Often, people shy away from the term "argument" because it has acquired a negative connotation. An argument, for many, is a contest of wills and wit which might just end up with more than a little ugliness, hurt feelings and blood thrown in for good measure. There is a winner and a loser. People often say something like, "I don't like to argue, but I'll be glad to discuss anything with you."

The word "argument", though, has a very narrow meaning for a philosopher or academician. An argument is a singular unit of logic, containing facts or premises which purport to be claims of truth. These facts infer an end point, called a conclusion. Your job in making an argument then is to show that something is true (or false). If you are writing an "argument", everything you put down on paper, as it were, should support your conclusion, by properly supporting, documenting and explaining your premises.

Premises can only be true or false. Thus, the sentence, "Oh my goodness!", cannot qualify as a premise. On the other hand, "Cheese comes from the moon", would. Deciding if a premise is actually true, is another matter.

A premise can be considered acceptable if it meets one of two criteria:

  1. if the premise is the conclusion of a different and sound argument and,
  2. the premise is true by definition.

A premise which is the conclusion of another argument is the most common sort, but is plagued by the problem of infinite regress. The radical skeptic might ask you to prove the conclusion of your conclusion of your conclusion's conclusion, ad infinitum . In some very real ways, he or she would be right in asking you to do so. On the other hand, if you can reduce your premises down to "basic" sentences like "I exist" or "All bachelors are unmarried men," then you can save yourself a lot of heartache.

A few words of caution here: a priori statements (those that are true before you even have to think about them, that is "basic" sentence) takes a considerable amount of work to perfect. We can generally be sure that "all events have causes" and "8 + 2" = "10" (Kant's synthetic a priori) . Thus we can safely place items like these in our argument as meaningful and, usually, un-attackable premises. We must take care, though, to avoid meaningless tautologies (a sentence which is true by definition) which don't really help your cause.

Leg Work 

There are a couple of things you should do before you sit down and write a single word. 

First, think about your conclusion; what is it you want your audience to admit is true?. It should be short and explicit; don't bury your main idea in along rambling sentence and be forthright about what it is you intend to persuade your audience of. Make sure people know exactly what your thesis is. If you are having difficulty coming up with a succinct sentence, grab a piece of notebook paper and jot down all of your ideas. Perhaps, some of these early ideas will make their way into your argument as premises. In looking for the right thesis or conclusion sentence, make sure you limit the amount of material you must cover, make sure it's something you're interested in, work to establish your argument's purpose (don't just write to make a grade or rile people up), and, finally, get a general sense of who your audience will be. Your job at this stage is to come up with something that will frame your research. Quite likely, before you are done, you will have changed the exact wording of your conclusion a number of times, so don't marry the idea just yet. 

Your next step is to plan out some basic premises. Perhaps, you've already thought of some general ideas that will support your conclusion. What are some basic ideas which lead you to believe your conclusion? What might convince someone who might believe otherwise? Just make a list. At this state, it's better to have too many, than too few, and don't worry, you'll probably come up with more in the next stage. 

Now, with our conclusion and a few premises in hand, it's time to do a little research. If you are writing for a class, you may have all the research material contained in your assigned text book. You may have read a "Time" article which could conceivably be more than sufficient for a short argument in a Web forum debate. On the other hand, you may be required to do a bit more in depth research, something that might take a few weekends in the library to properly cover. Remember that every premise should be backed up somehow, especially if you are relying on experts, statistics, quotations or opinions which might be disputed (and someone WILL dispute you). Use whatever method is most useful and comfortable for you, but whatever you do, keep them in some sort of consistent order. You'll need them for a lot longer than you might think. 

While you are doing this research, think carefully about your conclusion. Are the premises which support this conclusion being properly supported by what you have read? Or do you need to change your conclusion to more closely match what you are learning? Don't be afraid to modify your conclusion, add premises that suggest themselves during research, or investigate opposing views. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of good research is the inclusion of at least a large minority of opposing viewpoints. In order to be taken seriously, you must demonstrate that you understand, not only your own point of view but, those facts and theories which you will eventually have to combat directly. 

Ready . . . Set . . .

Now, we come to the time when you will begin to actually craft your argument. 

If you have taken the approach of one note per note card, then it might be helpful to spread out your note cards; make a pile related to each premise you wish to support your conclusion. Hopefully, by now, you will have a pretty good handle on the issue at hand, so you will now be more able to evaluate each note for it's persuasiveness and relevance. 

I find it helpful to use pen and paper at this stage and begin making a general outline of the argument, listing each premise in a short and clear sentence. Don't worry about it too much at this point; just get the general idea down so you can see the whole flow of the argument. 

Now you have some more decisions to make. If you are writing for a class, then your instructor probably has given you some guidelines on length, tone, sources, footnoting, even subject matter. If not, ask. If on the other hand, you are writing in a less formal setting, you will have to make up those guidelines for yourself. To whom would your argument appeal? Who are you trying to convince? What tone should you be using? This, of course, will all depend on how you define you audience. 

Your first job is to decide how to gain a sympathetic audience. The first rule of thumb, obviously enough, is to avoid pretension, the second might be to make sure you can connect with your audience in such a way that some kind of common ground can be reached at the outset. This, of course, isn't necessary, but the opposite extreme, insulting those whom you would reach, is even worse and should be avoided where at all possible. Remember, you're not trying to beat your opponents; you are trying instead to persuade them of the soundness of your position. 

Writing an argument 

Now is the time to roll up your sleeves and write. For me, this stage is the most fun, because I am finally able to start to see something concrete emerge. 

Just write. Don't stop. Just keep tapping away at the keyboard until you get stuck. If you get stuck, skip ahead and start working on some other premise. Be sure to craft each paragraph, however long it is, around one, and only one, premise. Don't stop to correct yourself, ignore spelling and grammar errors. Don't add any quotations or references yet. Don't write an introduction or concluding paragraph now. Write much more than is required, because you will be cutting a great deal from this draft. (It's always easier to cut than to add to an argument.) Your goal here is to get it all out of your system. You already know this stuff, now's the time to show it. 

Once you have the first draft done, let it sit overnight as a minimum. Letting your argument sit for a time will greatly improve your perspective. Do this frequently to ensure that you don't get too attached to what you have written. This is important as well in internet discussions as well. You don't want to hastily post something, especially during an emotionally charged debate. 

The next time you pick up your argument, be prepared to get the scissors out; you'll be cutting quite a bit. Look at your original outline and compare it with what you've written. I would suggest scanning it once for the big picture, then cutting out those parts that don't directly add to your argument. Don't work too hard yet on the grammar and sentence structure; just make sure you're getting a reasonable flow. 

Start checking to see where any supporting evidence you collected from your research might fit. It's customary to have at least one decent source per paragraph. Any supporting facts should be inserted now as well. 

Now, let it sit again. 

On the third go around, you should start checking your argument for errors. Start getting nit-picky. Start tightening up your sentence structure. Check to make sure that you have addressed your opposition in a meaningful way, and think through your argument to avoid any fallacies. Now is the time to write introductory and concluding paragraphs stating what you plan on saying and what you have said. Make sure you briefly cover the evidence you will be presenting. Before you end this stage, make sure you get some impartial advice. Make a copy of your argument and give it to someone can give you useful feedback. It might be a good idea to give this to someone who you know would disagree with your thesis. Don't be afraid to give it to several people. And tell them to write all over your work. A good edit at this stage can improve your argument many times over. 

Once you get this critical feedback in your hands, make sure you give it your full attention; don't dismiss criticism at this point. Correct any errors that were identified. Address any concerns you feel warrant attention. 

On your final draft, you should be checking everything. Let people look at it again. Read it beginning to end. The more you work on it at this stage, the more polished the final product will be. 

Finally, post, submit or publish your argument. At this stage, the argument no longer belongs totally to you. It's out on its own now. That doesn't mean that it's finished. People will still critique it and you should do your best to update your argument as needed. If you get your argument back from an instructor, carefully look over their comments.