17 July 2007

Are You Convincing?

Back when I used to teach Freshman Composition, I had all sorts of tricks up my sleeves to teach my reluctant students the value of writing well. We might not need advanced math in our daily lives, and, sadly, we might not need a comprehensive knowledge of 19th century British poets. However, one thing just about any Joe or Josephine can benefit from is communication skill, and as the Internet eats everyone’s brain, communication via writing will take on increased significance. (Hopefully in the future we’ll still be using complete sentences, and our official documents won’t look like text messages!)

Now, to my topic. Part of writing well is writing clearly, and another part is writing convincingly. There are other parts, of course, but let me tell you about the hands-on method I used to demonstrate the rhetorical skills involved in being convincing.

During our section on argumentative rhetoric, I had my students take out a plain sheet of paper. “Think of an issue,” I said. “A smallish issue--something that won’t cause anyone in our class to spontaneously combust if you’re chosen to read your essay out loud. Write me a one page essay that explains your position on this issue.”

As soon as they finished part one, I had them take out a second sheet of paper. “Now,” I said, “write me another page as if your viewpoint were reversed on the issue -- and make it so good I can’t tell which side you’re on. If you can fool me, you get extra credit on the next pop quiz.”

Guess which essay was often better constructed and more convincing? If you guessed the second one, you’d be correct. My students tended to be quite passionate in their original mini-essays. Passion makes for a certain type of language. Reason and clear-headedness make for another type of language. While there is much to be said for inspiration and scribbling things down in the heat of a moment, a little distance can allow us to approach words with a clinical precision, to consider reader preferences and varying interpretations. I do this during the editing process especially, when deciding how much of my abundant worldbuilding I get to keep -- just enough to be convincing but not so much that readers go, “Yeah, yeah, get on with it already!”

When composing our fiction or our thoughts about, say, recent upheaval in RWA at the National level, how much would it help our prose shine if we could see other sides of an issue so clearly we could write an essay about it? Would this degree of understanding enable us to be more convincing? I think so. Whether we want to write a scene depicting our villainess’s evil deed or the hero when he’s been a butthole, I do believe this strategy might come in handy. Why does the villainess feel justified in her actions? Why does the hero? How can you convince the readers your characters are passionate, believable and just plain realistic?

Jody W.
http://www.jodywallace.com/ * http://www.elliemarvel.com/
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