Good writing uses good arguments

Today I gave feedback on an article written by a company director which apparently the clients loved. However, the account manager wasn’t sure and passed it my way. Good job too. It was dreadful.

It was a stark illustration of why the world needs copywriters. I’m sure the person who wrote it knew what they were talking about but the thoughts were all jumbled up. The language was lazy and imprecise. It used a lot of clichés and kept shifting tenses and voices. But the main problem was that it didn’t pursue or build an argument.

It was interesting to see how not to do it. The article was supposed to be about how seemingly disparate societal events and technological developments can come together to provide powerful contemporary solutions. However, the writer had decided to adopt a similarly fragmented and unrelated approach to illustrate this. It could have been on purpose, but instead of building an argument it became a list.

If it was done on purpose then it gets to the heart of one of my bugbears: that people seem to think form and content need to reflect each other. For example, a rebrand a while back used turgid legalese where a simple copywriting job could have planted it firmly in the 21st Century rather than the 19th. As I said (and yes, I am citing myself here):

Just because something’s complicated and legal doesn’t mean you have to make it sound complicated and legal.

(On a sidenote you could probably add Waiting for Godot to this: a play about futility that makes one question the futility of having wasted two hours watching it.) 

My advice on how to improve the piece could probably be applied to any form of communication anywhere, but basically it was this:

  • First, sit down and think about your argument. Work out the ‘stepping stones’ from one area of logic to the next. Make it clear how the reader gets from one to the next. If you don’t understand your argument, no one else will. To take another analogy, imagine your logic steps are the bones of your argument – you need connective tissue to hold it together otherwise it just collapses and becomes a jumble (hey, I quite like that, I’ll have to use it again sometime).
  • Make your heading entertaining, witty, compelling, but above all make it relevant to what you’re going to talk about. Readers will only read it if they have interest in the subject matter. If you have problems with this, try blogging – it’s the best way to realise the importance of getting attention when you’re just one post on an entire Google Reader page. If you still have problems then write the piece and come back to the headline at the end (that’s actually what I do, and what I’ll end up doing with the title of this post).
  • In your introduction, tell people what you’re going to tell them. This is very like giving a presentation, the old adage being “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” You don’t have to go to the nth degree with this but you do need to give readers a context. Present your argument but leave it open-ended because it’s going to be your job to close it.
  • Throughout the piece make sure you follow the structure of your argument as worked out before you even started writing it. A good formula can be ‘for every opinion, give a proof point.’ I actually use this in my copy brief: when I ask clients to tell me what the points are that they want to make, I ask them to give me proof for each one. If they don’t have proof then they don’t have a point.
  • Finally, tie the ends up in your conclusion. But note, you didn’t wait until the conclusion to do this: you indicated what you were going to talk about in the introduction. You didn’t give it all away in the intro either, you merely gave a taster.
  • There are tricks and techniques you can use along the way. For example in the intro you can leave a question hanging in the air before going into the piece, so you can say “some people think it’s A, other people think it’s B, but what is the truth?” Or you can start with an illustration or analogy or case study to kick off with. In the conclusion it can be nice, as ever, to say “the truth probably lies somewhere in between”, so that you’re giving credence to both positions but bringing your third alternative in with a flourish at the end. And overall, as I’ve said before, try going through it in your head as if you were telling a friend about it in the pub. In fact, take the golden opportunity to go to the pub anyway.

I’m not pretending I could run a company, but equally, if I could, I wouldn’t pretend I could write. Although thinking about it, perhaps that’s why I don’t run a company.

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2 thoughts on “Good writing uses good arguments

  1. Good advice – I find a lot of people in PR, as well as students in their work, do not understand the value of making an argument. I normally advise starting with a clear purpose for any communications, and if the aim is to persuade, then it is easier to begin to think of the arguments you will make, whether emotional or rational, to seek to influence the reader. You can then think about the order and structure – as well as how you will substantiate the arguments with proof where that is essential.

    Now, time to persuade myself to open a bottle of wine, I think. No argument needed.

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