Trying to construct a unique and sophisticated HSC English essay thesis is important, especially when there are almost 60,000 students sitting the same exam!

This is where you might want to start thinking about arguing against the question, or playing devil’s advocate, as it is commonly known. 

Arguing against the question in English is less about causing trouble and more about causing discussion – namely when it comes to essays.

Usually this involves a ‘statement’ question that gives you a set point of view and tells you to argue for it – you just have to go in the opposite direction.

“But wait,” I hear you ask, “Can I do that? Is that allowed? And will it actually work?”

The answer to all of those is yes! Here are 5 reasons why you should argue against the question in your HSC English essay thesis and HOW! 

Why Should You Argue Against the Question?
How Do You Argue Against the Question?

Why Should You Argue Against the Question?

There are a whole bunch of reasons why you should argue against the question when it comes to responding to an essay, most of which boil down to just not doing what’s expected!

You need to remember everyone who does the HSC ends up with the same questions, so putting a twist on it or arguing against it completely can really help set you apart.

That said, there are plenty of other reasons to play devil’s advocate too.

For each of the following reasons we’ve included an example statement that may be part of a whole question and how to argue against the question!

1. It sets your essay apart

Not answering in a generic way means that you’re not answering in the exact same way as everyone else, which automatically gives your essay that little edge.

For example, for the question statement: “Through the telling and receiving of stories, we become more aware of ourselves and our shared human experiences.”

A devil’s advocate thesis statement could be: “The telling and receiving of stories allows us to partake in a shared human experience, but it may not involve us becoming more self-aware.”

It’s not a simple yes or no answer, and it has complexity. It shows the marker that you’ve thought about the question beyond what the average student would.

2. Markers wont expect it

The general expectation is that students will agree with the question, so the second you veer away from the ‘default response’ you’ll be surprising the markers!

For example, for the question statement: “Texts are influenced by a composer’s human experience.”

Devil’s advocate thesis: “Texts are inextricably linked to a composer’s experience, however they are also influenced by the collective experience.”

3. You’re creating your own thesis

Any time that you disagree with or challenge a question you automatically have to create your own thesis to address, which is always a good way to go.

For example, for the question statement: “Language is pivotal in constructing an individual’s identity.”

Devil’s advocate thesis: “Language is important in the construction of one’s identity, but not without cultural experiences which can further shape an individual.”

4. Your ideas will be more complex (in a good way!)

Because you’re going against the grain and challenging the question you’re also going to be coming up with ideas and themes that are more challenging and complex than your average essay.

For example, for the question statement: “Positive human experiences shape humans in greater ways than negative ones”.

Devil’s advocate thesis: “Negative experiences shape humans in greater ways than positive ones by not reinforcing repeated actions but rather a chance to enable change.

5. You’re showing a greater understanding of the text

Generally when the questions are created they’re aiming to suit the average level of textual understanding, but if you can flip the question you can straight away show that you understand the text beyond that.

For example, for the question statement: “Transgression and redemption come hand in hand in one’s human experience.”

Devil’s advocate thesis: “The ability for one to achieve redemption depends entirely upon the transgression committed.”

How Do You Argue Against the Question?

Okay, so we’ve shown you what arguing against the question might look like, but we haven’t quite explained how to do it yet.

When it comes to developing your own devil’s advocate answer, there are a few different ways to go about it based on what and how you like to write, but a few things stay the same as well.

Step 1: Answer the Question

The biggest mistake rookies can make when it comes to arguing against the question is forgetting to actually answer the question. This happens in two ways;

  • Your thesis becomes too complex and you lose the original point
  • You ignore the question and make a totally new thesis

This means that no matter what you do the question should always be focused on the same idea or concept, just looking at it in a different way.

Example

Question statement: Through the telling and receiving of stories, we become more aware of ourselves and our shared human experiences.

The question is focusing on the idea of an individual becoming more aware of themselves and their shared experiences through storytelling, so whatever thesis we come up with for the devil’s advocate response has to look at the same concept.

Devil’s advocate thesis: The telling and receiving of stories allows us to partake in a shared human experience, but it may not involve us becoming more self-aware. 

This takes the idea of storytelling and challenges it by saying that the telling and receiving of stories allows and individual to be involves in a shared human experience, but not necessarily build self awareness.

Even though it’s taking a different route, it still focuses on the same idea of the original question.

This is a devil’s advocate thesis because instead of agreeing with the question you’re challenging the idea it presented.

As you can see in this situation even though we’ve changed the question and are taking a totally new angle on things, the actual idea we’re discussing remains the same.

The second you change the idea you lose the question, and if you don’t answer the question there’s no way to get great marks.

Step 2: Create a Response

When you’re coming up with your devil’s advocate response there are heaps of ways to go about it, and most of the time it’ll come to you naturally.

That said, it’s still good to know the main two categories of devil’s advocate responses; arguing against, creating a new thesis or twisting the question.

Generally there’s a fair bit of overlap with the types of ideas you’ll come up with, but let’s take a look at how these two work.

Example

Question statement: Texts are influenced by a composer’s human experience.

We know our idea is about a composer’s human experience shaping a text, so we have to keep that in our response. With that in mind let’s look at it in two different ways based on the different response types.

Arguing against the question: Texts are not influenced by a composer’s human experience. 

In this example we’re just straight up saying the idea in question is wrong and then arguing against it. This is usually the easiest route, as you can very quickly flip a question on its head and argue a different idea.

Twisting the question: Texts are inextricably linked to a composer’s experience, however they are also influenced by the collective experience. 

In this case we’ve taken it a step further and developed a new thesis by adding an idea, limitation or ‘twist’ to the original question and/or idea.

These can take a little longer to think up but they’ll almost always be more complex and encourage you to tackle some tougher concepts as you write your response.

Step 3: Develop Your HSC English Essay Thesis

When it comes to playing devil’s advocate you can’t just jump in and start arguing the question because your markers will have no idea what you’re on about.

You want to surprise your markers, not confuse them.

The best way to make sure your devil’s advocate ideas get across flawlessly is to develop a really solid thesis for your response.

This means coming up with a new statement based on the original question and arguing that statement throughout.

Remember, your thesis doesn’t have to be long and complicated (in fact you want to avoid that) it just has to state exactly what point you’re planning to make.

Example

Question statement: Positive human experiences shape humans in greater ways than negative ones.

Our idea here is that positive human experiences shape people more valuably than negative experiences, so we have to keep our new thesis relevant to that while still playing devil’s advocate. We’ll have to come up with a thesis that challenges the question in some way.

The best way to do this is by following a checklist like the one below:

  1. What is the original idea/concept?
  2. How can I argue it differently? (argue against, put a twist on it, etc.)
  3. How can I turn that into a snappy, succinct thesis?

It’s then just a case of going through and answering each of the questions for yourself!

Let’s go through the example to see how!

1. What is the original idea/concept?

That positive human experiences shape humans in greater ways than negative ones – key words are positive human experience, shape humans and greater ways.

2. How can I argue it differently?

We could go straight against it and say positive human experiences do not shape people in greater ways than negative ones.

Or, we could twist it and say that some positive human experiences shape people in greater ways than negative ones.

Or, we could even argue that negative human experiences shape human experiences more valuable than positive ones!

For the sake of this example we’ll go with the last option.

3. How can I turn it into a complex thesis?

This is pretty much just shuffling words around until we find the right combination.

“Negative experiences shape an individual in greater ways than positive ones” is okay, but we could add complex ideas.

We can do this by changing it to “negative experiences shape humans in greater ways than positive ones by not reinforcing repeated actions but rather a chance to enable change.”

And there you have it! Our devil’s advocate answer is ready.

Devil’s advocate thesis: Negative experiences shape humans in greater ways than positive ones by not reinforcing repeated actions but rather providing a chance to enable change. 

This thesis presents a really big idea in a really succinct way, which is exactly what you want.

It’s challenging the question by going completely against it and saying discovery isn’t planned, but because it keeps that central idea it still works!

Even though we’ve taken the opposite view of the original question our thesis is strong and succinct and makes it really easy for markers to know exactly what we’re arguing.

Plus we’re showing markers that we can put together a solid essay thesis, which is just another skill they look out for when it comes to the HSC.

The Breakdown

So, what have we learned?

When it comes to constructing a strong HSC English essay thesis statement, there are heaps of benefits and advantages, so long as you do it right!

Make sure to keep the following things in mind all the time:
  1. Answer the question – make sure your response addresses the original idea
  2. Choose a response – figure out if you’re going to straight up disagree with the question or just put a twist on it
  3. Develop a thesis – come up with your new take on the idea and figure out how you’re going to argue it
And never forget the 3 step checklist for making your own devil’s advocate HSC English essay thesis:
  1. What is the original idea/concept?
  2. How can I argue it differently? (argue against, put a twist on it, etc.)
  3. How can I turn that into a snappy, succinct thesis?

Now get out there and start challenging those dull questions and create a sophisticated HSC English essay thesis!

Looking for extra help with HSC English?

We pride ourselves on our inspirational HSC English coaches and mentors!

We offer tutoring and mentoring for Years K-12 in a variety of subjects, with personalised lessons conducted one-on-one in your home or at our state of the art campus in Hornsby!

To find out more and get started with an inspirational tutor and mentor get in touch today!

Give us a ring on 1300 267 888, email us at info@artofsmart.com.au or check us out on Facebook!


Maddison Leach completed her HSC in 2014, achieving an ATAR of 98.00 and Band 6 in all her subjects. Having tutored privately for two years before joining Art of Smart, she enjoys helping students through the academic and other aspects of school life, even though it sometimes makes her feel old. Maddison has had a passion for writing since her early teens, having had several short stories published before joining the world of blogging. She’s currently deferring her studies until she starts her Bachelor of Communication at UTS in the spring.