After the personal essay, the argumentative essay may be the most popular essay type for professors to assign. As a result, tons of argumentative essays are produced every semester. Many of them could be much better if students approached this essay type with a correct conception of the purpose of writing an argument. Your purpose is not, when you sit down to write your argumentative essay, to boil a complicated question down to a blunt and obvious answer. Instead, your purpose in writing an argumentative essay should be to seriously consider and address the strongest possible opposition to the point of view you wish to advocate or to consider and refute an interesting and complicated position. An argumentative essay is really an act of the imagination and research, and the best way to write a compelling argumentative essay is to imagine and then go out and find the most convincing and difficult-to-refute opposition to your arguments.
Unlike a persuasive essay--which attempts to persuade the reader rather than argue with him or her--the argumentative essay presents a limited number of alternative positions and states a preference for one over the other. However, this does not mean that a writer must always choose between "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," or "true" and "false" when composing an argument. In many instances, a writer might argue on behalf of a nuanced point of view that rejects either side of a well-worn argument. For example, a writer might argue that euthanasia is acceptable in some situations, but that the ethical dangers of euthanasia are multiplied by socialized medicine, which risks putting life and death decisions in the hands of the state. Such an argument would be far more compelling and imaginative than an essay that simply argues "for" or "against" euthanasia.
More than other essays types, the argumentative essay gives students the opportunity to imagine another point of view. As a writer, your job is to start by ensuring that the point of view you're opposing is interesting. Picking an interesting opponent makes the game more challenging for the writer, perhaps, but far more rewarding for the reader. In the euthanasia example, the writer is not objecting to the position that euthanasia is good. Plenty of essays will be written arguing against this position. Instead, the writer is objecting to the complex position that one can simultaneously support euthanasia and socialized medicine without running into major ethical and moral problems. In this case, inventing a difficult opponent--and then researching to find examples of that opponent in action--sets the stage for a more engaging essay than most. Once you've established a multifaceted opponent to argue against, your job is to follow the basic pattern of the five paragraph essay type to present supporting statements on behalf of your position and topic paragraphs that defend and explain these statements.