2005/11/01

How to write a persuasive article

[I wrote this for the PhillyIMC Editorial Meeting and decided it might be of general interest. BTW, the first two links don't go anywhere.]

Let's use a journey metaphor. I tend to think in terms of horse-drawn carraiges, but you can use whatever vehicle strikes your fancy. The idea in writing a persuasive article is that you want to start your journey with a very specific destination in mind. In other words, you want your reader to arrive at a specific conclusion. You want him or her to think “This writer is correct! The answer to the question is...”. The recommended way to begin then, is to write down the one to three sentences with which you'll end the article. Once your conclusion is down on the screen, you can check each major assertion in the article against that conclusion “Does this assertion help lead my reader to the conclusion that I've typed out?” is the question you want to constantly ask yourself.


The Starting Point


Where do you begin? Well, where is your reader “located”? What is their state of knowledge? An example would be the current “Plamegate” scandal. Before you begin writing, you need to have some idea as to how knowledgable your reader is. Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is currently prosecuting that case. On many of the liberal blogs, he's referrred to simply as “Fitzgerald” because he's been referred to so many times and the readers now generally know who he is. If you're writing for a more general audience, you might want to use the more expansive defnition that I gave the first time. Another way to refer to “Plamegate”, for instance, would be the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame/Niger uranium scandal that Vice-President Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis Libby had to resign for. You can always compromise by using the expansive definition first and then the nickname each time afterwards. Just be sure your reader can tell that the nickname clearly refers to the item in the full definition.


The Route Along the Way


Each fact must directly support the conclusion. If there is not a clear, straight line between one and the other, you probably shouldn't use the fact. Say you want your reader to conclude that marijuana is addictive (Some followers of Lyndon LaRouche actually believe this).

Telling your readers a story about how you attended a concert and it was soooo cool because you were like, soooo stoned is probably not helpful to your case as you don't want to give the reader the impression that you enjoyed being addicted. Saying on the other hand that: “I used to smoke that awful stuff, it was hard to quit.” would probably help your case a great deal.

A list of your paraphernalia would probably help because it would illustrate how deeply you were into it. A list of the really cool lovers you hooked up with while stoned would confuse the reader because you're trying to convince the reader that being stoned was bad for you.



References


There are three types of references. A short quote is done simply as “I went down to the store”. The link is usually then done right beforehand. Usually, writers link to a word that would ordinarily be “bolded” anyway. “Ordinarily, people would snap the fizzle '...with a cheerful and determined snap.' ”


For long quotes, these are usually done in paragraphs where your quote is long enough to justify a separate paragraph. The reference can be right before as in the last example or within the paragraph, again it's best to use a word or phrase that would be bolded in any event. When in doubt, use the first two or three words to do the link with.


For another article that's too long to quote from because the whole thing is just so darned good, you can provide a “Read Asia Times today” sort of statement and make the link go to the specific article that you found so good. Usually when I do this, I like to provide a “teaser” or an explanation as to why the piece is so good.


Veracity


Usually, an assertion or accusation is more likely to be true if there are sources to back them up. Fortunately with the Internet, a link is all you need to establish that an assertion is a fact. Here's an example of someone who does not make use of sources:


John Hinderaker of Power Line explores the legal liability question:

"A violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act seems highly unlikely. It is doubtful whether Rove or any other administration source knew of Plame's affiliation with the CIA through access to classified materials; it is further questionable whether Rove or any other source knew that she was a 'covert' employee, or that the government was making an effort to keep her affiliation with the Agency a secret. (In fact, it is unclear whether the Agency did make such an effort.) As to the third situation covered by the statute, neither Rove nor any other administration source identified Plame as part of a 'pattern of activities intended to identify or expose covert agents' for the purpose of impairing national security.

"It is hard to see how Rove could be indicted for violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and it is very unlikely that he would have been foolish enough to testify falsely before the grand jury about his conversations with journalists. None of this will matter much, though, when it is publicly acknowledged that Rove was one of the sources of the Plame 'leak.' (This isn't, by the way, the sort of communication that is ordinarily referred to as a 'leak.') We can expect a media feeding frenzy or potentially unprecedented proportions."



As I've pointed out in some other posts, this is all mind-reading. This is the statement of someone who makes absolutely zero use of sources. He gives himself away with phrases like: "It is doubtful", "it is further questionable", "it is unclear", "It is hard to see", etc. What's absolutely crystal clear here is that Hindraker is, as the saying goes, talking out of his butt. He's guessing. It's clear that he has no evidence to back up anything he's stabbing in the dark at.

Now, one can get away with not using sources if one is a bit of an expert in the subject being discussed. I'm a Navy veteran who took part in numerous Damage-Control drills back when I was stationed on a ship. Lessons I learned from this could then be applied to the government's reaction to 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina and a few other minor incidents. My conclusion that during 9-11, the President should have gotten himself to a command post, either at a base, to Air Force One or onto a ship is based on my Damage-Control experience. I made it clear to my readers that I had the relevant experience and then told them what I thought.

The final way is to put two & two together for your readers. Simply stating the facts with perhaps a sentence summarizing how the facts fit together is usually the best way to do this. One might wish to use sources to back up the facts one cites, of course.



Introduction to the piece



After one finishes writing the piece, look through it for something that might grab the reader. Look for an interesting twist or not-well-known fact that you can use. Then put that up front. If that doesn't seem to be a profitable approach, remember the Army rule of writing “Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em.” You “told them what you told them” by writing the conclusion before writing anything else. You “told them” by filling in all of the details and proof to back up the details. So for the introduction, you can “tell them what you're going to tell them.”

And that's it. You've now composed a persuasive piece!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

it was a helpful article. Could have use more examples to illustrate your points

Rich said...

I'll see if I can expand on it.
Thanks!

Anonymous said...

it would have helped if there was more infomation on emotive language, retorical questions & things like that

but overall a veryy helpful resourc

thankyuu =]