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Arguments and Evidence in Personal Essays

Arguments and Evidence in Personal Essays

Question Description

Discussion: Finding arguments and evidence in personal essays

As you know, the Critical Essay has to make arguments and use evidence, but not necessarily in a way that ‘sounds academic’, since it’s taking the form of a personal essay in a lot of ways. This is likely unfamiliar to you.

You all know how to use sources in a piece of writing like our first one: have something to say about the style of the play you’re reading? Quote from it! The source provides direct evidence of your claim. You’re also probably used to using quotes – definitions, anecdotes, statistics, often framed by rhetorical questions – as the ‘hook’ to a five paragraph essay (which, usually, turns out to be pretty boring, though the concept is sound).

But I know it may have been confusing this week when I mentioned that I want you to make ‘arguments’ and use ‘evidence’ in your Critical Essay even though I’m calling it a personal essay (which is a form of creative nonfiction). So I want you to use our nonfiction models (specifically — the essays by Didion, Carlson, Gay, and Dillard) to discuss how we can use arguments and evidence to gain traction and aid our cause in any rhetorical situation.

I. Claims/Arguments

When we make claims in academic writing, it’s easy to spot. We take a stand about the text/problem/moment in history we are analyzing, and we follow that directly with concrete, explicit evidence. It’s not always so obvious in creative nonfiction, but in these genres — including the personal essay — we also make claims. Implicitly or explicitly we make arguments about how we want our readers to look at their lives or the world, or about the answer to an important question.

a. First we have to convince our readers that a question or problem is important to think about. We can do that by explaining in abstract terms, or by winning the reader over with the beautiful/dramatic/compelling way we look at it or write about it. All of the essays we’ve read do this in some way or another.

b. Then we have to tell the readers our answer to a question or problem. That’s the ‘claim’ or ‘argument’ itself. A claim can be as simple as ‘I think you should dislike this habit/person/practice place’ as I did, or as important as ‘this is how to live your life’.

We can make our claim explicitly by telling the reader what to think (using second person to speak directly to them, or just writing statements we know they’re reading), and/or we can do it implicitly through the details we choose or how we structure/order them, or through our tone of voice (sometimes in this way, what seems like a ‘statement’ or fact can actually be a claim).

Again, each of the essays you’ve read recently do one or the other of these things, or both.

II. Sources

a. In academic writing, a source might:

Provide direct evidence for your claim. It might provide context and background information necessary to orient your reader or help them understand the importance of your topic, and give them places to go explore once they’re finished reading. It might shape your argument: raising a question you’ll explore, providing a provocative definition of a term that you will explore or apply to another situation. It might support a claim – provide an authoritative voice to back your ideas up. It might provide a counterargument that you will rebut, or that can help you qualify and complicate your own thoughts.

b. But what about when you’re not making ‘claims’ per se, or when the genre isn’t an academic one?

In ANY communication situation you are charged with and that you care about, you need to amplify your thoughts, prove their validity, show their importance and their relation to other ideas; you need to let your reader know that you’ve thought things through. Well, you do if you want people to listen, and engage, and respond, anyway. And otherwise, why write (except because I make you, I suppose)?

Even in poetry, you need to bring your reader around to your way of seeing things – to get them on your side. In that case, we’ll have to expand the discussion from ‘evidence’ to ‘persuasive strategies’ in general – it might ‘just’ be great, interesting writing and vivid, concrete images and metaphors that convinces me you’re worth listening to, but it’s still a way of backing yourself up.

And in creative nonfiction, too, including personal essays, it’s your strong voice, a quippy turn of phrase, a telling detail, your own memory and your interpretation of it, that give your readers confidence in you and your ideas. So even when the writer is simply asking and exploring questions, considering their own thoughts – as in Didion, Carlson, Gay, and Dillard—and not entering into a debate with a “resolved: I Am Right” argument, your reader must buy in. You must make your reader listen even when the ‘sources’ that back you up are internal, or personal, or integral to style instead of content. Often, it’s your story itself that is your evidence: you’re not telling us your story ‘just because’, you’re using it to prove your ideas about life, or writing, or whatever.

c. Besides this style-evidence, you can and should in most prose genres use direct quotes or reflections on sources, even in non-academic prose (including creative nonfiction, or application essays, or blog posts, or…..). The quotes and reflections can do the academic-type things listed above, but they can also help you put your thoughts in compelling or beautiful words that sustain the reader’s imagination, or provide analogous ideas or situations (from science, or history, or….) that can help your readers think of your personal story in broader ways. You want to always provide more room for your reader to relate, more inroads into their hearts and minds. Tying in other fields and ideas can help give your reader those inroads and make your piece more relevant to your audience.

III. Instructions

With these ideas about arguments evidence in mind, I want you to discuss how the personal essays we have read together make claims and use sources. A couple of these texts blend personal concerns with broader ideas like you’ll have to in the Critical Essay, and all of them are short enough to grapple with. So they’ll all be useful.

In your Discussion post, answer the following (note — more examples are better!)

1. Find at least ONE example of I.a. (persuading us that an issue is important), and at least ONE example of an EXPLICIT claim and ONE of an IMPLICIT claim (I.b.). Find examples from at least TWO of our personal essays. Describe the claim and how it’s explicit/implicit, and any other important information about how it’s put forth to the reader. Make sure you’re not finding examples of FACTS, but of ARGUMENTS — things that can be disagreed with.

2. Find an example of at least TWO kinds of evidence for part II.a., and discuss how it’s used: what is its function? Find an example of at least TWO kinds of source use for part II.b. (the bolded parts), and discuss them too. Discuss at least ONE moment like those described in part II.c. (where the writer uses the strength of their style or voice to make a particular point more compelling or persuasive).

3. End by considering how you will use any or all of these examples to help you make your Critical Essay more compelling and broadly relatable.

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