Questions and Theses
An effective piece of writing is essentially an answer to a good question, and this requires knowing how to frame questions that are narrow not broad, challenging not bland, and grounded not speculative. To argue is to advance a plausible position on the past (a forensic argument), present (an epideictic argument), or future (a deliberative argument).
A strong thesis involves the writer in a process of engaging issues and bringing competing ideas into some kind of alignment. It puts the writer in a position where there is something to negotiate; where s/he must ponder alternatives and make choices. Strong theses are unified, restricted, clear, analytical, and original. They are vibrant and evolve with the argument. This occurs as the thesis encounters ambiguities and evidence, including complicating or contradictory evidence, which the writer should seek out and address rather than avoid.
Weak theses assume many shapes. They make no claim, are obviously true or are a statement of fact, restate conventional wisdom, offer personal conviction as the basis for the claim, or make an overly broad claim. Weak theses also tend to be inert or static; they do not develop.
Qualifiers, Concessions, and Refutations
Influence on an audience is enhanced by the use of qualifiers, concessions, and refutations. Qualifiers are terms and conditions that limit an argument. Concession is when we allow (concede) that a position that differs from ours has value. Refutation occurs when we challenge (refute) a differing position. Typically, these work together in an argument as we make limited concessions and compensatory refutations. For example, if we argue for homeschooling it would be judicious to say: “Teaching children at home is not for everyone and no one advocates that every parent try it, as there are good schools that are doing a better job than some parents could do for their own children. However, the fact is that homeschooling is working very well for most of those who choose it.”
Put another way and without being mechanistic, discourse that is sensitive to writer, reader, text, and context should include the following three components.
Recognition of alternative positions: State counter-arguments fairly, and acknowledge the integrity of the proponents and the partial merit of those alternatives.
Arguments to support your position: Rebut counter-arguments with appeals to ethos (character), logos (reason), and pathos (emotion) to argue in favor of your stance.
Reply to anticipated criticisms of your position: Employ appeals to ethos (character), logos (reason), and pathos (emotion) to answer possible objections to your stance.