Handy hints for making arguments

These hints will help you improve the quality of your argument visualizations. By using this page as a checklist to improve your work before submitting it to your instructor, you'll learn to apply these hints automatically and your argumentation skills will improve dramatically.

1 Be clear

Do not use needlessly long words or sentences, and thoroughly proofread your argument visualizations before submitting them to your instructor. Ensure that (a) each white box contains exactly one sentence and (b) that the sentence is capable of being true or false.

Be concise, but not at the expense of clarity

Avoid language that makes it difficult to understand a claim without referring to something outside the claim itself—for example, demonstratives (like “that” and “this”).  In other words, write clearly and minimize anaphora.

2 Exclude “logical language” from claims

Argument visualizations represent the logical relations denoted by words like “and,” “but,” “so,” “because," etc., visually. These words will rarely appear in a good argument visualization because, rather than describing an argument using English words, the best visualizations display the argument using color, line, and shape.

Using words like "and," "but," and "therefore," undermines the benefits of visualization—the ability to quickly see exactly how the various parts of an argument all hang together. For example, we represent “A and B” and "A therefore B" (or "B because A") using the small diagrams near this text.

"A and B"

"B because A"  

Rarely include conjunctions (AKA "and"-sentences) in claim boxes

Consider this sentence: [A] The moon is made of green cheese and [B] the sun is 93 million miles away from the earth. This sentence is a conjunction because it was formed by conjoining two independently complete sentences, A and B, with the word “and.”

Avoid using conjunctions in your argument visualizations. Instead, split the conjuncts up into separate white boxes which can be unified within a single reason (green bracket) or objection (red bracket). The explanation for this rule is simple: If you put a sentence like “B1 and B2” into a single white box, it will be ambiguous whether you're supporting B1, B2, or both. The visualization near this text represents a single claim, A, supporting a conjunction of two claims, B1 and B2. If A only supported B1, and had no bearing on B2, we would have no way to represent this because B1 and B2 are smooshed together in a single claim. This advice does not apply when a claim supports the conjunction as a whole but does not support its conjuncts taken individually, but such cases are pretty rare, so you should split conjunctions into separate claims by default.

3 Exclude background material

Your argument visualizations should only capture the argumentative content of the readings, so there's no need to represent definitions or other stage-setting materials (unless you're analyzing an argument about a definition!). Everything appearing in an argument visualization should be helpful for persuading someone who’s already familiar with the basics. If you want to include some background material, you can use a sticky (hit Alt+N) or a note (hit “n” in MindMup).

4 Use parallel language whenever possible (AKA: 'HOLDING HANDS')

Using different words to mean the same might make a difficult problem effectively impossible. So, use consistent language throughout your argument visualizations. Don't be afraid to repeat entire claims.

Eliminate danglers

Danglers are claims that do not contribute to (or detract from) the strength of an argument. Here's an example:

Notice that this argument would not be weakened by deleting the third claim ("I don't know that I'm not asleep in my bed dreaming"). Therefore, the third claim is a dangler and should be cut. Also notice that the third claim is not linked up via parallel language to the other claims in the reason as neither the first nor the second claim say anything about dreaming. This is an excellent clue that it should be cut!

5 Avoid cheesy arguments

Cheesy arguments all follow this pattern:

Like this argument, all cheesy arguments rely on claims of the form “If my supporting claim is true, then my conclusion is true.” This is often a symptom of lazy thinking, and following this pattern often defeats the purpose of argument visualization, which is to think more lucidly about difficult arguments. So when you catch yourself making a cheesy argument, try to think of a more thoughtful claim that will do what you need.

The best way to revise a cheesy argument is to ask how you would support the inference from the non-cheesy claim to the conclusion. 

To see this applied, think about what would support the cheesy claim—"If traveling to the slopes will cost more, then..."—in the argument above. Why might a reasonable person find it credible? Suggestion: A reasonable person might believe that the cost of travel makes up the main difference in costs between ski trips and beach trips. If this were true, then the inference from the claim "Traveling to the slopes will cost more than traveling to the beach" to the conclusion might not be too bad. (Assume you live near the beach and far from the mountains!) So, we can improve the argument above by replacing the cheesy claim with this more thoughtful claim:

People sometimes begin essays by announcing a conclusion and listing some premises which are supposed to jointly entail the conclusion. But when they get into the details—the reasons to believe the premises—their presentation usually gets less formal. What you tend to find are considerations that in good cases favor the premises to some degree. Assessing an argument involves figuring out (a) to what degree you believe these considerations and (b) to what degree you think they actually support the conclusion. Cheesy claims don't help in either of these tasks, and their veneer of rigor can make it more difficult to detect shoddy reasoning. Therefore, when you notice yourself relying on a cheesy claim, consider replacing it with something more thoughtful.

6 Don't conjure concepts out of thin air (AKA: 'No surprises')

Make sure that your arguments never "conjure up" their central concepts: each of the important concepts in a claim should appear in at least one reason or objection immediately beneath that claim. (The obvious exception to this rule is the bottom layer of an argument!) Here is an argument that is guilty of conjuring:

The argument is guilty of conjuring because the conclusion concerns the idea of public resources—an idea which does not appear in either of the claims supporting the conclusion. Therefore, the conclusion is simply conjured out of thin air. You know that this cannot be a good argument because it is impossible to conclude anything about what public resources should be devoted to something without relying on at least one claim that mentions public resources! Watch out for this common and easy-to-avoid error.

7 Place claims in a single reason when and only when they support a conclusion more strongly together than they do separately

Here's a simple example:

(P1) Only 1 in 100 million people have genetic marker A,

(P2) Whitney has genetic marker A.

(P3) The person who killed Dylan has genetic marker A,

Of course, if true, these three claims would strongly support the conclusion that Whitney killed Dylan. Here's a good way to represent this argument:

Notice that Claims P1, P2, and P3 support the conclusion far more strongly together than they do separately. That’s why they are belong in a single green reason. 

Here’s one of the wrong ways of visualizing this argument:

To test if some claims support a conclusion independently or jointly, ask yourself the following question: If one of the claims was false would the other claims continue to support the conclusion as strongly? If the answer is yes, then at least one of the claims belongs in a separate reason (or objection). If the answer is no, then the claims should all go together in a single reason (or objection). 

Double-check your work for this mistake—it is one of the most common.

8 Start with the easy bits and work outwards from there

It is rarely a good strategy to analyze a whole article as you read it for the first time. A better alternative is to begin by skimming the article. When you hit a passage you're sure you understand, get that passage analyzed perfectly in MindMup. Then, use your understanding of the bit you've figured out to bootstrap yourself to a better understanding of the more difficult surrounding arguments. 

Getting as clear as possible about the bits you find easiest is often the most efficient way to analyze a difficult text.

To see this hint applied, consider the following passage:

Do you think your local butcher will reduce the amount of meat she orders from the slaughterhouse if you become a vegetarian? [1] Of course not! [2] The supply chain for meat just isn’t sensitive to the quantities that a single person consumes. So, [3] by becoming a vegetarian, you'll never save a single animal’s life! But [4] by becoming a vegetarian you’ll deprive yourself of the pleasure of eating meat, and [5] you should only do that if the benefits would outweigh the losses. So, [6] you should only become a vegetarian if doing so would save some animals’ lives.

At first glance, this passage can seem pretty straightforward. But before reading any further, try to sketch out the argument in MindMup using this link (if prompted, select "Open with MindMup 2.0").  You can learn how to use MindMup by watching this short walk-through video:

If you attempted the exercise, you now know that it's far from trivial: Students new to argument visualization usually can't figure it out without some help from their instructor. But by making the most of little blessings—words like “so” and “and”—you can figure it out much more easily. Here’s how. Look up at the passage again and notice the word “so” that comes just before Sentence 3. That little word—"so"—should jump out and slap you in the face! It should cause you to draw something like the figure near this text, and you should get warm fuzzy feels in spades when you compare this figure to the text that it represents.

At this point, we don’t know how this part of the argument connects up with the rest of the passage, but we are confident we’ve got this part right. So, let’s keep reading through the passage to find another part that we can  connect up with what we've already figured out.

Here's the next bit of the passage:

But [4] by becoming a vegetarian you’ll deprive yourself of the pleasure of eating meat, and [5] you should only do that if the benefits would outweigh the losses. So, [6] you should only become a vegetarian if doing so would save some animals’ lives...

The “and” that connects Sentences 4 and 5, and the “so” that comes right before 6, suggest something like this:

By combining this unit with the bit we figured out earlier, we can support the claim you shouldn’t become a vegetarian, which is the conclusion of the argument. Putting the two units together gets us a nearly complete analysis:

Now that you've seen how we can get most of this passage figured out by paying attention to words like and, but, and so, complete the exercise by thinking about what’s assumed in the inferences supporting Sentences 6 and 3, and then compare your completed argument visualization with the one at the end of this page.

9 Be nice

When interpreting a text, begin by assuming that the author is smart and has thought carefully about the topic. Search for a representation of the author's argument that does not commit obvious blunders or rely on unsubtle falsehoods. As Kahneman and Tversky wrote, "a refutation of a caricature can be no more than a caricature of refutation.” But unfortunately authors do sometimes assume fishy-smelling claims. So, just because a claim seems false to you, you shouldn't conclude that it plays no role in someone else’s argument! People sometimes rely on assumptions that they would reject if they reflected more carefully.

10 Revise your work thoroughly

Analyzing arguments is often a tricky business, but not because the rules on this page are difficult—they're pretty straightforward. Analyzing arguments is difficult because understanding argumentative texts is difficult. Students often don't notice this fact until they force themselves to think slowly and methodically by using a technique like argument visualization. So when you hit a difficult argument, remember that you will rely on the skills you develop here to succeed in many other classes. They are all-purpose tools that will serve you well not just in your college classes, but also in the political, professional, and civic reasoning you employ for the rest of your life.

Use the hints on this page as a checklist when revising your assignments

Get into the habit of checking every argument unit for clarity, charity, concision, logical vocabulary, correctly individuated reasons and claims, and so on. With practice, you will find yourself checking for these things automatically and your argument visualizations will improve dramatically. It’s important to develop good habits early on, so use these hints whenever you practice. Students who follow this advice learn faster and end up achieving higher competence.

Completed exercise

Here’s a complete visualization of the partially worked example from Hint 8. Figure out what's wrong with it and attach your own objection in MindMup!

Find more exercises to practice with on the Basics page.

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