Monday, May 11, 2015

The Scholarly Situation

Suppose you had one minute to convince somebody that something is true. That's a pretty tight time-constraint, but suppose you were assured in advance that you would have their full attention and that they would give your argument careful consideration. Finally, suppose that you know a great deal about this person's current beliefs. You know what knowledge you share and on what points you disagree; you also know what style of argumentation will appeal to them. While the one-minute time limit is of course a serious constraint, then, you are otherwise in a good position to persuade.

Now, suppose you were given exactly twenty-seven minutes to prepare your one-minute pitch. And suppose you were given full freedom to choose the medium in which you would present it. What would you do?

I want to suggest that the smartest choice of medium would be writing. If the person you are trying to persuade spends that minute reading carefully, you have the best chance of getting your message across. Give yourself at most two-hundred words (that's about what a person can read in a minute) and spend your twenty seven minutes writing a paragraph to support the truth in question. Write the best possible paragraph you can, starting from a point that is defined by the knowledge you share. Take into account the objections your reader will have (remember that you know a great deal about the reader's beliefs.)

This is the literary situation of the scholarly writer. You are working in the most efficient medium available for the transmission of knowledge to a very intelligent, very knowledgeable—highly "opinionated", if you will—and very attentive person, with whom you share a great deal of knowledge and the state of whose knowledge you know a great deal about. This reader is necessarily rather critical, to be sure. Your argument will persuade insofar as it is compatible with the reader's existing knowledge. The reader is constantly comparing what you are saying with what they already know (perhaps with what you have told them in the foregoing minutes, in the preceding paragraphs). They are trying to think the thought you are suggesting to them. In a word, they are trying to understand you.

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