Friday, July 24, 2015

How to Write an Essay 4 - Arguments

Notes from The Practical Stylist, by Sheridan Baker, 7th edition

The following are different methods and strategies you can use to form arguments:


1. A picture is worth a thousand words. People care about what they can see and experience. A good writer can make readers care by putting pictures in their mind:

Example: "Almost everything in sight is black, from the tips of trees forty feet above the ground to the powdered ash blanketing the earth. The firestorm that raged through here in recent weeks was driven by sixty-mile-an-hour winds that fanned temperatures to more than 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire was so intense that a gray shadow on the forest floor is all that remains of a fallen log." ––Scott McMurray, from The Wall Street Journal, 23 Sept. 1988

A second ago, you didn't care about this forest, or the fire that burned it up over 25 years ago, but now you want to know where it was and hear more, because you've had a taste of what it looked like. As Stephen King says, writing is telepathy.

2. Description isn't just what you see, but what you hear, smell, taste, and feel:

Example: "Inside, the silence teemed. There was a smell of polished wood, hymnals, and rubber floor mats. The empty air was still vibrating slightly with the suppressed fidgets of children. Except for the pews and the floors, almost every interior surface was covered with statues or pictures."  ––"Great Plains," from The New Yorker, 20 Feb. 1989.

3. "The best descriptions follow the perceptions of a person entering the space described, reporting the impressions, the colors, textures, sights, or sounds as they come."

Example: "Our foreign visitor stands agape at the wonderful residence his second host has built for himself. No expense has been spared here, no decoration omitted. There are little Moorish balconies and Indian domes and squiggly lattice work and an air-conditioner in every window. Inside, all is marble flooring, and in the entrance hall there is a fountain lit up with green, yellow, and red bulbs. The curtains on the windows and in the doorways are of silk, the vast sofa-suites are upholstered in velvet, the telephone is red, and huge vases are filled with plastic flowers." ––Oliver Statler, from Japanese Inn.


If description creates a picture, narration is like video. It reenacts an event, or series of events, and can even tell you what someone was thinking while it happened. Like with description, the best narration puts you in the writer's head, following everything he/she did, saw, and thought in sequence:

Example: "But I did not want to shoot the elephant. I watched him beating his bunch of grass against his knees, with that preoccupied grandmotherly air that elephants have. It seemed to me that it would be murder to shoot him. At that age, I was not squeamish about killing animals, but I had never shot an elephant and never wanted to. (Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.) Besides, there was the beast's owner to be considered. Alive, the elephant was worth at least a hundred pounds; dead, he would only be worth the value of his tusks, five pounds, possibly. But I had got to act quickly. I turned to some experienced-looking Burmans who had been there when we arrived, and asked them how the elephant had been behaving. They all said the same thing: he took no notice of you if you left him alone, but he might charge if you went too close to him." ––George Orwell, from "Shooting an Elephant"

Comparison & Contrast

People generally think of comparison as finding similarities, and contrast as finding differences. A proper comparison covers both these tasks. Remember, compare things point by point, alternating either in sentences or paragraphs.


Metaphors are a useful form of comparison, where one thing is used to represent another.

Example: "He became a shell of his former self."
"It's raining cats and dogs outside.

We know that it's not really raining cats and dogs. Writers use metaphors like these for humour, clarity, or to add a poetic element to their work.


A simile is a kind of metaphor, stating that one thing is similar to another. Similes usually use the words "like" or "as".

Examples: "It's hot as hell out today."
 "Your socks smell like moldy cheese."


1. An analogy is a comparison between two things, not typically associated with each other. It's a logical argument, and it needs to be explained with reasons.

Examples: Life is like a box of chocolates. Why? "You never know what you're gonna get."
 Men are like dogs.                     Why? They're low maintenance. Just give him
some food, scratch his ears and call him a good boy, and he'll be happy.

You shouldn't need to explain a metaphor or simile. Their meaning should be obvious. If you have to, then you've failed. Analogies, on the other hand are meant to be explained.

2. Sheridan Baker warns that analogies are a great way to clarify your views, but you should keep them short, and don't use them to try to prove anything. People lose their patience over long analogies.

Cause & Effect

1. Cause & Effect arguments can focus on the past or future, depending on what you need. You can state an effect, and go back in time as to its causes. Or state a cause and predict what its effects will be in the future.

2. Be sure that you're correct in your assertions. Just because A happened before B, doesn't mean A caused B (the Post Hoc Fallacy). Perhaps it did. Perhaps it was a combination of A, C, H, and Q! Check to see if there aren't more than one causes to a present circumstance.

Classification & Definitions

1. There are many ways to classify and divide things. By making simple lists, classification helps you logically organize your arguments in a way that's easy for readers to follow. You can classify political parties, and so that, when you talk about one, readers assume you'll describe another.
2. Another great thing to classify are problems:

Example: Digging the Panama Canal posed very many problems, which can be divided into political, geological, and biological. The political problems involved international treaties between America, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Geological problems included where and how to dig, and dealing with extreme weather. And the worst problem of all was biological - malaria, which killed thousands of workers. Classifying all these problems into a short simple list makes it easier for readers to remember.

3. So far as defining your terms, some words, like cake, shoe, and house are pretty self-explanatory. But some words, like art, are hazy. They mean different things to different people. The People's Republic of China does not reflect a western definition of the word 'republic', nor does the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reflect western principles of democracy. Depending on your topic, you might need to clarify what you mean when you use certain words. Very often, readers dispute an author over the words chosen, rather than the arguments themselves. Quick example, when Richard Hofstadter wrote "Democracy and Anti-Intellectualism in America" in 1953, he wrote several paragraphs defining both democracy and intellectual.

4. Writers may choose inclusive (or loose) definitions, or exclusive (specific) depending on the need.

Examples: A loose definition of love could include romantic, familial, motherly, and platonic. An exclusive definition could be any one of those.

Exclusive definitions are good for narrowing down a debate for ease of argument.

5. There are various ways to define things: by synonym, by function, by comparison, by example, and by analysis.

6. If you're having trouble defining something, ask yourself these questions:

            1. What is it?
            2. What is it not?
            3. What is it like?
            4. What is it not like?

7. Avoid circular definitions! Don't say, "Freedom is feeling free" or "Courtesy is being courteous." Circular definitions aren't clear, and signal intellectual laziness.

8. Don't make your definitions too small. You might define art as beauty, but it's also much more than that.

9. Don't make your definitions too big. You might think that vanity is basically pride, but there are some important differences. Narrow your definition to make it more accurate. Vanity is a kind of frivolous, personal pride, usually stemming from superficial, physical qualities.

Hypothetical Examples

Hypothetical examples, sometimes called thought experiments, are a great way to simplify and clarify a challenging topic. Since we're not dealing with fact or experience, the value of a hypothetical rests only on the strength of its logic.

Example: Suppose someone riding in a bus drops a ball. The passengers sitting in the bus see it fall straight down to the floor. But, the ball also traces a long line slanting downard relative to the rapidly receding highway beneath the car. If the highway curves, the ball also traces that invisible curve. If the bus and passengers were invisible, and an observer standing on the sidewalk saw this ball, he'd see it fall at a diagonal. Now consider that this bus is traveling on the Earth, which is orbiting the sun at 30 km/s, while the sun orbits around the Milky Way at 220 km/s. Now the short, diagonal line becomes as long as a highway. Adding the ball's drop relative to the earth's movement around the sun may be hard to imagine, but calculations of such relative motion are what send our rockets to their meetings with the moon or other planets.

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