Almost every essay on any subject – from weekly assignment writing, to writing an undergraduate or masters dissertation, or even a thesis – has one thing in common: it will revolve around an argument. Whether you are driving home a specific theory, considering an issue from all angles or debating a double-sided problem, an argument should emerge to give structure and direction to your essay format.

Defining an argument

An argument is a statement that you make to persuade your readers to agree with your opinion. This will usually be in the form of a paragraph, or several paragraphs, depending on the length of your essay and the importance of the point you are making.

In an essay, you will back up each argument (or point within an argument) by supporting it with evidence. Your evidence can be taken from printed primary and secondary sources (manuscripts, journals, books), web pages, transcriptions of interviews or film clips, the results of experiments, or questionnaires and other survey work. If you can only find one piece of evidence then that is all you can use. If there is so much material that you could fill a book, choose the strongest piece.

Critical reading aids your argument

Developing the ability to carry out critical reading is key to being able to argue effectively in your essay writing. You need to read all material with a critical eye. When an academic has made a claim in a book or paper, always question it. Train your brain to automatically think: “Prove it to me!” every time.

Do you know what your argument will be? After you have completed critical reading for your essay, decide which line you will take. If you find it hard, sit down with a friend and try to explain your viewpoint to them, which can help you clarify your thoughts.

A clear argument gives your essay structure

As we explain in this post about essay structure, the structure of your essay is an essential component in conveying your ideas well, and therefore in writing a great essay. Use the format of your essay to punctuate and clarify your argument.

1. Use a concise introduction to your academic essay to set out key points in your argument and very clearly show what the shape of the essay will look like.
2. Where appropriate, use separate sections for each new topic (not forgetting headings or chapters to define the sections – particularly relevant for dissertation writing).
3. Start each new idea or opinion with a new paragraph, especially important if you are considering different sides of an issue.
4. Allow your structure to clarify the flow of your argument – set out the most important or pertinent points first, followed by further details, and reserving more unusual ideas or final thoughts for later on.
5. Any academic essay needs a strong conclusion to remind your reader what your argument has been and show clearly how you have used the different threads of your argument to reach an inevitable final conclusion.

Opposing views

Whilst you may feel that acknowledging views opposing yours will weaken your argument, the opposite is in fact true. Your essay will look stronger if you can show you have come to the conclusions you have chosen despite considering objections to your opinion. If you can write about objections and explain why these are wrong – again, giving evidence – then it shows that your argument is robust, and will also give the reader greater faith in your essay writing, as they will feel your essay or dissertation is giving them an unbiased, rounded view.

Don’t make any assumptions about your reader, or popular opinion. Sentences that begin, "It is accepted that…", "We all know that…", "No one would argue that…" may antagonise someone marking your essay. Substantiate every claim you make no matter how obvious or “true” you think it is, by using sources as evidence.