Structured Writing

 

Some text books and college classes call all structured writing exposition.  Other texts  and classes claim that there are two types of structured writing, exposition and persuasion. Itís possible for a student to learn to write the stuff well regardless of what one calls it, but labels are useful tools, or at least they should be.  Labels should enable us to make distinctions among similar things and keep them separate.  So I go along with those who claim that there are three types of structured writing: exposition, argumentation and persuasion.

 

Hereís why:

 

First lets define what structure is.  Buildings are called structures.  The word construct is commonly understood to mean to build.  So one might assume, therefore, taking a clue from the nature of buildings, that in structured writing something is built, assembled from parts according to some plan into an organized creation of some kind the value of which is greater than merely the sum of the parts.  That would be pretty accurate.  The only difference is that in writing the ďpartsĒ being organized and assembled are not tangible; they canít be seen or touched, only imagined.  The system of principles underlying the creation of both kinds of structure--logic--is the same. 

 

Structure is the result of applying logic.

 

When we make the logical relationships among our ideas clear as we present them, we are structuring them.

 

When we show that some idea we have is actually composed of several smaller inter-related ideas, we are revealing structure.

 

So, anything we write based on logical principles is structured writing.

 

Narrative and descriptive writing, while certainly having structure, donít get it from the application of the same logical principles.  They are--in a perfect world and when absolutely true--organized according to their nature, not according to arbitrary principles.  Stories are organized chronologically, the events related one after the other in time as they happened.  Descriptions utilize spatial order because they are essentially locations of things in space along with attribution of size, shape, smell, taste, etc.

 

The principles used in structured writing are man-made.

 

Formal, organized thinking--the application of method to problem-solving--was discussed and written about considerably by the ancient Greeks, from whom most of us in the Western Hemisphere acquired the habit.

 

They gave us the idea of syllogistic reasoning (see the WRB), if/then conditional logic (the basis of our modern computing concepts), and a highly disciplined formal system for analyzing ideas called the Rhetorical Topics (see the WRB on applied logic, and in particular ďThe List.Ē).

 

When we communicate complex ideas to one another utilizing these methods, we are engaging in structured communications.  All such communications, regardless of purpose, are similarly structured. Therefore it becomes difficult to distinguish one from another.  They all look alike!

 

Itís like the dilemma the police face when they pull over two sets of roughly dressed characters in separate vehicles.  Both vehicles are pickups or vans.  They contain ladders, carpenterís tools, power tools of all sorts.  Both truckloads claim to be contractors.  The police know one set is a bunch of robbers, but they canít make an arrest because they canít tell the difference. What will they have to do?

 

Theyíll have to catch the robbers in action.  The simple truth is that both groups use exactly the same tools.  The only difference is in how they are used.  The real contractors use them to build things.  The robbers use them to break into things.

 

And thatís how we wind up sorting out different kinds of structured writing.  We look at the purpose to which each communication is applied.  And sometimes the differences are not great.  The easiest way to understand it is to imagine a continuum on which a large number of communications has been arranged. 

 

At the extreme on one end is the expository essay. Its purpose is to inform.  It presents facts, factual generalizations and cause-effect relationships without judgments. There is no opinion here, no approval or disapproval--only information. 

 

At the other extreme lies the persuasive essay.  Its purpose is to change someoneís belief and to get him to take action on his new belief.  Taking action is the key.  Even if he remains unconvinced, he must by some means be made to do something.

 

Between the expository essay and the persuasive essay lie a vast number of other communications.  Some near the exposition end do little more than inform; others, near the persuasive end, barely stop short of sending people off on some kind of mission.  The majority do more than inform and less than persuade.  This wide-ranging assortment is the argumentative essays.

 

On the surface, what argumentation appears to be doing, to one degree or another, is attempting to convince the reader to change his belief; that is, to convince him of the truth and validity of the writerís notion.  But this isnít really the purpose of argumentation.  The purpose of argumentation is to find the truth.  Practitioners of argumentation realize that the truth is elusive.  No one person is likely to have captured it perfectly. So they engage in what we call the Great Debate.  Each makes the best case he can for what he believes to be true.  The rest attack it, offer counter arguments, which are the best cases they can offer.  Over time, as one reads the various arguments pro and con on any issue, he begins to develop a theory in his own mind on what the truth is.

 

The concept of argumentation is the basis for our system of jurisprudence (justice through the courts using attorneys and juries) in this country and for our legislative system.  It is the reason behind our laws protecting freedom of speech.  Only in a climate of free and open discourse can democracy exist or justice be found.

 

The terms argument and case are synonyms. An argument consists of a statement of belief (generalization) supported by reasons, the reasons supported by evidence (information which tends to prove the reasons).  While there are many kinds of evidence, the most effective evidence tends to be concrete: facts, examples, etc.  The WRB offers three pages of discussion on evidence.

 

An argument is not a quarrel.  It is one side of a debate.  The point over which debaters are disagreeing is called an issue.  A useful metaphor for remembering what issue means is contained in the phrase, ďa bone of contention.Ē  Imagine two dogs fighting over a bone, the bone between them, each dog hanging onto it with its teeth trying to wrest control of it.  The bone is the issue.  It is what is being fought over.

 

Authors of an argumentative essay take a position on an issue.  They offer an opinion, a generalization called a thesis, which they may break down into two or more sub generalizations before attempting to support it with reasons and evidence.  The sum total of their reasoning is called a case or argument.

 

SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT ARGUMENTATION

 

Virtually all academic writing after high school is expected to be argumentative.  Some high school and college classes legitimately require students to write reports as a means of insuring that the students encounter certain information.  But courses truly concerned with student development of expertise require students not only to take in information but also to analyze it and critically assess it.

 

The key to any argument is its thesis. 

 

The more controversial the thesis, the more interest there will be in it and the stronger the argument (and the better the evidence) will have to be in order to prove it.  The broader the scope of the thesis, the longer the paper and the more research necessary.  The narrower the scope of the thesis, the less it can accomplish.  A thesis can be tightly focused (desirable) or rather vague. 

 

No argument is any better than the foundation of evidence that it rests upon.

 

An argument is like any other structure in this respect:  set it on an unstable foundation and it will collapse.

 

The most important quality of reasoning is clarity.