Parallel Structures: Examples from MLK

The previous Tricks of the Trade article explained applications of parallel sentence structures for creating flowing, rhythmic writing. Now, in this new Tricks of the Trade article, I want to share examples of parallel structures at work in the prose of a powerful, canonical essayist. I am

using Martin

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as our ongoing example for Tricks of the Trade, since King’s essay showcases all of the techniques discussed in this series—and since it uses each of these techniques many times over. Let’s turn once again to MLK’s classic civil rights essay as we explore examples of parallel structure at work.

About reading these passages: I have color coded the parallel structures within the passages below. In some passages, you might notice two or more colors. Each color is a different parallel structure pattern within the example.

Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown.

The sentence below (which occurs several pages after the example sentence above) uses the same parallel structure seen above by using the phrase “just as”—but this time King uses the phrase to establish a parallel between his actions and those of the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates. This repeated phrase, “just as,” shows how parallel structures can link ideas across different sentences, paragraphs, and pages. From there, MLK will use another parallel structure for comparing the actions of nonviolent resisters to the teachings of Socrates:

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.

King also uses parallel structures from sentence to sentence to showcase the larger thematic unity those sentences share. Here’s an example:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

By the way, have you noticed the repetition of Christian and Socratic themes in these passages? King brings up Jesus and Socrates quite often in this essay. Why? Considering King’s original audience (eight clergymen who had spoken out against his actions in Birmingham), these two examples from religion and western culture are perfectly fitting. They are precisely the best examples that King could have used for winning over his audience. In the course of his letter/essay, King also invokes the the Founding Fathers, the Apostle Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think King uses such a range of (white and Jewish) figures to validate the points he makes in this essay? This side-note takes us back to the first trick of the trade: writing for our audience. If you missed that (crucial) article, click here to read it.

In addition to using parallel structures to organize and align long sentences (as seen above), King also uses parallel structures in short sentences—and to great effect. Consider this famous sentence drawn from King’s essay:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Here are more short sentences with parallel structures:

Example:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

Example:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Example:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

A Few More Examples from MLK

Here are more examples of parallel structure within “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I find especially powerful. Read these passages aloud, and as you do so, feel their undeniable passion and power.

Example:

Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Example:

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

Example:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?

Example:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

That last example illustrates how, by being nearly the same, parallel structures emphasize their seemingly small differences. Why is the use of God in place of you effective in that second parallel structure? What statement does that small change make? What is the greater evil, in MLK’s eyes: to be impatient for one’s rights–or to wait too long? King gives us the answer: it’s right there in the small one-word difference between those two parallel structures. Read it again and consider this point.

Next Up:

Diction: Finding the Best Words

Although the way we structure our sentences is important (as we have seen), equally important are the words we use within those sentences. With that point in mind, the next set of articles in Tricks of the Trade will help you strengthen your word choices by sharing specific methods for finding the best words to convey your ideas and assertions.

  • Diction: Finding the Best Words (I will post this article soon.)

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 writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces 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: Parallel Structures–Writing with Rhythm

Whenever you include multiple items or clauses in a long sentence, write them all with similar word and phrase patterns. Long sentences that do not have these parallel structures are often hard to follow.

For example, here is a sentence that is difficult to read:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, chess, his friends, to play his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

The writer did not use parallel structures for expressing these items. The ideas unify in a thematic sense (since they are all activities Bob enjoys), but the writing does not reflect that unity. The sentence can be adjusted to align content (what is said) with style (how it is said). The writer can do this by using a parallel gerund pattern. (A gerund is formed by adding –ing to the end of a verb so that the word then functions as something else, usually a noun.)

Here is the resulting sentence, with the parallel gerund pattern underlined:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, playing chess, hanging out with his friends, playing his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

This sentence can be improved further by beginning with the shortest item and progressing towards the longest one. This way, there is yet another pattern:

Bob enjoys many activities: playing chess, going hiking, reading detective novels, playing his old Nintendo, and hanging out with his friends.

This sentence provides an even better reading experience than the first revision because now it has an ordered pattern. Sentences that show patterns are easier to read than those that are random and chaotic. On top of that, parallel structures let writers take control of long sentences. With parallel structures in your sentences, you’ll write much longer sentences than you may have thought you could—and those sentences, despite their length, will be surprisingly easy to read.

In addition to helping present phrase items in a series (as seen above), parallel structures are useful for presenting sentences with multiple clauses. Here is an example of parallel structure using clauses:

Although Bob enjoys many leisure activities, and although he has many friends, most of his time is spent focusing on his career.

Notice how both dependent clauses in the example above begin with the word although. This creates a pattern, and it holds the reader’s attention, even in a long sentence. Read the sentence aloud; do you hear the rhythm?

Here is another example. However, this new parallel structure uses to before each verb. (This “to + verb” formation is called the infinitive form.)

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: to reason with sound logic, to communicate with clear language, and to empathize with thoughtful appeals.

The writer could convert the infinitive pattern to an –ing (gerund) pattern:

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: reasoning with sound logic, communicating with clear language, and empathizing with thoughtful appeals.

(What additional change was made? Consider this point.)

Parallel Structures: A Stunning Example from MLK

Utilizing parallel structures can create much longer sentences than the examples shared above. For example, look at the sentence below, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and as you do so, behold the unbridled power and unadulterated majesty of parallel structures:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will know why we find it difficult to wait.

Powerful, isn’t it? What is the parallel structure here? What are the words that King repeats in every dependent clause? What effects do they have on you as you read? Think about these points as you consider the power and effectiveness of parallel sentence structures.

Next Up: More Examples from MLK

As we have done in previous Tricks of the Trade articles, we will look once again to the writing of MLK–this time for examples of parallel structures at their best. If you want to observe the effective use of parallel structures within sentences, you need look no further than the prose of MLK.

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 writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces 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).

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: Creating Transitions between Paragraphs

One key to effective writing is making the prose flow from one part to the next. The reader should never feel like a new discussion or sentence just drops on her out of nowhere. This practice of creating flow is called transition.

Opening Note: As you read this article on transitions between paragraphs, please note that I am underlining my own uses of this technique within this article. Wherever you see an underline, I am pointing out a place where I have made a paragraph-to-paragraph transition.

One important place to create transition is when moving from one paragraph to the next. Whenever you present a new paragraph, frame it as stemming from or acknowledging your discussion in the previous paragraph. This does not mean you should restate the content of the previous paragraph, but it does mean you should at least include some kind of transitional word, phrase, clause, or sentence as you open each new paragraph discussion. The length and depth of your transition depend on how strong of a connection you want to make.

How do we create that connection? Here are three standard ways to accomplish transition between any two paragraphs:

1. Refer back to the previous paragraph. Have the first sentence of the second paragraph refer back to the last sentence of the first paragraph.

2. Project forward to the next paragraph. Have the last sentence of the first paragraph hint at what is to come in the second paragraph. The word hint is emphasized because subtlety works best when applying this approach. This particular approach creates suspense in readers, making them wonder what the writer is going to say next.

3. Both 1 and 2 to create a very strong, fully realized connection. Just be careful not to overstate the connection. (After all, while we do want to be helpful to our readers, we don’t want to insult their intelligence. Balance is the key.)

Written below is at an example of a paragraph break without a transition. Imagine that a student is writing a persuasive essay arguing for the benefits of stem cell research. In the student’s first attempt, the paragraph break is present, but there is no transition bridging the two ideas:

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells can come only from fetuses, which is not true.

Many opponents of stem cell research try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

Notice how that second paragraph just jumps out at the reader. While the writer may have seen it coming (because the writer is already familiar with the connections), the reader does not necessarily see those connections. So, with that point in mind, the writer should make a transition for the reader. This transition will be a dependent clause, which is attached to the opening of the second paragraph (the first type of transition listed above):

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells come only from fetuses, which is not true.

     While such opponents ignore scientific facts to oppose embryonic stem cell research, many of those same opponents try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

See how that works? Now the first paragraph gives rise to the second paragraph, and the reader has a smooth ride from one paragraph to the next. The ideas now relate, showing unity—but, even more important, the writer has facilitated the reading experience by emphasizing precisely how those paragraphs relate.

Here are some simple words, phrases, and sentences that create transition:

In addition,

Next,

Also,

For example,

For instance,

Now that we have looked at X, we should look at Y.

After having considered X, let’s also consider Y.

Related to this concept of X is Y.

At this point, readers may think Y, so we should consider that point further.

As we have seen, X. This leads us to the next point, Y.

On the other hand, . . .

Now let’s consider a very different example.

etc. . . . There are many more ways to create transition.

No matter which of the listed (or unlisted) techniques you decide to use, always aim to create seamless flow in your writing. Sometimes a single word like also will do fine, but at other times writers will include an entire sentence (or two) to make a transition. No matter what kind of transition you choose to make, always think about your choice, and make a point of being creative.

Finally, when considering how to create transitions, remember that a transition creates one crucial desired effect for the reader: a seamless reading experience, from the first page to the last. This flow keeps our readers doing just what we want them to be doing: reading.

Next Up: Transitions between Sentences

This article has shared some ways to create transition from one paragraph to the next. But equally important to creating flow between paragraphs is maintaining that same level of flow within paragraphs by creating sentence-to-sentence transitions. With that goal in mind, the next Tricks of the Trade article shares a range of techniques for creating constant transition between every sentence you write.

  • Creating Transitions between Sentences (I will have this article posted soon.)

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).