Addressing Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

In the previous Tricks of the Trade article, we looked at a new technique: addressing counterarguments. A counterargument is a point of disagreement or doubt that a reader might raise while reading your writing—a moment where the reader says, about a point you are making, “But I disagree with your point here.” It’s your job as the writer to be aware of such counterarguments (at least, the most likely ones) and to address those counterarguments.

At this point, you might be thinking, “But how can I think of all possible counterarguments my readers might raise?” Well, the sad fact is, you can’t think of all possible counterarguments. However, by tackling the most probable counterarguments, your chances of winning over more readers will increase. And, even if you bring out counterarguments that a reader does not raise, your counterargument still helps to win the reader’s respect since (1) you come across as the kind of writer who cares about readers’ concerns and (2) you come across as the kind of writer who attempts to cover all bases in posing an argument. (By the way, did you notice that I used this short paragraph to address a counterargument that my reader might raise? Were you thinking to raise this counterargument just as I mentioned it here?)

If you read the previous Tricks of the Trade article, then you should be clear on what a counterargument is and how it is essentially posed. (And if you didn’t read that article yet, I suggest that you click here to read it before continuing to read this article.) However, the previous article did not share real examples of counterarguments at work within their larger context.

With that point in mind, I have written this article to provide examples of counterarguments drawn from a real essay. When considering the counterargument and how it works, there’s no better place to look than the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr.—particularly his classic essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

As the title implies, MLK penned this letter (now anthologized as an essay) from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where he and other civil rights protestors were being held simply for making their voices heard in thMLK Image for W Toolboxe segregationist Jim Crow south of 1963. While imprisoned, MLK read a newspaper article written by eight clergymen, all of them arguing that MLK and the other nonviolent protestors were “extremists” and that the protestors should simply wait for what (the clergymen thought) would be inevitable change. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was MLK’s response to these eight clergymen. MLK argues in his letter that civil rights equality would not simply happen with time and that change happens only because people take a stand for equality and strive to make it a reality.

I should note, before sharing these excerpts, that MLK was already aware of many of these counterarguments because these arguments had already been raised against the actions of MLK and other nonviolent civil rights protestors. He had the advantage of already being aware of the opposition’s core arguments, and he harnessed that advantage to full effect.

As you read the passages below, notice how MLK does not merely bring up counterarguments as side-notes or “by the way” points. He actually uses the counterarguments to drive this essay, going from addressing one counterargument to addressing the next one.

Counterargument Excerpts: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

The counterarguments below, drawn from MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” are color coded so that each counterargument (marked in red) stands out from MLK’s response(s) to each counterargument (marked in green).

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue so that it can no longer be ignored.

King immediately moves to another counterargument—one that would be raised in response to the way he addressed the first counterargument (immediately above):

My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Leaving no possible counterargument unaddressed, King moves on one paragraph later to address the next logical counterargument: the argument that, even if it is right to create nonviolent, productive tension, the timing is not right for that tension:

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?” The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo. I have hope that Mr. Boutwell will be reasonable enough to see the futility of massive resistance to desegregation. But he will not see this without pressure from devotees of civil rights. My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.

Another counterargument that King confronts is the accusation that the nonviolent resisters were breaking laws and that this point invalidated their cause. Let’s look at how King discusses and dismantles this new counterargument:

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

King goes on for several paragraphs to present even more responses to this counterargument. But perhaps none of these responses resonates as powerfully as this passage, where King draws upon what was (and still is) an all-too-familiar example of racial prejudice when carried out to its worst extreme:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.

The passage above is especially fitting for King’s audience, since he is responding to Jewish as well as Christian clergy. Consider the other Judeo-Christian references King makes in this essay and how those references are especially effective, considering that he is writing for clergy. As discussed in the first Tricks of the Trade technique, King is aware of his audience and he writes accordingly.

The final counterargument I will cite (but certainly not the last one in King’s essay) is one of the central accusations brought against King and the other nonviolent protesters in Birmingham: the accusation that the protestors were extremists. King addresses this particular counterargument with two (very different) arguments: (1) the point that the truly dangerous “extremists” in the civil rights movement are those who advocate violence and (2) the point that the term extremist is not bad in and of itself, but depends upon what one chooses to be an extremist for. King puts the counterargument to rest—twice over:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. [. . .] The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro’s frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible “devil.” [. . .] So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.

Here is King’s second response to the accusation of extremism:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Do you feel the power of King’s response? Effective writing—it doesn’t get any better than this.

Next Up: Parallel Sentence Structure

One reason for the effectiveness of King’s response (just above) is that it employs yet another technique I want to discuss in Tricks of the Trade: parallel sentence structure. Notice how King’s sentences often repeat the same syntax and word patterns, creating a rhythm from sentence to sentence, holding the reader’s attention but at the same time reinforcing the point that the concepts the sentences convey also share parallels. (Similarities in language reflect similarities in ideas.)

Look again at the passage—this time formatted with parallel structures underlined:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? [. . .] Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

In addition to the underlined portions sharing word and phrase patterns, notice as well the larger repeated structure, where King gives the name of the historical figure, followed by a colon and then a quotation. This too is a parallel sentence structure. (One delightful aspect of King’s writing is his ability to embed parallel structures within parallel structures.)

Want to learn more about using parallel sentence structures to make your writing more moving and effective? (Of course you do!) To learn more, click the link below:

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to Christopher Altmanwriting this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Addressing Counterarguments

In the first Tricks of the Trade article, “Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader,” we discussed how all good writing begins with writing for an actual reader.

Here is one important point about that reader: sometimes, your reader will come across some point you have made and think, “Wait—I disagree with this point!” If the reader is left to his own devices, his own counterarguments will convince him that your arguments do not work. When this happens, the writing—which should convince the reader of your view—only serves to further entrench the reader in his own view.

How can you prevent this from occurring? Simple: Take on those counterarguments in your writing. Do not ignore them. Confront them. Tackle them. If you don’t, these counterarguments will destroy your desired effect: convincing the reader.

The difficult part is finding those counterarguments—and doing so before your reader does. Generating these hypothetical counterarguments requires a degree of imagination, and maybe a degree of research. It certainly requires a degree of empathy—and, harder yet, empathy for those who disagree with your position. Admittedly, this level of empathy can be a difficult quality to attain. Fortunately, though, there are some approaches to achieving this empathy in your writing so that you can address likely counterarguments.

One great way to come up with counterarguments is to find a friend who will disagree with your points. Show that friend your draft, or even your outline. If, for example, you are writing a paper that expresses a fiscally liberal worldview, find a friend who tends to hold conservative views. Say, “Hey, would you mind reading this, and telling me what you think about some of the arguments?” If you have access to a chat program—like AIM or Skype—you can even record the conversation and transcribe it into notes.

Also, reading responses to online blogs, articles, and similar postings is a great way to find everyday counterarguments. But be careful: the arguments people make are not always very strong, and you want to present counterarguments that are reasonable. For that reason, you may want to consider the articles of experts and professional writers as well. The last thing you want is to insult those readers who disagree with your position by implying, “Hey, I think you—and others who hold your view—would make a horrible argument like the one seen here, an argument that anyone can easily dismiss.”

To present a weak counterargument in this way and then to argue against it is called a Straw Man Argument. It is a type of fallacy—a weakness in the reasoning or logic of an argument. (Logically enough, the name of this particular fallacy is the “straw man fallacy.”) Think about the name: straw man argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of someone building a man of straw and then defeating it in “combat.” I put “combat” in quotes, because fighting a straw man is not really combat at all, since the straw man does not fight back. To defeat a straw man is to accomplish very little. Likewise, to present a weak counterargument and then to dismiss it is to accomplish very little to win over your reader. Your quest as a writer is not to take convenient swings at straw men; your quest is to slay dragons.

Crafting and Responding to Counterarguments

To support a thesis, the writer must think about counterexamples and counterarguments that could be brought against her assertion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay against the discriminatory treatment of Muslims in post 9-11 America. Here are some counterarguments (left column) and the responses to those counterarguments (right column):

Counterarguments

My Responses to Counterarguments

This is what my opponent will say. . . .

And this is how I will respond to the counterargument. . . .

Some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations—so why shouldn’t we discriminate against them for the purpose of protecting ourselves? Yes, but some Christians also commit acts of terrorism. Consider the bombings of abortion clinics; this is terrorism based upon a belief or conviction, just like the terrorism of militant Muslims. All terrorism is bad, regardless of who commits it.
We live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—why, then, is discrimination an issue with such a relatively small group? Don’t we practice this in elections, to some degree, when the majority wins the day? Discrimination against Muslims in America is an important problem to address, because America is based upon the belief in the religious rights of the individual. If only one person is a Muslim in America, then he should not be discriminated against; this is the freedom of religion that America stands for.

Do you see how this works? Think in terms of an opponent—one who is actively thinking about your assertions. Make up an opponent in your mind and have him criticize your argument. Think about the gaps and seeming contradictions in your argument and how you can account for them with logical responses. Ideally, your writing should be a combination of your own original arguments and your arguments that are in response to hypothetical opponents. Think in terms of these steps:

  1. Introduce and write your thesis: Make your assertion; express your position.
  2. Write out your arguments, and as you do so, think of the ways your hypothetical opponent could argue against your arguments. This step is not actually the first draft of your paper, but prewriting—brainstorming: gathering ammunition for your argument.
  3. Respond to the hypothetical responses. You may even want to write the counterarguments in full within your paper so you can respond to them. One great way to introduce your opponent’s responses is to say:  “At this point, someone might argue X.”

Here are two (of many) ways to pose a counterargument in your writing:

  • At this point, one might argue X; however, X is not the case because Y.

Example: At this point, some readers might argue that some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations, and that because of these crimes, Americans have the right to discriminate against Muslims in certain cases; however, if we take this argument as being valid, we would also be permitted to discriminate against Christians for the terrorist attacks on abortion clinics by a few extreme fundamentalist Christians. When all is said and done, we should discriminate against neither Christian nor Muslim for the acts of a few extremists.

  • At this point, some might argue X, and they would be right if Y. However, Y is not the case here. So, X must be erroneous, at least in this case.

Example: At this point, some may be tempted to justify discrimination against Muslims, saying that we live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—and they would be right if America was not founded upon the principle that we should protect minorities and their beliefs from being marginalized by the majority. I, for one, am thankful that America is based upon the principle of equality, and that people here are free to be the individuals they want to be.

One Last Point: Writing = Conversation

Move away from the notion that writing is simply putting your ideas and assertions on paper. While it does include your ideas and assertions, writing is a quest to win your reader over to those ideas and assertions–and to do that, you must think of writing as a conversation with your reader. Always be aware that your readers are actively thinking about what you are saying and that they are responding to it in their minds as they read. Being aware of this dimension of writing—and responding to it—is the stuff of advanced writing. One essential step to attaining this reader-oriented view of writing is to think in terms of argument, counterargument, and response. Make your reader feel well served by acknowledging other viewpoints and counterarguments that may arise as you make your own argument. As you continue to hone this writing practice, your writing will take on an entirely new level of persuasion and impact.

What better time to start than now?

Next Up:

Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

For purposes of clarity, this article has isolated counterarguments as examples by pulling them from their original context. But now that you know what a counterargument is, the best way to see the full effect of the counterargument is to view it within the context of the larger argument. The next Tricks of the Trade article gives a bit more of that context by sharing counterarguments drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” MLK’s letter, often anthologized as an essay, stands as a powerful example of how the counterargument can act not only as a positive rhetorical feature, but also as the driving force for movement and argumentation within the essay.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader

Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.

But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.

Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.

Writing for Your Audience: An Example

In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)

Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.

Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.

(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)

But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?

In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.

So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:

The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.

In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.

This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.

Next Up:

Transition: Making It Flow

As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Introduction

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” As I began to consider answers to these questions, I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? This next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

Next Up:

Technique Number One: Writing with a Reader in Mind

The first (and most important) technique discussed in this series is to always write with a reader in mind. This is the most important technique because all of the other techniques discussed in this series fall under this larger, overarching goal of writing: to reach our readers. To learn more about how to reach readers with effective, moving writing, click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

The Three Dimensions of Writing

In the previous blog, we considered John Trimble’s definition of effective writing: “Writing is the art of creating desired effects.” When applying that definition to persuasive writing, we have this definition:

Persuasive writing is the art of creating the desired effect of persuading readers.

Or, to shorten the definition . . .

Persuasive writing is the art of persuading readers.

So how exactly does a writer achieve persuasion? What is the anatomy of a persuasive essay? In short, you should think of writing as involving three aspects:

1. The writer (ethos)

2. The writing itself (logos)

3. The reader (pathos)

Every writer—or at least, every writer who wants to be successful—must consider all three of these writing aspects. They are all part of the rhetorical game. The writer wants to give a sense that she is an authority on the topic, or at least that she knows her topic well enough to write with some authority. At the same time, she does not want to come across as stodgy or inaccessible. Some personality (infused with a healthy smidgen of honesty) helps give the reader the sense that the writer is a friendly, sincere soul—but one who still knows her stuff. That’s ethos: the identity of the writer as transmitted through the writing.

What about the writing itself? Is it clearly written? Does the argument make sense? Does the argument ever contradict itself? Is the research cited pertinent to the writer’s arguments or points? That’s logos: the logic, unity, and essential clarity of the writing.

But even if the writer’s points are clear and well argued, who wants to read a dry, clinical list of pertinent data and formalized arguments? Writers win readers over not only by appealing to readers’ intellects, but also by evoking emotional responses. A good writer makes people think, but she also makes them feel. This aspect of style infuses otherwise dull facts and mute statistics with humanity and purpose. Emotional responses come in many forms. Does the writer want to make the reader laugh? Does she want readers to cry? Does she want her readers to be angry about the issue she’s discussing? Is she writing to shock her readers? Maybe she wants a bit of all four responses. That’s pathos: the emotional impact that the writing has on the reader.

The figure below shows these three essential aspects of writing. Consider the writing practices for achieving each effect. Also, while considering the image below, consider how there is an area where all three effects overlap. That area of complete overlap represents writing that balances logic (logos), character (ethos), and emotion (pathos). As a rule, that center of balance is where we want to be, although some writing situations call for us to emphasize some aspects over others. (For example, a lab report might be more logos-driven, while a personal response paper will emphasize a bit more ethos and pathos.)

The Three Dimensions of Writing: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

The goal is to balance all three of these aspects in your writing. Experienced writers often achieve all three simultaneously. “Simultaneously? How is that done?” you might ask.

I’ll show you. Here’s an example from Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. These passages are drawn from the introduction to Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes,

When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human infant . . .

What moved me most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion, spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us. “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said. “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . .

“You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

No matter our position on the existence of god, the sheer power of Ehrman’s prose is undeniable. It possesses a moving level of sincere frustration (ethos), and Ehrman presents some shocking numbers (logos) to give reasons for his frustration–and perhaps to transmit some of that frustration to the reader (pathos). In short, this writing represents a perfect fusion of all three writing aspects.

Four Essentials for Effective Writing

Here are John Trimble’s four essentials for winning readers. Consider how Ehrman’s writing in the passage above exhibits all four of these essentials:

1. Have something to say that’s worth their attention.

Ehrman’s discussion presents a topic that is relevant, for religious and non-religious readers alike: considering human suffering in light of popular religious beliefs.

2. Be sold on its validity and importance yourself so you can pitch it with conviction.

Can you feel Ehrman’s conviction in the writing–writing that is based on his life experience?

3. Furnish strong arguments that are well supported with concrete proof.

Consider the specific numbers that Ehrman presents. Notice that he presents a range of examples by discussing different forms of human suffering.

4. Use confident language—vigorous verbs, strong nouns, and assertive phrasing.

Verbs like affirmrepeated and mutilated are–without a doubt–vigorous verbs. Strong nouns include reflections, darkness, frustration, and misery. We hear assertive phrasing, for example, when Ehrman writes, “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t.”

These are the elements of any successful writing strategy. Consider how Trimble’s four essentials are building blocks for producing ethos, logos, and pathos in our writing. Those three effects–those three dimensions of writing–create persuasion: the core “desired effect” of persuasive writing.

Next Up: All About Commas

One key to producing the desired effects of writing is having control over the movement and tone of a sentence. Punctuation is how writers do this.

Perhaps the most confusing punctuation technique is also the most frequent: the comma. The next part of The Writer’s Toolbox will help you understand the comma and its applications so that you can add this useful punctuation tool to your writing toolbox.

If you want to see the comma made simple, read on!

Here’s the link:

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

In the introduction to The Writer’s Toolbox, I mentioned that writing is like chess. Specifically, I compared writing to chess when considering the mindset of the novice writer versus the mindset of the experienced writer.

Writing is like chess also in the sense that writing involves a strategy—a larger game plan for convincing readers. The strategy of chess aims at the goal of winning (by putting the opponent’s king in checkmate). But what exactly is the strategy of writing? What are you trying to win when you write?

Well, it depends on what you are writing. A persuasive essay, for example, seeks to persuade or convince. An expository essay or a how-to manual seeks to explain or instruct. A story seeks to entertain, often while encouraging some life lesson or point of introspection. The situation determines the goal of the writing.

Still, I have found a pretty good working definition for the goal of all writing. I should note that when I say writing, I mean writing that is intended for some reader, whether an English teacher or the American reading public—or both.

As much as I’d like to take credit for it, this definition is not mine. John R. Trimble, who wrote what I consider the book on writing, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, shares the following general definition for writing:

“Writing is the art of creating desired effects” within the reader.

I like that definition. It works for any writing, whether it’s a mystery novel (desired effects: suspense and conjectures on “who did it.”), a persuasive essay (desired effect: to convince the reader that the writer’s position is correct, or at least valid), or a romance novel (desired effect: I’d rather not say . . .).

My desired effect for that last parenthetical phrase was to make you laugh. Did it work? My desired effect in this paragraph is to give you the sense that I’m in your head—that I’m conversing with you and responding to the thoughts that come to you as you read my writing. Is that working? (I hope so.) These are smaller desired effects, but they serve the purpose of my larger strategy: to teach as I entertain.

My discussions, for the most part, address the writing form I teach in most composition courses: persuasive writing. As its name implies, the desired effect of persuasive writing is persuasion. Simple enough.

But what do I mean by persuasion? The best case is that my reader—who at first disagreed with my position—enjoys my essay and promptly decides to agree with me. Still, that result is not realistic, no matter how eloquent or convincing the prose. Chances are, people who hold strong worldviews will not change their positions after reading one essay. Still, I hope to convince them that my position is tenable. At the very least, I want my reader to say, “I don’t agree with his position, but he argues it well. And–you know what?–I like him.”

That last part, the notion of liking a writer, is important. In the writing business, we call that concept ethos. When I write, I try to come across as the kind of guy who anyone—even those who disagree with me—would enjoy having a beer with. (That’s one reason I ended that sentence with the preposition, with: traditionally a no-no in formal writing. Think about it: if I had said, “with whom they would enjoy having a beer,” no one would want to actually have a beer with me.)

This level of persuasion is subtle, but powerful. The reader, immediately after finishing the essay, still disagrees completely. But since the arguments were strong, and since the writer came across as sincere, personable, and intelligent, the reader continues to consider, on occasion, the writer’s assertions over the course of the day. In fact, even the following day, the reader continues to recall points made in the essay. As the year goes by, the memory of the argument lends itself to a body of works and life experiences that affects the reader, whether he knows it or not, in moving towards the writer’s position. A few bricks fall out of the foundation upon which the reader has built his position. Persuasion has happened.

So, how do we persuade? Simply put, the writer must aim to win readers over to himself and his ideas, while affecting the readers’ emotions. These components make up the three aspects of writing, which those of us in the composition-rhetoric business call ethos, logos, and pathos. No piece of effective writing can exist without these three aspects.

Want to learn more? Here’s the link:

The Three Dimensions of Writing

Works Cited

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

The Rules Practices of Effective Writing

Consider, for a moment, all of the grammatical and stylistic rules so often taught to children by parents, teachers, and other mentors. Too often, those rules seem disconnected from one another–an arbitrary list of do’s and dont’s for would-be writers to memorize and force upon their prose. For now, we should forget about those rules, or at least forget about them in the sense that they exist for their own sake. They serve a higher purpose: producing effective writing. That said, when those rules do not make for effective writing (and sometimes they don’t), we should bend–and even break–those rules.

With that point in mind, dear reader, I want you to move away from the idea that there are any hard-and-fast rules of writing. The “rules” exist to make the writing effective, and not because of any decree issued by some imagined circle of Grammar Gods. In the upcoming blogs, I will discuss many practices of effective writing, and I prefer to talk about practices, instead of pontificating about rules. At the end of the day, the goal of effective writing is just that–to be effective: to achieve our desired effects for the documents we write. Practices will get us there; rules will not.

Return to the analogy, mentioned in an earlier blog of the writer’s toolbox: a collection of techniques that the writer can call upon to produce effective writing (and also the inspiration behind this blog’s title). A skilled carpenter does not have a set of rules that force him to use a tool the same way for every situation. There is no rule in carpentry that says, “You must always use the back part of the hammer to extract a bent nail from the wood. If you use any other tool besides a hammer for this task, you will fail as a carpenter.”

Nonsense! The carpenter looks at the situation, and he finds the best tool for the job. What if that nail is in a spot where the carpenter cannot fit the hammer and gain leverage? Or what if the head of the nail has broken off? The carpenter then uses another tool, perhaps a strong pair of pliers, combined with some lubricating element, to remove that nail.

Writing is the same. The “rules” are just guidelines–practices. The skilled writer, like the skilled carpenter, works on a case-by-case basis, choosing the right tool for the right job. And the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as the carpenter works with his overall goal in mind (building a sturdy but elegant table, for example),  so too does the writer keep her overall goal in mind: producing an effective document that will move her intended audience towards her perspective.

Writing, then, must begin with goals–and that just happens to be the subject of my next blog. Interested? Check it out:

The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Writer’s Toolbox: Introduction

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox!

I share these blogs on writing in hopes that they will prove helpful to anyone who might be curious about the nitty-gritty details of writing. I write for those who are unsure of themselves as writers and for who view writing as a chore—a necessary evil of surviving in this Information Age, where we are so often required to take up our pens (or keyboards) to compose memos, essays, e-mails, and letters.

But effective writing goes far beyond the ability to engage in necessary, mundane correspondences. Writing is the stuff democracies are made of. And it’s much more than that: it’s one of the qualities that make us human. The more we develop our writing, the more we develop as people. This knowledge should not be limited to colleges and universities. It’s for everyone. With that thought in mind, I feel that my mission as an English educator extends beyond the four walls of my classroom, where I will reach about twenty-five people per section. My responsibility is to share with anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing.

So read, write—and enjoy.

Why Learn the Rules?

Writing is a lot like chess.

Like novice chess players, inexperienced writers do not know for certain that the decisions they make are the right ones. Unsure how to proceed, they simply guess. A writer, for example, who is unsure whether to use a semicolon or a comma to combine two sentences must end up taking a blind stab at it. It becomes a fifty-fifty guess, a leap of faith, one that will make the writer look either skilled and knowledgeable, or clumsy and ignorant. In the same way that the novice chess player sighs, “Well . . . I guess I’ll move my rook forward and just hope it works out,” so too does the novice writer resign himself to the fickle hand of fate.

Other novices take a different approach to the chess game of writing. They play it safe. This cautious, play-it-safe writer—although she would like to combine the two closely related sentences—is unsure how to do it. So, instead of taking that chance on writing the best sentence, she backs down and sticks with what she knows: she separates the two sentences with a period. The writer is not happy with it, but she knows that it’s “grammatically correct.” The play-it-safe writer settles for less than her best, while the unfortunate reader is left with disconnected, choppy prose.

The experienced writer, though, knows how and when to make even the most complex moves. She knows how to combine sentences—and she does so with full confidence. (In fact, she knows about five or six ways to combine any given set of sentences—and all of these possibilities are at her disposal.) Through mastering the real rules of writing, the experienced writer liberates herself from the chains of those pseudo-rules that are so often forced upon students in grade school English.

Contrary to popular perceptions, those who know the rules of grammar and mechanics are not the ones who are bound by them. The ones who are bound are those who do not know the rules. They are bound by their uncertainty and by the many false rules that they learned about writing at an early age. Perhaps recalling bad experiences in past English courses, these people have been scared, quite literally, out of their wits. I am writing this blog to free such writers so that they can compose the sentences that reflect the dreams, ideas, and assertions that they want—and need—to express.

The first step to liberating your writing is to develop what I call a writer’s toolbox—a set of essential writing techniques that the writer can call upon at any time. In the same way that a carpenter works with many more tools than a hammer and a saw, so too should the writer work with more tools than the period and the question mark. With every technique you add to your toolbox, both your confidence and your eloquence will increase. You will write a memo to your boss with confidence. You will be certain that you used commas in all the right places. You will know when you make your readers laugh. In short, you will know that your writing is effective: that it will achieve your goals. At that point, writing will no longer be a chore; it will be a pleasure—or, at least, an invigorating challenge.

Up to this point, I have been discussing the rules of writing, but really I prefer to talk about practices instead of rules. To find out more about the practices of writing, read on by clicking the link below:

Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

If you are interested in skipping to subject-specific article series, feel free to visit these links to begin reading. (Note: These articles will be added over time. The links may not be available today. Stay tuned.)


Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).