Argument is crucial to academic writing. It’s argue argue argue all the way. Once we have identified a problem or puzzle that we think is worth researching, we then make a case for research, creating the warrant for our work. We present evidence in a persuasive sequence. We argue that the research results have a logical conclusion – this is the basis for claims for “contribution”. We propose potential uses and significance of the research.
Academic argument depends on being able to produce the best possible information, presented in a convincing sequence. But we are usually advised we also need to take account of counter points. We need to consider and deal with different positions and troubling information. Wearing blinkers while arguing trips us up, stops us being credible.
An obvious way to address the negative is to find alternative views in the literature, or in the public realm. It’s straightforward then – just cite and counter. Right? Well, maybe. Simply mentioning and summarily dismissing may not be enough. You may need to understand more than the superficial to adequately address a different case.
It is often useful to spend a little time with different points of view and opposing arguments in order to strengthen your own. Here’s five playful but serious starter ideas for getting your head around arguments other than your own. These starters may well help you to see where you need more clarification, more boundary drawing, more references or additional information
1. Re-examine your original problem or puzzle.
Imagine that yourself are someone who thinks about this problem or puzzle differently. Become Reviewer 2 and write a short rebuttal of your initial premise. Be brutal. Suggest other reading. Point out the omissions, lack of definitions, the assumptions. Wait a day. Now look at how you have presented your opening gambit, the warrant for your work. What do you need to say to head off Reviewer 2? Do you need to explicitly reject their views or do you simply need to strengthen your own position?
2. Become devil’s advocate.
Brainstorm all the various ways your topic might be understood. Take just one of the different points of view. Sum it up in a sentence. Free write for fifteen or twenty minutes starting with the sentence. Leave the text for a day, then come back to it and ask yourself what this exercise might teach you about how to better present your case. What do you need to add, remove, rewrite?
3. Become a three year old.
Three year olds ask why all the time. On and on and on. Why? Why? Why? Do the same. Ask why about each move you make in the argument. Why? Why is this the next step? What else might come here? Where would an alternative move take the argument? Is this alternative defensible? Where do the whys lead you, do you need to re write your argument “red thread”? Add new steps? Change the order? Get rid of some information? Add more citations?
4. Think like a hack tabloid journalist.
Imagine you are a newspaper columnist or a political speech writer who supports exactly what you are arguing against. Write half a page about your research from their point of view. Make it colourful. No words of more than two syllables. No sentences longer than fifteen words. Wait a day. Then read the piece asking what this polemic might suggest you need to do. (This exercise is particularly good if you are about to write for non academic audiences.
5. Be a sci-fi writer.
Make like George Orwell. Or George R R Martin. Get dystopian. Imagine that the things you have suggested as So What and Now What – the implications of your study – have actually made things worse. Brainstorm what has happened. Wait a day and then use this information to analyse the weaknesses in your argument, conclusion and implications.
These negative strategies may be most helpful to you as part of getting from a first to second draft. They speak to the choreography of the argument as well as its details.