by Shannon Naylor
Claims and evidence make sense in a courtroom: the prosecutor claims that the defendant did the crime and provides evidence to build her case. If there is not enough evidence, or it takes the wrong form, the jury doesn’t accept the claim of guilt. The same system applies in persuasive writing, although with lower stakes. As the writer of a persuasive paper, you must make a claim or series of claims that must then be supported by evidence.
Let’s clarify what we mean with some definitions. In our example of a court case, the claim is the accusation of guilt. In a paper, the claim is the thesis and every other statement that is something that can be argued. Courtroom evidence might include video surveillance footage or fingerprints left behind at the scene of the crime. In a paper, evidence is comprised of facts, examples, and data.
We have claims and evidence, but how do we use them? The first step is to remember that any paper that is all evidence (that means only evidence) is a report, not a persuasive essay; likewise, a paper that is made of only claims cannot be persuasive because the claims are unfounded (without evidence). To illustrate: if I were to lecture on the theme that cats make the best pets, I would never persuade you of my position if I didn’t list reasons why. Similarly, if I rattled off cat facts, you would probably be confused (and then frustrated) at my lack of explanation. A balance must be struck between the two so that you have something to be persuasive about (claims) and something to be persuasive with (evidence).
In practice, this is easily seen in the structure of a typical paragraph, which opens with a topic sentence, or claim. This is followed by the body of the paragraph, which is a mixture of facts (evidence) and commentary (claims tying facts together). To see the balance of claims and evidence in your writing, try going through your papers with two highlighters. Use one color to highlight each claim, and the other color to highlight each piece of evidence. Now that they are visible, you can check to make sure that your claims and evidence are working together harmoniously.
Shannon Naylor is a senior studying theatre and English with a focus on creative writing. Currently, she is working on capstones for her majors and has just finished the spring production of Our Country’s Good.
by Clayton Harper
In order to be a good researcher, you must be a good reader, or at least a diligent and strategic one. Maybe this sounds obvious, but I’ve noticed that students struggle to use ideas from their research to strengthen the arguments in their writing and participate in demanding classroom discussions. Let me say a few things to address that.
Reading scholarly articles and academic sources is hard. Writers will often dress up simple ideas in complex language. Many will throw as much jargon at their readers as they can. Name-dropping can be frequent and disorienting. Some of this complexity is important to understand. Some of it is unnecessary.
In order to “get something” out of your sources, you must read as a writer. That means reading a scholarly article by identifying the elements you use yourself to write a paper. Generally, this means separating the content of an article into claims and evidence. Scholarly articles tend to be composed of claims, which are statements that argue a broad concept, trend, or idea; and evidence, which includes specific examples that support or illustrate each claim. When you read, underline or note on a separate piece of paper (or a Word document, if you prefer working digitally) all the claims you find. Sometimes a paragraph contains only one claim. Sometimes there will be more. For the most part, though, an article has much more evidence than claims.
By focusing on the claims of an article, you will remember more of its content. When you read an article to understand its claims/evidence structure, the content will condense into a handful of main ideas. Now you understand what you have read, and it’s much easier to remember 5-10 general ideas than 25 pages of wordy stuff. If you can discipline yourself to do this, you may also remember important bits of evidence that are linked to each claim. And if you don’t, because you underlined or took notes as you read, you will know exactly where to look to refresh your memory.
Don’t be discouraged by the reading process. No one flies through this stuff nodding their head and walking away with complete comprehension. Good readers are workmanlike. They take sources one piece at a time and slowly assemble the larger picture from the bits they understand. Don’t get hung up on the desire to master a source. Do take the steps to extract something that is understandable and useful from what you read. That’s the point of research, isn’t it?
Clayton Harper is a creative writing major and writing tutor at Principia College. He never doodles during class and isn’t known to daydream about crazy adventures to write about later.