A persuasive argument entails tension but not confrontation. The tension comes from the basic lack of congruity between you and the people you must persuade. The common ground that you share is rationality and intelligence. Your aim is to submit a case that is so strong that any sensible person would be convinced of the logic of your thesis.
The first task, even before you start to write, is gathering and ordering evidence, classifying it by kind and strength. You might decide to move from the smallest piece of evidence to the most impressive. Or you might start with the most convincing, then mention other supporting details afterward. You could hold back a surprising piece of evidence until the very end.
In any case, it is important to review evidence that could be used against your idea and generate responses to anticipated objections. This is the crucial concept of counter-argument. If nothing can be said against an idea, it is probably obvious or vacuous. (And if too much can be said against it, it’s time for another thesis.) By not indicating an awareness of possible objections, you might seem to be hiding something, and your argument will be weaker as a consequence. You should also become familiar with the various fallacies that can undermine an argument—the “straw man” fallacy, fallacies of causation and of analogy, etc.—and strive to avoid them.
The heart of the academic argument is persuasion, and the structure of your argument plays a vital role in this. To persuade, you must set the stage, provide a context, and decide how to reveal your evidence. Of course, if you are addressing a community of specialists, some aspects of a shared context can be taken for granted. But clarity is always a virtue.
The most common argumentative structure in English prose is deductive: starting off with a generalization or assertion, and then providing support for it. This pattern can be used to order a paragraph as well as an entire essay. Another possible structure is inductive: facts, instances or observations can be reviewed, and the conclusion to be drawn from them follows. There is no absolute blueprint for a successful essay; the best ones show us a focused mind making sense of some manageable aspect of the world, a mind where insightfulness, reason, and clarity are joined.
In order for persuasion to be successful, it must be based on commonly held-beliefs and/or values. If you base your argument on selfish or one-sided principles, these principles will almost certainly be rejected (and persuasion will fail). If it is based on clear evidence from reputable sources that all sides can agree on, then the persuasive effort is much more likely to succeed.
For example, to say “The Titanic sank because Captain Smith failed to acknowledge the superstitions of his crew” would be wholly unsupportable. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that the presence of a woman, a priest, a dog, a barber or a red-head has, in and of itself, caused a ship to sink, although it could be argued that a the actions or behaviour of one of those individuals could contribute to the catastrophe.
In researching and developing your essay, at some point you will have clearly seen what position you can legitimately argue in regard to the essay question, in order to create your thesis statement. Before you begin to write, you will need to go over your notes, and refer back to the question, your plan and outline, to carefully clarify the position you’re taking.
When choosing what evidence you will use, ask yourself whether it is: