Which Counterarguments Should I Engage With? Determining Levels of Engagement for Counterarguments

Writing a successful counterargument requires engaging deeply with someone else’s skeptical questions about your own choices and claims. Acknowledging and responding to counterarguments is an essential part of academic writing, yet many writers experience a serious problem once they start to look for the potential concerns and objections their readers might raise: identifying too many possible objections to deal with. This entry offers an exercise that helps determine which counterarguments will be most useful to address centrally (i.e. in the body of your essay), which to engage with more briefly (for example, in a footnote), and which to leave out completely.

There are two reasons a counterargument needs to be addressed in the body of your essay rather than a footnote (or not at all). The first is if the counterargument is necessary to convince your reader of your analysis. This will happen if you can easily think of a counterargument that you believe most readers would think of as well. By preempting your reader’s questions and addressing strong counterarguments, you build their trust in your analysis. For example, let’s say someone is writing about the benefits of educational technology. However, that writer is aware of the common counterargument that screen time impairs the ability to focus and therefore to learn. If they assume their readers will naturally ask questions about the impacts of the technology they’re proposing, it’s in that writer’s interest to bring up this counterargument in the body of their article so they can begin to refute it.

Another reason to address a counterargument centrally is if you are incorporating part of it into your own line of reasoning. This might happen if you agree with some, but not all, of the counterargument you’re using. To return to the previous example, maybe the writer claims that it’s true that screen time affects the ability to focus, but they also concede that this depends on the amount of time spent using a screen. The writer might bring up this counterargument to acknowledge its benefits, then provide a solution—short-term use of educational technology is beneficial, not detrimental—that incorporates some of the counterargument while refuting other aspects of it.

What if a counterargument is neither necessary to convince a majority of presumed readers, nor incorporated into your line of reasoning? The question then becomes whether to relegate the counterargument to a footnote, or to skip talking about it entirely.

The exercise below offers an example of how to choose which counterarguments to include, and where.

Step 1: Begin by writing out a summary of your Argument. Below, write a summary of the counterargument you are trying to place.

Step 2: Ask the following questions to see if the counterargument fits within the body:

    • Does this counterargument make my argument stronger by directly addressing a perceived gap or insufficiency (that I can refute)?
    • Is this a mainstream or commonly held opinion (that I’m pushing against)?
    • Do I agree with part of this counterargument? Do I want to use part of it in my argument?

If the answer to any of these is yes, this is a good candidate to address in the body of your paper. In any of these cases, you can introduce the counterargument and then follow by linking it to your argument in some way: by 1) pointing out the gap, 2) explaining why the mainstream opinion is flawed, or 3) expressing which parts of the counterargument you agree with, and explaining how those relate to or complicate your argument.

If the answer to all these is no, the counterargument will not be addressed in the body of your paper. Go to the next step.

Step 3: Ask these questions to determine if your counterargument belongs in a footnote:

    • Does this counterargument give additional context to my argument?
    • Is the counterargument already well known to my audience?
    • Is the counterargument likely to be raised by a subset of readers you really want to convince, but won’t be a big concern for most?

If the answer to any these questions is yes, the counterargument belongs in a footnote. In the first instance, the purpose of the footnote will be to provide additional context and briefly explain to the reader how that context is relevant to your overall argument. In the second and third, the footnote can briefly summarize the counterargument and its drawbacks or insufficiencies. In any case, the footnote can remain brief; the main purpose is to provide background information to answer questions you imagine your reader might ask.

If the answer to the questions above is no, the selected counterargument isn’t necessary to engage with.

For help anticipating potential counterarguments, check out “Unsure of Reader Objections to Your Work? Try Playing Devil’s Advocate”.