Building an argument
Cohesion and coherence
Continuing our series on essay writing, Cathy O’Neill offers tips for building a convincing argument
To build a convincing argument, you need to establish a decisive direction of travel, keeping the reader by your side as you develop your points. An essay that is angled to the question and is clearly and logically argued will succeed, whereas one that circles around and repeats similar points, even if it has good moments, will not. Without a logical structure, an essay is little more than a purposeless description.
Creating a structured argument that builds one point on another is a two-way process: the clearer you are in your own mind about what you want to argue and how you want to argue it, the better for the reader, who needs to be able to grasp your argument and find it both compelling and convincing. As you write your essay, ask yourself questions that consider that reader, such as, ‘Does this idea lead on from the previous one in a way that makes sense for the reader?’ Asking these questions keeps the construction of your argument at the essay’s core.
A well-structured argument
You may well have received feedback from your teacher that says, ‘Your points are unconnected — create a clearer structure.’ How can you improve your structure? A structured essay is one that develops an answer to the question, building an argument; it does not stand still. Importantly, it engages with the specifics of the question set, in particular with prompts, such as ‘to what extent?’ and ‘in what ways?’; it is through tackling these head on that you forge your own argument.
A decisive topic sentence is key to a successful paragraph. Since each paragraph explores a single point, the topic sentence is the one that most clearly and explicitly makes that point; it is not so much of a ‘topic’ as a ‘staging post’ of the essay’s thesis. The clearer you make your topic sentence, the better. It is usually positioned at the start of a paragraph, which makes it stand out. If you are struggling to formulate your topic sentence, think of the question that your paragraph is asking, then write a single sentence answer — this becomes your topic sentence. The rest of the paragraph will be the development of that point, with quotations and further analysis to support it.
If you are not sure whether you are making a single point or mixing several up, try rereading your paragraph aloud and ask yourself, ‘If this paragraph is the answer, what is the implied question that it is asking?’ If the question is not clear, then you are probably conflating two points. Go back and find a single point that you want the paragraph to address. The paragraph then forms a link in the chain that is the whole essay.
Signposts are connectives that signal the significance of your point to the reader; they express the logical transition between paragraphs, and sentences within paragraphs, to help the overall shape of the essay. They often come right at the start of your topic sentence, or you may use them within paragraphs to signal a development of your argument. Signposts can do a number of different things within an essay to connect one part of your argument with the previous or following point.
Signposts can add similar points or signal that you are going into more detail:
■ also, moreover, in addition, furthermore, similarly, additionally, likewise, for instance, this
Bear in mind, though, that if you only use this kind of signpost in your essay, your argument is unlikely to develop and may become descriptive.
Signposts can sequence points to help the reader see the link between ideas:
■ initially, next, first, second, third, at the same time, finally
Signposts can make points that challenge an earlier idea or put forward a contrasting point:
■ on the other hand, however, in contrast, but, although, despite, conversely
These connectives are key to building a successful argument, as they powerfully shift the essay onto new territory.
Reasons, causes and results
Signposts can also give reasons, causes or results:
■ accordingly, therefore, as a result, because, consequently
Importantly, signposts must signal a genuine rather than a phoney link between paragraphs. If you use them to yoke two totally disparate ideas together, the reader will be unimpressed.
Fulfil the brief
To fulfil the brief of the question, do a quick check to establish what is essential before you plan.
‘Hamlet is a play about uncertainty.’ Using your knowledge of the play as a whole, show how far you agree with this view. Remember to support your answer with reference to different interpretations. (OCR-type question (b) for ‘Drama and poetry pre-1900’ paper. AO5 is weighted 50:50 with AO1 for this question.)
The brief of the question requires you to:
■ Assess how far Hamlet is a play about uncertainty. Notice that this is not a yes/no question. Instead, it asks you to weigh up the extent to which the play is about uncertainty. This could include ideas about how it is but, importantly, could challenge this assumption by discussing the extent to which it is not.
■ Show an understanding of the play as a whole. Your essay needs to select and analyse specific moments from across the play that help make your case. Another way to do this is to discuss the genre of the play.
■ Support your argument with reference to specific productions or critical readings. Your own judgement, as you pursue your argument, needs to be informed by an exploration of different interpretations of the play. Comparing productions and critical views enables you to engage with how readings of the play have changed over time.
As we have discovered, each paragraph of a reasoned essay needs two core elements to succeed: a topic sentence (that reveals the main point) and a clear signpost (that delivers the structure and meaning to the reader).
Let’s see how these two aspects work in a plan for the same essay.
Hamlet may at first glance appear to be primarily a tragedy about uncertainty. Its disturbing and uncertain mood (created by the opening darkness, Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s Ghost, and the dominance of Hamlet’s soliloquies), suggests that the plot cannot be resolved by any degree of certainty for the audience. Coleridge’s reading of Hamlet would be useful here: ‘he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve’ (Lecture on Hamlet, 1818).
Furthermore, the very genre of the play is uncertain, as it oscillates between comic mockery and playfulness on the one hand (for example, in the gravediggers’ scene at the start of Act 5 or Hamlet’s own antic disposition), and tragic destruction on the other (in Hamlet’s taunting in 3.1 and Ophelia’s distraught songs in 4.5, for example).
However, to see the uncertainty of the play as the dominant focus of the play ignores the arc of the tragedy that takes us from Hamlet’s sense of his own uncertain existence in the first soliloquy (‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ [1.2.129–59]) to his defiance of hesitation in Act 5 when he proclaims, ‘The readiness is all’ (5.2.205). The play’s final act is full of decisive action: Hamlet leaps into Ophelia’s grave, he fights Laertes and finally kills Claudius. Shakespeare replaces slow-paced soliloquy with fast-paced dialogue. The play is also riddled with political expediency, intrigue and spying.
Therefore, it is oversimple to say that Hamlet is a play about uncertainty as this suggests that there is no development, either in terms of Hamlet’s state of mind or in relation to the overall mood and pace of the tragedy. What begins as a play that calls into question every aspect of existence, triggered by Hamlet’s grief and a sense of betrayal, ends with decisive revenge, making the play as much about political necessity as existential doubt.
The first signpost (‘may at first glance’) signals an opening point, that is then further developed by considering the genre of tragedy in the second paragraph. The third paragraph changes direction (signalled by ‘however’) and offers a counterargument to the one established in the first two paragraphs. The final signpost (‘therefore’) pulls the answer together and reaches a reasoned response to the question that has been well supported by evidence from the play as whole.
To build a powerful argument requires you to make your points clearly at the start of paragraphs and signpost them so the reader can understand the stages of your thinking. Rather like Ariadne’s thread that Theseus used to find his way back out of the minotaur’s labyrinth, these structural devices guide the reader, helping them to understand your argument and be convinced by it. Paradoxically, this security gives you the confidence to be inventive, finding new ideas as you write, while knowing that they are held very firmly within the parameters of your logical essay.
Harvard College Writing Center, ‘Topic Sentences and Signposting’: https://tinyurl.com/2p8ryxmx
Harvard College Writing Center, ‘Transitioning: Beware of Velcro’: https://tinyurl.com/yc6rvy7z
Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Hamlet: https://tinyurl.com/2b53nnp3
University of Cambridge, Faculty of English guide to writing essays: https://tinyurl.com/32utz7uh