Categories: Literature Reviews

Developing a Literary Argument

Once you have finished a rough outline of your ideas, you need to refine it into a
clear and logical shape. You need to state your thesis (or basic idea) clearly and then
support it with logical and accurate evidence. Here is a practical approach to this
crucial stage of the writing process:
Consider your purpose- As you develop your argument, be sure to refer back
to the specific assignment; let it guide you. Your instructor might request one of
the following kinds of papers:
• Response, in which you explore your reaction to a work of literature.
• Evaluation, in which you assess the literary merits of a work.
• Interpretation, in which you discuss a work’s meaning. If your instructor has
assigned an interpretation, he or she may have more specifically asked for an
analysis, explication, or comparison!contrast essay, among other possibilities.
& Remember your audience* Practically speaking, your professor (and sometimes
your classmates) will be your paper’s primary audience. Some assignments,
however, specify a particular audience beyond your professor and classmates.
Keep your readers in mind. Be sure to adapt your writing to meet their needs and
interests. If, for example, the audience has presumably already read a story under
discussion, you won’t need to relate the plot in its entirety. Instead, you will be
free to bring up only those plot points that serve as evidence for your thesis.
« Narrow down your topic to fit the assignment. Though you may be
tempted to choose a broad topic so that you will have no shortage of things to
say, remember that a good paper needs focus. Your choice should be narrow
enough for you to do it justice in the space and time allotted.
^ Decide on a thesis- Just as you need to know your destination before you set out
on a trip, you need to decide what point you’re traveling toward before you begin
your first draft. Start by writing a provisional thesis sentence: a summing up of the
main idea or argument your paper will explore. While your thesis doesn’t need to be
outrageous or deliberately provocative, it does need to take a stand. A clear, decisive
statement gives you something to prove and lends vigor to your essay.
The poem argues that like Adam and Eve we all lose
our innocence and the passage of time is inevitable.
This first stab at a thesis sentence gave its author a sense of purpose and direction
that allowed him to finish his first draft. Later, as he revised his essay, he
found he needed to refine his thesis to make more specific and focused assertions.
m Build your argument. Once you’ve formulated your thesis, your task will be
clear: you need to convince your audience that your thesis is sound. To write persuasively,
it helps to have an understanding of some key elements of argument:
® Claims. Any time you make a statement you hope will be taken as true, you
have made a claim. Some claims are unlikely to be contradicted (“the sky is
blue” or “today is Tuesday”), but others are debatable (“every college sophomore
dreams of running off to see the world”). Your essay’s main claim—your
thesis—should not be something entirely obvious. Having to support your
point of view will cause you to clarify your ideas about a work of literature.
• Persuasion. If the word argument makes you think of raised voices and short
tempers, it may help to think of your task as the gentler art of persuasion. To
convince your audience of your thesis, you will need to present a cogent argument
supported by evidence gathered from the text. If the assignment at hand
is a research paper, you will also need to cite what others have written on
your topic.
® Evidence. When you write about a work of literature, the most convincing
evidence will generally come from the text itself. Direct quotations from the
poem, play, or story under discussion can provide particularly convincing support
for your claims. Be sure to introduce any quotation by putting it in the
context of the larger work. It is even more important to follow up each quotation
with your own analysis of what it shows about the work.
• Warrants. Whenever you use a piece of evidence to support a claim, an underlying
assumption connects one to the other. For instance, if you were to
make the claim that today’s weather is absolutely perfect and offer as your evidence
the blue sky, your logic would include an unspoken warrant: sunny
weather is perfect weather. Not everyone will agree with your warrant,
though. Some folks (perhaps farmers) might prefer rain. In making any argument,
including one about literature, you may find that you sometimes need
to spell out your warrants to demonstrate that they are sound. This is especially
true when the evidence you provide can lead to conclusions other than
the one you are hoping to prove.
• Credibility . When weighing the merits of a claim, you will probably take into
account the credibility of the person making the case. Often this happens almost
automatically. You are more likely to listen to the opinion that you
should take vitamins if it is expressed by your doctor than if it is put forth by a
stranger you meet on the street. An expert on any given topic has a certain
brand of authority not available to most of us. Fortunately, there are other
ways to establish your credibility:
KEEP YOUR TONE THOUGHTFUL. Your reader will develop a sense of who
you are through your words. If you come across as belligerent or disrespectful
to those inclined to disagree with your views, you may lose your
reader’s goodwill. Therefore, express your ideas calmly and thoughtfully.
A level tone demonstrates that you are interested in thinking through an
issue or idea, not in bullying your reader into submission.
convincing, demonstrate familiarity with other possible points of view. Doing
so indicates that you have taken other claims into account before arriving
at your thesis; it reveals your fairness as well as your understanding of
your subject matter. In laying out other points of view, though, be sure to
represent them fairly but also to respectfully make clear why your thesis is
the soundest claim; you don’t want your reader to doubt where you stand.
DEMONSTRATE YOUR KNOWLEDGE. To gain your reader’s trust, it helps to
demonstrate a solid understanding of your subject matter. Always check
your facts; factual errors can call your knowledge into doubt. It also helps
to have a command of the conventions of writing. Rightly or wrongly, errors
in punctuation and spelling can undermine a writer’s credibility.
it Organize your argument. Unless you are writing an explication that works its
way line by line through a work of literature, you will need to make crucial decisions
about how to shape your essay. Its order should be driven by the logic of
your argument, not by the structure of the story, play, or poem you’re discussing.
In other words, you need not work your way from start to finish through your
source material, touching on each major point. Instead, choose only the points
needed to prove your thesis, and present them in whatever order best makes your
point. A rough outline can help you to determine that order.
• Make sure your thesis is supported by the evidence. If you find you can’t
support certain aspects of your thesis, then refine it so that you can. Remember:
until you turn it in, your essay is a work in progress. Anything can and should be
changed if it doesn’t further the development of the paper’s main idea.
Developing an Argument
S What is your essay’s purpose?
^ Who is your audience?
S Is your topic narrow enough?
S Is your thesis interesting and thought-provoking?
S Does everything in your essay support your thesis?
S Have you considered and refuted alternative views?
S Is your tone thoughtful?
S Is your argument sensibly organized? Are similar ideas grouped together?
Does one point lead logically to the next?


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