Strong Arguments

Strong arguments usually have the following characteristics:

1.  Specific Terms, Narrow Claims:  Be sure your thesis can be reasonably argued in the space you have.  Avoid broad terms like “good,” “evil,” “negative,” “positive,” “mankind,” etc.; the more specific you can be, the better.   In a short essay, you cannot expect to cover the development of children’s literature, or why fantasy is popular.

Compare the following two thesis statements:

a.  All of E.B. White’s novels for children depict an animal coming of age.

b.  In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White departs from his other novels for children. Whereas Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan use the journey as a metaphor for growth, in Charlotte’s Web growth takes place at home.

The first argument is too broad:  What does the author mean by “coming of age”?  Which novel is the author really focusing on?  The second argument is better, offering a reader a much more specific picture of the argument that will follow.

2.   Tension:  A good argument usually offers some kind of tension that will be considered in your paper.  This tension might be presented as

*a progression (e.g., “while at the start of the novel, X is true, by the end of the novel, Y seems dominant”).

*a contrast (e.g., “Both Wendy and Fern “play” at maternity, but Fern’s maturation leads her away from mothering while Wendy’s leads her inexorably towards it.”   ).

*a surprise (e.g., “while the narrator at first appears to be X, close attention to Y suggests an alternative reading. .”).

Compare the following two thesis statements:

a.  There are many similarities and differences between The Secret Garden and A Little Princess.

b. In Burnett’s A Little Princess, we encounter an orphan girl who must make her own way in the world. While Mary in The Secret Garden  is also an orphan, her growth is far more internal than external; only through hard work and a good deal of luck does she finally attain the status Sara begins with…

The first argument is bland and offers the reader little sense of progression, contrast, or surprise.  The second argument offers a sense of progression and contrast.


3. Not Obvious:  In order to be effective, an argument should not be obvious.  That is, it should be the sort of statement with which a reasonable, well-informed person might conceivably disagree.  By contrast, if no reasonable person can disagree with your argument, then the argument is already obvious, and there’s little point in writing about it.

To test your argument, negate it.  That is, put the word “not” in it.  If no reasonable, well-informed person can believe your negated argument, then the original argument is obvious, and it’s unlikely to produce an interesting essay.  The following arguments, for example, are obvious:

1.  Christopher Paul Curtis writes about African American history.

2. Animals are important in many children’s novels.     

Both of these statements are true, but neither one makes an argument that could be contested.  They simply state the obvious.

By contrast, consider this argument:

Like many children’s novels which might more accurately be described as “boys’ books” or “girls’ books,”  The Secret Garden is centrally concerned with developing boys as boys and girls as girls. The overlay of class onto the gender politics of the novel, however, make its depictions of masculinity less stereotypical and more problematic than an initial reading might suggest.

N.B:  You don’t need to write a far-fetched or a wacky argument; concentrate on avoiding an obvious one.

4. Supportable:  An argument is supportable if it is possible to find evidence to back it up.  In literary criticism, evidence sometimes comes from information about the author’s life and historical moment, but more often it comes from the text itself—the story, poem, or play that the claim is about.  As a rule of thumb, if your argument cannot be supported by observations about the text at hand, then your argument is probably not supportable.  For example, the following argument cannot be supported:

J. M. Barrie wrote Peter and Wendy to show that children really don’t need parents at all.

Unless you’re going to take a detailed look at outside information, you can’t prove that Barrie wrote his novel to demonstrate that children don’t need parents.  Base your arguments on evidence from the text at hand:

In Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, parental influence and control are both satirized and romanticized—fathers are ridiculous, while mothers are perfect. While children may desire a parent-free life—and Peter seems to attain one—the cost of such freedom is great…

5. Literary:  In a paper about literature, arguments must be literary.  That is to say, they must be about literary texts, their authors, or the cultural circumstances in which they are produced and studied.  They should not be about human nature in general, the state of the over-all society, general claims about morality, etc.  Though certainly interesting in their own right, these topics are not strictly literary.  So avoid arguments such as the following:

The novel is inappropriate for children because it might make its readers scared or anxious about their parents.

The above claim is not really about literature, but about broader questions of morality.  The following claim, however, is literary:

In Becoming Naomi Léon, Ryan depicts a child’s longing for a “normal family,” ultimately expanding the definition of family beyond the conventional nuclear unit.

Both claims are in a sense about parents and families, but the second claim is literary, because it focuses on “family” as it is represented in a specific work of literature.

Q & A on Introductions


1.  How long should the thesis statement be, and where should I put it?  For a short essay (under 8 pages), a reader expects your thesis statement to appear at the end of the first introductory paragraph.  A thesis statement is generally 1-3 sentences long.  If you think about it, this placement makes sense:  you’re giving your readers the central idea of your paper as they move into the main body of the essay.

2.  If thesis statements come at the end of the introductory paragraph, what should come before the thesis?  Think about what your readers need to understand your paper.  You need to tell them the text and the author you’ll be discussing, ideally in the first sentence (e.g., “In his novel The Phantom Tollbooth, Juster explores. . .”).  You also need to get right to your topic. Do NOT start at the beginning of recorded history and move forward (“Throughout history, wars have been fought in many places. . .”).  Do NOT have lots of “throat clearing” sentences that say little (e.g. “White uses language and imagery and includes many interesting themes”—what else would a writer use but language and imagery?). Start with your topic.  If you’re writing about similes in Becoming Naomi Léon, introduce this topic and the work in question in the first sentence, then introduce the topic more fully, and have this opening lead you to the specific argument you’re making.


**Some of the above information adapted from Claim Game, University of Virginia Teaching Website.**


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