- Remember: The definition of a “successful” argument is that you are able to give good, compelling and substantive reasons for the position you are taking. Trust the substance and the reason of your position. People becoming irrationally angry or simply butting heads with one another is a sign of argument failure.
- Good reason is ultimately persuasive. Rhetorical gimmicks, distraction, distorted examples, shocking or prurient illustrations may get people’s attention and even temporarily persuade them, but most people become disillusioned and angry if they feel they have been mislead by exaggeration or distorted information.
- Op-eds are read by like and unlike minds. Your argument may resonate with the true-believers, but there should also be a verisimilitude with which unlike minds can connect.
- Op-eds are short. You don’t have the space to lay out a highly detailed case with all the connections spelled out for the audience. “Argue from the barstool.” Be direct, to the point, clear, and unambiguous.
- Make sure you have a clear point of view or position that can be stated in one or two sentences. This will help both your audience understand your argument and the relevance of the information you are using to support it.
- Create a frame for content. Your argument is how you structure and lay out information. This gives interpretive meaning to all the bit of information you may use: facts, statistics, quotes, analogies, metaphors, studies, etc. Information can be ambiguous unless there is a clear sense of how it is being used. For example ….
“By 2035, 55% of the XYZ school district enrollment will be students of color.”
What does this “mean?”
If the XYZ school district currently has 54% enrollment by students of color, it’s not much of a shift. If the XYZ school district currently has 5% or 95% students of color, it’s a much more substantial shift. Is the shift only occurring in the school district or does it also reflect the general population? That could dramatically influence what the shift means or suggests.
For one person, it may mean that diversity goals are being met without the need for a formal plan. For someone else, it may mean that a diversity plan should not only be in place but also substantially ramped up. For an education sociologist, it might mean the school will be higher performing in the future (statistical correlation of diversity with higher student achievement); someone else could argument that there may be parallel issues emerging that would hurt student performance overall (economics/poverty index).
The point: Information provides substance to your argument, but it can be ambiguous. Be clear about your intent and provide a consistent frame for organizing, arranging and forwarding your various points.
- Balance. You are advocating a point of view or position. While you generally should avoid overheated, inflammatory rhetoric that alienates unlike minds, your ethical obligation is to be representative, truthful, proportionate and avoid misrepresentation by intentional omission. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a strong or very specific position: “Balance” doesn’t mean everything inherently has two or more sides. It means that you have created a reasoned way to examine something, taking into account the available resources for understanding it, including your own perspectives and experiences. Some things are manifestly and emphatically true/false/right/wrong or just the way they are, but that doesn’t mitigate our obligation to be clear and even transparent in our advocacy.
- Avoid rhetorical questions. Most rhetorical questions, quite frankly, aren’t. It is a very specific strategy that works best when you know a specific audience very well and can pose insightful questions that the audience members are likely to consider but haven’t quite formulated yet. Most of the time rhetorical questions, as they are generally used, are either boring or irrelevant to the audience. And, if you ask questions that puzzle or confuse the audience (“Why would I ever ask THAT?” “What does that question mean?”) you may actually undermine your position before you even fully present it.
- Prima Facie case. Don’t worry about settling any and all outstanding questions about the theme you are advancing: you need to establish a “prima facie” (“first face”) case. It means that you reasonably have shifted enough status quo presumption/doubt/information that your argument demands a response and/or consideration.
- Consider what is “essential” vs. “accidental” in establishing your argument.
Ask yourself: Is what I’m saying elemental to understanding the larger point or
- Proof. What is relevant and considered authoritative for proving your thesis?
While personal narratives, testimonies and individual experiences can be
illuminating or even moving, they seldom substantiate a broader conclusion.
What are the best, most current and most informed sources of information you can
use to back up your assertions: “Those who would assert, must also prove.”
Consider what the audience may find authoritative and, alternately, biased or
unreliable. This is particularly true for argument from authority. Personal and
professional reputation and association are very important. Is the authority you
are invoking or quoting well-known or only in select and specialized circles? How has the authority been conferred: By training? Experience? Degree? Affiliation? Belief? Also, consider if an authoritative source credential is actually relevant to the topic at hand. “Arguing from authority” is different that “arguing from reputation.”
- First person or anecdotal perspectives are great, but be sure that what you are talking about has relevance to your larger point and audience. Consider if your audience has a frame of reference or even basic knowledge about what you are presenting. Especially if you are discussing historical events, other countries, or very specific current events that are not known to a wide range of people, you may need to provide some background information. Do not assume most people will be familiar with acronyms, particularly international references. Sometimes acronyms can become current in the news (for example, when FARC -Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia - was tricked into releasing a group of captives in 2008), however the attention is generally transitional at best.
- Examples and illustrations. A clear and compelling example can relay a huge amount of information in an efficient and engaging way, but it can also confound and undermine your point if poorly chosen. Be sure the examples you select communicate the things you intend to be communicated. Ask yourself: Is this example relevant to my point? Is it the clearest and most compelling I have? Is its relevance and meaning shared by my audience? Is there any ambiguity in meaning? Think about how other epistemic communities or unlike minds might interpret or view what you are using as an example.
- Metaphors and similes. Like examples and illustrations, metaphors and similes work best when they are squarely relevant, simple and clear in their intent. If you have to point out, explain, interpret and justify nuances of comparison, you probably should rethink your strategy. It is very important to consider the history of a metaphor, especially if it has been previously used in a highly partisan way or has a strong prior associative meaning. Consider if a symbol has been “stolen” or co-opted by an opposite point of view: conservative political strategists very neatly turned the terms “liberal” and “feminist” into freighted liabilities for democrats in the 80s and 90s. It should be immediately understood by the audience what similarities/differences you are intending by your use of a metaphor or simile.
- Consider where your audience or the general public is on the issue or subject you are writing about. Is your goal to “push the needle” a little or a lot? What are relevant, current, topical and/or a priority for the audience? Does your position and argument advance the understanding of others? Does it add to that which is already generally accepted and/or understood, or are you presenting something wholly new for consideration?
- Remember “organic unity.” The scope of your text should be proportionate, between thesis/main points, problem/solution, cause/effect, benefit/cost, etc. A position screaming “The president is a fascist” because he doesn’t support increasing funding for public school breakfast programs discredits itself not only by being overheated and slinging the f-word around, but also because it is a sweeping generalization supported by a narrow interpretation and limited facts.
- Avoid categorical statements: “Best …,” “worst ….,” “ …. in all of human history,” etc.. You set up a very easy way to undermine your point: all an opponent has to do is come up with a single counter-example proving your statement is technically false. At the very least, it suggests sloppiness with research.
- Preempt or counter arguments against your position that you know the audience may have already heard or are known generally. Acknowledging these and accounting for them will strengthen your position.
- Signpost. Help your audience along by indicating through enumeration, listing and “connector phrases” (like “therefore,” “but,” “and,” “although,” etc.) how you are linking together information. Facts seldom speak for themselves: the job of the writer is to marshal information into a meaningful framework supporting a broader conclusion or direction.
- Keep the argument moving. Each sentence should be purposeful and move your argument further along than it was in the previous sentence. Op-eds are too short to waste words.
- Language. Try to use clear and unambiguous language. Avoid jargon or highly technical terms requiring lengthy definitions. Cliches are generally numbing and distracting. If you must use strong language, ask yourself if you are simply labeling behavior as it is, or are you name-calling.
- Scattershot organizing of ideas. Sit down, try to relax, and jot down every single idea you already have regarding your op-ed topic. It doesn’t have to be organized, specific or sequential. Write down every idea, quote, reaction, fact, story, even gut feeling, you associate with the topic. Then, sit back and see if any of the points coalesce or seem to fit together. You will probably see one, two or more “natural” themes coming out of your brainstorming. Or, alternately, you may see ideas for commentaries based on gaps or missing information.