more than one cause exists—in that case, the writer must decide how to order the various causes: simple to complex, major to minor, obvious to subtle, familiar to unfamiliar, positive to negative.

It’s also necessary to reflect on the nature of the causal relationship one is writing about. If you want to explain how global warming or how AIDS attacks the immune system, your task is relatively straightforward. But explaining cause and effect in human affairs is much murkier, indeterminate, and value-laden. There’s rarely a neutral, purely objective way to explain or determine cause and effect when talking about things like the impact of affirmative action or why Ophelia kills herself. In such cases the writer needs to adopt a somewhat conditional, tentative tone: the point will be not so much to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but to suggest.

Compare and contrast

Compare and contrast is the classic English class essay, but it’s also a frequent assignment in other fields of study. Comparison and contrast requires one to understand similarities as well as differences between two things. One suggestion: often the two things to be compared and contrasted are members of the same category (two sonnets or plays or novels; two theories of motivation; two perspectives on the lessons of the Vietnam War; two marketing strategies by rival firms in an industry). It’s important, then, to understand the category in some detail, because this will help one decide on the most pertinent and interesting areas to compare and contrast.


Teachers very often want a compare and contrast essay or other assignment to make some final evaluation or judgment about which of the things discussed is “better.” Even if a teacher doesn’t explicitly ask for such an evaluation, it’s reasonable to give one provided it’s presented with enough shades of gray. Don’t oversimplify and say that A is good and B sucks: that’ll rarely work well in college writing. Anchor your judgment to facts. For judgments to be persuasive, they must be made on specific rational grounds. In an essay on Microsoft’s legal troubles, for instance, it wouldn’t be enough to assert No one but Microsoft is to blame for its troubles. You’d have to explain why: . . . thanks to years of overly aggressive marketing, arrogant leadership, and almost willful disdain for government efforts to restrain the company’s take-no-prisoners style. These reasons, of course, would have to be supported, not just listed.

Compound methods

Many arguments combine one or more of the methods just described. This is especially true as one proceeds down the list: Comparing and contrasting two things, for instance, requires that each of them be well defined; making an informed judgment about American foreign poliy in the Middle East would require a narrative summary of key events and decisions leading to the moment being studied.

Or s uppose you’re writing a cheap essay on how American cities changed over the course of the 20th century. You’re likely to find it useful to combine definition, analysis and narration. Analysis would allow you to break the complex concept “city” into several categories to be considered separately (for instance, demographics, economy, architecture, infrastructure, politics, and the environment). Each of these categories would require definition, of course. A narrative order would then allow you to treat each of the categories in a natural progression, showing changes over time.

You would still have to decide how to fit these methods of development into a single essay, of course. Should each category be presented separately, or should the argument follow a mainly chronological organization with each category treated serially, for instance decade by decade or era by era? It’s easy to see that these definitions would come first—but all together at the very beginning, or each definition coming when that category is discussed? There’s no automatically right answer to these questions, but this kind of high-level thinking (how to organize analysis, definition, and narration) will produce a much better essay than simply wading into a discussion with no particular method in mind.

We’ve looked at some basics of how arguments work. A last word of advice before we move on: The essence of good college thinking is not partisanship but rationality. As you construct arguments, don’t just try to “win,” but to carry yourself as a fair-minded and reasonable thinker. Realize that not all of your readers will agree with you—in fact, those are the readers you’re really writing for. Look for objections to your argument, consider them reasonably, and do a fair job of presenting them.

Building arguments cannot be neatly separated from writing papers. You’ll find more help on building strong arguments all throughout Writemyessay.nycassignment help with words and sentences in Style, help with larger units in Structure, and help with gathering and using source material in Evidence.

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