Tricks of the Trade: Addressing Counterarguments

In the first Tricks of the Trade article, “Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader,” we discussed how all good writing begins with writing for an actual reader.

Here is one important point about that reader: sometimes, your reader will come across some point you have made and think, “Wait—I disagree with this point!” If the reader is left to his own devices, his own counterarguments will convince him that your arguments do not work. When this happens, the writing—which should convince the reader of your view—only serves to further entrench the reader in his own view.

How can you prevent this from occurring? Simple: Take on those counterarguments in your writing. Do not ignore them. Confront them. Tackle them. If you don’t, these counterarguments will destroy your desired effect: convincing the reader.

The difficult part is finding those counterarguments—and doing so before your reader does. Generating these hypothetical counterarguments requires a degree of imagination, and maybe a degree of research. It certainly requires a degree of empathy—and, harder yet, empathy for those who disagree with your position. Admittedly, this level of empathy can be a difficult quality to attain. Fortunately, though, there are some approaches to achieving this empathy in your writing so that you can address likely counterarguments.

One great way to come up with counterarguments is to find a friend who will disagree with your points. Show that friend your draft, or even your outline. If, for example, you are writing a paper that expresses a fiscally liberal worldview, find a friend who tends to hold conservative views. Say, “Hey, would you mind reading this, and telling me what you think about some of the arguments?” If you have access to a chat program—like AIM or Skype—you can even record the conversation and transcribe it into notes.

Also, reading responses to online blogs, articles, and similar postings is a great way to find everyday counterarguments. But be careful: the arguments people make are not always very strong, and you want to present counterarguments that are reasonable. For that reason, you may want to consider the articles of experts and professional writers as well. The last thing you want is to insult those readers who disagree with your position by implying, “Hey, I think you—and others who hold your view—would make a horrible argument like the one seen here, an argument that anyone can easily dismiss.”

To present a weak counterargument in this way and then to argue against it is called a Straw Man Argument. It is a type of fallacy—a weakness in the reasoning or logic of an argument. (Logically enough, the name of this particular fallacy is the “straw man fallacy.”) Think about the name: straw man argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of someone building a man of straw and then defeating it in “combat.” I put “combat” in quotes, because fighting a straw man is not really combat at all, since the straw man does not fight back. To defeat a straw man is to accomplish very little. Likewise, to present a weak counterargument and then to dismiss it is to accomplish very little to win over your reader. Your quest as a writer is not to take convenient swings at straw men; your quest is to slay dragons.

Crafting and Responding to Counterarguments

To support a thesis, the writer must think about counterexamples and counterarguments that could be brought against her assertion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay against the discriminatory treatment of Muslims in post 9-11 America. Here are some counterarguments (left column) and the responses to those counterarguments (right column):


My Responses to Counterarguments

This is what my opponent will say. . . .

And this is how I will respond to the counterargument. . . .

Some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations—so why shouldn’t we discriminate against them for the purpose of protecting ourselves? Yes, but some Christians also commit acts of terrorism. Consider the bombings of abortion clinics; this is terrorism based upon a belief or conviction, just like the terrorism of militant Muslims. All terrorism is bad, regardless of who commits it.
We live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—why, then, is discrimination an issue with such a relatively small group? Don’t we practice this in elections, to some degree, when the majority wins the day? Discrimination against Muslims in America is an important problem to address, because America is based upon the belief in the religious rights of the individual. If only one person is a Muslim in America, then he should not be discriminated against; this is the freedom of religion that America stands for.

Do you see how this works? Think in terms of an opponent—one who is actively thinking about your assertions. Make up an opponent in your mind and have him criticize your argument. Think about the gaps and seeming contradictions in your argument and how you can account for them with logical responses. Ideally, your writing should be a combination of your own original arguments and your arguments that are in response to hypothetical opponents. Think in terms of these steps:

  1. Introduce and write your thesis: Make your assertion; express your position.
  2. Write out your arguments, and as you do so, think of the ways your hypothetical opponent could argue against your arguments. This step is not actually the first draft of your paper, but prewriting—brainstorming: gathering ammunition for your argument.
  3. Respond to the hypothetical responses. You may even want to write the counterarguments in full within your paper so you can respond to them. One great way to introduce your opponent’s responses is to say:  “At this point, someone might argue X.”

Here are two (of many) ways to pose a counterargument in your writing:

  • At this point, one might argue X; however, X is not the case because Y.

Example: At this point, some readers might argue that some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations, and that because of these crimes, Americans have the right to discriminate against Muslims in certain cases; however, if we take this argument as being valid, we would also be permitted to discriminate against Christians for the terrorist attacks on abortion clinics by a few extreme fundamentalist Christians. When all is said and done, we should discriminate against neither Christian nor Muslim for the acts of a few extremists.

  • At this point, some might argue X, and they would be right if Y. However, Y is not the case here. So, X must be erroneous, at least in this case.

Example: At this point, some may be tempted to justify discrimination against Muslims, saying that we live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—and they would be right if America was not founded upon the principle that we should protect minorities and their beliefs from being marginalized by the majority. I, for one, am thankful that America is based upon the principle of equality, and that people here are free to be the individuals they want to be.

One Last Point: Writing = Conversation

Move away from the notion that writing is simply putting your ideas and assertions on paper. While it does include your ideas and assertions, writing is a quest to win your reader over to those ideas and assertions–and to do that, you must think of writing as a conversation with your reader. Always be aware that your readers are actively thinking about what you are saying and that they are responding to it in their minds as they read. Being aware of this dimension of writing—and responding to it—is the stuff of advanced writing. One essential step to attaining this reader-oriented view of writing is to think in terms of argument, counterargument, and response. Make your reader feel well served by acknowledging other viewpoints and counterarguments that may arise as you make your own argument. As you continue to hone this writing practice, your writing will take on an entirely new level of persuasion and impact.

What better time to start than now?

Next Up:

Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

For purposes of clarity, this article has isolated counterarguments as examples by pulling them from their original context. But now that you know what a counterargument is, the best way to see the full effect of the counterargument is to view it within the context of the larger argument. The next Tricks of the Trade article gives a bit more of that context by sharing counterarguments drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” MLK’s letter, often anthologized as an essay, stands as a powerful example of how the counterargument can act not only as a positive rhetorical feature, but also as the driving force for movement and argumentation within the essay.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).