Fact and Opinion
Consider the two statements
- Dublin won the 2019 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship
- Dean Rock is the best free-taker in inter-county football
The first statement is a fact. You can find this in GAA records or even watch the highlights online. A fact is something that can be checked and backed up with evidence. Facts are things that are true and are accepted as such. Nobody will assert that Dublin didn't win the 2019 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. You can perhaps say that they didn't deserve to win it, but that's a different story (and an example of an opinion).
The second statement is an opinion. An opinion is based on a belief or view that is not based on evidence that can be checked. There's no fact source stating that the statement is true. You might see it in writing, but it's still an opinion held by the writer. Other people might think that another player might be a better free-taker. It's a good topic for conversation in a pub perhaps.
Facts, Opinions and Arguments
If you did state that Dean Rock is the best free-taker, you'd probably be asked to state why you have this opinion. Perhaps he has the best success percentage, or perhaps he's scored more frees than anyone else playing inter-county football right now. You can't just say "because he just is the best, right!"
A lot of the time in academic writing, you are going to be asked to state your opinion and justify it. To justify your opinion, you need to support it with facts. To get the facts you will need to do some research. In academic writing, your opinion supported by facts is called an argument.
Arguments and Academic Writing
A piece of academic writing tells a story. For a story to be a good story, as well as a beginning, a middle and an end, it needs to be convincing. You're probably writing in response to a question, so you have to answer the question and then justify your answer. You do this by building an argument: you state an opinion and use evidence to support that opinion. Your argument is how you express your point of view and answer the question you have been set, using evidence. Your argument should help you plan the structure of your writing and help find the evidence you need to support it. Any argument you make that does not have any evidence can and will be ignored.
Your argument should be the theme of your writing - everything that you include should be relevant to it. What you have to do is:
- state your position on the topic
- if there are different positions or sides to the argument, give examples
- provide evidence that supports your argument and disproves the other positions
- make clear the connections between your argument and the sources that you use
- make clear why you agree with the sources that support your argument
- make clear why you disagree with sources that don't support your argument
- in the conclusion summarise why you think your argument is correct
Here's an example, you want to argue that:
China will dominate the world's economy because of its abundant supply of rare earths (Wikipedia definition)
In support of this argument, you need to provide evidence. You then find sources that say:
- Rare earths are used in an increasing number of industries, from computer electronics through cars and aircraft
- Rare earths are used in defence industries and so are important to national governments
- Rare earth use is increasing rapidly
- Rare earth reserves - the amount of rare earths left in the ground - are falling rapidly
- China has the largest amount of rare earth reserves
These all support your argument, but you might find other sources that say
- New rare earth sources are being searched for
- New trade agreements between other rare earth producers are being put in place
- There's lots of research into rare earth substitutes and replacements
You then think critically about the sources that favour your argument and those that disagree with it and give good reasons why you agree or disagree with the sources. Including sources that disagree with your argument - counterarguments - actually strengthens your argument:
- It show that you have done in-depth research
- It shows you have a deeper understanding of the topic
- It shows that you have put a lot of thought into your argument
- You remove objections to your argument
The Thesis Statement
If you look online at other academic writing sites, you will see many mentions of a thesis statement. A thesis statement states the main argument of your work and describes, briefly, how you will prove your argument. Referring to the example above, China dominating the world's economy - that's your argument. and your approach to proving this is will be using its abundant supply of rare earths. A good thesis statement needs an argument (China dominating the world economy) and an approach (the importance of rare earths).
Here's another example. You might write that about the fall of the Roman Empire. A weak thesis statement might say the Roman Empire declined and fell because of a variety of interrelated factors. A stronger statement might say the Roman Empire declined and fell because of a succession of weakened Roman governments failing to deal with the rise of Germanic tribes encroaching on the Empire's borders.
A thesis statement makes a specific statement to the reader about what you will be trying to argue. Your thesis statement can be one or two sentences in length. You shouldn't state actual evidence or use examples in your thesis statement, simply include the argument and the approach.
A good thesis statement will help you with your academic writing by keeping you focussed on your argument and the approach you'll take.