Doyle Online Writing Lab

Making Academic Arguments

Joseph Williams, the author of The Craft of Argument, Style, and The Craft of Research, argues most academic articles have four main components. Usually these components appear in the introduction to the article, but sometimes they are woven throughout the article. These four parts are

(1) Common Ground: Establishes a brief context that the author intends to qualify or question. This may be either a commonly held belief (some people...) or may be what other researchers have said about the subject.
(2) But... Introduces a question about something key that is not known or fully understood or contradicts this common ground.
(3) So What? States the significance of the question raised
(4) Thesis: the answer to problem/question. States the author’s main claim.

Here is an example of an introduction with this format:

Ever since the sixteenth century, when Girolamo Cardano began thinking about games of chance in quantitative terms (Cardano, 1545), risk has been treated as a purely mathematical problem ... In the twentieth century, researchers shifted their focus ... These problems, too, have been addressed almost exclusively with mathematical tools. context ( common ground) But researchers who try to communicate risk to a public audience have failed to understand that most people view do not view risk not as a rationally quantifiable question, but rather in ways that seem puzzling, even irrational, question (So what?) As a result, we do not understand how ordinary people make decisions about risks in their daily lives and so fail to communicate with the public about risk. significance Among the general public, most decisions about risk include at least six factors that may not be precisely quantifiable but are systematic and therefore predictable. (Thesis/main claim) (Example cited in Research and Its Reporting by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams.)

Need some more examples? Here are some sample lecture notes from Humanities 110 that map out the four key parts of the lecturer's argument:

Now, reread the introduction to your paper or your notes. Write down what the four parts are for your argument. If you don't know what one of these four parts is for your paper, do a bit of brainstorming. Sometimes people don't know what their thesis is until they have finished the paper. If you only have a tentative thesis, use that for now. You will want to remember to replace this "stunt" thesis with your real one when you are finished with a draft of the paper.

(1) Common Ground:
(2) But...
(3) So What?
(4) Thesis:

Now that you know the four parts of your argument, make sure they are in your introduction. Most academic readers (such as your professors) are trained to look for these four parts of your argument at the opening of your paper. A properly structured essay is pleasing for your professor, as it allows him or her to focus on the ingenuity of your ideas rather than having to spend all of his or her time trying to figure out what you really wanted to argue.