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A Practical Guide to Writing Good English

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Writing a discursive text

What is a discursive text?

This is a type of writing which is very familiar to students. In a discursive text the writer must not only present a number of facts, but must use these facts to shape an argument. (Argument in this sense is not people shouting at each other, but the logical development of an idea.) Most EFL exams have at least one discursive essay topic in the writing section, and all students at higher than the secondary level are regularly required to write discursive essays. These essays are also found in every newspaper as 'Editorials'.

Examples of discursive essays topics for homework or an exam are:

  • Do parents today supervise their children too closely?
  • The internet drives people apart as much as it brings them together. Discuss.
  • Should private cars be banned from cities?

While all these topics seem to be very different, they can all be approached in the same way. First of all, each of these essays requires the writer to have an opinion. It is not enough to simply present the facts for an against each position the writer must actively try to persuade the reader to accept one position or the other. Secondly, this persuasion can be done using a standard format which is actually used in many forms of mainsteam media.

The Example

Here we will use the third question as our example Should private cars be banned from cities?

Step 1. Describe the present situation

In this part of the essay, the writer should not be judgemental. The purpose is to describe why the question is relevant, and how things stand at present. So with our example, we might mention that the majority of the world's cars are owned by city-dwellers. Huge investment has gone into making cities car-friendly, yet despite this traffic jams and lack of parking are frequent complaints. We can then rephrase the question would cities be better places to live without cars in them?

Step 2. Present the opposing case

Here you present the points against the conclusion you will eventually reach. So if you intend to argue that cities should not have cars, this is where make the case that cities should allow cars. For example, because public transport is less reliable, often expensive and less convenient. Also because many cities have been built with cars in mind, why not use them? Furthermore, a car is a relatively safe, and highly personalized form of transport, and depriving people of the option to use their own cars is an attack on their personal freedom. This part of the discourse is sometimes called the 'Aunt Sally' putting up an argument that you intend to tear down later.

Step 3. Tear down the opposing case

With the example, we would argue that problems with public transport make the case for improving public transport, not for replacing it. Many cities may have been built with cars in mind, but most cities, especially in their cores, were not. This many cities have recognized by increasingly returning the centre to pedestrians. Finally in terms of personal freedom, this freedom is not absolute. Cars pollute, hurt others in accidents, and make travel harder through congestion. (If you want to cheat a bit, you can deliberately make your arguments in step 2 easy to tear down in step 3. However, this is poor style. If there is a solid point against your argument, it is better to acknowledge that point, but say that it is not enough to change your overall opinion.)

Step 4. Present your own case

Here you present all the arguments in favour of your opinion, and if there is time and/or space briefly explain why objections to your points are invalid. With our example, you could point out that most city car journeys are less than three miles, and walking or cycling are better for health and the environment. Public transport such as busses and trams are mostly unreliable and inconvenient precisely because they have to cope with so many cars on the road, and so on. You can finish by saying that it is only convenient to use private cars because everyone else uses private cars. When coal fires were banned in London everyone benefited from clearer air. If cars are banned everyone will benefit from clearer streets.

Step 5. The Conclusion

Don't put one. If your argument has been a very complex one,you might want to summarize your main points, but if your argument has been well presented your conclusion should be obvious. When you have nothing else to say, say nothing.

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