We can all be better writers. But how do we become better writers? And why should we take the time to improve? Writing is ultimately about communication. Any kind of writing, be it a résumé, a dissertation, a typical work email, or a text message, is about getting your ideas across to another human. In this day, providing clear, eloquent writing is a service to others - when we're all direct (but polite) and understand each other, we can move faster towards our goals. I have seen many guides to writing, some very detailed and focused on specific kinds of writing, but nothing has come close to the 2-page addendum in Dr. Gerald Graff'sClueless in Academe titled "How to Write an Argument." (Here's a hint: you can usually see these 2 pages by clicking "Look Inside" on the Amazon page = however I firmly believe the book is well worth the price.)
Dr. Graff's nine point how-to is addressed towards students and teachers, in a book that is geared towards university study. This guide proved so useful to me that I bookmarked the page and kept it at my side every time I wrote a paper in graduate school. Its directives are clear, concise, and so simple that you may think you're already writing in this style, but if you read closely, you'll inevitably find areas for improvement. As I wrote long papers, keeping these notes close to me helped me to stay on track. Even as someone who plans and outlines ad nauseum, I do have a tendency to wander or become overly flowery, and this guide keeps me focused. While this guide is a must-have for students doing any amount of writing at the college level, what I've found so fascinating in the working world is how applicable Dr. Graff's advice is to all kinds of writing. Here are a few examples.
- Dr. Graff's first point of advice is to "Enter the argument just as you would do in real life." But the next sentence holds the key: "Begin your text by directly identifying the prior conversation or debate that you are entering" (275). WOW! Do you see how easy he makes it? How many times have you started to write something and not known how to start? Now you do. Identify the prior conversation. This holds true for academic papers about any subject. To me this says - guess what, you're not the first one to think of/address this subject, and that's okay! You're still a scholar - just enter the conversation. An example: "Scholars have long debated whether William Shakespeare was one man or a composite of multiple playwriters of the time, citing numerous historic records to support their claims." There, you've neatly summed up the conversation that you are entering, so that the reader knows the context.
This rule applies to work, too, and here's how: have you ever gotten a string of emails, where you had to read each email in succession to gather up all the facts and opinions, and form your own response? Isn't that a waste of time for everyone on the email chain? Today, do yourself and everyone on that email chain a favor. Instead of just replying, enter the conversation. "It seems that Marsha and Bill want Project X to move ahead of Project Y in our timeline, but Tonya and Lee are concerned that Project Y may suffer if pushed back. Here's how I think we can mitigate that..." Bonus points for asking the participants if you got their thoughts correct; negative points if you end up having a 2-hour meeting to discuss - ha. Do you see the difference? Enter the conversation.
Alright one more example and then you can check Dr. Graff's book out for yourself to get the entire 9 points of advice.
2. Dr. Graff's fourth point, after entering the conversation, making a claim, and reminding readers of that claim periodically, is to "summarize the objections that you anticipate will be made...against your claim" (275). This is the essence of persuasive writing. Here, you're getting out in front of any arguments that may arise that contradict what you're saying. If you've ever been sold something, you probably recognize this tactic. Here's how it would go from the Shakespeare example above. Remember we've already entered the conversation."My claim, here, is that Shakespeare could not have been a composite of multiple authors, because he was a zombie. I am not saying that Shakespeare was a vampire (as some have claimed), nor that he time-traveled, but that he was undead. Shakespeare's appetite for brains, documents left by his wife describing him as "100% a zombie" and the bizarre shape of his head, will ultimately prove my claim. (OBJECTION) The belief that zombies don't exist and are only figments of our collective imagination, created only to scare children at Halloween or in excellent (but fictional) television programming, are patronizing at best and dismissive at worst. Empirical skin assays and the skyrocketing sales of cosmetic concealer for green complexions support my claim." Addressing possible contradictions and counterarguments shows that you have truly done your research and given enough thought to your subject to be writing a paper on it.
At work, as in the example above, you could add to the email text above, saying "Ms. Boss may argue that Projects X and Y can be completed simultaneously, but here's why we should give priority to Project Y for now..." (Although, of course be careful of wording someone else's possible thoughts in your email. A great boss would be glad you're thinking ahead.)
Ultimately, the more we want to advance, whether towards a graduate degree, up the ladder at work, or in a fiction-writing career (very popular for zombies) - writing skills are important. If you didn't get them in school, search them out for yourself now. Dr. Graff's guide is a great start.
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Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale University Press, 2004.
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