Many of the first drafts that come to me for editing are long on assertion and light on evidence. Early paragraphs carry uninformative, unengaging sentences like “X is of great concern to scientists” or “Problem Y has reached drastic levels.” Then, before the writer has done more to convince me that X or Y is serious, important, and worth reading about, he or she is off describing possible solutions. But I’m left behind thinking “Really?” and “Should anyone read the next fifteen paragraphs?”
I generally edit persuasive essays by scientists and not professional journalists, but I’ve observed that any writer can be so steeped in a topic that she neglects to explain why it’s important, or mistakenly thinks bland assurances will be enough to engage a busy reader. An essay requires concrete, surprising facts to move folks into and through a story. So I spend much of my editing time helping authors shift gears, coaxing evidence-backed statements from unsupported assertions. The goal is for readers to think ‘wow!’ and not ‘really?’
My tools to transform writing from bland to urgent are threefold: statistics, authority, and anecdote. These are persuasive writing’s counterpoint to narrative writing’s dictum ‘show don’t tell’. What follows are examples based on editing experiences, altered to protect identities.
From assertion: This increasingly worrisome disease has reached epidemic proportions.
To evidence: This is now the second-most common cause of death in large hospitals, and rates have doubled in just five years.
As submitted, the writers left me wondering whether the disease was really as serious as implied. It took only a few minutes of searching PubMed and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find appropriate facts. The actual numbers made me much more worried than did the word “worrisome”.
In fact, most assertions that an issue is “hot” or “of increasing concern” can be enlivened with data. Vendors can tell you how much of a product was sold last month versus five years ago. Conference organizers can tally up session titles or index terms. If all else fails, you can compare PubMed terms or count clinical trials from different years. Data points–of nearly any sort–are more convincing than “Y is much discussed.”
Many experts, paid to think about a topic constantly, have a hard time believing many readers will never have heard of their pet issue. They think perfunctory sentences like the one above are more than enough. But readers need more than the writers’ assurance that an issue is important. Statements or reports from a professional society (or a number of them) are much more compelling than air attributions.
From assertion: The issue was a matter of intense debate.
To evidence: Three dozen undergraduates came wreathed with garlic, saying they needed protection from vampire-like administrators.
With an anecdote like this, there is no need to state that debate was intense; readers will draw that conclusion themselves. That is more convincing than any assertion can be.
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