To write successfully, you must learn how to explain to your readers why your argument matters.
Explain to your readers why your argument matters
Your readers need to accept that the argument you are making matters to them.
You must be able to answer the question "Even if that is your solution, so what?" It is not enough to state a problem and its solution.
To answer the "So what?" question, you need to know the consequences of your argument.
Consequences take two forms: costs, which detail bad things that will happen if the audience does not read your argument, and benefits, which detail good things that will happen if the audience reads your argument.
Consequences can also be pragmatic or conceptual. It is important that the consequences you propose affect your audience somehow.
If necessary, tailor your explanation of the costs and benefits of your argument to clarify how they would specifically affect your reader.
In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion.
Most changes to the status quo entail both costs and benefits. This rule certainly holds true in the following case study. ZYX Pharmaceuticals created a new antidepressant that was very effective for patients suffering from severe depression. The drug was not recommended for patients under the age of eighteen due to its debilitating side effects. However, given the drug's unusual efficacy with severe cases of depression, ZYX considered holding a clinical trial to determine how it would affect younger patients. ZYX's executives decided that the benefits would outweigh the costs as long as the drug helped significantly more patients than it hurt—and also, as long as the positive effects were greater than those reported for similar drugs with fewer side effects. ZYX Pharmaceuticals held a clinical trial for subjects between the ages of 13 and 17. Two weeks into the trial, 25% of the subjects begin experiencing terrible side effects that were much worse than the effects reported by adult test subjects. However, the other 75% showed unusually large improvement. ZYX faced a pragmatic problem: halt the trial because a significant percentage of subjects experienced side effects that outweighed the benefits, or continue the trial because, for the majority of the subjects, the side effects were worth the unprecedented improvement. This problem is pragmatic because it has real-world consequences.
In addition to those pragmatic problems, the clinical trial also raised conceptual problems. The scientists running the trial worried that the young patients experiencing acute side effects might suffer permanent damage if they continued taking the drug. The scientists had already discovered what the 25% had in common: dry skin—and as a result, they had decided to recommend against prescribing the drug to minors with dry skin. However, the scientists didn't know why the drug affected dry-skinned children so negatively, and they weren't sure when the risk of permanent damage would begin. Since the drug was significantly better than its peers, there would be conceptual benefits in continuing the trial until the scientists could determine why it interacted so badly with this group. That would allow them to gain knowledge that could help them understand the problem better, although it wouldn't have direct real-world consequences, since they had already decided not to prescribe the drug to this group. However, if ZYX kept the dry-skinned children in the trial for too long, those subjects might develop permanent debilitating conditions, creating pragmatic costs that would outweigh the conceptual benefits.
You can see that there are big costs and benefits to figuring out exactly who should be taking a new drug. But what are the big costs and benefits of writing about Hamlet? or any other kind of literature? Will people who don't read your argument about why Hamlet was so reluctant to act suffer a permanent debilitating condition? You know they won't—those aren't the stakes in academic writing. But you do have to believe that your argument will really help other people who read Hamlet understand it better, and get more out of it.
If you are one of the first people to write an academic paper about a new or obscure topic, repetition is not your main concern. However, that doesn't mean it will be easy; it can actually feel intimidating to have so few limitations. If only a few people have investigated questions about your topic, you may feel responsible for asking a perfect question that will do justice to your topic. You may feel lost and isolated, with no wise forerunners to guide you through your argument. If this is the case, never fear: you can always connect your topic to a larger issue that is already part of the academic conversation. Returning to the example of an essay about Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, it quickly becomes clear that there are many ways to link this novel to a larger context.
Seek out connections to larger issues that might be represented in scholarly literature. If you identify aspects such as the work's genre, themes, influences, and political or aesthetic context, you can find academic articles that deal with these issues more generally, and apply their ideas to your specific topic. You can also work with critical theory, which provides broadly applicable theoretical frameworks. For instance, let's say you want to write about Jennifer Egan's creative approach to form and genre. In interviews, Egan has said that she leans toward categorizing her book as a novel, but it also has similarities to a short story collection. Some reviewers have categorized the book's form and style as "post-postmodern." Given this information, you could look for: scholarly writing about genre in contemporary literature; articles and books that deal with the boundaries between novels and short stories; writing about postmodern literature; and accounts of postmodernism's legacy and successors.
If you are interested in the influences that inspired and shaped the novel, look for interviews: Egan has cited her main influences in writing A Visit from the Goon Squad as Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time, and HBO's TV series The Sopranos. There is a copious amount of academic writing about Proust, and a modest amount of academic commentary on The Sopranos. If you want to write about her inspirations, you could also look for generalized literature about how television has influenced contemporary fiction. Journals in fields like film and tv studies, media and communications studies, interdisciplinary studies, and genre studies may provide helpful commentary on that question.
You could also take a historical approach. The novel centers on the music industry, with a focus on punk rock. You could research writing about punk rock from the 1970s and 1980s, comparing Egan's backward-looking account to testimony about what it was really like at that time. A comparison of a contemporary work to historical source material should be organized around a central idea. A Visit from the Goon Squad explores issues such as the gender dynamics in the punk scene, and also the evolution of the young punks' values as they age—either of these issues would be a productive pairing with source texts. What insight does hindsight add to this topic?
As a writer, you may take for granted that your argument is interesting to readers. Often, though, the audience has no particular stake in reading your work. It is up to you to convince readers that your argument matters to them.
One of the most effective ways to interest your reader in a problem is to convince the reader that it has consequences. The consequences should be relevant to your reader's interest, and those interests should also be something that your argument can solve. State explicitly for your readers what those consequences will be. Avoid grand promises that you cannot deliver on, and doom-and-gloom predictions about what will happen if your argument is ignored. If your consequences are smaller but specific, they will be more believable to the reader.
If you yourself aren't sure of exactly what your consequences are, there are two useful rubrics to consider. Ask yourself: is your problem pragmatic or conceptual, and do your consequences take the form of a cost or a benefit?
Problems usually fall into two categories: pragmatic and conceptual. A quick way of thinking about the difference is this: pragmatic problems ask us what we should do, and conceptual problems ask us what we should think.
Pragmatic problems are those with tangible consequences and solutions. They have concrete consequences, and their solutions usually involve setting forth a plan of action to respond to the problem. Conceptual problems, in contrast, deal with theoretical questions. They seek to investigate an issue rather than to fix it, and their solutions usually involve reaching new understanding or changing how a reader thinks about a question.
It may seem like conceptual problems are harder to make relevant to your audience. After all, since their consequences rarely affect a reader as directly as a pragmatic problem's consequences would. You can still articulate consequences for them. For instance, you can show your readers that there are costs or benefits if they change their point of view about a topic. Another good tactic is to convince readers that their understanding of an issue is incomplete. If the issue is important to them, they will be willing to pay attention when you promise to improve their understanding.
Along with deciding whether your problem is pragmatic or conceptual, you need to think about whether your consequences take the form of costs or benefits. Costs are negative effects that occur when a problem remains unsolved. Benefits are positive effects that will result if your argument solves its problem.
Pragmatic problems will have different costs and benefits than conceptual ones will. Pragmatic costs include social, economic, or logistical disadvantages. Conceptual costs usually involve not knowing a crucial piece of information or not understanding an important problem. Benefits follow a similar pattern: pragmatic benefits will involve some sort of tangible gain, and conceptual benefits will result in improved knowledge.
Costs and benefits are only effective at interesting readers if those readers feel that the consequences are somehow connected to them. If possible, you should make the connection explicitly. In the case of pragmatic costs, for example, you could explain how an economic disadvantage would impact the reader. For conceptual costs, you would need to convince the reader why not knowing some piece of information would cause them problems. Always be sure to make it clear to your reader how consequences will affect them, since until you answer the question of why readers should care, you will not be able to convince them what to think or do.
Knowing Your Audience
As you have probably noticed by now, a productive question is defined by whether or not it is interesting to the audience. The same is true of consequences – their relevancy is determined by whether or not they matter to the reader. This means that it is extremely important that you understand your audience. Who are they? What do they care about? Maybe your audience is easily interested in your topic, and will therefore not require much convincing in order to care about what you are writing. Maybe they have no interest whatsoever in your topic, in which case you will have to engage in extensive persuasion before they pay attention. Knowing what your audience is like will make it much easier to provide the right amount and type of evidence that your problem is relevant to their lives.
"The Cain Project in Engineering and Professional Communication, Three Modules on Clear Writing Style: An Introduction to The Craft of Argument, by Joseph M. Williams and Gregory Colomb. September 17, 2013."