Introduction to Claims

The Treachery of Images. < Magritte, Rene. La trahison des images. 1928-29. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.<

Translation: “This is not a pipe.”

The image above is a painting by Rene Magritte. His painting makes an interesting point: it portrays a pipe, but then tells viewers, “This is not a pipe.” When most people see this painting they think, “How can that be?” But the contrast between what viewers see and what they read helps them realize that a painting of a pipe is not the same thing as the pipe itself. Magritte’s painting, then, is making an argument: reality is different from artistic representations of reality. When Magritte says “this is not a pipe,” he is doing what many good writers do—he is making a strong claim. In order to make your own writing compelling for most readers, you’ll also have to make a claim: a statement of what you want your readers to do or think. When readers decide whether they want to read your argument, they often make their decision by asking themselves whether your claim solves a significant problem or answers a significant question. While no claim will appeal to all readers, you can make your claim appeal to those readers you care most about—the specific people whom you want to do or think something. You can test your claim by asking yourself four questions:
1) Does it address a problem that your readers will find important?<
2) Is it contestable?<
3) Is it supportable?<
4) Is it conceptually rich?<

Question 1: Does your claim address a problem that your readers will find important? The first question will tell you whether your readers will care enough to consider your claim. The worst response a reader can have to your claim is not “I disagree,” but rather “Who cares?” Readers want to know why your argument matters to them. If they can’t see how your claim addresses a specific question that they want to answer—not just a subject that interests them—it won’t matter how well the rest of your argument is written because they won’t bother to read it.

Question 2: Is your claim contestable? This question, and the following one, will tell you whether your readers will want to see an argument in order to accept your claim. Readers will care about a claim that addresses a problem important to them, but they won’t be interested in your argument if they think that the claim is obvious. If no reasonable person would disagree with or even doubt your claim, then readers won’t need to see how you prove it and then won’t bother to read what you’ve written. You want a claim that will make your readers think not “That’s obviously true” but “I want you to show why you think this is true.”

Question 3: Is your claim supportable? There are many matters that are contestable but that are unlikely ever to be settled by argument. You might believe that aliens will someday visit Earth and try to enslave the human race, but you are not likely to find reasons and evidence that most readers would find convincing. It is also unlikely that you will convince others to share your mere preferences, especially if you cannot offer shared criteria for preferring one thing over another. Even if you love the Boston Red Sox with all your heart, you won’t be able to convince a Yankees fan to support your team. When you make an argument you don’t want your readers to think “That’s just your opinion,” you want them to ask “How will you prove that?”

Question 4: Is your claim conceptually rich? This question indicates whether a claim will be strong enough to organize a supporting argument. If your claim is significant, contestable, and debatable it will serve your argument well. But your claim is more than the centerpiece of your argument; it is also the centerpiece of your paper. Therefore your claim needs to do more than take a compelling position in response to a problem. You also want to show your readers the key ideas that organize your overall argument, and give them some indication of how those concepts relate to one another. In many arguments, too, you’ll want to qualify your claim by showing readers that what you’re arguing may work only to a certain degree, or only in certain circumstances.