How do you write a good scholarly essay in English?  Elements of argumentative writing

Scholarly essays are argumentative.  In the English-speaking world, this fact is generally quite explicit.  It’s as if the writer were selling you something, in a special market where the rule is you can sell anything to anyone if you can convince them to buy with a good enough argument.  Indeed, this is true broadly of capitalism as we know it; it is just that it is much more openly the case in the English-speaking world than in some other places, and when it comes to scholarly essays particular norms are involved which in theory are those of logic (and rhetoric) as developed in the Western philosophical tradition from Aristotle on.

It is also the case that English-language scholarly essays tend in particular to be very straightforward and linear.  In other languages, there are different general norms and expectations.  For instance, in Chinese a good essay writer will have an introduction that slowly moves towards actually presenting the main point.  This is surely changing, but historically Chinese culture is highly implicit and indirect.  (On this, see for instance, Francois Jullien, Detour and Access).  In French scholarly writing, a great value is placed on argumentative rigor and this allows for levels of complexity and detail that in American English would seem pedantic: words matter, poetical allusions to implied secondary meanings may well be present, and complex syntactic structures of coordination and subordination make possible structures of inference that are often partly internal to a single sentence.  To some extent, there has been a tendency of English language (in both the US and the UK and Commonwealth countries) writing in the humanities to move towards this kind of writing, because of the profound influence in the humanities (and sometimes the social sciences at their more qualitative or theoretical) of something that in the American context has come to be called “theory” (it generally combines social theory, methodology, and, in the humanities, theory of texts or other artworks and their formal properties).  Much of “theory” comes from “Continental philosophy” (see our essay on “analytical” and “Continental” philosophy at, and by way of France (and recently, sometimes also Italy, where norms and tendencies in scholarly writing are somewhat similar to those in France).  However, while certainly this is somewhat less true in academia, there is still a tendency in all English nonfiction prose writing towards the simple, the straightforward, even the obvious, and all of these are values that are important in both English and American culture, which values “common sense” about as much as French culture values “reason” and theoretical abstraction.  Every time someone says “What is the point?” (or “What is it you really want?”), they are accessing the prejudice in favor of the explicit, clear, and up front – and our clarity, like that of the English, tends to risk being pedestrian (for the French it aims to be illuminating).  If you have ever come across Strunk and White’s little classic, The Elements of Style, then you are familiar with this idea (simplicity) as a presumed norm for all good prose writing.  Whereas in French it is the phrase and the sentence, which may consist of two or more phrases, that count most, in English both meaning and creativity tend to be affairs largely of the word, and English has many more words than any other tongue.  Americans have a revolutionary culture that favors the common person and is understood in terms of business, or getting things done much more than careful thought, though if you are studying literature or one of the arts you probably have been taught to look closely at the details.  Our culture is practical and “down to earth”; even more than the British, who still have an aristocracy, and whose society is formally not republican, meaning that they do not think that the society belongs to everyone as we do; even more than them, ours is a business culture.  Our native philosophy is pragmatism.  So our writing is straightforward.

At its simplest, the structure of an argument is the presentation of a claim backed up by a reason and/or evidence.  Evidence means what is seen; it needs to be presented only.  The simplest arguments consist of a claim that is true because of certain facts, which need only be presented for it to be clear that the claim is true.

In fact, there is always at least one other claim that is usually implicit.  Usually it is not presented but assumed.  This claim is called a warrant.  The warrant says that claims of this kind are made true by evidence of this kind.  Or by a reason of that kind.  Warrants are principles that validate inferences.  Let’s take an example from everyday life: “You should bring an umbrella; it’s going to rain.” “What makes you think it will rain?  The sky is clear blue.”  “I checked the weather report.”  The inference is: If you check the weather report and it predicts rain (usually with a certain probability), then it it is reasonable to conclude that it will (or very likely will) rain.  Warrants can be doubted and questioned, in which case they must themselves be backed up.  The theory of warrants was developed by the American philosopher Stephen Toulmin (see., e.g., The Uses of Argument), and an excellent practical guide to their use is presented by Wayne Booth et al. in The Craft of Research, which is probably still the best guide to writing graduate or professional level scholarly research papers and manuscripts; the authors have an entire section on warrants.

Ultimately, an argumentative essay is as strong as its arguments, and they are as strong as the principles that warrant these kinds of reasons or evidence being considered (sufficient) reason for (believing) claims of this kind.  Aside from mathematics and a certain idea of philosophy, philosophers of science and of rhetoric and theory of argumentation agree that there are no truths that are not contingent and relative to assumptions that are not certain but merely sufficient from the point of view of the assumptions and expectations of a presumptively normal reader.

One thing to avoid is a seductive trap many people fall into: argument by authority.  You have read a bunch of things and in some more or less clear way your thinking (or disposition to belief that certain ideas are interesting and true) is influenced by them.  And these people are authorities in their field.  One way you know that is that their ideas are written up and published.  So in your argument you cite some of these claims.  The problem is, the skeptical reader (and most readers are skeptical: they doubt what you assert and want to be persuaded) has no reason to believe that what this authority says is true.  The statement is just as credible as the argument given in its support, and no more so.  That argument will consist of some combination of observed factual evidence and/or other statements that serve as reasons.  Some claims you quote may seem self-evident, or may pass as credible and interesting interpretations of some text or phenomenon you have presented.  But beware: every quote is as dangerous as every statement, until and unless you have answered the reader’s likely doubt as to whether it is believable.  And you should assume that the reader will doubt it if she can.  You can give your own reason why the statement is true, but it may be a good idea when you take notes to note what seems to be the author’s reason for whatever conclusion she draws.  (As well as what you think he really means).  And then, of course, that author having presumptively proven that, your task is to either go on to prove something else, or argue with your author, or qualify what he says to improve upon it, or something.  Sometimes it may just be that the quote is eloquent and concisely puts the matter as you also see it.  Fine, but then make that clear and do give the argument.

How do you work out an argument?  I think the best way is in writing.  The philosopher A. P. Martinich in Philosophical Writing: An Introduction discusses something he calls “conceptual note-taking.”  It is not unlikely the “freewriting” described by Peter Elbow in Writing without Teachers, which advocates it as cure or treatment for writer’s block.  But instead of just following the flow of your ideas, you try to discipline them through a questioning that is at least loosely driven by an idea of reason.  I think of this as a questioning of every statement in one or both of two ways: (1) What does this really mean? And (2) Why is this true?  (Or why should the reader believe it?)  What you do is engage yourself in a kind of dialogue where you question every idea and every response.  That does not give you a starting point, which is either the choice to argue a certain hypothesis or a situation of some kind (which might be a text or artwork, a social problem, or an enigma in your scientific field) that seems to call for thought about it in some way that would be formulated as a kind of research problem, and which in turn would give rise to one or more candidate hypotheses.  Identifying this problem and the hypothesis are creative tasks that are largely ones of imagination.  And there may be ultimately something mysterious about the process involved here.  Though brainstorming is thought of as noting what comes to mind.

At some point, you come up with a hypothesis or claim that you will want to argue for.  If your paper is scientific, your argument may largely consist of your discussion of one or more experiments.  If it is philosophical, literary or art historical, historical or a work in one of the other humanities, then much or all of your argument will just be argument.  In a sense, when you have the claim that you want to defend with an argument, then you are ready to begin the writing of the paper proper.  That claim should be controversial.  That makes it interesting.  As far removed as America and the other English-speaking countries are today from ancient Greece, we are Hellenes still in that the life of the mind and discussion of just about anything is a political life in the sense that it involves controversy (and thus potentially social conflict).  I mean this only in the broadest possible sense.  And while with the exception of certain subcultures (including many New Yorkers, for example) Americans do not like to argue, even here “intellectuals” in the university and elsewhere (and most are still in universities, and certainly are mostly trained there) do argue, even if only in designated professional contexts.  Your essay will be a salvo in an argument.  Controversial means both: not obviously true (or false), and interesting because if it is true, it will make a difference to some state of affairs that some readers will care about.  More often than not, such relevance is not argued in scholarly publishing but taken for granted.  Sometimes it is limited to professional scholars and/or professional workers in that field; sometimes it is broader.  Often, especially in the humanities, such relevance is very broad indeed but instead of being asserted as a claim is demonstrated in the style of the whole essay.  There are certain fields, including empirical social science and much of philosophy in the English- speaking world, where the question of relevance is not posed and yet the reader may wish it had been, because unless he is a specialist already committed to caring about your technical problem, or who thinks that the social problem you are addressing is an important one, he may wonder, Yes, but why should I care?  I think all that can be said for certain about this is that  not posing this question may limit your audience to a narrow one of specialists, and you may or may not want that.  If you want to write an essay that will not only help you obtain your proximate career objectives, but also be the kind of writing that could make a name for yourself as the most successful scientists and scholars all want to do (or get a tenure-track academic job that pays a living wage and affords time for research and not an adjunct teaching job, which is what most PhDs now get stuck in), then you should address this question somehow.  At any rate, you have determined this for your own purposes in choosing your topic (what you are talking about, given in a word or phrase) and thesis statement or claim (always given in a sentence), because you had to choose a topic and position that are interesting enough to you to want to bother writing about, as otherwise it would be a dull exercise.  In any case, the essay must make, and must make it clear at the outset that it makes, a claim that is interesting and controversial, doubtful enough that the reader must read the essay to ascertain if what you claim is true, and consequential enough if it is that the reader may want to invest the time in reading it.

One tip: When you are trying to come up with ideas, or structuring an outline, never satisfy yourself with an idea that can be given in a phrase.  That will be a topic, but not a claim, and so not a candidate hypothesis or “thesis statement.”  The “thesis statement” is usually given in a single sentence and states the claim that the paper will argue and defend.  That is what your paper is about.  That is the claim that must be controversial.  An outline, if you decide to work with one, must always consist of subordinate claims in a hierarchy and series (your paper may wind up having these same divisions as sections), should consist of sentence because a sentence is the minimal linguistic unit of a statement or claim.  It has the logic feature that it must be true or false, normally decidable as such, and not both or neither.  If the claim is suitably controversial, the reader will wonder whether it is true or false, and will believe that something important is staked on which of these it is.  The meaning of a sentence which is or can be asserted as a statement is linked to its truth value.  Since the structure of the paper will be an argumentative one, an outline that consists of a series and hierarchy of statements may be useful to work from because it will show at a glance the intended argumentative structure of the paper.  Of course, in writing you may find that the ideas you are working with take you in a direction that is a surprise.  Then you will have to change something about your argument.  But if you like the surprise, the reader might also.