Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.
The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.
Answering Questions: The Parts of an Essay
A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.
It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)
"What?" The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.
"How?" A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.
"Why?" Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.
Mapping an Essay
Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.
Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:
- State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
- Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
- Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ." Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay.
Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.
Signs of Trouble
A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").
Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
A counter-argument is an argument opposed to your thesis, or part of your thesis. It expresses the view of a person who disagrees with your position.
- More Information
Why use counter-argument?
Why would you include a counter-argument in your essay? Doesnt that weaken your argument?
Actually, no. Done well, it makes the argument stronger. This is because it gives you the chance to respond to your readers objections before they have finished reading. It also shows that you are a reasonable person who has considered both sides of the debate. Both of these make an essay more persuasive.
How should a counter-argument be presented?
A counter-argument should be expressed thoroughly, fairly and objectively. Do not just write a quick sentence and then immediately rebut it. Give reasons why someone might actually hold that view. A few sentences or even a whole paragraph is not an unreasonable amount of space to give to the counter-argument. Again, the point is to show your reader that you have considered all sides of the question, and to make it easier to answer the counter-argument. Its easier to respond to a point you have already spelled outand its easier for your reader to follow you.
Make sure you express the counter-argument fairly and objectively. Ask yourself if the person who actually holds this position would accept your way of stating it. Put yourself in their shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. Dont use biased language or stack the deck when presenting their position. Readers see through that sort of thing pretty quickly.
Obviously, if you really believe the position expressed in your thesis, you will not be able to be completely objective in how you express the counter-argumentbut you should try. One of the most common purposes of counter-argument is to address positions that many people hold but that you think are mistaken. Therefore you want to be respectful and give them the benefit of the doubt even if you think their views are incorrect. Theyll be much more likely to be persuaded then. (The other approach, to use sarcasm and satire to expose mistaken ideas, is very powerful, but should be used with care, especially before youve mastered the art of rhetoric.)
How can a counter-argument be rebutted?
One of the most effective ways to rebut a counter-argument is to show that it is based on faulty assumptions. Either the facts are wrong, the analysis is incorrect, or the values it is based on are not acceptable. Examples of each are given below. Furthermore, some counter-arguments are simply irrelevant, usually because they are actually responding to a different argument. And some counter-arguments actually make your argument stronger, once you analyze their logic.
All of these examples use a claim from James Loewens book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. In that book Loewen makes the claim that To function adequately in civic life students must learn what causes racism (143). The examples below are ideas that you might use as a counter-argument to this claim, in a paper agreeing with Loewen. Then you would rebut, or answer, the counter-argument as a way to strengthen your own position.
Faulty Factual Assumption
Racism is a thing of the past; therefore, students dont need to bother with it.
The factual assumption in this example is that racism is a thing of the past. One response would be to muster facts to show that racism continues to be a problem. (Theres a second assumption, which is that students dont need to bother with whats in the past. Another response would be to show that students must understand the past as well as the present to function adequately in civic life.)
Faulty Analytical Assumption
Learning about racism might make students more racist.
The analytical assumption is that learning about racism can make you racist. The response would be that understanding the causes of a problem is not the same as causing or creating the problem. (Another assumption in this argument is that its not good to make students racist. Loewens argument shares this assumption, so you wouldnt rebut it.)
Who cares if students are racist?
This counter-argument is based on an assumed value that your readers probably do not sharenamely, the idea that its ok for students to be racist. The response would be to point out this value, state why you dont share it and state why you dont think your readers do either. Of course, values are both deeply personal and extremely varied, so youre always going to have some readers who do not share yours. The key is to base your arguments on values that most readers are likely to share.
True but Irrelevant
Students are already familiar with racism; they dont need to study it in school.
Many students are, in fact, already familiar with racism. But Loewen is not saying they need to learn about racism, hes saying they need to learn what causes it. You might be very familiar with racism but still not know what causes it. This is a very common form of counter-argument, one that actually rebuts a different argument. (Note that here, too, theres a faulty assumption: being familiar with something is not the same as knowing what causes it.)
Makes the Argument Stronger
Previous generations didnt study the causes of racism, so why should we start now?
The response here would be to show that previous generations did not function adequately in civic life, because they had a lot of problems with racism (segregation and more hidden forms of discrimination). Therefore, the fact that they didnt learn about the causes of racism, together with this other information, actually supports the claim that students do need to learn what causes racism. (Here again theres a faulty assumption, implied but not stated: Previous generations supposedly did function adequately in civic life. The response shows that that assumption is incorrect.)
When should a counter-argument be conceded?
Sometimes you come up with a counter-argument that you think is true and that you think responds to your actual argument, not some other point. Then you are faced with a choice: Do you abandon your thesis and adopt the counter-argument as your position? Often it turns out you dont need to abandon your thesis, but you might need to modify or refine it.
Lets take a modified version of the second example given above (learning about racism might make students more racist). The new version might look like this:
Students get turned off by what they are forced to learn, especially when its about forcing them to be good. Then they turn against what theyve been taught and deliberately go in the other direction. So, studying racism might just make them want to be racist out of sheer contrariness. This might help explain the backlash against political correctness.
One way to respond to a counter-argument like this is to acknowledge that, if its done incorrectly, education about racism might just end up turning kids off and making them hostile. Then, you refine your original thesis to say something like this:
Students should learn what causes racism, but should not be constantly lectured that racism is bad. Instead, they should be taught the causes and history in a way that they find interesting and that lets them decide their own values.
By refining your thesis in this way you are able to retain your original point, while strengthening it by incorporating part of the oppositions views. This also takes away some of the reasons a reader might have to disagree with you.
What makes a good counter-argument?
Some counter-arguments are better than others. You want to use ones that are actually somewhat persuasive. Theres nothing to be gained by rebutting a counter-argument that nobody believes. Two things to look for are reasonableness and popularity.
If you yourself are somewhat unsure of the position youve chosen as your thesis, it will be easier for you to identify good counter-arguments. You already recognize that there are reasonable arguments on the other sidethats why youre a little unsure. Look for those arguments that make sense to you or that seem reasonable, even if you dont agree with them.
On the other hand, you may be quite sure of your position, which makes it harder to see other views as reasonable. They all look flawed to you because you can point out their errors and show why your view is better. In that case, look for ones that are popular, even if they are flawed. Remember, youre trying to persuade your readers to agree with you. So you want to speak their language. That means answering their objections even if you dont think the objections are reasonable.
If you look at the examples above, youll probably find some more convincing than others. Most people will probably not find the Who cares if students are racist argument very convincing. On the other hand, you might find the students already understand argument pretty persuasive.
Pick the arguments that you, or a lot of other people, feel are reasonable. The more you can answer those objections, the stronger youll make your case.
Where does the counter-argument go?
The short answer is a counter-argument can go anywhere except the conclusion. This is because there has to be a rebuttal paragraph after the counter-argument, so if the counter-argument is in the conclusion, something has been left out.
In practice (there are exceptions), the rebuttal is usually not the concluding paragraph, which means that generally the counter-argument is anywhere but the last two paragraphs.
Counter-arguments can be very effective in introductions, especially if you are arguing against a popularly held view. However, its also very common to place them after the presentation of the case for the thesis. In other words, they would go after all of the main points that support the thesis, but before the conclusionin the third-to-last paragraph, with the rebuttal in the second-to-last. This is probably the most common position.
Generally, unless there is some compelling reason specific to the particular argument being made, it does not make sense to put the counter-argument in the middle of the case for the thesis. In other words, you would not typically present two points in support of the thesis, then the counter-argument and rebuttal, and then more points in support of the thesis.
Here are two outlines showing the most common placement of the counter-argument. The first is probably the most common.
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
- Counter-argument, which also serves as introduction
- Rebuttal, which would usually include the thesis statement
- Supporting point #1
- Supporting point #2
- Supporting point #3
- Supporting point #4 [there can be any number of supporting points]
How should the counter-argument be introduced?
Its important to use clear signals to alert the reader that the paper is about to express a view different from (typically, the opposite of) the thesis. Since the purpose of the whole paper, including the counter-argument, is to support the thesis, these signals are crucial. Without them the paper appears incoherent and contradictory.
Generally, the counter-argument will begin with a word, phrase or sentence to indicate that what follows is not the authors view. These can range from the very simplesometimes the single word But or However is sufficientto quite complex whole sentences:
In his majisterial work on representation in western literature, a foundational text in the discipline, Auerbach argues that the mixture of styles is an essential ingredient of all modern realism, a view that has found wide acceptance in the half-century since its publication.
Notice, however, that even this sentence is careful to attribute these views to other people, and to call them viewsin other words, to subtly hint that they are not facts or truths.
In general, the strategy is to make it clear quickly that this is someone else�s view. Typical introductory strategies include the following:
- Many people [believe/argue/feel/think/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It is often [thought/imagined/supposed/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- [It would be easy to/One could easily] [think/believe/imagine/suppose/etc.] that [state the counter-argument here]
- It might [seem/appear/look/etc.] as if [state the counter-argument here]
Another common approach is to use a question:
- But isnt it true that [state the counter-argument here]?
- [Doesnt/Wouldnt/Isnt] [state the counter-argument here]?
You can also cite specific writers or thinkers who have expressed a view opposite to your own:
- On the other hand, Fund argues that...
- However, Ngugi has written, ...
- Dangarembga takes the position that...
How should the rebuttal be introduced?
If the counter-argument requires careful signaling, so does the rebuttal. The essay has just done a 180° turn away from its thesis, and now it is about to do another 180° turn to complete the circle. The reader needs warnings and guidance or they will fall off or get whiplashyoull lose them, in other words, because the essay will seem incoherent or contradictory.
The common strategies for introducing the rebuttal are the mirror image of those for introducing the counter-argument, and they all boil down to the same basic concept: Yes, but.... They can be as simple as that, or as complex as this example sentence:
While Auerbachs claim seems initially plausible, and is backed by the copious evidence provided by his astonishing erudition, it is marred by an inconsistency that derives from an unsupportable and ultimately incoherent definition.
In all cases, the job of this transitional language is to show the reader that the opposing view is now being answered. The essay has returned to arguing its own thesis, strengthened by having taken the opposition into account. Here are some typical strategies. These are generic examples; they work best when tailored to suit the specifics of the individual topic.
- What this argument [overlooks/fails to consider/does not take into account] is ...
- This view [seems/looks/sounds/etc.] [convincing/plausible/persuasive/etc.] at first, but ...
- While this position is popular, it is [not supported by the facts/not logical/impractical/etc.]
- Although the core of this claim is valid, it suffers from a flaw in its [reasoning/application/etc.]
For more on this topic, see the Counterargument section of the Argument web page at the University of North Carolina Writing Center.
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1996.