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Inventing and Organizing Arguments or Essays

Sometimes, it is difficult to figure out where to go with your argument. Aristotle in the Ars Rhetorica listed several inventio or "invention techniques." (The word comes from invenire, a Latin verb meaning "to discover" or "to come upon.") These techniques can help a writer generate ideas while brainstorming. Frequently, these tools can help students think about an issue and possibly develop individual paragraphs. Be warned that these techniques are not a panacea. Some work better than others in specific essays and arguments. For instance, when discussing whether or not healthcare should cover myofascial massage, it may be important to define what exactly a myofascial massage is, and how particular HMOs categorize it. The reader probably doesn't know that material. On the other hand, when writing an essay on automobiles, the reader probably doesn't need the word "car" defined. Use your best judgement concerning when to use each technique, or ask a peer what he or she thinks.


Questions that Illustrate the Technique:


How did it happen? Tell the reader a story to illustrate a point or set the stage.


How can it be described?


How is it made? How is it done? How do you do it?


What causes it?


What effect does it have on other things?


How is it similar to something else?


How it different from something else?


Is it a part of a larger group? What group is that?


Can it be broken down into smaller groups? What groups are those?

Formal definition

How does an authoritative source define it, such as a Penal Code, Black's Law Dictionary, a biochemistry guide, etc.?


Where does the word come from? Does that knowledge help understand the problem? (If it doesn't help, don't bother with the etymology!)


What are some examples of it?


Simply explain it in your own words.

Negative Definition

What is it not?


Could it work? Did it work? Does it work? Why or why not? What are its limitations?


Can you give me a history of it?


Can you draw a diagram showing how it works?


Can you tell me a short story to explain it?

Click here to see some examples online.

Click here for an inventio exercise online.

Click here to download a PDF handout of this material.


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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2018. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated April 24, 2018. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.