It goes by many names—the research project, the persuasive essay, the term paper—but all mean the same thing: you’re writing an argument. Before you wrench in agony, know that a smart approach and planning phase (like the one you’re in right now) can make the process of writing an argument approachable, even enjoyable. The following 9 steps will help guide you through the writing process.
1) Choose your topic—carefully. Check your ideas against the following three criteria before finalizing your topic:
•Your topic must be arguable. The phrase “everything’s an argument” is not quite true—most things are, but not everything. Take the common high school editorial topic of “cliques are bad”: it’s a common opinion, sure, but who really disagrees? Your topic needs to be debatable; there has to be a clear opposing argument that others support. Ask yourself: who would oppose me? Why?
•Your topic must be contemporary and relevant. Arguments do not exist in a vacuum; they arise because people of varied beliefs interact with one another every day (or just bump heads). Your essay, even if it is about the past, should connect to values and ideas of the present. Look to current events or issues for inspiration—what’s going on in the world that’s inspiring discussion and/or disagreement? Ask yourself: does my topic matter to people right now? Why?
•Your topic must have value to you. Given the hours you’ll need to invest in the paper, your topic needs to be more than “interesting”; it has to be knowledge you want to pursue for your own personal benefit, not just a grade. However fascinating cloning may be, for example, if you’re not interested in science or ethics—two fundamental sub-issues of the cloning debate—your essay will be a chore to write. Choose a topic you care about and are invested in. You’ll write better and research deeper because of your personal investment.
2) Narrow and focus your topic. Many popular topics, such as abortion or euthanasia, are too broad for even 100- to 200-page books, let alone your 3- to 5-page essay. Focus on a specific aspect of your topic: a specific method (e.g., a late-term abortion procedure), a specific policy (e.g., No Child Left Behind), or a specific perspective (e.g., evangelical Christians and the environment). Doing so not only makes your topic (and life) manageable, it should help you develop very specific search terms when you go to gather evidence.
3) Analyze your audience. Review your assignment sheet to check whether you’ve been assigned a specific audience to address in your response. If no audience is assigned, you can assume your audience is your teacher, a knowledgeable and experienced reader in the subject area. But don’t skip this step just yet.
Your understanding of your audience—yes, even your teacher—is integral in determining the development and organization of your argument, as well as the stylistic techniques you can utilize in your writing. For example, if you are writing to your instructor, consider what he/she expects from students on such an assignment—a formal tone, large amounts of evidence integrated into the paper, analysis of these ideas, right? On the other hand, if you’re writing for an audience of peers, you’ll want to lean heavily on your connection with them: use personal pronouns (“I” or “we”), express sympathy or understanding for their feelings, and address shared concerns.
4) Research wisely. Google is quick and easy; everybody uses it. So does your professor, who is rather justified in his/her skepticism of website credibility—lots of the readily accessible data via Google is inaccurate and risky. Make sure your online sources are from established educational/professional sites (like eNotes).
Also use your library’s subject-specific databases to find professional journals covering your topic. With a narrow and focused topic, searching should be a breeze. And use the “snowball”