2.G: Rhetoric & Research Writing

The Relationship between Rhetoric and Research Writing

The first step towards such knowledge is learning to see the argumentative nature of all writing.

As consumers of written texts, we are often tempted to divide writing into two categories: argumentative and non-argumentative. According to this view, in order to be argumentative, writing must have the following qualities:  It has to defend a position in a debate between two or more opposing sides; it must be on a controversial topic; and the goal of such writing must be to prove the correctness of one point of view over another.

On the other hand, this view goes, non-argumentative texts include narratives, descriptions, technical reports, news stories, and so on. When deciding to which category a given piece of writing belongs, we sometimes look for familiar traits of argument, such as the presence of a thesis statement, of “factual” evidence, and so on.

Research writing is often categorized as “non-argumentative.” This happens because of the way in which we learn about research writing. Most of us do that through the traditional research report, the kind which focuses too much on information-gathering and note cards and not enough on constructing engaging and interesting points of view for real audiences. It is the gathering and compiling of information, and not doing something productive and interesting with this information, that become the primary goals of this writing exercise. Generic research papers are also often evaluated on the quantity and accuracy of external information that they gather, rather on the persuasive impact they make and the interest they generate among readers.

Having written countless research reports, we begin to suspect that all research-based writing is non-argumentative. Even when explicitly asked to construct a thesis statement and support it through researched evidence, beginning writers are likely to pay more attention to such mechanics of research as finding the assigned number and kind of sources and documenting them correctly, than to constructing an argument capable of making an impact on the reader.

Arguments Aren’t Verbal Fights

We often have narrow concept of the word “argument.” In everyday life, argument often implies a confrontation, a clash of opinions and personalities, or just a plain verbal fight. It implies a winner and a loser, a right side and a wrong one. Because of this understanding of the word “argument,” the only kind of writing seen as argumentative is the debate-like “position” paper, in which the author defends his or her point of view against other, usually opposing points of view.

Such an understanding of argument is narrow because arguments come in all shapes and sizes. Consider the term “argument” in a new way. What if we think of “argument” as an opportunity for conversation, for sharing with others our point of view on something, for showing others our perspective of the world? What if we see it as the opportunity to tell our stories, including our life stories? What if we think of “argument” as an opportunity to connect with the points of view of others rather than defeating those points of view?

Argument is the opposite of “beating your audience into rhetorical submission.” This description implies gradual and even gentle explanation and persuasion instead of coercion. It implies effective use of details, and stories, including emotional ones. It implies the understanding of argument as an explanation of one’s world view.

Arguments then, can be explicit and implicit, or implied. Explicit arguments contain noticeable and definable thesis statements and lots of specific proofs. Implicit arguments, on the other hand, work by weaving together facts and narratives, logic and emotion, personal experiences and statistics. Unlike explicit arguments, implicit ones do not have a one-sentence thesis statement. Instead, authors of implicit arguments use evidence of many different kinds in effective and creative ways to build and convey their point of view to their audience. Research is essential for creative effective arguments of both kinds.

To consider the many types and facets of written argumentation, consider the following exploration activity.

Application Exercise

Writing Activity:  Analyzing Writing Situations

Working individually or in small groups, consider the following writing situations. Are these situations opportunities for argumentative writing? If so, what elements of argument do you see? Use your experience as a reader and imagine the kinds of published texts that might result from these writing situations. Apply the ideas about argument mentioned so far in this chapter, including the “explicit” and “implicit” arguments.

Write a response to use for discussion.

EXAMPLE 1:  A group of scientists develops a hypothesis and conducts a series of experiments to test it. After obtaining the results from those experiments, they decide to publish their findings in a scientific journal. However, the data can be interpreted in two ways. The authors can use a long-standing theory with which most of his colleagues agree. But they can also use a newer and more ambitious theory on which there is no consensus in the field, but which our authors believe to be more comprehensive and up-to-date. Using different theories will produce different interpretations of the data and different pieces of writing. Are both resulting texts arguments? Why or why not?

EXAMPLE 2:  An author wants to write a memoir. She is particularly interested in her relationship with her parents as a teenager. In order to focus on that period of her life, she decides to omit other events and time periods from the memoir. The finished text is a combination of stories, reflections, and facts. This text does not have a clear thesis statement or proofs. Could this “selective” memory” writing be called an argument? What are the reasons for your decision?

EXAMPLE 3:  A travel writer who is worried about global warming goes to Antarctica and observes the melting of the ice there. Using her observations, interviews with scientists, and secondary research, she then prepares an article about her trip for The National Geographic magazine or a similar publication. Her piece does not contain a one-sentence thesis statement or a direct call to fight global warming. At the same time, her evidence suggests that ice in the Arctic melts faster than it used to. Does this writer engage in argument? Why or why not? What factors influenced your decision?

EXAMPLE 4:  A novelist writes a book based on the events of the American Civil War. He recreates historical characters from archival research, but adds details, descriptions, and other characters to his book that are not necessarily historic. The resulting novel is in the genre known as “historical fiction.” Like all works of fiction, the book does not have a thesis statement or explicit proofs. It does, however, promote a certain view of history, some of which is based on the author’s research and some—on his imagination and creative license. Is this a representation of history, an argument, or a combination of both? Why or why not?