Updated: Feb 27, 2020
A common type of high school writing assignment is the persuasive essay. This is a passage meant to convince the reader of a certain point, usually but not always a social issue, and it is what most people think of when they imagine a typical five-paragraph essay. Students are often comfortable making their point directly, but in more advanced classes teachers will require a counterargument in order to express deeper understanding. The question is, how do you write a good counterargument?
A written counterargument actually has two parts: first there is the opposing view that goes against your essay’s claim. When you choose an opposing view for your counterargument, it is important to go with something that actually makes sense. If you are not addressing a point that the reader is familiar with, or if it seems like you are intentionally choosing a weak opposing view, the reader will not take your counterargument seriously. For example, if we were writing an essay trying to convince the reader that Los Angeles is the best city in America, we would make sure to choose one of the most popular criticisms of the city as our opposing view: Los Angeles has a terrible traffic problem. Now that we have our opposing view, we have to somehow use this to support our claim that Los Angeles is the best city in America.
The temptation is to somehow reject the idea that the traffic in Los Angeles is actually bad by just saying “no.” This tactic is known as refutation, and it usually doesn’t work very well. Think about it: the whole reason for talking about the traffic problem is that it’s a common negative view of Los Angeles, so just denying it probably isn’t going to help. Similarly, pointing out that other major cities have traffic problems won’t help either. That would still be a refutation because it is essentially saying that the traffic isn’t a problem compared to other cities.
Instead of saying “no” to the opposing view, it’s better to say “yes, but.” Everyone thinks the traffic in Los Angeles is bad, so we should use that view to support our point. This is what we call a rebuttal. In the case of our example, we might say that “Yes, the traffic in Los Angeles is bad, but that is the trade-off one must make for living in a city with so much to do!” In this rebuttal, the traffic is still bad, but it is now just a symptom of how great the city is. A less effective rebuttal would be statement like “Yes, the traffic in Los Angeles is bad, but with more experience it is possible to avoid high traffic times and areas.” In this case we are addressing the opposing view with a rebuttal, but we are failing to tie it back to our original claim about how great Los Angeles is, so it is weaker than the first example. Always make sure your rebuttal comes back to your original claim! Just “defeating” the opposing view isn’t good enough.
The final and trickiest type of counterargument is a full concession. If refutation is “no” and rebuttal is “yes, but”, then concession is “yes, and”. A concession takes the opposing view and uses it to directly support the claim. In our example, a concession would have to say “Yes, Los Angeles has the most traffic in the country, and that’s a good thing.” This concession might claim that traffic is actually great because it gives us time to think and reflect while stuck in a line of stopped cars. Obviously, full concessions are difficult to pull off in essay writing, and a full concession might be impossible in the case of defending something as universally disliked as traffic. If you are still struggling to make effective counterarguments, you might want to avoid this tactic until you become more comfortable with rebuttals.
To sum things up: when writing a counterargument, start with a realistic opposing view. Instead of rejecting that view, acknowledge that it is an issue, but then explain how it can still be seen, in some way, to support your original claim. Although making highly effective rebuttals can be difficult, if you follow the core structure you will be well on your way.