A controversial topic is one on which people have strong views.
Imagine the type of discussion that can become really heated, usually when the subject is something people are passionate about. But a person who is passionate about a particular issue does not necessarily mean they recognize the merits of the other view (although that often happens); it just means that the person has collected evidence (from a variety of sources) and synthesized those ideas to arrive at a particular point of view.
When you are trying to choose your topic for your persuasive paper, it is easier if you choose a topic about which you feel very strongly. You probably have realized by this point that when you are writing, it is a lot easier to write about a topic you already have some background knowledge on, and something you are extremely interested in. This helps to engage you and keep you interested in the writing process.
No matter the topic you eventually decide to discuss, there are a few things you need to think about before you begin the writing process.
You will need to make sure your subject is:
- Significant. Is a discussion of this topic one that has the potential to contribute to a field of study? Will it make an impact? This does not mean every discussion has to change lives, but it needs to be something relatively important. For example, a significant topic would be to convince your reader that eating at fast-food restaurants is detrimental to people’s cardiovascular system. A less significant discussion would be if you were to try to convince your reader why one fast-food restaurant is better than another.
- Singular. This means you need to focus on one subject. Using the fast-food restaurant example, if you were to focus on both the effects on the cardiovascular and endocrine system, the discussion would lose that singular focus and there would be too much for you to cover.
- Specific. Similar to the point above, your topic needs to be narrow enough to allow for you to really discuss the topic within the essay parameters (i.e., word count). Many writers are afraid of getting too specific because they feel they will run out of things to say. If you develop the idea completely and give thorough explanations and plenty of examples, the specificity should not be a problem.
- Supportable. Does evidence for what you want to discuss actually exist? There is probably some form of evidence out there even for the most obscure topics or points of view. However, you need to remember you should use credible sources. Someone’s opinions posted on a blog about why one fast-food restaurant is the best does not count as credible support for your ideas.
In previous chapters, you learned strategies for generating and narrowing a topic for a research paper. Review the list of general topics below. Also, think about which topics you feel very strongly. Freewrite for five minutes on one of the topics below. Remember, you will need to focus your ideas to a manageable size for a five– to seven–page research paper.
You are also welcome to choose another topic; you may want to double-check with your instructor if it is suitable. It is important to remember that you want your paper to be unique and stand out from others’; writing on overly common topics may not help with this. Since we have already discussed the death penalty as a form of punishment in the last chapter and already developed ideas, you should probably not choose this topic because your instructor wants you to demonstrate you have applied the process of critical thinking on another topic.
Identify the key words you will use in the next self–practice exercise to preliminary research to narrow down your topic.
Some appropriate controversial topics are:
- Illegal immigration in Canada
- Bias in the media
- The role of religion in educational systems
- The possibility of life in outer space
- Modern day slavery around the world, ie. Human trafficking
- Foreign policy
- Television and advertising
- Stereotypes and prejudice
- Gender roles and the workplace
- Driving and cell phones
Formulating a Research Question
In forming a research question, you are setting a goal for your research. Your main research question should be substantial enough to form the guiding principle of your paper, but focused enough to guide your research. A strong research question requires you not only to find information but also to put together different pieces of information, interpret and analyze them, and figure out what you think. As you consider potential research questions, ask yourself whether they would be too hard or too easy to answer.
To determine your research question, review the freewriting you completed earlier. Skim through books, articles, and websites and list the questions you have. (You may wish to use the 5WH strategy to help you formulate questions.) Include simple, factual questions and more complex questions that require analysis and interpretation. Determine your main question—the primary focus of your paper—and several subquestions that you will need to research to answer that main question.
Here is an example of research questions a student used to focus research. Notice that his main research question has no obvious, straightforward answer. He will need to research his sub questions, which address narrower topics, to answer his main question.
Topic: low-carbohydrate diets
Main question: are low-carbohydrate diets as effective as they have been portrayed to be by media sources?
- Who can benefit from following a low carbohydrate diet?
- What are the supposed advantages to following a low-carbohydrate diet?
- When did low-carb diets become a “hot” topic in the media?
- Where do average consumers get information about diet and nutrition?
- Why has the low-carb approach received so much media attention?
- How do low-car diets work?
Using the ideas you came up with in Exercise 39.1, create a research question you would like to find the answer to through your research and persuasive paper development. This is something you will use to help guide you in your writing and to check back with to make sure you are answering that question along the way.
Share your questions with a partner. Describe your topic and point of view and ask your partner if that question connects to that topic and point of view.
Working with the topic you have identified, use the research skills you learned in previous chapters to locate approximately five potentially useful print or electronic sources of information about the topic.
Create a list that includes the following:
- One subject-specific periodicals database likely to include relevant articles on your topic
- Two articles about your topic written for an educated general audience
- At least one article about your topic written for an audience with specialized knowledge
Organize your list of resources into primary and secondary sources. What makes them either primary or secondary? Pick one primary source and one secondary source and write a sentence or two summarizing the information that each provides.
Then answer these questions:
- What type of primary source did you choose? Who wrote it, and why? Do you think this source provides accurate information, or is it biased in some way?
- Where did the information in the secondary source come from? Was the author citing an initial study, piece of literature, or work of art? Where could you find the primary source?
With the topic from Exercise 39.1 and the preliminary research you conducted in Exercise 3, develop a working thesis and scratch outline.
How to Be Really Convincing
Sometimes it can be very challenging to convince someone of your ideas and that your point of view is valid. If your reader has strong contrary views or has had emotional experiences in the past connected to that topic, your job in persuading will be more challenging. However, if you consider your audience and tone, you will be better able to predict possible objections your reader may have to your argument and address those accordingly.
It will also help you make recognize how much and what kind of background information you need to provide your reader with context for your discussion.
- Who are my readers?
- What do they already know on the subject?
- What are they likely to be interested in?
- How impartial or biased are they?
- Is the subject one that may challenge their ethical or moral beliefs?
- What values do we share?
- What types of evidence will be most effective?
With a partner, discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each example. Look at the credibility, tone, appropriateness to audience, and completeness of the ideas presented.
With your partner, discuss how you could make each of these arguments stronger.
A strong persuasive essay will respectfully identify and discuss perspectives of the same topic. When you do this, you are presenting a well-rounded and complete discussion to your reader that shows you have critically thought about the topic and have been selective in choosing your points. As a result, there is a higher probably that you will convince your reader. The process of looking at multiple sides of a topic is called dialectics.
Dialectics is the act of using logical reasoning to combine, juxtapose, or synthesize opposing ideas to arrive at a strong conclusion.
The Components of Dialectics
To begin the dialectic process, you first need to come up with an idea of what topic will be discussed; this is the thesis behind the discussion.
Once you have determined your thesis, through various methods (the easiest being discussion with someone else), you will explore opposing sides to the topic, eventually discovering at least one antithesis. Combining those two perspectives, you can then make your own conclusions. Maybe this process will result in you standing by the original thesis, or maybe the antithesis is incredibly convincing and you will switch sides of the argument, or maybe you still believe the original thesis but accept there are other conditions that have credibility as well.
This end result is called the synthesis: the blending of ideas. Essentially, the process would look like this:
Considering both your thesis and the discovered antithetical perspectives will help you to arrive at a wider view of a topic: one that has more credibility. Looking back to the persuasive essay samples you read in 38. Persuasion and discussed in Exercise 38.5, consider to what degree the authors acknowledged opposing views.
- How did they justify their opinions?
- Consider how integrating dialectics into each of those arguments to a greater degree would have strengthened their points of view, ultimately making their arguments more convincing.
Based on the thesis “Governments use capital punishment as an effective tool for deterring violent crime,” answer the following questions and complete the table. What is your stance on this statement? To what extent do you agree/disagree?
Complete the table considering the thesis statement given above.
First come up with ideas supporting the point of view you described in early questions.
Then, challenge yourself to come up with ideas (you may need to do a little bit of research) that would support the other side of the discussion.
Supporting the statement:
Against the statement:
Discuss your answers with a partner. Do you both have the same ideas, or can you add to your list based on what your partner has come up with.
After coming up with and considering the other perspective, has your point of view changed at all?
Do you still stick by your same point of view 100 percent? Or do you concede that there are valid points from the other perspective?
Using both the scratch outline and the working thesis you created in Exercise 40.4, create a table like the one you used in Exercise 39.6, only filling in the side with information that supports your thesis. Once you have created that table with your thesis given, share your table and thesis with a classmate.
Collaborate: Conduct a dialectic discussion on your topic and possible for and against the working thesis you presented. Add any points to your original table.
Remember to be aware of the process of synthesis you have gone through. Did your original point of view change at all? Is there anything you can make concessions on being valid? This may impact your thesis.
Using one or two of the opposing ideas your partner helped you come up with, revise your scratch outline from Exercise 39.4.
Organizing Your Ideas
Creating an Introduction and Thesis
The persuasive essay begins with an engaging introduction that presents the general topic. The thesis typically appears somewhere in the introduction and states the writer’s point of view.
Re-evaluate Your Working Thesis
A careful analysis of your notes will help you re-evaluate your working thesis and determine whether you need to revise it. Remember that your working thesis was the starting point—not necessarily the end point—of your research. You should revise your working thesis if your ideas changed based on what you read. Even if your sources generally confirmed your preliminary thinking on the topic, it is still a good idea to tweak the wording of your thesis to incorporate the specific details you learned from research.
Read this revised thesis.
On a sheet of paper, use your working thesis and the revised outline from Exercise 7 and list the types of evidence you might use in support of that thesis. Essentially, you are expanding your outline to include more source information.
Synthesizing and Organizing Information
By now, your thinking on your topic is taking shape. You have a sense of what major ideas to address in your paper, what points you can easily support, and what questions or subtopics might need a little more thought. In short, you have begun the process of synthesizing information—that is, of putting the pieces together into a coherent whole.
It is normal to find this part of the process a little difficult. Some questions or concepts may still be unclear to you. You may not yet know how you will tie all of your research together. Synthesizing information is a complex, demanding mental task, and even experienced researchers struggle with it at times. A little uncertainty is often a good sign! It means you are challenging yourself to work thoughtfully with your topic instead of simply restating the same information.
You have already considered how your notes fit with your working thesis. Now, take your synthesis a step further. Organize your notes with headings that correspond to points and subpoints you came up with through dialectics and compiled in your outline, which you presented to your instructor. As you proceed, you might identify some more important subtopics that were not part of your original plan, or you might decide that some points are not relevant to your paper.
Categorize information carefully and continue to think critically about the material. Ask yourself whether the sources are reliable and whether the connections between ideas are clear.
Remember, your ideas and conclusions will shape the paper. They are the glue that holds the rest of the content together. As you work, begin jotting down the big ideas you will use to connect the dots for your reader. (If you are not sure where to begin, try answering your major research question and subquestions. Add and answer new questions as appropriate.) You might record these big ideas on sticky notes or type and highlight them within an electronic document.
Here is a rough outline for a paper.
Topic: Low-carbohydrate diets
Main question: Are low carbohydrate diets as effective as they have been portrayed to be by media sources?
Thesis: Although following a low-carbohydrate diet can benefit some people, these diets are not necessarily the best option for everyone who wants to lose weight or improve their health.
- How do low-carb diets work?
- Low carb diets cause weight loss by lowering insulin levels, causing the body to burn stored fat.
- When did low-carb diets become a “hot” topic in the media?
- The Atkins diet was created in 1972 by Richard Atkins, but it didn’t gain wide-scale attention until 2003. The South Beach diet and other low-carb diets became popular around the same time, and led to a low-carb craze in America from 2003 to 2004.
- What are the supposed advantages to following a low-carbohydrate diet?
- They are said to help you lose weight faster than other diets and allow people to continue to eat protein and fats while dieting.
- What are some of the negative effects of a low-carb diet?
- Eating foods high in saturated fats can increase your cholesterol levels and lead to heart disease. Incomplete fat breakdown can lead to a condition called ketosis, which puts a strain on the liver and can be fatal.
You may be wondering how your ideas are supposed to shape the paper, especially since you are writing a research paper based on your research. Integrating your ideas and your information from research is a complex process, and sometimes it can be difficult to separate the two.
Some paragraphs in your paper will consist mostly of details from your research. That is fine, as long as you explain what those details mean or how they are linked. You should also include sentences and transitions that show the relationship between different facts from your research by grouping related ideas or pointing out connections or contrasts. The result is that you are not simply presenting information; you are synthesizing, analyzing, and interpreting it.
Plan How to Organize Your Paper
The final step to complete before beginning your draft is to choose an organizational structure. For some assignments, this may be determined by the instructor’s requirements. For instance, if you are asked to explore the impact of a new communications device, a cause-and-effect structure is obviously appropriate. In other cases, you will need to determine the structure based on what suits your topic and purpose.
The purpose of the following paper is primarily to persuade. With that in mind, look at the following outline.
- Purported Benefits of Low-Carbohydrate Diets
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition guidelines
- Potential flaws in USDA nutrition guidelines
- Effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar, insulin
- Relationship to metabolism and obesity
- Research on Low-Carbohydrate Diets and Weight Loss
- Short-term effectiveness for weight-loss
- Long-term effectiveness not established
- Other Long-Term Health Outcomes
- Cholesterol and heart disease
- Blood pressure
- This chapter was adapted from “Developing a Convincing Argument” in Writing for Success 1st Canadian Edition by Tara Horkoff and a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution. Adapted by Allison Kilgannon. CC BY-NC-SA
- Figure 39.1 “Raccoon argument II” © Tambako the Jaguar is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.