(Disclaimer: This post is NOT personal. It is a professional exercise on something I do for a living. It is mostly geared toward professional writers or those who write within their career.)
With this political season so heavily upon us, arguments and debates, fact and fiction, are swirling in the so-tense-you-could-cut-it-with-a-dull-edged-spoon breeze. It’s inevitable.
And, with the advent of this not-so-joyous season, I’m hearing and reading more arguments that defy the laws of proper debate. Really, I hate the word “argue.” I prefer that we all engage in civil discourse by avoiding name-calling, emotion-driven responses, and other childish games. I will admit to sometimes falling victim to these methods (I can hear some of you growling now); however, it’s usually in verbal exchanges with my family and friends rather than professional writing exercises. When I do fall prey to these poison devices, I can usually see it and call it, though I may not always say it. A little introspection can’t hurt.
Why do people resort to such empty ploys? It’s usually because they are insecure and don’t know their facts, but it really damages an argument. My professional background has provided me the opportunity to learn about this and to coach others in proper opinion-writing.
Preaching to the choir: It’s a waste of your time. What I mean by preaching to the choir (PTTC), is stating your opinion in way that can only appeal to those who agree with you; however, many who use the PTTC method usually aren’t preaching to the choir. They are preaching to the damned, which doubly defeats the purpose. You must learn to think from your opponent’s point of view if you truly want to reach them.
PTTC will quickly destroy your point with those whom you seek to convince. Trust me. If you want to persuade someone, you better do it with some style and humility, or you will lose your audience. It’s also okay to say, “I see your point.” But, don’t take it back. I get a lot of that in people who disagree with me. It’s also okay to say, “I was wrong.” I’ve been saying it since the last election. Man, does it feel good. It feels good to know that by allowing myself to admit an error in judgment, I’m more likely to have more informed, balanced opinions than those who drive on emotion and refuse to turn around when the road is blocked.
Grammar and punctuation: You may find this snobbish of me, but it is what it is. The better your grammar and punctuation, the better your opinion will ring with credibility. Why is that so important? Because, it tells your audience that your opinion isn’t merely an emotional response or that you are arguing for the sake of arguing. It tells them your argument is rooted in something more solid.
Now, you don’t have to be an egghead or a college grad to use decent grammar. Grammar, i.e. the proper use of commas, conjugation, and vocabulary, can give your argument clarity. It also tells your audience that you are attempting to make an intelligent case. I find it very hard to read writing without any punctuation. It can change the meaning of a statement entirely and, without punctuation, the reader does not know where to pause in thought. This can be most harmful in email conversations where tone is left to the reader who can infer at random, missile-fire will. Again, I can plead guilty here in the last week alone, and when I look back on how I’ve inferred things before, it’s often been because the writer wasn’t clear or their thoughts ran together. I couldn’t see the point they were trying to make. I saw something else.
It’s a courtesy to your reader to at least attempt something resembling proper writing. If you are rusty on grammar and punctuation, there are plenty of websites online that offer quick lessons. It WILL improve your credibility and the quality of your argument ten-fold. It will also make it easier for your reader to follow your point. A good grammar resource: http://thegrammargang.blogspot.com/. It’s linked on my blog roll.
Language: Don’t use big words just to sound knowledgeable unless A) you know what they mean and B) they add to your point. Professional writers will tell you that many words and big words do not mean good writing. Clear, concise, thoughtful writing is good writing. It sounds more intelligent to write clearly and use fewer ten-dollar words than to write in a sloppy manner using big words that don’t make sense. Smart readers will catch on.
Also, avoid profanity. Your argument goes down the tubes as soon as you bring in the four-letter words. It ruins your credibility quicker than anything else will and gives your opposition the upper hand. It immediately tells the reader that you are running high on emotion and low on reason. Avoid personalizing your argument period. It can be hurtful and is really a result of a weak argument. I will admit to admiring some columnists who tend toward strong language and, at times, anger. But, they have been around so long and are so informed, that they can usually get away with it. Most of us haven’t, aren’t, and can’t.
Statistics and facts: As a journalist, I can assure you that numbers and statistics leave much to be desired when it comes to making a point. They do help. But, too often, people take them out of context or rely on them too heavily. There is usually another number to counteract the first statistic or a context-providing story that goes along with it. Not to mention, statistics are often dead wrong.
Here is an example NOT meant to be a political statement. According to Expatica.com, a publication I read for European expatriates, the usual number of the reported dead in Iraq is somewhere around 3,600. But, that’s just for U.S Operation Iraqi Freedom alone. That number doesn’t take into account contractors lost, Iraqi civilians lost (almost 68,000), military suicides (more than 110), lives lost in Afghanistan (more than 400), etc. The point is, the first number doesn’t tell the whole story though it’s often used in a way that would lead a reader to think just that. But, we can see here that other numbers really round out the full picture. It’s about the whole story. Not just part of it. Statistics without context can speak volumes of nothing.
When you do present facts, quote a reputable source; otherwise, your facts are useless. If you don’t have facts, go find them. I must caution you here. You might change your mind about some things. Don’t worry. This is a healthy thing. (Note: political ads are not reputable sources coming from either party. They most always flat-out lie or misrepresent things in a most disgusting way. They are essentially empty propaganda not intended to really inform you but to manipulate, and they assume you are not smart or industrious enough to look elsewhere. Same goes for press releases from political action committees) Bottom line, KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. This most certainly demands research.
Assuming: Don’t assume for your reader and/or opposition. Assuming for your reader is insulting. When reading the opposing viewpoint, unless your name is attached to a statement or you are directly referenced, don’t insert it on behalf of the writer. Let go of the ego. It’s infuriating to someone who had no intention of speaking directly to you or your beliefs and it, again, murders your credibility. Also, don’t tell your reader what he/she thinks.
Labels: Don’t use them. If you do, there goes that credibility again. It’s an attack method and there is no room for attacking in a mature argument. Plus, it’s no one’s right to put a label on someone that hasn’t been claimed. It’s not our place to label others according to our faulted filters.
Personal beliefs: Be careful here. They may inform your view, but they don’t make you right. It’s important to maintain humility when making your point, especially when religion is involved.
How many of you are saying, “But Beth, I’ve seen you break all of these rules”? True enough. I’m not particularly great at following them when conversing quickly to people, especially my kinfolk. But, I do know the rules and strive to put them in place when I can. Sometimes. Occasionally. Okay, not on Facebook.
So, what have we learned? Civil discourse with emotional detachment and solid facts grant credibility to our words. They allow you a measure of security in your position, right or wrong, and garners you more respect. Without them, you will lose the battle against someone well-versed in these practices. For more reading on this topic, see these links: