How to Write a Seminary Paper: Part 3. The Argument
In our first post we looked at what makes a good thesis. In our second post we applied those insights to paper research. Now we turn to a third point: using your research to persuade your audience that your thesis is true, otherwise known as your argument. Finally we get to talk about actually writing your paper.
Before we begin, though, we should repeat ourselves and say that a good argument depends on a good thesis. If you’re not sure why that would be the case, I’d suggest you start with the previous posts in this series, because the present post won’t make a lot of sense without them. Or, to put it another way, the first post of this series is, in fact, the thesis of the whole, and so if you don’t understand the first post, you won’t understand the significance of what you are reading now.
So what are you reading now? By way of reminder, a good paper involves three things: (1) a question, (2) an answer (the thesis), and (3) an argument (persuasion). A good paper is nothing more than a good argument for a good answer to a good question. So what qualifies as a good argument? That’s the subject matter of the present post, and here’s our thesis:
A good argument is a reasoned, focused, and understandable demonstration that your thesis is true. Let’s embark on that now.
The Three Cs of a Good Argument
Every paper is an argument. Now when you hear that word “argument,” your instincts might be primarily negative. We shouldn’t argue! We shouldn’t be contentious! Well, maybe not, but when we are trying to say that “thus and so” is true, we should be prepared to persuade our audience that we are right, and to do that we need to put forward reasons. That’s what we mean here by “argument.” The bulk of your paper is designed to persuade, to argue a case, to prove that you are right.
Now the art of persuasion goes back a long way–the Greek rhetoricians spent countless hours discussing that topic–and so there are no shortage of guides on rhetoric out there. Let’s not pretend that the following is going to be anywhere near sufficient. Consider this to be little more than an introduction. To that end, we are going to talk about the three characteristics of a persuasive argument, each of which just so happens to begin with the letter C!
If your thesis is the foundation of your paper, these Three Cs are the load-bearing walls. They are the structural support without which you have no substantive argument. Your argument may not be pretty and it may not be elegant, but if these three are in place it will stand. You can always go back and pretty your paper up later–a fresh coat of paint, some pictures here and there–but don’t bother with any of that if you don’t have the structural support necessary for your argument to stand.
The three Cs are content, coherence, and clarity. Each of these “Cs” addresses one aspect of our original thesis. If a good argument is a reasoned, focused, and understandable demonstration that your thesis is true, then “content” addresses the reasons, “coherence” the focus, and “clarity” the understandability.
The first of these three is, in some ways, the most obvious. This is the material out of which your argument is formed and shaped. This is all of the stuff you have been collecting through your research–evidence from Scripture, relevant historical and cultural background information, the history of interpretation on a passage, other people’s arguments and counterarguments concerning this or that idea, and of course your own thoughts and responses to each of these.
Now anybody can take a load of material and slap it down on paper, but that won’t make for a good argument. You need to make sure that it’s the right material, and that it is rightly weighted, and that it is presented in the right way. Your material needs to be (1) relevant, (2) accurate and factual, (3) analyzed and reasoned, (4) persuasive, and (5) fair.
- Relevant. Don’t fill your paper with filler. Stay focused on proving your thesis. If a bit of material is irrelevant to your argument–ie, it does not further the point that you are making–then leave it out, no matter how interesting you may find it or how much time you spent on it during your research phase. For example, one mistake I see many writers making is to spend a lot of time explaining what a particular word means in the Greek or the Hebrew. The original languages are of course valuable, and we actually need a whole post devoted to them, but for now just remember: if it’s not necessary to your argument, then leave it out. You argument rarely requires that a word mean this instead of that, and if it does it may mean that your argument is a bit precarious to begin with.
- Accurate and factual. To the best of your ability, make sure your content is true. That’s actually harder than it may at first seem. This requires more than just avoiding “Fake News.” The commitment to accuracy is about more than simply “not lying” or misrepresenting information. It involves checking your sources to make sure they are not misquoting someone or misunderstanding something. It involves tracking down that information you remember hearing from someone somewhere to make sure you are remembering it correctly. It involves reading those with whom you disagree with diligence and charity. It requires you to avoid presumptions as much as possible and to diligently research everything you come across. Which brings us to the next point:
- Analyzed and reasoned. The commitment to truth involves a correspondingly analytical method. At some point you have to trust what you are reading, but always remember that we all make mistakes, we all take shortcuts, we are all sinners who distort the truth in our sinfulness. That means you need to analyze your sources. If they reference Gal. 7:14 as proof of their point, you better look up Gal. 7:14 and spend some time thinking about it (which in this case won’t take you very long). If they spend time arguing that so-and-so was wrong, you better make sure you read a bit of so-and-so as well in order to make sure they understood so-and-so correctly in the first place. This may end up requiring you to disagree with ideas and authorities that you previously though unassailable, but it’s worth the work and will only make your argument stronger. Writing a paper requires more than quoting the experts; it requires (humbly, respectfully, and biblically) dialoguing with them, and often even critiquing them.
- Persuasive. The first three items on this list are all fairly objective, but at this point you need to start thinking about your audience. Something can be true and not persuasive. I can cite numerous statistics about the dangers of smoking and still fail to persuade someone to give up the habit. Being persuasive requires more than knowing the facts; it requires knowing your audience. Maybe my audience (the chain smoker, for example) has an information problem, in which case all they need to know are the facts and statistics, but maybe the problem isn’t a matter of information, but rather one of willpower, in which case I need to appeal to some desire or motive greater than their desire to smoke, like traveling the world with their adult children or outliving their worst enemy. And thus the commercial is born! Who is your audience? Why might they resist your argument? What would be persuasive to them? Is there a (non-manipulative) way to address their concern? The answers to those questions require you to think concretely about who you are trying to persuade, which in the case of the seminary paper is probably pretty narrow (your professor), but in most cases is fairly complex and possibly very broad (for example: academics in general, skeptical non-Christians, your church congregation, your peers, friends and family, a presbytery or session, etc). Marketers and literary theorists call this your “ideal audience,” and your paper should be tailored (to some extent) to that group. For further reading, consider some good marketing books like Make it Stick.
- Fair. Anyone can win an argument by trolling. People who are savvy about people can always manipulate others into agreeing with them. If you are the type that can win a crowd, regardless of the truthfulness of your statements, then pay particular care here. Be fair. Say things that are true. Sure, a good way to win over your professor is to favorably quote your professor, but maybe your professor is wrong. Do not sacrifice your integrity for the sake of persuasion. Don’t play the Hitler card just to win the debate. This isn’t a political election; it’s an academic paper. Treat your sources fairly; give your interlocutors the benefit of the doubt; be able to explain the ideas of your opponents better than they can themselves. If your thesis needs to be “toned down” in the process, then tone it down.
The material that constitutes your paper may seem like the most important component of your argument, but it’s really just one leg on a three-legged stool. Your material also needs to be shaped. The material is just play-dough. If it is not properly shaped, it is formless and void. It is not an argument. The next two Cs deal with the shaping of your content, and the first and more esoteric of the two we call “coherence.”
What is coherence? Coherence refers to the way in which your essay holds itself together. It’s what makes your essay a single thing, rather than a hodgepodge of interesting and somewhat related ideas. Coherence is what gives your essay unity and oneness. It’s what allows your reader to step back and say “this essay was about X.” In the course of making your argument, you are going to be tempted to walk down many rabbit trails–matters that are neat and impressive and important but, in the end, irrelevant to your thesis. Producing a coherent paper requires the diligent avoidance of such rabbit trails (and often the liberal use of footnotes).
Back to the Thesis
Now if you’re thinking at this point “but wait, we’ve already talked about this! It’s my thesis that gives my paper unity!” then bravo! If you are not thinking that, then it’s time for some remedial math; go back and reread the first post of this series. Your argument has coherence insofar as it collectively demonstrates the truthfulness of your thesis. Let’s unpack why that’s the case.
Different genres of communication demonstrate coherence differently. A story, for example, has coherence insofar as all of its plot elements are resolved by the climax–that is, it all fits together “in the end.” An exhortation, by contrast, finds its coherence in the action unto which the speaker is exhorting you. A coffee-shop conversation has coherence because it is bound by time and place and the rules of conversation (and the same conversation would likely seem incoherent if “published.)”
A paper has coherence in so far as the material therein progressively proves a thesis. Rabbit trails unrelated to the thesis, extraneous information, paragraphs that are detached from the preceding and/or subsequent paragraph–these things disrupt the flow and thereby result in incoherence.
Everything must further your thesis. Everything. If it doesn’t further your thesis, cut it. Maybe your emotionally attached to the material? Cut it. Paste it in some other document–I maintain an “ideas” document for useful but presently irrelevant writing–but cut it for now. Consul yourself that the excised material may be the seeds of another paper. A good writer is like a good gardener: most of your efforts are going to be spent weeding and pruning.
Coherence and Flow
If you’ve done this, you’re on the right track, but you’re not done yet. The first step is ensuring that everything relates to your thesis, you are doing a good job, but you’re not done yet. Imagine I took a perfect paper and shuffled up all the pages. Everything would be related to the thesis, right? So by definition the paper would be coherent, right?
Of course not, and the reason is that the way in which you proceed matters. Order matters. A coherent argument progressively proves a thesis. That means that your argument needs to be properly ordered. It needs to be ordered in such a way that your reader can follow you argument in a linear way.
The way in which your paper is ordered is going to depend on the kind of argument that you are making. Maybe you feel that your thesis is true because you have seven independent grounds for believing it. In that case you are making an inductive argument. Your paper should analyze each piece of evidence in its turn, courtroom style, considering counterarguments as you go along, and then state that your thesis is the most likely conclusion to draw from such evidence. Perhaps, by contrast, you believe your thesis is logically necessary on the basis of some other truth you and your audience already believe. In that case you have a deductive argument and should work from premises to conclusion. Perhaps your thesis involves the will more than the mind–you want to persuade your audience to do something, not just believe something. In that case, while you should likely talk about evidence and logic (as above), your argument is going to be structure around the appeal to act (which is what makes a sermon different than a paper).
The point here is not to give detailed instructions on proper order–that is well beyond the constraints of this post–but rather to argue that order is important. Consider the best way to make your case, and shape your material accordingly.
Other Ways of Providing Coherence
Structure is the most important and foundational way of giving your argument coherence, but for that extra boost, consider the following:
- “Beads,” or repeated words or phrases. Repetition is a great way of providing coherence. Pick out key phrases in your thesis, or “memes” in your argument, and sprinkle them at appropriate points throughout your paper. Be warned, though, that you have to be tactful in this. Repetition can get, well, repetitive. Don’t overdo it, but if you have a particularly witty or catchy way of putting something, sprinkle it throughout. For example, in Part 2 of this series, I did that with the phrase “move along.” It captured the essence of what I wanted to say while at the same time being brief and to the point (with the added bonus of being meme-worthy).
- Repetition with crescendo. This is a form of the above, but here you are adding something with each iteration. You are repeating an idea, but also adding to it, creating a kind of “snowball” or “avalanche” affect over the course of the essay. For a great example of this look at the Epistle to the Hebrews. The exhortations in that epistle are essentially identical, but with a gradual crescendo that finds 10:26ff as its culmination.
- Transitional phrases. Begin and end lots of your paragraph with “discourse markers.” Discourse markers are all those little words that establish relationships between ideas: words like “therefore,” “and,” “but,” “witherfor,” and of course “hitherwhereunto.” These words may be small, but they play an inestimably large role in the argumentative paper. You are creating logical links between your paragraphs, and that establishes flow or logical dependency. Do the next five paragraphs offer evidence for a conclusion? Great! Begin this subsection by saying “The evidence for this is as follows. First, ….” Is the current paragraph the conclusion of a lengthy argument, or is it the implicit result of the previous paragraph? There’s a word for that! “Therefore, ….” Make liberal use of these wonderful words.
- Consistency of style. Don’t distract your reader with bright colors, weird fonts, inconsistent margins, or other gimmicks. If you can’t write it in plain text, don’t bother. Pick a normal font and stick with it. Don’t change the size. If you copy/paste something, make sure it’s formatted appropriately to fit the style of your paper. Resist italics. Resist bold. Let your words do the work.
The final element of a good argument is clarity. If you’ve spent the appropriate amount of time on reasoned content and focused coherence, you have already done a good bit of the work required to write an understandable paper. But pitfalls yet remain. The key idea here: make reading easy on your reader. Being clear means making reading easy. That’s it. Make it easy on your reader. You’re writing a paper, not poetry or a mystery novel. Just say what you mean in the most efficient way possible.
How? Here are some tips to make you a more clear writer:
- Know your grammar. I’m sorry to say it, but good grammar results in better papers. I’m not a grammar Nazi. I love to break the rules. But grammar matters. If the comma is obviously in the wrong place, then it will distract your reader. If something is spelled wrong, your reader is going to have to pause and figure out what you mean. If you’re not naturally good at this, it is your responsibility to find a friend or family member who can proof-read your paper. If your forced to right a paper in a language that is not your first, then make an extra effort to find a native English speaker who can do this for you. That may feel like an “asking a ride to the airport” level of favor, and it is, but it’s necessary.
- Keep it simple. It’s the myth that refuses to die. Intelligence requires obscurantism. If you can understand it, it must not be that important or insightful to begin with. Correspondingly, if you what you are saying is important, it’s probably complicated. Usually, however, there is a path that doesn’t require trudging over high mountain peaks. If there is an easier path, take it.
- Pick the smallest word that works. Related to the above, many believe that bigger words contain bigger ideas. Persuading requires the use of fancy words. It doesn’t. This is a paper, not poetry. Pick the smallest word that makes your point. Sometimes you need to pull out the word “eschatological,” and if you need that word (as you often will in a seminary paper), then use it. But if “heavenly” or “ultimate” or “final” will do, use that instead. Remember (as we mentioned in the first post) that no one wants to read your paper, and adding unnecessarily obtuse words won’t help that. This doesn’t mean you can’t pursue beauty. Saying something in a particularly delightful way is always a good thing (because it makes people want to read your paper!), but if the rest of the paper is a mess, it won’t matter. If the garden is full of weeds, the rose in the middle will not be appreciated.
- Don’t overuse foreign languages. If you don’t need the Greek, don’t use it. If an English phrase will do, avoid the Latin phrase. Again, this is general advice. In a seminary paper the use of Greek and Latin and Hebrew are often necessary, but don’t use foreign languages for the sake of showing you know these foreign languages.
- Read your paper out loud before you submit it. This is an old rule but a good one. Reading your paper activates a different part of your brain, and as a result you will see grammatical and clarity problems that you wouldn’t have been able to spot otherwise.
The bulk of your paper is the argument. The heart of your paper is the thesis, but most of it is actually the argument. Those two are related. If you don’t have a good thesis, you can’t mount an acceptable argument, and if you don’t have an acceptable argument, your thesis is really just an unproven opinion or idea. But if these two elements are in place, you will have a great paper, which means that at this point in the series (having covered the thesis, the research, and the argument) we are well on our way. There may be some details to fill in and some perfecting to do, but these are the major legs on our stool. Congratulations! Go forth and write! And for those of you seeking perfection, stay tuned.
Next up in this series: “the game.” Because writing a paper is about winning!