Essay Writing Guides

How to Write an Effective Argument in an Essay

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

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The purpose of most essays is to prove something to your reader. Think of yourself as a lawyer arguing before a jury: it’s your job to lay out the evidence in a persuasive manner so the reader understands — and hopefully agrees with — your argument.

Here are the important steps to writing an effective argument in an essay:

  1. Use the right tone.
  2. Present the problem as a question.
  3. State your argument as a thesis.
  4. Support your position with evidence.
  5. Reiterate your argument — and why it matters.

Use the right tone

Imagine how you might speak when trying to convince your friend that Pulp Fiction is the best movie. Now, imagine speaking in front of your town council, presenting a proposal for a new recycling initiative. In both cases, you’re arguing a point, but you’d probably use very different tones.

The right tone in your essay establishes your credibility for the reader. Your tone should be authoritative, so the reader believes you have expertise in the subject, but not self-aggrandizing. Your tone should tell the reader they’re in good hands: they’re not only with an expert but an expert who will guide them thoughtfully through the argument.

Here are some ways of establishing the right tone for an academic essay:

1.) Avoid the first person.

For the most part, your essay should be written in third person rather than first person (using “I”) or second person (using “you”) point of view. There are cases when first person is warranted in an essay; some styles of persuasive writing allow you to speak more from your perspective, discuss your experience in relation to your research, or say “I argue.” However, as a general rule, present information as facts and founded judgements in third person. 

Avoid phrases like:

  • I think…
  • In my opinion…
  • It seems to me…
  • I believe…

Choose phrases like:

  • This paper argues…
  • The data suggests…
  • Scholars generally agree…
  • It becomes clear…

2.) Use jargon carefully.

You might be tempted to use the biggest words you can think of in your essay to show your reader your expertise, but jargon or overly difficult language only leaves readers feeling confused and excluded. Your top priority is to inform, not to impress. Strive for language that is as precise and concise as possible. Use jargon only when necessary, defining it as a keyword so your reader can follow along. 

Examples of jargon include:

Technical/scientific terms

  • Don’t write: “the tree of the cupressaceae family”
  • Do write: “the sequoia tree”

Legal/flowery language

  • Avoid words like hereafter, heretofore, wherein, etc.

Filler phrases

  • Don’t write: She opened the blinds in order to let light in.
  • Do write: She opened the blinds to let light in.
  • Don’t write: This essay examines the ways in which characters build houses in “The Three Little Pigs.”
  • Do write: This essay examines how characters build houses in “The Three Little Pigs.”

Here's a sentence with unnecessary jargon:

A mirror image of the Draconian imperatives provided to the primary triumvirate over the course of the film’s denouement can be found in the hegemonic color palette of final scenes’ mise-en-scène.

Now read it edited:

The final scenes are shot in black and white, reflecting the strict instructions the main characters receive at the end of the movie.

3.) Present your findings confidently.

Many developing writers undermine their arguments with phrases like “it seems like,” “this may be true,” or “one could argue.” Only use these phrases if you’re setting up an assumption that you’re going to refute. When introducing your perspective, present it confidently, without hedging.

  • Don’t write: “It could be argued that the dreary weather had some effect on the character’s mood.”
  • Do write: “The dreary weather depresses the character.” (And offer evidence to back it up!)

4.) Engage your reader.

Use signposting to help your reader understand where they are in the essay and how it will unfold. Your reader is more likely to be persuaded by your argument if they believe you have them in mind as you’re presenting it. Use phrases like:

  • In this section…
  • Before moving on to this idea, we need to…
  • First, this paper addresses…

Imagine your essay as a presentation: you have an audience, so talk to them — and keep them listening. Pose questions to your reader. Challenge them to consider new perspectives. Place your reader into the situation directly, or introduce the situation with phrases like:

  • Picture this…
  • Imagine you’re…

Write questions arising from the text as questions in the essay. For example:

  • What does Shakespeare mean by “unsex me”? 
  • Why do most scholars dismiss this interpretation?

Present the problem as a question

Your essay should be driven by a puzzle, problem, or contradiction that you can phrase as a question — and that your thesis will provide your answer to. Asking a good question can be more important than the argument itself: the question defines the scope of your essay, its place within the scholarship/field, and hints at its significance

Here are some questions to ask that can help you find your question:

  • Is there a tension or contradiction that needs explaining?
  • Are there conflicting views on your topic? How would you reconcile them?
  • Do the standard views of this topic need to be reconsidered?
  • Is there something that seems insignificant or tangential that is actually important?
  • Is there an approach to this topic that hasn’t yet been explored?
  • Is there a gap in the scholarship that needs to be filled?

Your question should not have a self-evident answer; otherwise, why would we need your essay to answer it?

State the question explicitly in your essay. This helps clarify exactly what you’re addressing and better situates your thesis in context.

State your argument as a thesis

In order to prove your argument, you have to say what you’re arguing. Many drafts of essays would be made more persuasive if they were simply more explicit. Don’t imply your argument: state it clearly — in topic sentences throughout the essay and, most importantly, as a thesis in the essay’s introduction.

Here are some tricks for writing an effective thesis (adapted in part from Andrea Scott’s Formulating a Thesis, Erik Simpson’s Five Ways of Looking at a Thesis, and Keith Shaw’s Thesis Test).

The Magic Thesis Statement (MTS)

The Magic Thesis Statement helps you translate your argument into well-worded sentences. It also serves as a checklist to make sure you have the necessary elements of a good argument. Try writing your thesis following the MTS: 

By looking at   [EVIDENCE]   , we can see   [ARGUMENT]     [which most people don’t see]. This is important because   [STAKES].

The MTS narrows in on the specific evidence you’ll be analyzing, the argument you’re making from that evidence, and why that argument matters. 

The phrase “which most people don’t see” shouldn’t appear in your final thesis statement, but it reminds you to make an original argument, one that isn’t self-evident; “this is important” can be reworded in many ways, but it tells you that your argument should have high stakes.

Thesis Test

To make sure your thesis can stand on its own legs, evaluate it for the following criteria. Is your thesis:

  • ARGUABLE — does your thesis make a claim that a reasonable person could argue against? Your thesis shouldn’t state a fact, summarize the text, or say something that can be understood at first glance.
  • MANAGEABLE — does your thesis make a claim that you can reasonably prove with the evidence you have and the scope/length of your paper? You can only prove so much in five pages or by looking at one study as evidence. 
  • INTERESTING does your thesis address a clear question/puzzle/contradiction and push beyond the obvious? 
  • IMPORTANT — does your thesis have some significance in the context of existing scholarship/the field? 
  • SPECIFIC — does your thesis say something specific about your topic and require you to focus on specific pieces of evidence to prove it? 

For more help on writing a thesis, see our guide to writing a thesis statement.

Support your position with evidence

Unlike a lawyer, you’re not paid to represent a certain side of the argument. You should not choose your argument arbitrarily, based on what you think sounds good, or what you think will be easy to prove. As a writer, you’re like a third-party detective presenting the research and evidence you’ve compiled: your argument should be drawn from the evidence you’ve analyzed. 

Now, to convince your readers, you have to present that evidence to them. Presenting and analyzing evidence is what makes up the bulk of your paper; topic sentences and paragraph breaks help guide your reader through the evidence.

Don’t just introduce evidence and expect it to speak for itself. Analyze it for your reader, explaining how you understand what you’re looking at and how it connects to your larger argument.

TIP: While analyzing evidence, it may help to address potential counterarguments. Consider the weak spots in your argument or the leaps in reasoning that seem least intuitive. If you were to argue against yourself, what might you point to as evidence against you or in support of another perspective? You don’t have to address every counterargument, but considering other perspectives can make your argument stronger.

Poking holes in the existing assumptions that you’re challenging is just as important as providing evidence in support of your takes. Have scholars interpreted a certain passage one way, and you have a different reading? Does a quick glance at a certain scene make it seem like one character is in charge, but actually a closer look reveals that’s not the case? Showing that you’ve thought deeply about the text and how your evidence relates to existing theories makes your argument more persuasive and interesting.

Reiterate your argument, and why it matters

Throughout the essay, the reader should never forget your argument. There is no need to repeat your full thesis over and over again, but with each new point, tell the reader how it connects to your larger argument. This shouldn’t feel like you’re rehashing the same point; instead, think of yourself as cumulatively building your argument, each piece of evidence like a puzzle piece snapping into place. . Rather than feeling repetitive, weaving your larger argument throughout your essay helps your reader envision the picture you’re working toward and understand how each point fits into it.

Stick the landing in the conclusion of your essay by reiterating your full argument. Having read all the evidence, your reader should now be persuaded. To leave them especially convinced, remind them of the significance, the “so what?” of your essay (see our article on conclusions for how to do this). An effective argument doesn’t just say something; it says something that matters.


  • Do I clearly state my argument in the introduction?
  • Does my main body content provide evidence of this argument?
  • In my conclusion, do I reiterate and build upon my argument?
  • Are the stakes of my argument clear (throughout the essay, but especially in the introduction and conclusion)?
  • Do I use an authoritative, clear, and persuasive tone?

If so, congratulations! It sounds like you’ve written a persuasive essay.

MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)

Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.