Writing skills I: How to express your point of view
A great deal of what you write is intended to convince the reader that you have an important point to make. When you write a letter applying for a job you want to convince the reader that you are the right person for the job. When you write a review of a film you want to convince the reader that you have something important to say about the film, and maybe you recommend it, or, on the other hand, suggest that it is not worth seeing. In an essay on some aspect of American government you want to convince the reader that you can answer the questions that have been posed and that you can throw light on specific aspects of American government. In all these three examples you want to show your reader that you have something sensible and important to say about the topic that is under discussion.
You do this by arguing your case. You offer “a line of argument” keeping it within the framework of the chosen topic. For example, your letter of application for a job has a presentation of yourself and your qualifications as its framework. “You” are the topic! It might therefore be relevant to mention your hobbies in your letter. If you are applying for a job in a bookshop it would be sensible to point out that reading is one of your hobbies, if it is. You include this in the line of argument running through the letter, perhaps giving this information after you have listed your education and other formal qualifications. You do not, however, spend a paragraph writing about your brother’s or sister’s hobbies. That would be irrelevant. Information about them falls outside the framework you have constructed.
Similarly, if the topic is American government and the question is “Does the President have too much power?” you do not write about American geography or American sports. You write about the mechanics of political power in the USA, showing step by step whether, in your view, the President does or does not have too much power.
You must, then, avoid irrelevance. Keep a sharp focus on your topic.
Keep a sharp focus on your topic. Construct a framework round it and make sure every point you make falls within this framework.
You should also be precise and discriminating when you write. This means you must be choosy about words and sentence building – like you are when you buy a CD. In this section we shall focus on the need to avoid over-simplification: that is, using language carelessly so that you make a complicated picture appear very simple. “All Americans are fat” is an over-simplification. No doubt many Americans are fat; perhaps too many are. But to say that “all” Americans are fat is clearly untrue. It is as outrageous as saying “All Norwegians are good at skiing.” You know lots of Norwegians who are hopeless at skiing. All this is fairly obvious, and of course it is playful and amusing and, in your writing, sometimes legitimate to exaggerate. However, in formal writing you should tread carefully. Consider the following statements:
You have probably seen that 1 and 2 are all-inclusive statements. They tell you that (1) all non-whites are kept out of positions of authority, and (2) that the whole of the British police force discriminates against non-whites. These statements are obviously absurd. It is not difficult to find a non-white in a position of authority, such as a police officer, a Premier League football referee or a school principal. Nor is it difficult to find a non-white who has never been harassed by a policeman. Statements 3 and 4, on the other hand, avoid over-simplification by using more careful and more exact language. They are more truthful, more precise.
However, in some contexts careful and exact language is not appropriate. A warning sign with statement 6 is more effective and precise that a sign with statement 5. Sign 5 lacks focus. It should be a sharp warning message, but instead is long-winded and vague. Sign 6 uses fewer words and its style is crisper, yet it is not an over-simplification, nor is it untruthful or imprecise.
If you feel you have to simplify a complicated picture, tell your reader that you know you are doing this, as in this example:
The British Empire was founded on three drugs: tea, sugar and tobacco. This is an over-simplification, but contains an element of truth.
Usually, however, we want to avoid over-simplifications, and to do this we need to have a kit-bag of language resources ready for use. Compare these statements:
As you can see, there are five different shades of meaning, from “always” to “occasionally”. Your task as writer is to use the language that matches the precise meaning you want to give – in this case it is a question of selecting the most appropriate adverb from the five alternatives.
Avoid over-simplifications. Focus on the truth.
You will often want to express the conclusions you draw from a text, and here, too, you need to be careful to be precise. Here is a short extract from a short story called “Secrets”. Aunt Mary is about to leave the house. (Devotions are a church service.)
The boy heard the bottom stair creak under Aunt Mary’s light footstep. She knocked and put her head round the door and said she was walking to Devotions. She was dressed in her good coat and hat and was just easing her fingers into her second glove. The boy saw her stop and pat her hair into place before the mirror in the hallway. His mother stretched over and slammed the door shut.
As a little exercise, you might like to choose the most appropriate word from this list –
suggests, tells us, implies, proves – for each of the following sentences.
You must be precise and tell your reader what you “read” from the text: whether it proves something (that Aunt Mary was not heavy), tells us something (that she was on her way to church), implies something (she was a tidy, careful person) or suggests something (a disagreement between the two women). Of these, “suggests” is very tentative – not every reader would agree; “proves” is beyond discussion. The choice of verb is crucial.
Here is a list of verbs, with the “strongest” first, and the “weakest” last.
prove, tell, show, demonstrate, reveal, indicate, imply, strongly suggest, suggest, might suggest to some, could possibly suggest
Choose your words carefully. Build up your language kit-bag so that you can express different shades of meaning.
Imagine someone tells you that there are 52 states in the USA. You know, of course, that they are wrong, but your job is to persuade them of this. What should you say? Here are three suggestions. Decide which is the most convincing, and why:
The most convincing of these responses is the last one, because the speaker refers to an appropriate authority and provides evidence in a logical way to support his or her viewpoint. The second response also refers to an authority, the uncle, but he is an inappropriate authority – we have no way of knowing if we can trust him or if he knows anything about America. The first response simply says “I am right because I know I am right” which is not a convincing argument. Our conclusion must be: to be convincing you must show that you get your ideas from an appropriate authority, you must provide evidence to support your view, and you must be logical.
Let us consider the second of these questions from the point of view of quoting an authority, providing evidence and arguing logically. The main authority here is the text of the story, and that is also where you must find your evidence.
You might, for example, think that Walker is criticising African Americans who want to ignore the American part of their heritage and focus exclusively on the African part. This criticism, you might think, is expressed in the dialogue about the names where Dee says she wants to ignore the name “Dee” (American) and only use “Wangero” (African), whereas her mother has affection for the name “Dee” because several ancestors have had it. This is just one place where your “reading” of the story could suggest that Walker is critical of Dee’s posturing. Now, it is not enough just to write a sentence like this:
In “Everyday Use” Walker is critical of African Americans who ignore their American heritage and focus only on their African heritage.
You must support this idea with evidence, for example like this:
In “Everyday Use” Walker is critical of African Americans who ignore their American heritage and focus only on their African heritage. When the mother asks Dee why she had dropped her name “Dee”, Dee replies that she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after people who oppress me.” But the mother goes on to say that the name Dee can be traced back through the family, probably to the Civil War, and she feels it ties her to her family history. So while we feel some sympathy for Dee’s attitude, we see that she coolly rejects her mother’s sense of family history. Walker seems to be offering the mother’s view as the more sincere and generous of the two.
Obviously, the story can be interpreted in different ways, but you must support your interpretation by offering evidence from the text and bringing it into your argument. Note that something Dee said has been quoted word for word, and therefore must be written inside quotation marks. This is true of any part of any text that you “lift”. Always use quotation marks, and if it is not clear what the source is, tell your reader. If you quote single words or short phrases, these too must be placed in quotation marks, as here, for example:
Dee’s use of the word “oppress” tells us she is fully aware of the history of African Americans in the USA.
Similarly, if you are asked to comment on population changes in the USA, you can use statistics as evidence to demonstrate what is going on in the USA: where are people going to live, which regions are they leaving, where are cities growing, where are they declining, and so on.
Use evidence to support your ideas. Refer to an appropriate authority. Work evidence and information into your line of argument.
In several places in this text we have talked about a line of argument. The next section of 'Writing skills' helps you to write with a clear and logical line of argument.