Argument in Academic Writing - From Unpublishable to Publishable - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Argument in Academic Writing
From Unpublishable to Publishable
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Over the years, some of our undergraduates enrolled in writing courses have been confused by the word “argument” because they define the word as a contentious disagreement. Gradually, they come to realize that “argument,” as it is used in scholarly writing, refers to a logical progression of ideas supported by evidence. In general, scholarly writing relies on a logical argument that depends on an “assert, then support” style (Rhodes, 1995). Wallace and Wray (2011, p. 47) use the following equation to explain argument in scholarly writing:

They go on to say that readers will want to know such things as:

· Why do you think that? How do you know?

· So what? What do these different pieces of evidence together imply?

· Does this reasoning add up? Aren’t there other, more plausible conclusions?

· What causal relationship between the factors are you suggesting?

· Is the evidence adequate to justify the extent of the claim? Is the evidence appropriately interpreted? (Wallace & Wray, 2011, p. 52)

The argument is what distinguishes scholarly writing from other forms of written composition. Fulwiler (2002) identifies these key attributes of scholarly writing:

Beliefs and persuasion

Writers must believe in what they write and persuade readers that it is true through a series of assertions that form a logical argument. The argument is supported by such things as professional experience, observation, experimentation, statistics, or interviews as well as a careful account of where the information was found.

The research imperative

The expectation of the academic community is that even practical advice is based on research. For example, when doctoral candidates in education are first interviewed, most of them are classroom teachers seeking to become university faculty members. They tend to support their assertions with “In my school district, we …”. As they pursue doctoral study, they grow in the ability to identify authoritative support for their ideas in the literature and, by the time that they defend a dissertation, they are conversant with specific studies and their findings.


Academic authors need to be impartial, particularly when conducting research. This is one reason that the personal pronoun “I” is seldom used in academic writing. Even though there is extensive “between-the-lines information” about the author in a manuscript (Fulwiler, 2002, p. 6), the tradition of academic authorship is to distance oneself from the material to some extent. Instead of invoking personal opinion as their claim to authority, academic authors rely on evidence from the discipline to support their claims.


Even though authors believe something, this does not mean that they limit their literature review to sources that validate their position only. Rather, in the interest of achieving a balanced argument, they briefly acknowledge these opposing opinions and explain why they respectfully disagree. By offering the reader an examination of alternative points of view or opposing interpretations, writers demonstrate that they have examined a topic from different perspectives.


Academic authors avoid absolute statements (e.g., “As everyone knows …”), partly because generalizations lead to challenges to the argument and partly because scholars acknowledge that they could be wrong. The habit of qualifying assertions makes statements more supportable, for example, stating “The results suggest…” rather than “This study proves that…”

Activity 2.2: Basic Composition vs. Academic Writing

To illustrate the difference between ordinary writing and writing with a more academic tone, consider the following two paragraphs. The first is an ordinary type of writing that you might find in a student paper and the second, the same basic assertions in a more academic style. In both examples, the purpose is to persuade the reader that women who commit crimes should be viewed in a different way. The ordinary writing example attempts to achieve this by appealing to emotions. The second example is an illustration of how that same message could be communicated in a more authoritative voice and identifies places where evidence is needed.

Ordinary writing

Academic writing

According to popular wisdom, only bad women go to prison and deserve harsh punishment. If they are mothers their children will be better off without them. In actual practice many women who go to prison are poor, undereducated, unemployed and have been battered or abused. Many inmates are mothers of dependent children and most are single parents. Many have committed non-violent crimes in an effort to support their children

The Bureau of Justice reported that, by year’s end in 2012, approximately one in every 35 adults in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision (Glaze & Herberman, 2013). Approximately ___% of this population is male and ___% is female. National data gathered by the Bureau of Justice concluded that _____ % of women who go to prison are poor, undereducated, and unemployed (CITE) and nearly 75 % are single mothers of dependent children. Furthermore, it is estimated that ___% of female prison inmates have a history of being battered or abused before entering the correctional system (CITE). While popular opinion may depict incarcerated mothers as indifferent, neglectful, abusive, and a negative influence on their children, statistics collected by ____ reveal that _____% of female prisoners have committed non-violent crimes in an effort to support their child or children. As these data suggest, many female inmates with children were victims before they became perpetrators of crimes

In their book about the basic structure of academic writing, Graff and Bernstein (2010) suggest that academic argumentation follows a “they say/I say” strategy. For example, when discussing a perennial controversy, a “script” in academic writing might go something such as the following:

A persistent debate in _____ has been _____. Some contend that_____ . From this stance, ______. In the words of a leading advocate of this approach, _____. Others argue that_____. According to this perspective _______. is the major influence. X supports this position when he writes, “ _______. To summarize, the issue is whether ______ or _______.

For more examples of scholarly writing see Clark & Murray (2012). Table 2.2 identifies some of the common phrases that are used when presenting a logical argument.

Table 2.2

Phrases commonly used in scholarly writing

Discussing areas of disagreement

On the one hand…. On the other hand

Some would argue that… Others contend that…. Still others take the position that ….

The argument that _____ is weakened by _______

One persistent debate in _____ is whether _____ or _____ is

While it is true that _____, it could be argued that _____

At first glance, it may appear that_____; on closer inspection, however ______

Although ______is a widely accepted professional practice, ______ have called into question the …

Acknowledging widely held assumptions

According to conventional wisdom,

Many people assume that…

The prevailing point of view in the field is that____

If ____, then _____

The dominant paradigm in ___ is_____

Combining and synthesizing ideas

Not only…. but also…

Findings concerning _____ have been mixed.

Early research in _____tended to emphasize ______

Many recent studies have suggested that…

While many of these studies have concluded_____, a few have investigated_____ from a ____ point of view

In addition… Furthermore…. Along similar lines…. Likewise …

Supplying examples

Consider the situation in which

For example

A case in point is

One illustration of this

A legal precedent that many _____ professionals in the field are familiar with is ____

Wrapping up the discussion


To summarize,

In conclusion,

It follows, then


Overall, these findings challenge