First Year Experience Series  2000 Learning Centre, University of Sydney

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First Year Experience Series 2000 Learning Centre, University of Sydney

Developing and Supporting an Argument
Common criteria of undergraduate essay writing focus on the following requirements:
students need to be analytical and critical in their response
students need to structure their writing logically
students need to be persuasive writers

students need to answer the question

This booklet looks at the requirement to be persuasive in your response. Other Learning Centre booklets in this series deal with the other aspects:

• Analytical Writing deals with the difference between analytical and descriptive writing

• Planning and Structuring an Essay deals with logical structure

• Analysing an Essay Question deals with answering the question

The following examples of lecturers’ comments indicate they feel the student has a problem in developing an argument in their written assignments:
"You have made some good points but you have not substantiated them."

"Where is your evidence for this claim?"

"You need to show me that you have done the reading on this topic."

"I know the literature myself so you don't need to just tell it all to me: What I want to know is - what is your position?"

"Your argument here contradicts your starting position"

This booklet looks at how you can develop and substantiate an argument or position (“persuade”) in writing through the use of evidence. Its objective is to answer the following five questions:

 what is appropriate evidence for academic contexts?

 how can I recognise different positions taken in the readings?

 how can I develop my own argument through the evidence?

 how can I present and support my own position?

 what is the difference between merely summarising the evidence, and using it to substantiate my position and develop my argument?

Please look at page 17

for a glossary of terms

There are two main reasons why we use evidence.

(1) to develop a position after reading and developing our own conceptual understanding of the topic. (Question 2 & 3)

(2) to present this position to our reader: we use evidence to persuade the reader that our position is justifiable. (Questions 4 & 5)

Question 1: What is appropriate evidence for academic contexts?
There are many different kinds of evidence that can be used to develop and present a position, but you need to consider first whether the people reading your essay would think they are appropriate. This table shows some of the aspects you should think about:

Aspect of evidence

Some possibilities



  • your own reflections and opinions

  • the experience of others

  • someone else’s reflections
    and opinions


  • print

  • academic and general publications

  • electronic

  • internet, email etc

  • verbal

  • conversations, interviews etc


  • academic

  • textbooks, journal articles etc - aimed at students / academics

  • non-academic

  • news media, magazines etc - aimed at the general public


  • primary (closest to the event)

  • letters & diaries (history), lab notes (sciences), literary work (literature)

  • secondary

  • comments on a primary source (journal articles, scientific reports etc)

  • tertiary

  • general textbooks, encyclopedia etc

When you are writing essays at university, you would normally use substantiating evidence from the experience of others rather than from your personal experience; from printed rather than non-print modes*; and from publications intended for an academic readership rather than those for a non-academic audience.

* Some disciplines are happy for you to use certain electronic journals; some are not happy about any non-paper modes of presenting information. If in doubt, ask your tutor or lecturer.

[For other kinds of assignments, other types of evidence may be acceptable. For instance, in Nursing and Education, students are often asked to write reflective journals, which involve personal experience and less academic sources.]

Find out which type of evidence is required or expected

Exercise 1:

Read the following two extracts from essays on the effect of TV violence on children, and decide which one uses evidence which is only from the writer's personal experience of the world.
(a) When considering the content debate, the most controversial aspect must be that of televised violence. Seemingly today, violence is a common theme in our television programs. Programs from America like The Sopranos, and NYPD Blue, among others, have violence as a central theme. Programs from Britain like The Cops, Prime Suspect and Cracker are much the same if not worse in their portrayal of violence. Added to this now, comes our own homegrown programs like Water Rats and Wildside, which are spin-offs from overseas ideas.
(b) Most children are subjected daily to televised violence and aggression, whether in cartoons, or performed by human actors, or by real people in the news. It has been estimated (Parker, 1983: 38) that by graduation from high school, the average American child has seen 18,000 television murders; and it seems probable that this would significantly affect the child's aggressive behaviour.
Check your answers in the Key, page 18 .
Question 2: How can I recognise different positions taken in

the readings?
When you are preparing your essay through reading literature on the topic, you will probably be reading from different sources, which often have different positions towards the topic. It is important that you can recognise these differences to help you understand the topic more. Sometimes the different views that you read on a topic are very strongly in conflict with each other, particularly in areas that are quite controversial.
Exercise 2:
Examine the information in the following two sources which are about the effects of passive smoking, and answer the following questions about them:

(a) What position does each source take towards the effects of passive smoking?

(b) Are these sources reliable (i.e. trustworthy)?

(c) How would you assess the validity (accuracy, truth) of the information presented in these sources?

Source 1
Excerpt from Sullum Jacob (1998) FOR YOUR OWN GOOD: The Anti Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, Free Press, N.Y.

..... it is safe to say the hazards of secondhand smoke have been grossly exaggerated. ETS is certainly an irritant. It can induce tears, headaches, coughing and nausea. It probably aggravates asthma and bronchitis, and it may increase the frequency of respiratory infections in young children. 74 On the other hand the risk for kids exposed to ETS in the home, which the Lancet calls “unquantifiable and probably tiny,” is hardly enough to justify a charge of child abuse.75

Excerpt from the reference list:

(74) For a summary of possible effects on children, see Anne Charleton, “Children and Passive Smoking: A Review,” Journal of Family Practice, 38:3 (March 1994) pp267 - 277; the review was funded by the British Cancer Research Campaign.
(75) “Is Health a Moral Responsibility?” Lancet, 347 (May 4, 1996) p1197

Source 2
Excerpt from Winstanley, M [Ed] (1995) Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues, (2nd Ed. p.77) Action on Smoking and Health Limited (ASH Australia), 5th Floor 64 Kippax Street, Surry Hills, Sydney.

A wealth of scientific evidence now exists showing that the breathing of tobacco-smoke polluted air by non-smokers can lead to serious harm, such as increased bronchitis, pneumonia and other chest illnesses in children, lung cancer and other lung diseases, and cardiovascular disease. This is of course in addition to the well known `irritant 'effects of tobacco smoke to the eyes, nose, throat and airways passages.6

Excerpt from the reference list:

(6) US Department of Health and Human Services. The Health Consequences of Involuntary Smoking. A report of the Surgeon General, Rockville, Maryland, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Office on Smoking and Health 1986.

Here are the questions again:

(a ) What position does each source take towards the effects of passive smoking?

(b) Are these sources reliable (trustworthy)?

(c) How would you assess the validity (accuracy, truth) of the information presented in these sources?
Check your answers in the Key, pages 18-19 .

A Case Study

Why you need to ask questions about possible evidence
(1) 8 March 1998 Sunday Telegraph (UK) news item

Passive smoking doesn’t cause cancer - official

The world’s leading health organisation has withheld from publication a study which shows that not only might there be no link between passive smoking and lung cancer, but that it could even have a protective effect. … the World Health Organisation, which commissioned the 12 centre, 7 country study has …….

(2) 9 March 1998 World Health Organisation Press Office press release

Passive smoking does cause lung cancer, do not let them fool you

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been publicly accused of suppressing information. Its opponents say that WHO has withheld from publication its own report that was aimed at but supposedly failed to scientifically prove that there is an association between passive smoking and a number of diseases, lung cancer in particular. Both statements are untrue. (details)

(3) 11 March 1998 ASH Briefing

How the Sunday Telegraph and BAT got it badly wrong on passive smoking

The WHO report leaked to the Sunday Telegraph is undergoing peer review prior to being published in an academic journal. It cannot therefore be described as ‘withheld’. The study gives the following figures …..These figures mean that non-smokers are 16% more likely to get lung cancer if their spouse smokes than if they live with a non-smoking spouse….. Despite this, BAT (British American Tobacco) and tobacco industry spokespeople continue to push the Sunday Telegraph’s misleading version.

....the error (or deception) was to misinterpret a statistical test applied to these results….
(4) Extract from abstract of unpublished WHO paper

…..Our results are in line with those of recent investigations; they add substantially to the evidence available from Europe of the association between ETS exposure and lung cancer, provide statistically stable risk estimates, assess the contribution of different sources of ETS and point towards a decrease in risk after cessation of exposure.

Question 3: How can I develop an argument out of the

evidence to support my own position?
First, you need to chose your position. When you are researching a topic, you will probably come across a range of positions, sometimes extremely opposed to each other. You will then have to evaluate each position and decide why one is more valid than another. This will help you to decide what your own position is, so that you can establish the starting point of the argument for your essay. Sometimes your position will be determined by the amount of source material available.

If you had to make a position statement to identify where you stand on the effects of passive smoking, would it be similar to 1) or 2) above? Would it be stronger or weaker than those positions? Try to identify your position on the following gradient of views.

passive smoking causes lung cancer (extreme position)
passive smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer
passive smoking can lead to serious harm such as lung and chest illnesses, including lung cancer
exposure to environmental tobacco smoke gives rise to some risk of lung cancer
the risk of developing lung cancer from passive smoking is variable
the effect of passive smoking on the respiratory system is negligible
an increased risk of lung cancer due to passive smoking has not been established
there is no convincing evidence that passive smoking causes lung cancer
passive smoking under normal conditions is at most a minor annoyance for many individuals
exposure to environmental tobacco smoke under extreme conditions may provoke complaints of irritation and annoyance
reactions to environmental tobacco smoke are psychological or emotional (extreme position)

Most essay topics which involve developing an argument will have a similar range of possible positions. You may find that your choice of position in any argument will depend largely on the amount of evidence available to support it.

Once you have done enough reading on your topic, you should begin to get a feel for the range of positions put forward by different authors, and also a feel for where you stand on the topic. This next exercise will help you to go through the process of reading different positions, making judgements about which ones are most valid, and then deciding your own position.

Exercise 3:

On pages 8 and 9 are a number of pieces of information about tobacco production, product sales and effects which you have found in preparation for an essay on the topic
"Discuss the economic effects of tobacco use".

Below are some steps to go through in this exercise.

The steps to follow:
(a) Read all the evidence through once before going on. Then go back and read each piece in turn, and answer the following questions:
Is this piece of evidence relevant to the essay question - "Discuss the economic effects of tobacco use"?
Is this piece of evidence written by a reputable person or group?

(You might still be able to use evidence which is not as reputable, by criticising it.)

(b) Make notes about how you could use this piece of evidence: what position is it taking? is it valid in taking this position? if it is not valid, what are the problems with it?
(c) Decide which position you intend to take in order to respond to the task.
Finally, decide how you will structure your ideas and the information you want to use to support them. Draw a diagram to show how you will "taxonomise" your analysis.
The evidence:
(1) …the more recent study by Collins and Lapsley4 ….estimated the total cost of tobacco to the Australian community in 1992 to be $9.2 billion annually. These calculations take no account of the pain and suffering experienced by those with disease and their families.

[4. Collins DJ, Lapsley HM. The economic costs generated by tobacco use in Australia. Department of Human Services and Health submission to the Industry Commission Inquiry into the Tobacco Growing and Manufacturing Industries. Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, 1994]

Winstanley, M [Ed] (1995) Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues.

Action on Smoking and Health Ltd (ASH Australia)

(2) In any given year, smokers’ healthcare costs will on average exceed nonsmokers’. …..In high-income countries, smoking related healthcare costs accounts for between 6 and 15% of all annual healthcare costs.

Tobacco Free Initiative: Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control

World Bank Report 2000

(3) In Ecuador, Philip Morris International’s contributions allowed hunger-relief agencies to quadruple the monthly food provision for hungry people in the city of Cuenca….

Philip Morris International Financial Overview, June 2000

(4) The total domestic output arising from the activities of the tobacco industry was valued at $8 billion.

Australia’s Golden Leaf: the economic impact of the tobacco industry in Australia (1990)

Price Waterhouse Economic Studies Unit,

commissioned by the Tobacco Institute of Australia
(5) In 1997 the tobacco industry directly employed more than 670,000 people in the United States alone, and also created over 830,000 jobs in related sectors such as transport, retail, finance, business services, construction and agriculture.

British American Tobacco 30 May 2000

(6) The federal and state governments collect considerable income from the sale of tobacco products. Around a quarter of the retail price of a packet of cigarettes is accounted for by federal excise, and a further third by state or territorial licence fees….

Winstanley, M [Ed] (1995) Tobacco in Australia: Facts and Issues

Action on Smoking and Health Ltd (ASH Australia)

(7) Crop substitution is often proposed as a means to reduce the tobacco supply, but there is scarcely any evidence that it reduces consumption, since the incentives to farmers to grow tobacco are currently much greater than for most other crops.

Tobacco Free Initiative: Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control

World Bank Report 2000

(8) In 1998 China was easily the top tobacco producer at 2,525 million tons followed by the USA (746 million kilogram), India (635), Brazil (468), the European Union (349) and Zimbabwe (220). The major exporters were Brazil (280), USA (210), Zimbabwe (178), Turkey (151), and Malawi (111).

Africa Tobacco No 1, International Tobacco Growers’ Assn Publications 1999

(9) … Many governments have avoided taking action to control smoking - such as higher taxes, comprehensive bans on advertising and promotion, or restrictions on smoking in public places - because of their concerns that their interventions might have harmful economic consequences. For example, …. the permanent loss of thousands of jobs.

Tobacco Free Initiative: Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control

World Bank Report 2000

Check your answers in the Key, page 20 .

Question 4: How can I present and support my position?

Matching evidence with the different stages of your argument
Exercise 4:

On the next page is an example (shortened) of a student's paper on the economic effects of tobacco growth. The body of the paper, which contains the development of the writer’s position, has gaps where evidence is needed. Go through the following steps:

(1) Examine the introduction and the conclusion and identify the position statement.
(2) Look at the stages in the body of the essay to see how the writer is developing the argument to support the position.
(3) Select appropriate pieces of evidence and put them in the gaps in the body of the essay to support the development of the argument. You may need to select parts of different pieces of evidence to fill the gaps. For this exercise, you can simply write in the pieces of evidence without changing them very much.

When you have finished this exercise…
If you are working on an essay at the moment, check your draft for the following:

  • is there a clear position statement signalled in your introduction?

  • are there clear stages in the body of your writing where you develop your argument?

  • is your evidence relevant? from a reputable source? used in an appropriate way?

Example essay

There is no doubt that in many countries the tobacco industry plays a major economic role in terms of generating income and employment. However, it is questionable as to whether these benefits outweigh the costs to society of tobacco use.

Tobacco use results in a number of costs to society, primarily health costs.

(Gap a)

These costs are largely born by governments who are responsible for funding health care systems. However it is really society as a whole which contributes through tax revenue to these health care systems.

On the other hand it must also be remembered that governments themselves

benefit ....

(Gap b)

It is certainly the case that tobacco production generates economic activity, employment and large revenues. Most of the world's tobacco is produced in the developing world ....

(Gap c)

and this area is amongst the greatest tobacco exporters

(Gap d)

The tobacco industry employs a large number of people worldwide, for example,

in the US....

(Gap e)

In addition the distribution of the finished product supports ...

(Gap f)

Governments may be slow to act because of these benefits,

(Gap g)

However, total benefits must be compared to the total costs of tobacco use.

(Gap h)

Therefore, in economic terms, the tobacco industry has become a financial burden to the community since it generates far greater costs which affect all members of a society through their tax support of health care systems.

Check your answers in the Key, page 21 .

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