You’ve been assigned an essay in your English class that asks you to take several readings from the syllabus and use them to support your own personal writing philosophy. Immediately you may think about how Stephen King’s nonfiction work is intriguing due to the transmission phenomena between the writer and the reader he labels Telepathy. Then you think about Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece “How to write about Africa” and praise the idea of deconstructing stereotypes that commonly appear in bad writing. No matter what you’ve been assigned for your class readings it’s natural to gravitate to what you liked or what you agree with. Since your task is to articulate a philosophy of writing inspired by other’s ideas, these ideas are essential to opening up a dialogue where your voice counts too. But what if an author from the readings has an argument or idea about writing that you disagree with? What do you do with their work? Do you ignore them?
Many times it’s easier to work with writers and ideas that you agree with, but what are some of the perks of placing a voice in your work that is in conflict with you or other’s philosophies?
Let us start with a common philosophical concept: one way to know what your writing philosophy entails is to also know what it does not entail. That’s to say knowing what it isn’t will help define clearly what it is. Ignoring criticism or skeptical counter-arguments can be a significant mistake. It’s not a paradox to say your writing can be strengthened by listening to dissenting concepts and by giving them a fair hearing through explicit description. In essence, placing a ‘naysayer’ in your text is a reinforcing juxtaposition that builds credibility for your persuasive argument by acknowledging and anticipating doubts and objections.
However, I should note that depending on the constraints of an assignment, logistically you may find that there is not much room for naysayers. Please keep in mind that counter-arguments are more at home in larger research papers. What’s important here is that you get the practice of incorporating counter-arguments into your work so that you are presenting a dialogue of debate rather than a one-sided set of claims in a vacuum. However, never plant a counter-argument in a text just to do so, find one’s worth entertaining that can be disarmed.
You can make oppositional ideas work for you rather than against you by giving the reader convincing ideas or evidence that suggests different conclusions. You will find that this approach is respectful to the reader’s intelligence as you present open-minded inquiry. Another bonus is this practice gives you more to talk about and your assignment will have more depth (you will find it easier to fulfill the assignments minimum page length).
Remember to keep it all straight forward and be fair. You may be tempted to quickly mention oppositions to your argument and in some cases mock them. Simply tell the reader exactly what they are in detail and don’t waste your time being biased in your judgment of them because you can let your answers to these objections do the work necessary to persuade your reader. Also, remember that you may not be able to wholly refute naysayers that have convincing or truth based arguments; earnestly reject what’s wrong and acknowledge what’s right: “yes, but” or “yes and no.”
To give you a more well rounded understanding of counter-arguments take a moment to read an adaptation from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy, for the Writing Center at Harvard University.