What is a Rabbit Warren Argument?
A Rabbit Warren Argument (RWA) is not really an argument at all.
It’s a network of criss-crossing and sometimes circular logical ‘tunnels’ – like a rabbit warren.
The main problem
- They look a bit like arguments (to the casual observer).
- They sound a bit like arguments.
- But they are not arguments.
RWAs are what you end up with when:
- you are literate and intelligent
- you are faced with a looming deadline and under pressure to write something
- you lack the skills to compile and structure a rigorous argument.
So what does a Rabbit Warren Argument look like?
In just a second, to show you what I mean, I’ll give you an example.
For our example to be helpful, we need an idea of…
The bigger picture:
- What text are we going to use to help us?
- What’s the essay question we’re answering?
- If we were writing the whole essay, what would our main argument be?
So here we go:
The Text we’ll be using
I’ve gone for a poem that I used to teach a lot at school: ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney.
My advice is to take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with this poem – that way, you’ll get the most out of my guide below.
The Question we’ll be answering
How does Seamus Heaney present his memories of his father in the poem ‘Follower’?An example essay question
If, dear reader, you feel this is a bland question that does a disservice to Seamus Heaney’s poetry, then…
I’m inclined to agree with you – and I’m sorry.
This is a common type of essay question – the kind that gets asked the world over. So it’s a realistic example.
This is in fact a sneakier question than it appears at first glance, so I’m going to fast-forward us to a thesis that we could use if we were writing the whole essay (which we are not).
The Thesis we’ll be using to steer the paragraph
Here we go:
In his poem ‘Follower’, Seamus Heaney offers affectionate memories of his father. They seem affectionate because they are shaped by the admiration and wonder that he appears to have felt as a child when observing the spectacle of his father ploughing the fields. And that admiration and wonder is suggested by the skill and power with which his father is characterised, and the elegance and beauty with which his work unfolds.Peter’s thesis – on which we could base an entire essay responding to the question
I’ve tried to ‘chunk’ this thesis for you. In other words…
… I’ve tried to break it down into manageable chunks.
In fact, if I were writing this for myself, I might have kept the same argument but used a more complex sentence structure to weave it all together. But let’s not worry about that. Instead…
… here’s what I want you to notice:
Notice how in each new sentence (highlighted below), I repeat some key language from the last one. The orange and blue highlights at the end don’t get repeated here – becau4se those ideas will get repeated, broken down, and examined in more detail in the main paragraphs of the essay.
In his poem ‘Follower’, Seamus Heaney offers affectionate memories of his father. They seem affectionate because they are shaped by the admiration and wonder that he appears to have felt as a child when observing the spectacle of his father ploughing the fields. And that admiration and wonder is suggested by the skill and power with which his father is characterised, and the elegance and beauty with which his work unfolds.
So I’m gradually breaking down and justifying the bold and sweeping statement I made in the first sentence – and I want the line of argument to be nicely joined up.
This (above) is what I call ‘handholding’ because the strategic repetition means that each sentence is ‘holding hands’ with the previous one.
Now, perhaps there are more efficient ways of presenting an argument.
Sometimes what you gain in efficiency you lose amongst longer and more complex sentences – in which some readers (and perhaps the writer!) lose the thread.
Now here’s the thing.
Because this is a thesis, it’s OK to roll out a bundle of big ideas without digging into them (you shouldn’t be using quotations at this stage). And that’s what’s happening, because we’ve got a raft of ‘big ideas’ here:
This looks like the foundations of a good essay: these are all plausible and relevant ideas – which will nonetheless take a lot of work to demonstrate and justify.
The Logic Tree
I called it a ‘raft’ – but it’s not really a raft. It’s more like a tree.
Because even at this point, there is a hierarchy of ideas that I have started to break down. They do not exist on an equal footing.
Now, guess what?
It’s the same with your main body paragraphs!
This is where Rabbit Warren Arguments ruin essays.
There can be lots of signs that you have failed to break down, organise, and scrutinise your ideas in a paragraph.
And a Rabbit Warren Argument is one of them.
The Rabbit Warren Argument is not structured like the tree above: it is structured like a rabbit warren.
It is an argument that is continually diving down a new hole, disorientating your reader (i.e. your teacher or examiner) and making him/her wonder whether we will ever come back up to the surface for air (i.e. back to the main point).
And if we do come back to the surface…
… it isn’t clear how we have moved closer towards answering the question.
There’s a strange twist here, though:
Why essay-writers enjoy building Rabbit Warrens
Reading students’ essays, I sometimes get the feeling that when they were writing such a paragraph (as described above)…
… they were feeling pretty good about themselves!
And here’s why it can feel good:
- the word count is going up
- the page is being filled
- you are getting some convincing-sounding ideas down on the page
- – and soon, most importantly of all…
- the essay will soon be ‘Done’ and off your desk!
“There will always be Next Time to try and get better at writing essays. Right now, I just need to get it off my desk.”A student busy writing a Rabbit Warren Argument
And it’s quite possible that these same students are listening to their ‘Beast Mode’ playlist and are feeling good about Getting Stuff Done Done.
But the problem is that this ‘mood’ is misleading.
The quality of the outcome does not fit the fluency, the ‘busyness’, and the feeling of productivity in the writing process.
I’ll show you what I mean.
My example of a Rabbit Warren Argument (RWA)
Below is an example of a Rabbit Warren Argument.
Just to be clear:
This is not a genuine student-written paragraph.
(I made it up myself)
But it so easily could be a genuine sample from an essay. I have seen paragraphs like this hundreds of times.
Before we begin, here’s something to notice:
Notice how this paragraph actually begins reasonably well – with a clear point and the introduction of some quoted evidence that would seem to be relevant to that point.
But then, we enter the warren…
Seamus Heaney presents his father as skilful with the plough. For example, his father was “An expert” who would “set”, “fit” and “pluck” the equipment he was using. This shows that Heaney’s father really knew what he was doing, because he was so experienced. This makes the reader understand just how much Heaney looked up to his father, because he was very good at doing the work on the farm. This makes Heaney’s father seem almost like a hero to Heaney. The reader wants to imagine what their own father is like, and to wonder whether their father is as great as Heaney’s father was. This makes it an utterly compelling poem for the reader – and makes you want to read on.Example of a Rabbit Warren Argument: this is not good! Do not imitate this!
Oh no! And until the beginning of the third sentence it was going OK.
In the end, this is not a good paragraph, because it’s not a good argument.
Sure, it sounds enthusiastic. It sounds literate. It makes use of some appropriate quotations. And there are signs of individual insight. But it is not a successful argument.
That’s because of a magic combination of two things:
The 2 key ingredients in a Rabbit Warren Argument
(1) This… This… This…
(2) Fairy Dust
In the Rabbit Warren Argument, these two features join forces to create something that sounds like an argument but which is in fact a confusing rabbit warren of loosely connected observations.
(1) This… This… This…
A series of sentences beginning with the word ‘This’ is a tell-tale sign that you may have a Rabbit Warren argument. It’s also something you can easily check for in your work.
I’m not saying that it’s enough all on its own to make a Rabbit Warren – but it’s certainly a clue, and something you can easily check for in your essays.
Tip: Do a word search: how many times do you use the word ‘This’ in your essay? Are there any paragraphs where you use it a lot?
Here’s what’s going wrong in my example:
Each ‘This’ packages up whatever was said in the last sentence.
That means that whatever was said – even if it was something complex which in fact needed unpacking – it just gets packaged up with brown tape and labelled as ‘This’.
It’s a bluff.
You don’t really know what the package contains.
You just want someone else to accept the package and decide that it (somehow) has value.
Your message to your teacher / examiner is this:
“Whatever I said, dear examiner, you just have to accept it. Now please, could you just give me the marks and so that we can all move on?”You, to the examiner
Once the ‘this’ has done its work, the rest of the sentence plunges us down a further hole (I’ll show you how in just a sec), and we quickly lose our sense of direction.
Go back to my thesis and notice how the word ‘this’ does not appear once.
Instead of using the word ‘this’, I do a bit of handholding. I carefully rearticulate the key word(s) from the previous sentence – the ones that I’m going to unpack or define.
‘This’ (ha) may seem a bit laborious – but…
… you should be working hard to make your argument intelligible to your reader.
And it may seem artificial – but…
… there are ways of framing things so that they sound more natural.
If you think this sort of repetition is excessive or unnecessary, how about we look at a mathematical ‘argument’?
12(x – 7) – 3 = 5Simple mathematical argument.
12(x – 7) = 8
12x – 84 = 8
12x = 92
x = 92/12
x = 7 2/3
Can you see the overlap?
In mathematics, writing out each stage of the logical process (like this) is essential practice, even though it involves a certain amount of repetition. Notice how for each line of the process above, there is always at least one element of the equation which is unchanged from the previous line.
Why should it be any different when you’re writing an essay?
The lesson to learn here is there needs to be a ‘segue’ (seg-way) – a safe transfer of the baton –
from one sentence…
… to the next.
There are lots of ways of doing this, but the word ‘This’ often gets overused, and ‘This… This… This…’ is a sign that you have a Rabbit Warren Argument.
(2) Fairy dust
What is Fairy Dust?
Fairy dust is another sign of a Rabbit Warren Argument. It’s magic dust that students sprinkle into their paragraphs once they have:
(a) lost the thread of their argument but
(b) still want to make the paragraph sound good or
(c) just want to fill the page.
It usually involves one or more of the following:
Types of fairy dust
- Big New Ideas – words containing ideas that are brand new to the argument and have complex meanings.
- Off-topic ideas
- Synonyms or paraphrase – words or expressions which are similar in meaning to those used in the opening sentence, though not necessarily exactly the same. These tend to confuse things by disguising what is in fact a circular argument.
- Speculation about ‘the reader’s’ experience – descriptions of what the experience is like for an imaginary reader, and his/her reaction.
Each of these devices directs us down a new hole in the Rabbit Warren.
Examples of Fairy Dust in my paragraph
Here are the examples of fairy dust in my example:
Seamus Heaney presents his father as skilful with the plough. For example, his father was “An expert” who would “set”, “fit” and “pluck” the equipment he was using. This shows that Heaney’s father really knew what he was doing, because he was so experienced. This makes the reader understand just how much Heaney looked up to his father, because he was very good at doing the work on the farm. This makes Heaney’s father seem almost like a hero to Heaney. The reader wants to imagine what their own father is like, and to wonder whether their father is as great as Heaney’s father was. This makes it an utterly compelling poem for the reader – and makes you want to read on.
Let’s have a look at the problems here:
Example 1 – Paraphrase
“Really knew what he was doing.”
This is paraphrase – which means saying the same thing (or almost the same thing) using different words.
It is also a colloquial expression – that means…
… it’s the kind of expression you can use in conversation but not in an essay.
And the reason for that is that it lacks precision.
You see, in conversation this expression (“really knows what he’s doing”) tends to mean a combination of skill and experience.
This paragraph began by precisely identifying “skilful” (1 word) as its main focus. Just skill. No experience.
So it’s unhelpful now to blur the issue by using the more general expression of “really knew what he was doing” (6 words).
Besides, even if we did just take this expression to mean ‘skilful’ – or even if we adjust our opening sentence so that the paragraph is now about “skilful and experienced”, it merely creates a circular argument:
1. Heaney’s father was skilful.Circular argument I want you to avoid!
2. Here are some words which I think help to show that.
3. Yeah, they show that he was skilful… I don’t know why…
To make matters worse, the paraphrase (“really knew what he was doing”) disguises or covers up the fact that we’re just repeating the original point rather than thinking about what ‘skilful’ might look like or how ‘skill’ manifests itself.
This is frustrating to read.
And whether you mean to or not, it kind of makes the examiner feel as if you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
Example 2 – A Big New Idea
This is a Big New Idea.
Now don’t get me wrong here:
‘experienced’ is a lot better than “really knew what he was doing”, because –
it’s more precise.
… it’s playing a sneaky trick on the reader of the essay:
It’s introducing a new topic rather than putting pressure on the old one.
To make it sneakier still, it also looks (to the casual eye) like a synonym for the original key word (“skilful”).
But it’s not.
Skill and experience are not the same thing.
OK, true – they often go hand in hand – but not necessarily. For example:
A 34-year-old footballer who plays at centre back may have much more experience than a 20-year-old winger – but the winger may have superior on-the-ball skill.
Both are valuable in their own way, but they are definitely not the same.
To find out whether Heaney’s father was both skilful and experienced, we ought to be prepared to look at both things individually. We could perhaps even use his ‘skill’ (if we could demonstrate it) as evidence of his experience. But we can’t use his experience as evidence of his skill: because the one does not necessarily lead to the other.
Besides, who cares? We haven’t even successfully demonstrated either of those things yet.
Example 3 – An off-topic idea
“Looked up to his father”
This is an off-topic idea – that also happens to be a Big New Idea. Read the opening sentence of the paragraph again:
Seamus Heaney presents his father as skilful with the plough.
So this is a paragraph about Heaney’s father, right? Not Heaney himself.
Now don’t get me wrong here. Because – yes, it’s Heaney’s poem. And it’s Heaney’s depiction of his father. So…
… every observation we make about Heaney’s father (or the depiction of Heaney’s father – to state things correctly) is really an observation about Heaney himself. And specifically…
it’s an observation about the memories of his father that we get asked about in the question.
But that’s my point:
we need to get those points about his father rock solid first. Only then do have a strong enough foundation to be able to make plausible suggestions about how Heaney’s memories themselves are presented.
(Can you see why I said this was a sneaky question?)
So as I was saying, this is a paragraph about Heaney’s father as depicted in the poem. So saying that Heaney “looked up to his father” is off-topic, because that’s a comment about Seamus rather than his dad.
So it’s unhelpful in this paragraph. It’s…
Because it sounds as if it should be true.
And it makes the essay-writer feel as if they’re magically adding value to the paragraph.
But it adds zero value. Why?
Because it doesn’t actually support the argument being made.
And there’s another way of looking at this:
The sharp-eyed amongst you will have noticed something:
“looked up to” is arguably a paraphrase of “admired” – an idea which appears in…
So we have one of the main ideas of our thesis… popping up as a little supporting point in the middle of a paragraph? That doesn’t sound good….
This is exactly why you can’t just go sprinkling big ideas into the middle of paragraphs –
because it turns the argument on its head.
The whole point is that the thesis made an attempt to identify broadly what the evidence for Heaney’s ‘admiration’ might be. And yes, one piece of evidence could be that his dad is presented as skilful (if we can successfully demonstrate that).
We can’t then demonstrate that Seamus’ old man was skilful because Seamus admired him. That’s a circular argument – and circular arguments are often to be found at the heart of a Rabbit Warren Argument.
Example 4 – A bit more paraphrase
Very good at doing the work
A bit like “really knew what he was doing”, this is a loose paraphrase of ‘skilful’ that succeeds in being less specific than the original word. So why has this candidate written “very good at doing the work” instead of “skilful”?
Well, I can think of a couple of reasons:
(1) It has more words and takes up more space – helping the essay-writer to fill more space in the paragraph (but without adding anything of value) in the interests of getting the essay off their desk.
(2) It diverts attention from the lack of depth and penetration in the analysis. If the candidate had used the word “skilful”, it would highlight that we have come full circle – without making any progress – because the paragraph has not yet unpacked the meaning of ‘skilful’. Somewhere at the back of the candidate’s mind, they suspect this, and so opt for a different expression – in the hope that this will spruce things up and keep the argument moving forward (it doesn’t).
Example 4 – Another Big New Idea
“like a hero”
Once again, the writer of this paragraph felt good when they reached for this phrase.
It felt ambitious.
It felt fresh and original.
It felt plausible.
But “like a hero” is a Big New Idea – and it’s unhelpful at this point in the argument, where we should be breaking things down.
It’s not that it’s a bad idea – but it’s in the wrong place. It doesn’t belong in this paragraph, because it doesn’t support the relatively simple argument that’s being made. I’ll show you why:
Heroism and the meaning of ‘being a hero’ is hugely complex. ‘Being skilful’ is comparatively easy to define and demonstrate.
Using a complex idea as supporting evidence for a comparatively simple one is bad practice, because as we established earlier, the big ideas form the trunk and the main branches of the tree – and then we break them down.
Let me illustrate with the kind of conversation I might expect to have with one of my more spritely and argumentative classes:
Peter: OK. How could argue that Heaney presents his father as skilful?
Class: Because in the poem he’s like a hero to Heaney.
Peter: Oh. How does being a hero show that you’re skilful?
Class: All heroes are skilful.
Peter: Hmm. That’s a bold claim. I wonder whether it’s true…. What about a woman who rescues someone else’s children from a burning building: would you call her a hero?
Peter: Right, and what makes her so heroic?
Class: The children were going to die.
Peter: Right, and what makes saving them so heroic?
Class: They would have died if she hadn’t saved them! That’s heroic!
Peter: But why are you calling it heroic? Wouldn’t any of us have done the same thing? It’s the obvious thing to do, right? Save the children. The children are going to die – so go and save them! Just do it!
Class: But the building is on fire!
Peter: OK. So what? Go and save the children who are in the building that is on fire. What’s the problem?
Class: You can’t just go into a burning building!
Peter: Oh, really? Why not?
Class: Because you might die!
Peter: Oh, you might die, OK…. Do we have a word for describing situations where you could easily die?
Peter: Right, so was it a dangerous situation?
Peter: Fine. So was this woman ‘heroic’ because she put herself in danger to save the children?
Peter: So why was putting herself in danger heroic?
Class: Because they were going to die!!
Peter: Sure, but what special ‘heroic’ quality are you showing if you put yourself in danger in order to save someone who is going to die?
Class: She was really brave.
Peter: Oh! She was brave! OK. Would you say that her bravery was the most important quality that she showed? Was that what made her a hero?
Peter: Excellent. Is bravery a skill?
Peter: So apparently it’s possible to be a hero without necessarily being skilful. For example, it’s enough to be brave and to save someone’s life. So… how do you know that Heaney’s father was skilful, just because you think he was a ‘hero’ to Heaney?
As I said before, the problem here is that ‘being a hero’ is a more complex idea than ‘being skilful’, so it’s completely unsuitable as part of an attempt to explain what ‘being skilful’ might actually look like or mean.
But students tend to do exactly this, in hope (or even desperation), when they have lost their thread. So in this case, the idea that Heaney’s father was a hero to him is plausible and sounds as if it is probably true.
And it’s a perfectly good idea that maybe deserves a place in the essay.
It belongs in the thesis – not buried in the middle of a paragraph.
The next sprinkling of fairy dust, however, does not contain a good idea.
Example 5 – Speculating about ‘the reader’s’ experience
The reader wants to imagine…
This is speculation about the reader’s experience – a non-essential but popular component of a Rabbit Warren Argument.
It is also one of the more desperate manoeuvres of the student writing a literature essay. Here’s what happens:
Running empty of things to say about the text, the student instead turns their attention to the imaginary feelings or thought-processes of an imaginary “reader”.
After all, because they can imagine this “reader” for themselves they can then dictate what this reader thinks and feels – without having to worry about…
… the actual text.
That makes this a popular option – because you can bash out another 50 words this way (perhaps even more) and you might feel as if you are being creative and imaginative in the process. And that can create a misleading feeling of satisfaction and progress.
But the sad truth is that this approach won’t (and shouldn’t) get you any credit, because you’re not actually writing about the text – you’re just going deeper into the warren.
My advice: don’t ever write rambling, speculative descriptions of what “the reader” may or may not experience. In fact, avoid talk about “the reader” altogether in your essays.
Example 6 – More speculation about ‘the reader’s experience
This makes it an utterly compelling poem for the reader – and makes you want to read on.
This is more empty speculation about the reader’s experience.
And it effectively says the same thing twice:
If something has ‘compelled’ you, then it has your attention and focus. If a text has ‘compelled’ you, then you are going to be ‘reading on’.
Here’s how this example works:
In an act of apparent desperation, the paragraph uses some hyperbole (“utterly compelling”) to praise and enthuse about the text. This is intended to lift the mood of the paragraph, use up a few more words, and – perhaps – appease the teacher by saying nice things about the text.
But you are not being examined and assessed on the mood of your writing, but on your insight and your skill in argument.
The reason this counts as a ‘Rabbit Warren’ technique is that it steers us further away from the original focus of the paragraph.
This was supposed to be about the depiction of a character as skilful. A depiction that was a poet’s way of expressing memories of someone beloved and admired. By contrast…
… the argument in this final sentence merely concerns the text’s general ability to sustain a reader’s attention, engagement and interest. That’s all.
It has abandoned the original point being made, and forgotten all about the question. Instead…
… it has fallen back on the worst of all the stock responses that students offer: the bland assurance that the text is somehow worth reading.
What can I say? Never ever write this in an essay. Seek help. One place you could start is my list of +1000 Adjectives to Help you Write Brilliant Essays.