Skip to main content

Critical writing: The overall argument

“in critical thinking, the meaning of the word ‘argument’ goes further than just ‘disagreement’. It is not enough to disagree: there must be an attempt to persuade someone that one position is preferable to another

Roy van den Brink-Budgen, Critical Thinking for Students

For an essay or piece of academic writing to work as a cohesive argument, it needs to have a clear narrative. There should be a natural progression of claims and ideas leading to the conclusion. This page looks at what constitutes an overall argument, how to develop one and how to check if you have one. 


What is your overall argument?

This is not the same as your position, which is more about your conclusion. An overall argument is the way in which you persuade your reader throughout the assignment that your conclusion is sound. It is:

A coherent series of connected, smaller arguments used to support or establish a point of view

If we look at each part of this in more detail:

  • Coherent: The series will be logical and form a unified whole.
  • Series: It is made up of a number of smaller parts.
  • Smaller arguments: Individual claims, backed up by evidence with their relevance explained to the reader (see next page).
  • Connected: The arguments are linked together.
  • Support or establish a point of view: Persuade your reader of your position (overall conclusion - see previous page).

So, it is a number of smaller, individual arguments, linked together in a logical order, that lead your reader to your conclusion.

Think of this like a story where each chapter leads to the inevitable conclusion. There may be some twists and turns but you need to explain these to the reader and put each chapter into the best order to help the reader understand what is happening.

An example of an overall argument: Which are better, cats or dogs? Cats because cats are independent; therefore cats don't need walking; in addition cats are clean; conversely, dogs smell; together these mean cats are better than dogs.


Developing an overall argument

Once you have decided on your probable concluding position (remember your ideas can develop as you write, meaning your position may shift), you have an idea of your destination.

You now need to develop a clear set of arguments to take your reader with you. What places do you need to visit to get your reader from A to B? That is, what points can you make that will lead your reader to your conclusion?

sign post stating 'my destination'

Divide and conquer!

Your word count should give you a clue about how many points you need to make. Although it varies, an average academic paragraph (which should make one main point) is between 200-300 words long. With your introduction and conclusion taking up about 10% of your word count each, that (very) roughly means:

  • 1000 word assignment = 800 word main body = 3-4 points
  • 2000 word assignment = 1600 word main body = 6-8 points
  • 3000 word assignment = 2400 word main body = 8-12 points
  • 4000 word assignment = 3200 word main body = 12-16 points

So, this should give you an idea about the number of steps you have to get your reader from your introduction to your conclusion.

Read with a purpose

Although you will have done some reading to help you decide your position. You will usually re-engage with the literature to find the more specific points you need as part of your overall argument. As you read, look out for (and make a note of) those individual points that you can base a paragraph around. You will usually need at least two or three pieces of evidence to support each major point, so look out for agreements (or disagreements that you can argue against) between pieces of literature. 

Choosing which points you need to persuade your reader that your conclusion is a reasonable one is the foundation of a strong argument. It is not just about finding enough points - but about identifying the right points.

Once you are satisfied that you have found the right points (and enough for the number of paragraphs you need) you can work out how to string them together.

Start to create a narrative

Using a word processor (for ease of editing), write out each of the points you have identified, in no particular order.

For example, for a 2,500 word essay with the question "Evaluate the role of stories as pedagogical tools in higher education" (where the writer's overall position is that stories are engaging and effective tools in HE), the following six points could be made:

  1. Stories have been used to teach essential life-skills since before written languages appeared.
  2. Stories are being used in health and social care to emphasise the need for holistic care and to influence policy.
  3. Stories activate more parts of the brain than traditional teaching methods leading to deeper learning.
  4. Stories are being used in business to engage audiences and business students need to be able to emulate this.
  5. Story structure is universal and understood across cultures.
  6. Structure in lectures leads to more understanding.

The points will need appropriate links adding as you are writing to make them into a full narrative, but the first step is to rearrange them into a more appropriate order (this isn't fixed in stone but take time to consider it, imagining what your links will be):

  1. Stories have been used to teach essential life-skills since before written languages appeared.
  2. Story structure is universal and understood across cultures.
  3. Structure in lectures leads to more understanding.
  4. Stories are being used in business to engage audiences and business students need to be able to emulate this.
  5. Stories are being used in health and social care to emphasise the need for holistic care and to influence policy.
  6. Stories activate more parts of the brain than traditional teaching methods leading to deeper learning.

Now you are ready to construct each paragraph's individual argument which is covered on the next page.


Checking to see if you have a narrative

If you have already written your essay and want to check to see if you have a strong narrative, you can use the reverse outlining technique. 

Reverse outlining

  1. Look at each of your paragraphs in turn and identify the overall point you are making in the paragraph.
  2. If you are not able to identify a sentence in the paragraph that clearly states this point, you will need to add one!
  3. Copy the point (existing or newly written) to the bottom of your essay.
  4. You should end up with a series of points in the order they appear in your essay.
  5. Read this list. Are things in the most meaningful order, with related items adjacent to each other? If not, rearrange the list until you are happier with it and then rearrange the associated paragraphs in your essay above.
  6. Make sure you add signposts in the essay to show if the paragraphs are related or if a new topic is being introduced. Help your reader understand the relationship between the points.
  7. Remember to delete your outline from the bottom of the essay when you are done!