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Persuade Your Audience, Get the Grade

You might feel a bit overwhelmed the first time you're assigned to write a college paper -- the material you cover in class is probably more advanced than what you're used to, and your professor will expect your thinking to be on an equally-high level. However, if you apply an organized writing process to your paper, you'll quickly be able to craft compelling arguments and back them up with supporting evidence.

Start with Structure

Whether you're analyzing facts in a research paper or interpreting texts in a critical paper, your job boils down to convincing your audience of the validity of your interpretation. Give your paper a clear structure -- begin with an argument of some kind, which is laid out through a series of claims, each of which is supported by evidence. Your paper should answer three basic questions:

  • What is the evidence? This question is answered with a presentation of your research or with evidence from the texts.

  • What is your interpretation of the evidence? This question is answered with your interpretation of the factual material or texts.

  • Who cares? This question is answered with a statement of your argument.
Keep Your Focus Narrow

For a short assignment (say, from three to five pages), you may want to choose an argument that can be demonstrated in three or four simple steps. For a longer paper, you can choose a more ambitious argument.

Establish Your Argument in the First Paragraph

Your goal should be to introduce your paper with an argument or claim of some kind. In one prominent sentence, state a case; put yourself on the line by establishing a position you then have to defend in the body of the paper.

Suppose you've decided to evaluate two theories of economic growth in Mozambique. Instead of opening with a list of facts about Mozambique, try to establish your argument by stating briefly which theory is best and why.

Make Your Argument Specific and Compelling

Compare the following claims:

  • Okay: "Dependency models are better than core-periphery models."

    This argument is far too general -- your job is not only to choose among these models of economic development, but to decide which differences between them matter and why.

    Also, when an argument is too general, it's too easy for your reader to come up with a counterargument before he or she even reads your work.

  • Better: "The economic history of Mozambique shows that dependency models are better than core-periphery models."

    This takes you a step closer but still doesn't include the final step of calling the reader's attention to how and why these models are important and worthy of comparison.

  • Best: "The economic history of Mozambique shows that dependency models better explain economic underdevelopment than core-periphery models, particularly in regions of the world relatively unaffected by cold war politics of the 1960s and 1970s."

    A statement like this one gives your reader a clear sense of where you're going to take your argument as well as hinting at why these differences matter.
Tip: If you're writing a research paper
Develop a counterargument to your own. Collect those facts that don't fit neatly into your argument and spell them out in a paragraph near the end of your paper. Identify which hypothesis they appear to support. Then, in a few sentences, explain why, despite this seemingly damaging evidence, the hypothesis, model, or theory you've chosen to support is better. Don't underestimate the power of this strategy -- it is a sophisticated signal of your confidence in your work.
Double-Check Your First Paragraph

When you are finished writing, look back over the first paragraph. Can you identify which sentence states your case? Will it be clear to your reader exactly what your argument is? Have you ensured that your reader cannot walk away from your paper thinking, "Who cares?"

Bolster Your Ideas with Strong Writing

Here are some ways to strengthen your argument and its presentation:

  • Build your argument in steps. Make sure your sentences follow one another logically and coherently. Include clear transitions between your paragraphs.

  • Thoroughly express concepts and claims. For each assertion you make, ask yourself, Have I really defended this claim or merely stated it?

  • Don't include only one or two quick factual references, but a number of them that range throughout your paper and show your familiarity with and understanding of the material in question.

  • Write clearly and convincingly. Take some care with the phrases you construct, the metaphors you employ, and the words you choose.
Tip: If you're writing a critical paper
Don't "lean" on secondary sources. These may tempt you to rely on the arguments presented by their authors rather than to form your own. Make this a conversation between you, Melville, and Hawthorne, or whomever. Use your own judgments and insights to answer the question -- and don't be hesitant about presenting criticisms of the authors under consideration.

Cite Your Sources

Here are a few guidelines for presenting evidence in your paper:

  • Provide a citation for material in your paper that is not your own. This includes items such as a quick page reference; a few facts quoted directly from your source; or an occasional longer passage, table, or chart that you deem important enough to include in the body of your writing.

  • Use footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations to cite your sources. Your professor will specify which format to use. Whatever method you choose, use it consistently throughout your paper.
A Final Note

Try to have fun with your essay. Prove your points, but don't forget that your paper is also an exercise in creativity and communication. Work on your ability to fine-tune a point and really develop it. Your paper should illustrate who you are as a thinker.

Your High School Action Plan-High School Seniors