How to write the new ACT essay, pt. 3: writing a counterargument

For this final part of the “writing the new ACT essay series,” we’re going to look at what is probably the most challenging aspect of writing the essay: the counterargument.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a counterargument is simply a perspective that refutes your main argument. Simply put, if you’re arguing that technology does more good than harm, the counterargument is that technology does more harm than good.

Before we look at an example, there are a couple of things I’d like to point out: first, I cannot stress how important transitions are in writing effective counterarguments. Without them, your reader will have no way of following your train of thought and will find it very difficult – if not impossible – to distinguish between which ideas you agree with and which ideas you disagree with.

Another key element of good counterarguments is the concession – that is, the acknowledgement that some aspects of the opposing argument are valid. This is the most unfamiliar aspect of counterarguments for many students – isn’t the whole point of a counterargument to “disprove” the opposing argument?

Ultimately, yes, the goal is to show why your argument wins out. That said, the point of a concession is to demonstrate that you’ve thought about an issue carefully, in a nuanced way rather than in straightforward black/white, good/bad terms. When presented clearly, this type of consideration actually strengthens your argument.

You can use this general template to create a counterargument:

According to Perspective x,  _______________________. On one hand,

-it is true that _______________________.

-this claim has some merit because _______________________.

-the claim that _______________________ does have some validity.

On the other hand,

-this perspective fails to consider that _______________________.

-this claim overlooks the fact that _______________________.

 

Let’s see how this would play out in a sample paragraph that uses a personal example (yes, those are still fine). It doesn’t use the template exactly, but it’s pretty close.

Again, we’re going to use the sample prompt released by the ACT. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re only going to look at one of the perspectives; trying to work with more than that would be too confusing. In fact, you should generally avoid integrating more than one outside perspective per paragraph, unless you are a stellar writer who is already comfortable with this type of back-and-forth.

(Abridged) prompt: Automation is generally regarded as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and presence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meanings of their presence in our lives.  

Perspective 1: What we lose with the replacement of people with machines is some part of our humanity. Even our mundane encounters no longer require from us respect, courtesy, and tolerance for other people.


Thesis: Technology should be seen as a force for good because it creates new possibilities for people as well as a more prosperous society.

 

1) Topic sentence: introduce your argument (1 sentence)

Over the past few decades, new forms of technology have created ways for people communicate with one another more quickly and easily than ever before.


2) Elaborate on your argument, and provide a specific example (2-3 sentences)

From Skype to iphones apps to Facebook, technology erases borders, allowing us to talk to people halfway around the world as if they were in the next room. I have personally benefitted enormously from these technologies: my family immigrated to the United States from China when I was 6 years old, and over the past decade, gathering around the computer to chat with my grandparents and my aunt in Beijing has become a weekly ritual. Although I am sorry that we no longer live next door to them, as we did when I was little, I am nevertheless grateful to be able to see their faces and keep them updated on the details of my daily life – something that would be impossible without “smart” machines.


3) Introduce outside perspective: 1-2 sentences

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the effects of new technologies, however. Perspective 1 offers a typical complaint, namely that the replacement of people with machines “causes us to lose some part of our humanity.”


4) Acknowledge that the perspective isn’t entirely wrong, and explain why (2-3 sentences)

On one hand, this complaint does have some merit. Walking down the street or sitting on the subway, I am often struck by the sheer number of people staring glassy-eyed into their phones. Sometimes they are so busy texting that they nearly bump into others, demonstrating a clear lack of courtesy and tolerance (notice how this statement weaves the viewpoint naturally into the writer’s argument).


5) Transition back to your argument and reaffirm it (3-4 sentences)

On the other hand, though, the benefits of technology far outweigh an occasional unpleasant sidewalk encounter – at least from my perspeective. Rather than isolate me from the world (notice how this statement indirectly refutes the counterargument), “smart” technology has served primarily to facilitate my relationships with others, not to replace them.

 

 

How to write the new ACT essay, pt. 2: introducing and discussing supporting viewpoints

After providing an overview of the new ACT essay and some possible approaches to it in my previous post, I want to now discuss one particular – and very important – skill involved in writing it: incorporating other perspectives into your own argument for support.

If you’ve ever written a research paper, you probably have some experience integrating the ideas of people you agree with into your writing. (And if you haven’t, you’ll get an introduction to doing so in this post.) That said, I find that most high schools do not explicitly teach students to weave supporting quotations, ideas, etc. fluidly into their writing. The quotes are there, but they’re often integrated awkwardly into the larger argument.

Very often, students assume that they do not really need to spend time introducing or explaining their quotes because they seem so self-explanatory. They’re there to support the argument, and if the argument is clear, then the point of the quotation is obvious…right? Well, not always.

The problem is that analytical writing requires much more explanation than might seem necessary. Generally speaking, people write about topics with which they are familiar. Because they know a lot of about their topics, they are often unaware of the gaps in other people’s understanding. As a result, it simply does not occur to them how explicit they need to be, and they end up inadvertently leaving out information that is necessary to understanding their thought process.

When you explain an idea – any idea – in writing, you must take your reader by the hand, so to speak, and lead them through each step of your thinking process so that they do not get lost. Introducing other people’s words or ideas in such a way that makes clear the relationship between your argument and theirs is a key part of that process. Otherwise, it’s as if you’ve skipped ahead a few steps, leaving the reader to stop and try put together the pieces. If there’s one thing you don’t want to do to your reader, it’s make your ideas hard to follow. That goes for school, the ACT, and any other writing you might do for the next sixty or seventy years.

Once again, we’re going to work with the sample prompt released by the ACT.

(Abridged) prompt: Automation is generally regarded as a sign of progress, but what is lost when we replace humans with machines? Given the accelerating variety and presence of intelligent machines, it is worth examining the implications and meanings of their presence in our lives.

 Perspective 1: What we lose with the replacement of people with machines is some part of our humanity. Even our mundane encounters no longer require from us respect, courtesy, and tolerance for other people.

 Perspective 2: Machines are good at low skill, repetitive, jobs, and at high speed, extremely precise jobs. In both cases, they are better than humans. This efficiency leads to a more prosperous and progressive world for everyone.

 Perspective 3: Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be. This is good because it pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities.

Thesis: Technology should be seen as a force for good because it creates new possibilities for people as well as a more prosperous society.

Consider this this sample paragraph:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea. In 2014, a terrible tragedy occurred during the Boston Marathon. Two bombs went off near the finish line, and three people were killed. Dozens of people were also injured, and many even lost limbs. However, with new advances in technology, many of the victims were able to benefit from high-tech prosthetics, which allowed them to return to normal lives and even play sports. This “pushes humans and machines toward new possibilities” (Perspective 3).

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this paragraph. It’s grammatically correct, clear and focused, and uses one of the outside perspectives for support.

That said, it also features short, declarative statements, and relatively little stylistic variation. There’s also only one transition (“however”), and Perspective 3 is simply dropped into the paragraph without much introduction. The final quotation is never discussed or analyzed; the reader is left to connect it to the information that precedes it. Basically, this is quintessential high school writing.

Assuming that the rest of the essay integrated the remaining perspectives, it would probably score somewhere in the mid-high 20s. It’s solid but doesn’t flow particularly well, and the example could include more specific details.

One simple way to boost the level of your writing is to use one of the following “formulas” for introducing an outside source:

-According to perspective 1…
-As perspective 1 states/points out/emphasizes
-Perspective 1 suggests/implies that…

You can also rephrase the quotation, giving it your own particular emphasis. So instead of writing something like this:

Perspective 3 states that, “Intelligent machines challenge our longstanding idea of what humans are and can be.” I agree with this idea.

You can write something like this:

As perspective 3 indicates, intelligent machines do indeed challenge conventional ideas of what it means to be human.

The essential information is the same, but the second version is smoother and more sophisticated.

For more options, see:

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/930/10/
https://www.gallaudet.edu/tip/english-center/writing/quoting-and-praphrases.html
https://student.unsw.edu.au/introducing-quotations-and-paraphrases

 

A few well-placed transitions also go a long way toward making your writing flow. What follows is a “template” for constructing a paragraph in which you cite an outside perspective for support.

1) Topic sentence: introduce the main argument of the paragraph

In recent years, machines have undoubtedly transformed our lives for the better in ways both large and small.

2) Expand on your argument: 2-3 sentences

Only a few decades ago, staying in touch with family and friends required a complex dance of phone cards, long-distance plans, and missed connections; today, in contrast, we can Skype and text with people half a world as away, conversing with them as clearly and quickly as if they were in the next room. On a more serious note, recent developments in prosthetics have allowed soldiers injured in battle or people injured in accidents to resume normal lives.

3) Introduce the outside perspective: 1 sentence

In fact, as perspective 1 suggests, so-called “intelligent” machines have created possibilities that would have been unthinkable in the mid-20th century. (Note how this sentence summarizes the perspective without parroting it word-for-word).

4) Tie the perspective back to your argument with a specific example: 4-6 sentences

For example, consider the impact of new technologies on the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. One of the largest-scale tragedies in recent memory, the 2014 attack left three people dead and more than 100 wounded – some requiring multiple amputations. In the past, people who suffered these types of injuries would likely have been consigned to wheelchairs or been forced to make do with heavy, unwieldy prosthetics. Now, however, “smart” prosthetics are both lighter and able to mimic the movements of natural limbs, responding instantly to the wearer’s muscles and allowing them carry out a full range of daily activities. In fact, one of the marathon victims (specific example) whose leg was badly mangled actually elected to have it amputated rather than live in constant pain. Her rationale: a high-tech prosthetic would allow her to return to a normal life much more quickly.

5) Tie it back to the outside perspective: 1-2 sentences  

Far from creating the science fiction nightmare suggested by movies such as Terminator and Jurassic Park, the integration of machines into human bodies has permitted people who would otherwise be seriously disabled to live normal lives. In the best possible way, these machines have indeed altered traditional ideas of what human beings can be.

 

In Part 3: how to discuss ideas you disagree with.