Supporting Your Points

Even if you are a recognized authority in the field you are writing about, you need much more than "I think that" to back up your general statements in your thesis and topic sentences. And if you are not the kind of authority whose name appears in newspapers, your personal opinion counts for very little.

Here's how to to present an essay that makes a valuable point—and will be believed by the reader.

Eight strategies for support¹

  1. State facts (be sure your facts are facts, and not opinions). Explain the importance of those facts.
  2. Give statistics, and explain their importance.
  3. Give examples—specific cases. Sometimes an anecdote (a short story) is appropriate.
  4. Quote an expert.
  5. Appeal to readers' beliefs, needs, or values.
  6. Use logical reasoning.
  7. Give a cause and effect explanation.
  8. Make a prediction (if we change X, Y will happen. If we don't change X, we can never have Y!)

Some ways that student papers get in trouble

Assuming that the writer's opinion settles the matter

You can probably get through your entire college experience without typing the words "I think that" or "to me this means." Unless the point of the essay is specifically an exploration of your own emotions, your own feelings on the matter should be a very minor part of the essay. Don't ever try to support a major point with nothing more than your own opinion—even if you are a published expert in the field!

Piling up general statements

Yes, your thesis is a general statement. And your paragraph topic sentences are also general statements. There comes a time, though, when you need to say something specific because a pile of general statements is about the same thing as a pile of your own opinions—it depends on the reader's experience and doesn't actually explain anything. Here's what a pile of general statements looks like:

Ashland University is really a great place to be a student. It has wonderful teachers and great buildings. The extracurricular activities are really terrific too. Students never lack for interesting and engaging things to do here, and every day is a satisfying experience.

Maybe you got a lot out of that little paragraph, but it's because you were plugging your own experience into it. Pretend, for a moment, that you are a high school senior, and you see this:

Redwood College is really a great place to be a student. It has wonderful teachers and great buildings. The extracurricular activities are really terrific too. Students never lack for interesting and engaging things to do here, and every day is a satisfying experience.

Your head is now full of questions. City or rural? Small campus or large? Do they have sports? Does "Redwood" mean it's all about California and ecology? You actually know nothing from the Redwood College paragraph except that the writer was enthusiastic.

Telling without showing

This topic is actually the previous one put into practice. If you tell me that your girlfriend/boyfriend is great and makes your heart pound, my heart doesn't pound. If you describe a nauseating scene and tell me about your churning stomach, my stomach doesn't churn. Show the reader something exciting about your beloved, and perhaps our hearts will pound too. At least we will know why you are so excited.

Appealing to authorities the reader doesn't respect

A while back, several of my students wrote essays to answer the question, "Are NASCAR drivers athletes?"

One student said that her boyfriend, who watches a lot of car races, thinks so. That proves nothing. Why would he know anything about their abilities? Does watching a lot of races while drinking beer and eating pizza make him an expert?

Another student produced a paper that discussed the physical training one of the drivers goes through. His workout schedule and general lifestyle resembled what you would expect of a professional athlete. The paper then discussed the kind of effort and reflexes needed to be a winning driver. Even if I don't know much about NASCAR and don't really believe a driver has to do much, this second essay makes a point that I can respect—and it may even change my opinion about the drivers.

Use material from reliable sources, and tell the reader where you got the material. (You actually look better when you are aware of good quality information and bring it to the reader.)

The source material must be something both the writer and the reader respect. In a church meeting, "The Bible says" might settle the argument. The same statement won't have much of an effect on a meeting of atheists.

Getting out of trouble

If you avoid these common pitfalls, you arrive at a pretty fair approximation of the academic essay:


¹ "Supporting Your Points." Rob Is My Teacher, 10 Aug. 2010, robismyteacher.blogspot.com/2008/09/writing-3a-strategies-for-supporting.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2011.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 12/16/14 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.