Whether or not you are familiar with the term, we can assure you that you make rebuttals all the time — indeed, it can be as simple as telling a friend that you shouldn’t go hiking this weekend, because you’re woefully underprepared and scared to get hurt, and then convincing them to check out that new museum, instead.
Writing a formal rebuttal, whether in an essay or another context, such as a letter to the editor or in preparation for a debate, is a little more challenging. With the right tools, however, you can rock your rebuttals. This in turns helps you be a more effective writer and a more skilled debater.
Understanding a Rebuttal
A rebuttal can succinctly be defined as “an argument that specifically addresses why an opponent’s viewpoint is wrong”. Rebuttals are not just used all the time in natural speech, but they also play a very important role in argumentative essays and debates.
Some of the most common settings in which rebuttals are used include:
- Debates, including in debate clubs and in politics. Once a participant finishes speaking, the opponent or opponents may be given the opportunity to refute certain arguments that were made, including (for example) ways in which the speaker mischaracterized an opposing viewpoint.
- Argumentative essays. Students are often asked to include counter arguments in their essays. These explain what arguments may be made, or have been made, against the claims being made in the essay. A rebuttal takes a counter argument to its conclusion, by explaining why the counter argument is not a valid one.
- In the media. When a well-known author publishes an opinion editorial, for instance, others may join by writing entire essays that argue against the views set forth in such op eds.
- In almost any other setting, from defense attorneys in court to citizens writing letters to the editor, to employees formally writing to protest against the results of a poor performance review. Such rebuttals may be verbal or in writing. Writing plenty of rebuttals helps you think on your feet if you’re ever called on to make a swift verbal rebuttal.
Rebuttals can broadly be divided into two distinct types — those aimed at someone who was directly addressing the writer or their viewpoints, or more academic rebuttals in which the author presents multiple viewpoints that originate with other thinkers, and refutes them.
While some rebuttals make appeals to emotion, successful rebuttals are articulated logically, respectfully, and clearly.
How to Write a Good Rebuttal: A Step-by-Step Guide
Written rebuttals can be important in many different settings, but most readers will be looking for ways to include counter arguments with rebuttals in argumentative essays. In this context, the essay author typically delves into common arguments against their thesis or any claim they make within their essay, and then explains why they believe those counter arguments to be ineffective.
How do you make a compelling case, without resorting to the cheap rhetorical tricks that may work well in a political debate but that are certain to cost you points in an academic setting? Being methodical is the key, and here’s a look at the steps you need to take to craft a convincing rebuttal.
- Analyze the Counter Argument (or Opposing Viewpoint)
To make a convincing rebuttal, first dissect the counter argument you are including in your essay to understand all parts of it. Do not simply read the opposing viewpoint and consider all the different ways in which you disagree with it and would like to argue against it, but also understand its component parts:
- Is the speaker or writer making argument you would like to refute appealing mainly to logos, pathos, or ethos?
- Who is the speaker’s intended audience?
- Is the speaker making use of any logical fallacies, such as ad hominem attacks?
- What message truly lies at the core of the opposing argument you are preparing to refute?
- Are there any points you agree with?
Once you understand precisely what the argument is, you will be in a stronger position to craft an effective rebuttal.
- Brainstorm What Rhetorical Strategies to Use in Your Rebuttal
Some arguments are strong, and contain a lot of points that you will have to agree with, or at least to respect. Others are so weak that it is hard to begin to decide from which angle it is best to attack them, because they are flawed from beginning to end. Now that you have taken the time to analyze the argument, you can begin thinking about the basis on which you want to write your rebuttal. Common examples include:
- The argument you are rebutting could contain factual errors, which you can then refute. The argument may also make vague claims that cannot be verified, in which case you can point that out as well. Point to verifiable sources.
- Refuting assumptions. The claim your opponent, or the viewpoint you are seeking to rebut, may present strong and factually-correct points, only to follow them up with assumptions that you deem to be incorrect or that do not logically flow from the facts presented. The philosopher Hobbes, for instance, argues that human nature is essentially selfish and humanity requires a strong ruler to prevent people from harming one another. Even if you agree with this view, you may refute the argument by arguing that the strong ruler Hobbes proposes is merely another brutal human.
- Analyzing the relevance of the counter argument. Should the opposing viewpoint argue that all pets should be permitted in an apartment complex because service animals are allowed, for instance, you could argue that service animals are unlike other pets, making the argument irrelevant.
- Gathering Additional Information
Once you have decided which parts of the opposing viewpoint are most problematic, you may need to do additional research. This should typically include fact-checking the opponent’s argument and gathering reliable information that disproves the argument.
- Write Your Rebuttal
Next, decide which parts of the rebuttal that is now already forming in your mind you would like to emphasize. Which points are the most important? Which do you really want to hammer in?
What is your goal? Would you like to seek common ground and convince people who previously held the opposing view? Would you like to shoot down the opposing viewpoint and have fun with being the most argumentative, polemic, version of yourself — often to rile up additional support among people who already agree with you? Are you writing an academic essay, and do you need to remain logical and emotionally detached?
The tone of your rebuttal will depend on all these factors. One winning formula you can turn to in any situation is, however, to:
- Summarize the opposing viewpoint in your own words. This demonstrates that you truly understand it.
- Point out aspects of the counter argument that you genuinely agree with, or that are objectively true. If you believe the opponent’s ultimate aims are admirable, you can say this, too.
- Explain why the counter argument or the argument you are going to refute is problematic, using evidence to back your argument up.
- Finally, you can return to your own argument, and explain why this is the better solution to the problem being discussed.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Rebuttal
Do not fall into the common traps that make your rebuttal ineffective! The most common mistakes students make when including rebuttals in argumentative essays with counter claims include:
- Relying on logical fallacies to refute the counter argument. Make sure your argument is water-tight!
- Failing to transition into the rebuttal. This is why it is good to summarize the viewpoint and to point out aspects of it that you agree with prior to refuting the argument. Use words like “even though”, “despite the fact”, or “opponents often worry that” to ease the transition.
- Being too emotional. Present your case in a logical manner. Most of the time, you will be looking for a response that is more similar to “oh, indeed, that is a valid point!” than a “wow, that was intense”.
- Failing to fact-check your own rebuttal. Even if you are certain that a claim you make is correct, it is always best to double check.
How Does a Rebuttal Differ from a Counter Argument?
A counter argument simply examines an opposing view — one that is radically different from the thesis you are supporting in your essay. A rebuttal completes a counter argument by explaining why this argument is weak.
How Does a Rebuttal Differ from a Refutation?
Rebuttals and refutations are one and the same.
How Can I Present a Rebuttal in a Debate?
If you are participating in a debate, you will not have as much time to prepare to make a rebuttal, and will be called on to respond to your opponent in real time. Being familiar with the opponent’s views will give you time to research the kinds of arguments they will be making, and you can then prepare rebuttals in advance. You will, however, need to be able to think on your feet. Take a deep breath and try not to get emotional!