Writing to Change Perspectives

The purpose of all writing is to change the perspective of the reader. In informational writing, the purpose is to communicate important information clearly and convincingly. At the university level, you will be expected to produce some informational writing, but most assignments will require you not only to be informative, but to be persuasive as well. In persuasive writing, the goal is to present your argument so effectively that your readers will, at the very least, reconsider their own beliefs and recognize that you have made a valid point. To do this, you will need to think about who your readers are. In reality, they will most likely be your teacher and your classmates. But having in mind an imaginary reader, the person you most want to convince, will help you decide how to approach the topic, what arguments will be most effective, and what evidence will best persuade your readers.

Before we are ready to convince others, however, we need to examine our own views. Often we have opinions, even very strong opinions, that seem to have formed by themselves. We tend to associate with people who share our views and confirm our opinions. We may even feel threatened when our views are challenged. We find it difficult to question our own assumptions, because they are the structure on which we have built our worldview.

Expressing an argument in writing is an excellent way to figure out what we think and why we think it. In order to convince an audience, we need to present an argument that

  • is clearly stated,

  • has valid reasons to support it, and

  • presents convincing evidence to support the reasons.

As you go through the process of developing an argument, you may find that your views evolve. Your careful consideration of credible evidence will help you reassess your own ideas. In addition, you may see your views shift as you respectfully evaluate opposing views. Because of this,  you will be better prepared to persuade your readers to think as carefully about the debate as you have. Changing the views of your readers, or at least getting them to seriously consider an opposing opinion, is a process that requires careful thought and planning.

An Effective Argument

How can we create an effective argument? An effective argument makes a claim, considers the audience, presents strong reasons, presents credible evidence, and uses calm and reasonable language.

A strong argument makes a claim.

To claim something is to declare it with certainty. Therefore, it is important not to make a claim unless you have strong reasons and evidence to support it. Limit your claim to what you can prove. Don't use absolutes, like always and never.  If you are presenting the solution to a problem, for example, don't present it as the one and only way to eliminate all difficulties. You will not convince many readers if you argue that wind energy is the final answer to global warming. It would be more reasonable to argue that wind energy can take the place of some fossil fuel, thus contributing to the solution to global warming.

A fair argument considers the audience.

Think about a time when someone has verbally attacked one of your long-held opinions. The accusing tone, the "I'm right and you're wrong" attitude—did that approach make you want to consider the opposing point of view? Not likely. But it is possible to have a lively and enlightening discussion with someone who disagrees with you, as long as that person respectfully considers you and your point of view, and makes a sincere attempt to understand your side of things. Likewise, you should respectfully consider the other person and his or her point of view. Not only will your ideas be more likely to meet a listening ear, but you might just learn something important as well..

Figure 1.1: Finding common ground can help your readers be more willing to consider what you have to say.

When you write an argument, you invite your readers to take a fair and careful look at the argument and evidence you are presenting. A verbal attack is not the way to do this; a bridge of understanding is.

One helpful way to create that bridge of understanding is to put the opposing view into words, stating it fairly and respectfully. Then ask yourself:

  • What values and beliefs underlie this view?

  • How can I help a person with this view feel a connection with me and my claim?

Two ways to make this connection with your reader are finding common ground and making concessions.

  • Finding common ground. Sometimes it may seem difficult to find beliefs and values in common with those who disagree with you, but it is important to show that your viewpoints are not so far apart. For example, debaters on the opposite sides of capital punishment may still share the view that human life has great worth. Those who support capital punishment might argue that this is what makes murder a crime deserving of the death penalty. Those who are against capital punishment might argue that to take a life, even the life of a murderer, is wrong. Finding an important point about which both sides agree can make your reader more willing to consider what you have to say.

  • Making concessions. This is different from finding common values; you go further and agree that some opposing arguments have weight, or you admit that the evidence presented by the opposing side is strong. At first glance this may seem like showing weakness, but it actually strengthens your argument. You are limiting your argument to what you can effectively support with your evidence, which makes it more convincing. In addition, you have shown that you have considered the opposing arguments with the same fairness and respect that you hope your readers will extend to you.

A well-supported argument presents strong reasons.

As you come up with reasons to convince the specific audience you have in mind for your paper, it is important to have some idea of what your audience thinks about the claim you are making.

Suppose you want to argue that for many who have committed nonviolent crimes, community service is a better consequence than prison time. If you know that your audience has a firm belief that criminals should pay for their crimes, you might reason that serving the community is a very real way to do that. The service could even be linked to the crime—perhaps a young offender could be required to repaint the school he vandalized, or a drug offender might give service at a rehabilitation center. On the other hand, if you think your audience is already convinced that we should be helping criminals to become good citizens, you could point out that the required service could also teach job skills that would lead to employment. In addition, the offenders would be interacting with positive role models. In both cases, you would want to present evidence to show that offenders who do community service are less likely to re-offend.

A convincing argument presents credible evidence.

Find credible evidence to support your points. If you use an anecdote, it should be true, in context, not exaggerated, and told with interesting and lively detail. Expert opinion needs to come from a credible authority; never use Wikipedia in an academic paper. You should also carefully evaluate evidence from websites with .com or .org in their URL, because the evidence may be biased or the result of cherry-picking—presenting only the evidence that supports an opinion and discarding the rest. In addition, ask yourself if the evidence presented can logically lead to the conclusions made.

Consider the following example: 1.M.R., which stands for “one more rep[etition],” is a diet supplement for bodybuilders. Its website promises it will “raise your energy level through the roof so you can power through anything . . . keeping you eager to train rep after exhausting rep.” It claims that two of its ingredients, CHP choline and GABA, will make sure that “You’ll be dialed in from the very first rep with tunnel-like vision and unrivaled focus.”1

The website promises a dramatic improvement in a bodybuilder's ability to work longer and harder. However, these promises are not supported by evidence. The United States National Institute of Health (NIH) reviewed studies done on these two substances. Concerning choline, a natural substance found in egg yolks, a scholarly article from a peer-reviewed nutrition journal on the NIH website says, “Choline deficiency is now thought to have an impact on diseases such as . . . liver disease, atherosclerosis . . . , and possibly neurological disorders.” It also says, “[Choline] plays important roles in brain and memory development in the fetus.” The article makes no claims about sudden improvements in focus and concentration.2

The second ingredient, GABA, is an amino acid naturally found in the body. Its natural purpose is to calm the neurons in the brain. GABA may help with anxiety. However, there is a question about whether it can cross the natural barrier to the brain. A scholarly article on the NIH website states: "There are both a number of studies that were unable to show that GABA crosses the BBB [blood-brain barrier] and a number of studies that did show GABA’s ability to cross. . . . It is not possible at this time to come to a definite conclusion with regards to GABA’s BBB permeability in humans."3

While both of these ingredients are related in some way to brain function, there is not enough evidence to prove that they help brain function in a way that would benefit a person who just wants to work out longer and harder. Yet the product website makes direct and dramatic promises. The NIH website, on the other hand, is much more cautious about coming to a conclusion. Of course, the NIH is not selling the supplemen, which makes its claims more credible.

A responsible argument uses calm and reasonable language.

Avoid inflammatory language. Some inexperienced writers attempt to inflame their audience with emotional words, but then fail to back up their words with evidence. This kind of writing doesn't stand up to examination.

For example, a letter to the editor in a newspaper declared, "It's lazy to blame global warming for extreme weather events."4 Readers who, after careful consideration of the evidence, have been convinced that global warming is affecting climate change, are now being told they are lazy. How seriously will they consider the evidence this person is presenting?

Here is another example of inflammatory language and a weak argument—or no argument:

The fact also remains you have a phony president with a phony economy, and we might have had a better, stronger, faster, more realistic recovery under the leadership of my neighbor's pet goat than this president! 5

A writer who has a fair claim supported by strong reasons and credible evidence doesn't need to resort to name-calling or emotional outbursts. In fact, such outbursts reduce credibility.

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