Using Reasoning to Improve Your Writing

Griffin Gartner

All through high school and into college I was an academic debater. The benefits of debate are many, but by far the most important is that you are trained to think of everything as an argument. Not in the yelling or disagreeable way, but in the academic sense of the term. Stephen Toulmin the philosopher known primarily for his academic study into the mechanics of argumentation and reasoning considers arguments to be, “trains of reasoning” (12).[1] When you take a second to analyze the world around us, you will see that most everything is an argument. We are inundated with trains of reasoning and proposals to be accepted. This has become so much the case that our language has created shortcuts to accommodate the actual reasoning behind our statements. The inevitable result is that we have forgotten that reasoning is even involved; the structure of our lines of reasoning have broken down. If we revive the analysis and critical thinking for but a moment it will greatly improve our writing.

In nonfiction the idea is easy to follow. If we start to think of our essays, articles, and books as doing their best to present trains of reasoning (arguments) to be accepted, it can help us conceptually to structure our arguments in ways that make sense. For fiction things become more abstract, but thinking of our stories in an argumentative sense can still be helpful. In essence, it forces us to ask critical questions of our work and gives us a pattern for how to answer those questions.

Now that we have committed ourselves to thinking about the world like a debater, we can turn our thoughts to the elements of an argument. According to Toulmin, arguments consist of the following: Claims, Grounds, Warrants, and Backing (25-26).[2] If we ensure that we understand these elements we will be able to recognize their presence in our own work. Then once we can see the pillars holding up our argument, we can test their strength.

First, a claim should be thought of as the destination; what are we looking to prove. You could also think of the claim as the proposition to be accepted. The statement, “I shouldn’t drink this coffee” would be an example of a claim.

Second, grounds should be thought of as the data underlying the claim. Extending the coffee example, the data could be that the coffee is 200 degrees and that burns can be caused at 160 degrees. Note before we move on that grounds are the foundations of the claim. If the facts/data is untrue, the claim could be untrue because of that.

Third, warrants, which are quite complicated, should be thought of as the road you take moving from the grounds to the claim. “Do the grounds provide genuine support for the claim?” Warrants in a way authorize the inference drawn from the grounds. In our coffee example the warrant is an argument from causality; hot coffee causes burns. The whole argument thus takes this form: drinking coffee that is more than 160 degrees causes burns, the coffee is 200 degrees, therefore “I shouldn’t drink this coffee.” See how this is all connected? There is a lot of overlap between grounds and warrant, but the big takeaway should be that warrants are the justification for moving from the grounds to the claim. Another example that could help is if you consider this argument: You shouldn’t drink that coffee (claim), the moon is full tonight (grounds, remember grounds are simply factual data points), and we all know that drinking coffee when the moon is full will burn you (warrant). Clearly this argument is ludicrous. What is incorrect is not the claim because we shouldn’t drink the hot coffee. It isn’t the grounds because the moon is full tonight (in our example anyway). No, what is incorrect is the warrant, or the justification for connecting the grounds and the claim. Testing the reliability of a warrant requires the final element of an argument.

Finally, backing should be thought of as the presuppositions that must be true for the warrant to make sense. In our coffee example remember the warrant is “coffee over 160 degrees causes burns” therefore the backing would be that 160 degrees is the burn point. It would also need to be presupposed that getting a burn is a reason not to drink the coffee. This kind of goes without saying, but there are some interesting people in the world. If we test our faulty argument example we see that the backing is that drinking coffee equals burns because of the full moon. Since this backing presupposition is incorrect, the warrant is unfounded so any conclusions drawn from it should be dealt with suspicion.

Remember in everyday speech we take shortcuts. Often times the warrant and the backing for the warrant are omitted. Consider a parent telling their kid not to play in the street. They will likely just say, “You shouldn’t play in the street.” The claim is clear enough, in fact it is the only thing stated. The warrant in this example is playing in the street causes kids to be hit by cars. The grounds would be that the definition of what a street is, and probably some statistics on accidents resulting from kids playing in the street. I hope that I have beaten you over the head with this enough for it to make some sense. Notice though that since the original statement omitted the real warrant, the reasoning could simply follow, “You shouldn’t play in the street, because I said so.” Which is an equally powerful argument if you are the kid’s parent, but perhaps not so much if you are the kid’s little sister. All of this is to say that just because we take linguistic shortcuts does not mean that these elements are not present. All arguments, sound or otherwise, have them. The goal is to be able to recognize and label parts of arguments so that we know what kinds of tests to run in order to be sure of their soundness. Once we can do that, we can apply our newly discovered skill to both nonfiction and fiction.

At last we have reached the meat of this article. Let’s apply the elements of arguments to nonfiction to see how it can help us better our writing.

The first benefit is structuring. We should structure our outlines by asking ourselves what questions we are looking to answer, and designing arguments to answer them. If we are writing a piece on crows for example, one of the critical questions we might answer is, “What is special about crows?” If we design a set of claims that work together to answer that question we can make a pretty decent informative paragraph.

the paragraph could go something like this:

Crows are special creatures for a number of reasons. First, they are highly intelligent. There are species of crows that have been known to use tools. Also, crows can remember the faces of those who wrong them for years and teach their young who to avoid. Behaviors like this are rare in the animal kingdom and are recognized as demonstrative of heightened intelligence. Second, crows are all over the world. They dwell both in cities and in rural areas and have substantial populations on every continent except Antarctica. Few animals, other than us, have been able to expand around the globe like this. Finally, crows are social creatures. They have been known to mate for life and mourn the loss of friends. These are social behaviors which are also rare in the animal kingdom and may help explain the crow’s evolutionary success.

Notice that if we have a series of reasonable claims, we can compile them into a secondary claim. This works because we can test each claim on its own. I have colored the primary claim blue and the supporting claims green. The primary claim uses the other claims as grounds. The warrant is unstated, but is a sign argument which is a compilation of the supporting claims, and goes as follows: having intelligence, being all over the world, and exhibiting social behaviors are reliable signs/indicators that an animal is special. You can see that the claims are not the only sentences in the paragraph; each claim is supported by its own grounds which I have colored orange. Listing the facts isn’t good enough in every case though. A reader may reasonably wonder why something like tool use is a sign of being intelligence. That is why we sometimes need to include our warrants. I have colored them purple. Hopefully you can see why we are going through the trouble of labeling our arguments and their elements. If claims are present without grounds the reader may not be convinced. If the warrants are unexplained the reader may have trouble understanding your train of reasoning.

Since grade school we are taught that an essay paragraph needs a topic sentence, body sentences, and a transition, what I call the standard model. I feel that this model is, at best, incomplete.

If we make an outline how I suggest it would look something like this:

Critical Question: What is special about crows?

Taking the time to outline your work like this will make writing the paragraph almost automatic, your job as the writer is simply to pick and choose what grounds are best and what warrants will need to be flushed out. While being more intensive, I hope that you can see how this form of outline might be superior to the standard model. All too often I edit nonfiction work that has scrambled claims, nonexistent grounds, and irrelevant sentences or ideas. I think that the cause of these issues is related to a lack of planning or the standard model’s ambiguity. If we allow into our paragraph only those sentences that list ground facts, clearly state claims, or explain warrants, then we only allow into our paragraph what needs to be there. Also, if we force ourselves to only include claims for which we understand our warrants then we are less likely to include logical fallacies or incomplete ideas. Another benefit is that this outline is modular. It becomes easy to combine claims into primary claims and then combine primary claims into even higher levels to answer bigger critical questions. If you look at the index of your nearest textbook I would imagine that it looks something like this outline.

Structuring isn’t the only benefit applying argumentation has for your nonfiction though. Thinking of your work as consisting of arguments that answer questions forces you to keep your reader in mind. You will be on a perpetual journey of answering questions, clarifying those answers, and asking yourself what questions your answer will spark. This process will only terminate when all of your assumptions and claims are rested upon claims or assumptions that you feel most, if not all, of your audience will be comfortable accepting as solid grounds.

Fiction folk I hear you screaming and I’m ready to answer. Application of argumentative reasoning in fiction is all about knowing what questions stories naturally invite, and what arguments you need to make in your story to answer them.

Readers implicitly ask themselves questions about your plot, your characters, and your writing style. Is this character believable? Is there action in this chapter? What is this character’s motivation? Does the blood metaphor make sense? And so on. All of these are critical questions that you need to be able to answer with grounds from the story. With fiction your grounds will more often than not come in the form of literary mechanism (cliffhanger, deus ex machina, symbolism, etc.). You might also identify specific events in the story as grounds (perhaps a character makes an important decision). If you can’t find evidence in your story to answer your question, then you need to do some substantive revision. If you have evidence which isn’t obvious, you should consider revisions that make these literary elements more explicit. As you grow in your writing career you will learn to employ tools strategically while you write and revise. You will also more fully grasp which literary tools you like best and which questions they help answer. For practice take a story that you have written and try to write an outline on one or more critical questions.

Here is a quick example of what I mean:

Thinking about your writing as presenting arguments in response to questions will result in more efficient and effective writing. Framing essays and other nonfiction work will aid in clarity by eliminating haphazard ideas and structuring your ideas logically. For fiction writers, focusing on your reader and the questions that they may have will help guide your revisions. An added benefit for both nonfiction and fiction writers alike is that learning the basics of argumentation is synonymous with learning the basics of persuasion. This will help you during your publishing journey while writing query letters. And you know, knowing a thing or two about reasoning and argumentation might help you elsewhere in life as well.

[1] Toulmin, Stephen, Richard Rieke, and Allan Janik. An Introduction To Reasoning. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1984, 14.

[2] Toulmin, Stephen, Richard Rieke, and Allan Janik. An Introduction To Reasoning. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1984, 25-27.

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