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Essay Writing Tactics: Counterargument and Rebuttal

Updated on July 29, 2014
Angry and Frustrated Business Person Stock Image; exemplifying the need for reasoned argument
Angry and Frustrated Business Person Stock Image; exemplifying the need for reasoned argument | Source

There are times when essays need just a little bit more to prove their theses. The tests to which their ideas are put are in order, given ample evidence to support them, and have that evidence explained--as ought to be the case. The length demanded of the essay, though, has not quite been met. The question then arises of how to meet that length and successfully address the demands of the writing task while not obviously padding out the paper, adding fluff that distracts from the thesis and annoys readers into thinking their time has been wasted.

It is an easy question to answer: include a counterargument and a rebuttal. The addition to the argument may help meet the demands of length, and following the pattern of doing so does not distract from the argument being made in an essay. Instead, it strengthens it.

Some Concerns

Novice writers often have difficulty incorporating counterargument and rebuttal into their essays. The challenge to them stems in part from the fact that doing so seems to violate one of the central tenets of essay writing, something inculcated into them from elementary school forward: everything in the essay should support the thesis. In itself, the principle is a good one; essays benefit from being focused on proving the validity of their theses. Incorporating materials such as the counterargument and rebuttal presents itself as a distraction from that, running the risk of "padding out" a paper with extraneous detail and diluting the focus of the paper.

Another difficulty novice writers face with the counterargument, particularly, is that they tend to be so committed to the ideas of their theses that they shy away from envisioning anything that runs against it. Such commitment has the advantage of driving the search for support of the idea in the thesis. It does run the risk, however, of blinding the writer to other possibilities, leading to cherry-picking data and missing various clues that would suggest other approaches to the topic treated in the thesis. It also makes incorporating such materials as the counterargument more difficult for them.

There is the concern also that the counterargument and rebuttal will be perceived as pro forma activities, completed only to pad out the essay. This leads to the straw man fallacy, in which deliberately misrepresentative or weakened arguments are presented and defeated. Ostensibly, it demonstrates the writer's abilities. In truth, it does so--but not in a desirable way; those who rely upon such undercut opposition signal their own weakness.

One solution to the problems is to ensure that the core argument--the thesis and its support--is solid and secure before venturing to insert (not append) the counterargument and rebuttal into the essay. This ensures that the writer has done the most important part of the writing work well and makes it more likely that the writer, not wanting to mar the performance, will do well with the additional materials. Another (if more time-intensive) is to actually draft the opposing essay, using a summary of it to create the counterargument and then working to rebut it. The work involved will help redress the straw man issue as well as helping to prompt better writing through the expenditure of additional effort and the emotional investment often involved with it.

Counterargument

At its most basic, a counterargument is a presented position that contradicts or undermines the thesis of an essay. Generally, it will come as one of four types:

  • Direct contradiction--the counterargument asserts that the opposite of the thesis is true; this is most often found in comparative pieces and "debates" that frame positions as either/or propositions.
  • Deviation--the counterargument asserts that some position other than that voiced in the thesis is true, although not one diametrically opposed to the thesis; this will often appear in addressing questions of degree or specific means to achieve a commonly desired end.
  • Undermining one of the assumptions made by the thesis--the counterargument asserts that one of the ideas upon which the thesis depends is untrue; typically, this will come in contesting the definitions of terms the thesis uses.
  • Identification of a point not addressed--the counterargument asserts that something must be considered in making the argument that is not; although this is a technique more commonly seen as a rebuttal, it can be deployed as a counterargument.

As an example, working from the thesis that "Who Wants to Live Forever" is the best of Queen's songs other than "Bohemian Rhapsody," several counterarguments suggest themselves:

  • "Who Wants to Live Forever" is, in fact, the worst of Queen's songs.
  • While "Who Wants to Live Forever" is good, "Somebody to Love" is truly the best of Queen's songs other than "Bohemian Rhapsody."
  • Because of their provenance, none of Queen's songs is actually good.
  • While a definition of "good" music consisting of X, Y, and Z is not wrong, in that X, Y, and Z are needed, it is incomplete. "Good" music also requires Ð, and those judgments which do not account for Ð are necessarily suspect.

In each, the counterargument presents a position that vitiates against the essay's thesis in some way. In making an effective counterargument, one that will position the essay to become a stronger piece of writing, three things in particular must be ensured:

  • Smoothness of the transition into the counterargument; moving among ideas always requires grace, and the significant distance between the ideas of the thesis and the counterargument requires both equally significant grace and clarity in the shift of position. Phrasing such as "Not all agree on the matter, however" is useful.
  • Reasonableness of the counterargument; to avoid the straw man fallacy, as noted above, and to present the essayist as a trustworthy person, the counterargument has to be a sensible argument in favor of its own position. That is to say, it cannot be an extremist diatribe; it must present a balanced proposition that is supported by well explained evidence. It must also be phrased in such a way that the ideas are presented with respect, rather than creating an impression of sneering disdain.
  • Appropriateness of the proportion of counterargument to essay; while the counterargument must be treated decently if it is to be deployed at all, the point of the essay remains to bear out the idea articulated in the thesis. This means that the counterargument must not occupy too much of the paper. In a five-page paper, for example, the counterargument should generally not take more than half to (at an extreme high) three-quarters of a page. There has to be room to have a rebuttal of equal length and still have the majority of the paper taken up with proving the validity of the thesis.

Ensuring them as counterarguments of any sort are offered, following the suggestions laid out in an earlier hub for generally effective development of ideas, will do much to position the essays containing counterarguments such that they can be superior pieces of writing, reflecting well on those who write them.

Rebuttal

At its most basic, a rebuttal is a presented position that contradicts or otherwise undermines a counterargument. It is not the same as supporting the original thesis--or not necessarily so. It is not the case that the counterargument being wrong proves the thesis correct; both can, in theory, be in error. All the rebuttal must do is prove that the presented counterargument does not suffice to undermine the thesis. It will generally do so according to the same patterns as are available to the counterargument, although not usually the same used by the specific counterargument being rebutted:

  • Direct contradiction--the rebuttal asserts that the opposite of the counterargument is true; this functions well as a rebuttal to most any counterargument save those in direct contradiction to their theses, in which case the exercise takes on something to the childish "Uh huh"/"Unh uh" pattern. Such is to be avoided.
  • Deviation--the rebuttal asserts that some position other than that voiced in the counterargument is true, although not one diametrically opposed to the counterargument and typically not the same as is voiced in the thesis.
  • Undermining one of the assumptions made by the counterargument--the rebuttal asserts that one of the ideas upon which the counterargument depends is untrue; typically, this will come in contesting the definitions of terms the counterargument uses.
  • Identification of a point not addressed--the rebuttal asserts that something must be considered in making the counterargument that is not. It is one of the key rebuttal techniques, used in rebuttals deployed in legal proceedings.

Following from the example about Queen's music above suggests several rebuttals. The rebuttals are listed in order of rebuttal style rather than counterargument style:

  • Condemning the value of works because their artists are otherwise than might be preferred is a disservice to the works; they are not their artists and should not be judged as such.
  • "Somebody to Love" cannot be the best of Queen's songs, however, because it is itself less good than "Bicycle Race."
  • What makes for bad music is hardly a settled question. To call "Who Wants to Live Forever" the worst of Queen's songs presumes a certain definition of a good Queen song that does not correspond with the band's oeuvre.
  • Asserting that "Somebody to Love" is a better song that "Who Wants to Live Forever" fails to consider the value of an expanded setup for rock music.

In each, the rebuttal moves to clear away the counterargument in some way, leaving space in which the thesis of the essay can flourish. Of key importance in making an effective rebuttal, one that will position the essay to become a stronger piece of writing, are three things in particular that must be ensured:

  • Smoothness of the transition into the rebuttal; moving among ideas always requires grace, and the significant distance between the ideas of the counterargument and the rebuttal requires both equally significant grace and clarity in the shift of position. The specific phrasing will differ based on the type of rebuttal deployed; the above examples could do well to begin their sections.
  • Reasonableness of the rebuttal; to avoid the straw man fallacy, as noted above, and to present the essayist as a trustworthy person, the rebuttal has to avoid extreme diatribes and sneering condemnation. It must stick closely to the evidence and explanations voiced in the counterargument, avoiding fallacies.
  • Appropriateness of the proportion of rebuttal to essay; the rebuttal should be approximately the same length as the counterargument it rebuts. If nothing else, aesthetic concerns apply; readers are likely to regard a less extensive rebuttal as less effective, however well it is actually written. That said, it must not combine with the counterargument to make the significant majority of the paper support for the thesis.

Ensuring them as rebuttals of any sort are offered, following the above-noted suggestions for generally effective development of ideas, will do much to position the essays containing rebuttals such that they can be superior pieces of writing, reflecting well on those who write them.

Deploying the Counterargument and Rebuttal

It is true that the counterargument and rebuttal present text within an essay that does not directly support the thesis of that essay. This means that they must be handled with care. Part of that care, as mentioned above, consists of ensuring that the counterargument and rebuttal do not take over the essay. Again, the essay should effectively test the idea of the thesis even without the counterargument and rebuttal; it should be a solid piece of writing in itself before the counterargument and rebuttal are put into place. This means that the great majority of the essay must be given over to validating the thesis. A (markedly generous) maximum of twenty percent of the paper should be accorded to the combined counterargument and rebuttal; less will likely be better.

Part of the care also comes in the form of placement. There is a temptation among novice writers to tack the counterargument and rebuttal onto the end of the paper, thinking that what is written last should be placed last. This is not the case. While the rebuttal should follow immediately after the counterargument, since it is in direct conversation with it, the two should not be the last pieces of the essay. Putting them there invites the reader to remember them instead of the thesis the essay seeks to validate. Optimally, they follow in sequence immediately between the introductory section and the first body section, so that essays including them observe the following pattern:

  1. Introduction, stating the thesis
  2. Counterargument
  3. Rebuttal
  4. Support of the thesis
  5. Conclusion

Placing them in the position allows them to add to the heft of the paper without disturbing the flow of the essay's core argument. It also allows for the support of the thesis to take place in a cognitive area cleared for it; the rebuttal serves to open space in the mind for the idea of the thesis to grow. Both are helpful.

Their placement does mean that the transition into the first body section needs a slight bit of reworking from that of an essay without counterargument and rebuttal. Fortunately, it is an easy adjustment to make. Borrowing from the example of Queen's songs above, a non-counterargument/rebuttal essay might lead into its first body section with "One reason 'Who Wants to Live Forever' is the greatest of Queen's non-Bohemian songs is X." Moving into it from the counterargument and rebuttal might take the form of "Working from the idea of a good song as being one that does X, Y, and Z places 'Who Wants to Live Forever' as a great song because it does X." Reference to the thesis needs to be made a bit clearer when the thesis is not as close to the body--but it is, again, an easy reference to make. And it is one that will help to unify the essay around the counterargument and rebuttal so that even with the potential distraction, the piece comes across as a unified and strengthened whole.

Why to Bother with the Counterargument and Rebuttal

There are several reasons why employing a counterargument and a rebuttal is a good idea. One is to meet length when a specific minimum length is required; it is most likely to occur with essays written for classroom purposes. Another reason also likely to coincide with classroom writing is that the counterargument and rebuttal are ideal places for the incorporation of outside materials. Writing assignments often call for the use of a set number of secondary sources; the counterargument, as the presentation of an idea opposing the thesis, is a good place to do so, since it is often easier to find an already-existing disagreement than to generate one. The rebuttal may also offer an easy point of inclusion, since preexisting arguments themselves attract comments from others. An issue of the Modern Language Association of America's Profession provides and example; a number of scholars (such as Gerald Graff and Patricia Bizzell) take issue with previously published comments by Stanley Fish--who in turn responds to the criticism in the same issue. It shows counterargument and rebuttal.

A far better reason to include the counterargument and rebuttal is in the demonstration thereby of the writer's awareness of context and detailed consideration of the topic treated in the thesis. Being able to successfully deploy a counterargument indicates that the writer has considered other opinions about the topic, which means that the writer has had to look at other viewpoints and presumably knows more about the topic than would otherwise be the case. That, in turn, helps enhance the writer's ethos; what the writer writes about the topic is more believable because of the exercise. Successfully rebutting indicates that the writer has identified weaknesses in or the non-applicability of the counterargument, meaning that the writer has considered other positions with an open mind, making it more likely that the thesis being supported is a superior idea to others and therefore more to be believed. In short, including the counterargument and rebuttal makes of the writer more an authority on the topic being discussed, strengthening the thesis as it faces its tests in the essay.

It is perhaps for the reason of increased ethos that research in many disciplines follows a model of introduction, counterargument, rebuttal, and proof--or "This is what we think, this is what people have thought, this is why what they thought was wrong, and this is why we are right." And so the inclusion of counterargument and rebuttal also serves the function of aligning the writer with cross-disciplinary standards of effective writing, marking the writer as belonging among the company of those who work to expand human knowledge and thus deserving of respect and attention. It is not the worst reason to use the devices.

© 2014 Folgha

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