Argumentative writing–writing to persuade–includes fiction, creative non-fiction, and writing letters to the editor, among other forms. It may include writing letters to cable providers explaining why you should get a 10 percent reduction in the monthly charge or letters to a judge explaining, as victim of a crime, why the perpetrator should get the maximum sentence. In other words, the situations are infinite in which we might want to persuade by our writing.
For example, When I wrote the essay “Trial in Tampa” 30 years ago, I wanted to convince my reader that I really knew what it was like to shepherd six migrant farm workers through a federal trial.
When I submit my master’s thesis in 2017, I want the readers of my novel The Flight of the Veil to accept my vision of the mountains of central Greece in 1944.
Below are five principles of persuasion by the written word that I’ve found useful in my work. Depending upon the circumstances some principles may apply more or less, as context is critically important. (One does not write the same way for a personal essay as one writes to a judge.) But the five principles always should be in the writer’s mind, regardless of context.
Do your homework
My wife, an amateur equestrian, likes to talk about a novel she was reading – and gave up on – in which the author tried to portray the daily life of a large animal veterinarian who calmly listed a variety of things he needed to do one afternoon, including, about fourth on the list, attending to a horse who was colicking. “No,” Laurie laughed, “It wouldn’t happen like that at all. The vet would rush to take care of the horse first. Everyone knows that, when a horse colics, it’s a matter of life and death.” This problem could have been solved for the author with a small amount of research. We have the Internet at our fingertips so there’s no excuse for failing to do one’s homework.
Respect your reader
If you ring on someone’s doorbell to advocate a political candidate, you don’t start the conversation by punching the homeowner in the face. When we write, we are comparable to the door-ringer. We invite ourselves into the reader’s home and mind, and we ask the reader to spending valuable time with our writing.
Respecting the reader means a lot of things. If possible, understand where the reader is coming from. Understand what the reader wants. If you’re writing fiction, you know the reader wants to be entertained, not lectured. If you’re writing a letter to the Washington Post, you know that the first readers – the editors – want something punchy and succinct enough to be said in two or three sentences. If you’re writing to a judge, you recognize that many of them try to cram 12 hours of work into an eight-hour day.
In addition, respect means not talking down to the reader, making sure to recognize the reader’s intelligence. But if your writing includes concepts that not everyone understands immediately, then you owe it to your reader to explain sufficiently so that the reader doesn’t need to do his or her own research to comprehend. When you force the reader away from your writing in search of explanatory information that you could have provided yourself, the likely result is that you will be unable to persuade.
Use active voice
Why is this important? Passive writing sounds weak. It conveys the impression that the writer is unsure of himself. Passive writing is vague, because it does not show the action but merely explains that some action had been completed at some uncertain time. Persuasive writing must convey confidence – not cockiness – and should create a picture in the mind of the reader. The persuasive writer must first firmly have a picture in his own mind. Using active voice will help firm up that picture, at which point it can more effectively be conveyed.
Most arguments involve a chain of logic, but the more steps in the chain, the less likely is the reader to get to the conclusion. The shorter the chain, the more likely. This does not mean you should leave out critical steps or fudge on the facts to make the chain shorter. It means to think in terms of what is necessary as compared to what is extraneous.
I recall sadly the trial in which I presented, in opening statement to the jury, nine reasons why the plaintiff’s allegations could not be proven. I even used Power Point, to make it clear. We lost. Worse, the jury awarded punitive damages against my client. It was bad day in Louisville, but my point is that, in thinking how I would have retried the case if I had been given that opportunity, I saw that I could have reduced my nine reasons to two. The extra, unnecessary reasons diluted the strength of the good reasons. Indeed, the good reasons – my winning points – were the trees lost in the forest, utterly forgotten. I didn’t get another chance to refine my argument and try the case again and writers seldom get second chances to persuade.
Keep it short
It’s not necessarily the same thing as keeping it simple, but these principles often overlap. Too frequently, writers think that length equals quality. Often, however, length defeats the very argument it is trying to advance. Readers have limited time. If the reader thinks he or she has gotten the point by page three, but the writing goes on another three pages, the reader is likely to doubt his or her original conclusion—the conclusion that the writer wanted the reader to reach. Then, instead of coherence, the writing takes on the aura of mystery. The reader worries about what was missed and gives up. The argument is lost. So, when you’ve made your point, stop.
Bruce J. Berger is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a first-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.