Argumentative Essay Guide

Alan Wood, war correspondent, typing his despatch in a wood outside Arnhem; with him are three members of the 1st British-Airborne Division. 18 September 1944

War Correspondent Alan Wood Typing Dispatch Outside Arnhem, Netherlands, 1944

Those of you in the 1301 and 1302 in-class lectures classes (F2F not DLC) must complete an argumentative essay to pass the course.  For ideas on contested historical questions, you will use the Memory Hole Link on the tab above and pick a topic under either the 1301 or 1302 column, depending on which section you’re in.  The essay will be at least five paragraphs and will probably come in around 3-4 pages double-spaced with 12-pt., New York Times font (often listed as Times, New Roman).  It will address a question that informed people disagree on and you’ll show what light history sheds on the topic.  We will discuss the papers more in class, but I encourage everyone to come and discuss their research with me during office hours if you are having any problems getting started.  It must concern American history, from 1492-1877 or thereabouts for 1301 and 1877 to the present for 1302.  Check the Course Syllabus: Calendar for due dates.  I use hard deadlines because they are more similar to what many of you will encounter in the workplace.  If you feel hard deadlines are unfair, finish the paper a week ahead of time just in case.

Submission & Grade
The essay is graded on a 60-point scale based on the quality of the argument, research, historical content, writing, and grammatical cleanliness (40 for argument/research/content & 20 for writing/grammar).  Submit your essay as an attachment in Blackboard; it will run through SafeAssign to check for originality.  Plagiarism of any sort will result in an F for the course.  Submit the paper on the due date, by 11:59 pm in Blackboard.  The Essay Submission tab is in Blackboard in the upper-left-hand corner, along with the other tabs.  Don’t try to paste the whole essay into the little box; just submit your attachment.  If you see the Goldish-Yellow ! in your Gradebook, you’ll know that it’s submitted.


It’s a classic 5-paragraph persuasive or analytical essay that builds on the paragraph-writing skills you’ve been developing all semester, and what you’ve likely done (or are doing) in English Composition.  The opening paragraph should introduce a question you’re addressing, the varying opinions on the question, and include your response to that question that is as succinct as possible (one or two sentences).  The question should be straightforward enough that you can use it as the title of your paper (embolden and capitalize the title).  Using the question (or a clear answer) as a title will help ensure that you’re asking a straightforward question and staying on track.

Use the opening paragraph to explain the debate with the best arguments on each side (including what lawyers would call exculpatory evidence).  The opening paragraph will start off fairly general as you frame the question by introducing some context then gradually narrow down to your thesis (response) toward the end of the opening paragraph, preferably in the last sentence.  Ninety percent of the time I could accurately guess an essay’s grade by the time I’m through with the opening paragraph because that’s where you “get your ducks in a row.”  Then follow through on your outline and you’re on your way toward a well-organized, coherent essay.Five ducklings in row, side view (Digital Composite)

Then, lay out your evidence, with special attention paid to primary sources, also just as a lawyer would in the courtroom, in the following paragraphs.  These next paragraphs could include the three main points of your argument, and the last paragraph will be your conclusion.  Each of the three (or more) argument paragraphs in the body of the essay will have an opening sentence or two that provides some transition from the previous paragraph while introducing a new idea.  Transition sentences should move along your discussion and crystallize main points.  Your paper should be ordered in a logical manner and not jump around all over the place. Some well-placed direct quotes from primary sources are good but don’t waste a lot of space on direct quotes from secondary sources (ACC Library Guide to Primary Sources).  Here’s another good source with guides on effective paragraph writing and thesis statements.

Here are five important things to consider as you research and write on your topic:

  • How does history shed light on the topic in ways that people might not otherwise consider?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of various arguments and interpretations concerning the issue?  In the spirit of Orwell’s Memory Hole, an organizing theme of your paper will be to analyze which points interested parties emphasize and/or play down and why.  What are they flushing and what are they cherry-picking?  How do they utilize common argumentative techniques or commit logical fallacies?  For help on these, consult the Rear Defogger page above.
  • Stick with your thesis.  At every turn, or at least the beginning and end of each paragraph, remind yourself what question you’re addressing and what your answer (thesis) to that question is.
  • Before you hand in your essay, ask yourself: would your argument hold up in court?  Consider me a skeptical jurist or, better yet, an opposing attorney who is going to cross-examine.  Your thesis should be focused, substantive and coherent, and be followed by well-chosen points that back up your argument.  You don’t need to anticipate the other attorney’s weakest arguments; you need to anticipate that the opposition will be explaining the best counter-arguments (or opposing views) to the same jury when you’re done speaking.  What are they?  A good place to address this is in the opening paragraph where you’re introducing the reader to the topic and why it’s controversial or directly connects to something that is controversial.  (A few of the pre-authorized topics won’t deal as much in counter-arguments because they ask “to what extent….” is something true.)  With counter-arguments, you can override, concede some ground or refute, but keep in mind that you don’t need to win arguments 10-0; you can win 6-4.  In the words of NYT columnist Bret Stephens: “Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for ‘anticipation.’ That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.”  Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only only his own side of the case knows little of that.” 
  • Take advantage of the links and asterisks I provide in Memory Hole, where appropriate.  They can help launch your research and, in some cases, give you multiple points of view to take into account.

Familiarize yourself with the terminology surrounding the topic and think long and hard about the issue you’re writing on.  Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the more counter-intuitive question, that runs against the grain of normal interpretation (e.g. what worked about Prohibition? rather than what didn’t, since every 8th-grader already knows that).  See the Memory Hole links for more on how partisans emphasize or omit various points and arguments.  Use the links surrounding your chosen topic in the Memory Hole.  The History Hub Library has various left- and right-leaning textbooks and magazine/periodicals.  Use their search functions to get a feel for how historians argue the issue.  Also, consult the History Hub Library’s Topical Links to see if your topic has other sites related to it.

Sources & Research
This argumentative/analytical essay will have elements of a research paper insofar as you’ll consult and cite reference materials.  It’s really a hybrid of the classic argumentative/analytical essay and research paper models.  It’s built around a question and thesis, but it includes research.  Tap into 2-3 books (without reading the entire book, use index), scholarly articles, and websites as secondary sources.  At the very minimum (for an average grade) use at least one book for research (online, Kindle or hard copy), even if you don’t read the whole thing — that’s where the hard-core scholarship can usually be found.  Failure to do so will result in a low score on the research/use of sources portion of the grading rubric.  Use italics to list a book in Works Cited if using MLA so I know it’s a book.  Exclude our own textbook from your sources; focus on sources written especially about your topic specifically instead.  Generally use websites ending in .org, .gov, .net or .edu, not .com.  Roll up your sleeves and do some work.  Don’t focus on the minimum requirements I’ve laid out for how many sources.  Just research your topic and look for answers, information, and insight.  The number and quality of sources will take care of itself if you’re using an actual library.  Your first line of attack should be to tap into our own extensive ACC Library, followed by our online History Hub Library or UT, then general Google searches.   Here’s the ACC Library’s U.S. History Page.  Talk to the librarians; they are there to help you.

The UT PCL library is open to the public before 10 PM or you can check out books by getting a Tex-share card from the Public Library.  One good, long hard day at the UT-PCL will set you off on the road to research success (talk to a librarian there about how to search on their system).  The History Hub Library can be a bit overwhelming, but if you dive into it with an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s a good tool.  Real college-level research goes past Schmoop,,, Sparknotes, etc. — far past.  The entries in these sites aren’t written by true specialists.  Do not use online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia except for initial studies and peripheral fact-checking (not as a main, cited source, in other words, but only as a jumping-off point).  I corrected an essay recently that used real library research for the main point but cited Wikipedia for the Clayton Act, specifically; that’s fine.  Wikipedia is also a good source for bibliographies, toward the end of entries, but use real sources for the heart of your research, including scholarly books and articles, and primary sources.  You’ll be graded on whether you spend a month rolling up your sleeves and doing some actual research or whether you just hit some cheesy websites quickly at the end.  If you don’t, the maximum points you’ll receive on this portion of the grading rubric will be 5/10.

Also, just as there is a lot of fake news out there on the Internet, be wary of fake history (e.g. fake Jefferson quotes).  Employ lateral cross-checking for online sources.  Here’s a good article from NPR on filtering information.  Historian Kevin Levin suggests the following guidelines to steer students away from fake history, misinformation and distortion:

  • Is the site associated with a reputable institution like a museum, historical society or university?
  • Can you identify the individual or organization responsible for the site and are the proper credentials displayed?
  • Then, finally, you have to examine the material itself.  Is the information provided on the Website, including text and images, properly cited?  What can you discern from both the incoming and outgoing links to the site?  Only then can you approach it with the same level of trust that you would a scholarly journal or piece of archival material.

More On Primary Sources
Include at least one primary source (original source) — a document, letter, diary, newspaper, telegram, speech, transcript, key photo, tape recording, film, manuscript, cartoon, etc. from the time period in question that provides evidence or firsthand testimony.  In this case, primary doesn’t mean main; it means original.  Primary sources are firsthand accounts.  The best way to approach the primary source requirement isn’t to just go find one for its own sake, but rather to think about the question you’re addressing for your essay and how to approach it?  Where would you start if you couldn’t rely on the secondary sources of authors, journalists, etc. who have attempted to explain things for your benefit (as a reader)?  How would you go about researching a book on a subject no one had ever written a book about?  What sort of evidence would you want to have in a courtroom?  The point isn’t just to find a primary source but to use it well.  How might this firsthand testimony be biased?  How does the interpretation of this primary source impinge on your argument?  For instance, if you were investigating the atomic attacks on Japan at the end of WWII, you might look at President Truman’s diary.  What might be unreliable about Truman’s diary?  What sort of evidence are the authors writing and arguing about?  An obvious place to look for primary sources is in the discussion or notes of the main secondary sources you use.  A student asked if this source was primary or secondary.  The source is a secondary article, but footnote #1 within the article is primary (it’s a document from 1957).  Do you see the difference?  The History Hub Library is another good place to mine for primary sources, as are ACC Library’s American Decades/Gale Library and Milestone Documents pages.  Failure to utilize a primary source will result in a 5-point penalty.  For more on Primary Sources, see the video at the bottom of the page.  The Declaration of Independence and Constitution are both primary sources, and you should feel to use them, but neither count as your one required primary source.

For tips on analyzing a document, letter, photograph, cartoon, video, or sound recording, use this Document Analysis Worksheet tutorial from the National Archives (use the secondary student column).

This video was originally aimed mostly at teachers, but it’s worth watching to better understand primary sources and the type of questions historians (and students) must ask when analyzing primary source evidence.  These include considering issues like multiple claims, sourcing, context and evidence-based claims:

You should ask yourself where the primary sources (evidence) come from in your secondary source article, who generated them, and why.  How might they differ from other perspectives?

Here’s a SAMPLE by a former student.  This topic is no longer available, but I use this example because she lays out a clear question and formulates an answer toward the end of the first paragraph.  Then the body of the essay supports her thesis, and she wraps up with a conclusion that does more than just regurgitate what she’s already said — it elaborates on and refines the original thesis by explaining what we’ve learned in the preceding paragraphs.  You’ll be posing a more controversial question.  Remember to include both sides by including what proponents of either side emphasize or leave out of their arguments.  Here’s a second SAMPLE that lays out a clear question and stays on point.  With this essay, the Works Cited research should include a book.

For Citations, you can use either the MLA or University of Chicago (Turabian) style.  For the MLA version, include a brief WORKS CITED page at the end.  The Chicago Method doesn’t need a WORKS CITED or BIBLIOGRAPHY page since the footnotes include full references.  Anyone planning to take upper-division history courses later on should use the Chicago Method.  For help formatting in the Chicago style, see eTurabian.  You can consult the ACC History Department’s Guide, or an excellent online guide, NoodleTools.

Online Writing Guide: Purdue Owl

Recipe for Success:
1. Give yourself time to consider a topic.  Look over the topics on Memory Hole and seriously consider what each is asking.
2. Do real research in Libraries/Books/Articles, not cheap quick-stop shopping @ encyclopedias.  Avoid sites like and
3. Don’t devote a lot of ink in a paper this size to basic background.  For instance, if you’re writing about America’s entry into World War I, don’t devote the first two paragraphs to general history about the war that we already know and then get to America’s role later in the paper.  Assume the reader understands the basics of the war and get to the topic you’re writing on: America’s entry.
4. Consider whether your thesis really matches your evidence and conclusion.  Would Your Argument Hold Up In Court?  Lay out your evidence, with special attention paid to primary sources.
5. Take time to proof your paper.  Use Grammar-Check and ACC’s Learning Lab.  All you need to do for Grammar-check is a push a couple of buttons.  Don’t send me the message that you’re too lazy for that, and get in the habit of doing that in the future for bosses, colleagues and (most importantly) clients.
6. Organize your time well. Follow the suggested work schedule. Don’t be fooled by the relatively short length of essay.
7. Have some fun. This isn’t torture. Take the time to find a subject that interests you, start early, get the draft up and running and take your time proofing and refining.
8. Take full advantage of the links I provide for you in the Memory Hole.
9. Read about common fallacies of historical thinking in the Rear Defogger (top bar).  When I grade your paper I may write something like “RD-4” in the textual comments.  That means look at Item #4 in the Rear Defogger.

Suggested Work Schedule:
Weeks 1-2: Pick Your Topic
After 1st Exam: You’ll Write On Your Topic For 5-pt. CAP
Weeks 3-6: Research; Dig Hard in the ACC, History Hub & UT-PCL Library
After 2nd Exam: You’ll Write On A Primary Source & How It Impacts Argument For 5-pt. CAP
Weeks 7-8: Write Essay; Learn to Cite Sources & Format
Week 9: Revise, Proof (Grammar-Check & Learning Lab), Squeeze the Fat (Lean & Clean); Your Prose Should Be Clear & Concise. Read Over Grammar Tips in History Hub Menu (Under Syllabi)
Week 10: More Proofing & Ask Yourself: Does the Thesis Line Up With the Argument & Conclusion?
Week 10: Paper Due

Rubric for Grading That You’ll See In Blackboard (60 Pts.):
Content: X/40
— Strength of the Main Argument: X/30
•Include dealing with counter-arguments (they way you’d be cross-examined in a courtroom)
•Examine the evidence, with special attention paid to primary sources
— Quality & Use of Good Sources: X/10
Writing: X/20
— Obvious failure to utilize grammar-check type software (even one case of it if it’s obvious) means a maximum score of 15/20
— Avoid simple mistakes like sentence fragments and capitalizing the wrong things (proper nouns are capitalized, nouns aren’t).

Late Papers, Backing Up & Grammar-Check
Each successive weekday the essay is late counts as another five points off the score, regardless of your excuse, up to 15 points off max. The smartest thing is to finish it before the deadline and work on polishing it – after all, you have plenty of time (2+ months), so what’s the use in finishing right at the deadline?  Or, worse yet, starting around the deadline?  Cover (or title) pages are unnecessary, but have a title that you embolden and capitalize that describes what your paper is about.  You should use the question you’re addressing as your title, or answer to that question, or some variation on it (don’t get fancy).  If you do not submit the paper by the last day of class, you will flunk rather than receive an incomplete.  Back Up!  Keep an electronic version of your paper; always save or email it to yourself, or keep a copy “in the clouds.”  For comments, don’t just look at the comment box, but also the text itself for inline commentary.  We can go over grammar in person with a hard copy if you have questions on that portion of the grade.  Go under WORD > PREFERENCES to set Grammar & Spell-checking at Standard.  Then after you’ve written the paper, go under TOOLS and run it through Grammar & Spelling check.  It’s an imperfect program, but it helps.  There’s no excuse that I can see for failing to use it (since the technology is free) other than simple laziness.  Also, check out the Grammar Tips in History Hub in the drop-down menu under Syllabi.

Some Helpful Websites on Writing Papers & Essays
Purdue Owl
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style
Dartmouth Guide
Univ. of Toronto Essay Writing Guide

Univ. of North Carolina Guide
ACC Writing Guide

ACC Library Study Skills Workshops (Including Effective Paragraph Writing & Effective Thesis Statements)