Bonus post: how to make good arguments

As you all noticed or were reminded, good writing is hard. This is why I can only encourage you to use available resources for improving your writing, dedicate adequate time to completing your assignments, and practice, practice, practice.

As a reminder, a paper has three elements: language, structure and content (“argumentation”). Unclear language and lack of structure by definition diminish the quality of your argumentation, as they make it harder to understand and harder to follow. But a good argument is more than clear language and orderly structure – it is about the complexity, accuracy and logic of the statements that you make. Making a good argument is hard, and there a number of “typical” argumentative fallacies that we are all tempted to commit. You can find a short list of argumentative fallacies here (with examples and explanations) and here (with memorization aid), and a very long one here.

A very good advice is to look at your papers and the main arguments you are making, and reflect upon their strength and quality:

Here are some general tips for finding fallacies in your own arguments:

  • Pretend you disagree with the conclusion you’re defending. What parts of the argument would now seem fishy to you? What parts would seem easiest to attack? Give special attention to strengthening those parts.
  • List your main points; under each one, list the evidence you have for it. Seeing your claims and evidence laid out this way may make you realize that you have no good evidence for a particular claim, or it may help you look more critically at the evidence you’re using.
  • Learn which types of fallacies you’re especially prone to, and be careful to check for them in your work. Some writers make lots of appeals to authority; others are more likely to rely on weak analogies or set up straw men. Read over some of your old papers to see if there’s a particular kind of fallacy you need to watch out for.
  • Be aware that broad claims need more proof than narrow ones. Claims that use sweeping words like “all,” “no,” “none,” “every,” “always,” “never,” “no one,” and “everyone” are sometimes appropriate—but they require a lot more proof than less-sweeping claims that use words like “some,” “many,” “few,” “sometimes,” “usually,” and so forth.
  • Double check your characterizations of others, especially your opponents, to be sure they are accurate and fair.

As a “heads up”, some fallacies I noticed were particularly tempting to some of you include overgeneralization, oversimplification, straw man, red herrings, self evident claims, begging the question, false dilemmas, missing the point, cliches, and false/ weak analogies. It was great that most of you stayed away from ad hominem, tu quoque and post hoc arguments, extreme polarization, appeals to emotion, ignorance, or pity, bandwagon appeals, and equivocation. If you want to see what any of these (and some more) mean, follow the links above.

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