How To Win an Argument In Writing – Without Making Enemies

Argument in writing

When I was young and naive, I foolishly thought that a career in academia would be the ideal place for someone who disliked conflict. My plan was to tuck myself away in the library for most of my days, curl up with my stack of books, and crank out lectures and articles. What could be more tranquil than a working life spent reading, writing, and teaching?

Boy, did I get that scenario wrong. Not only does teaching late adolescents require high-level conflict negotiation skills, but scholarship itself is grounded in a culture of combat. Publishing academic research requires the mindset and mental agility of a gladiator.

Fortunately, when I’m helping researchers translate their findings for non-experts, I don’t have to put on the whole armour of scholarly inquiry very often. But I do often help clients create logical written arguments that set out to contradict or deflate an established position. In such situations, the combat moves I learned as a scholar prove useful. They enable writers to dismantle a false argument without appearing aggressive or becoming entangled in personal attacks. In the worlds of industry and government, this persuasive deftness is often key to getting stakeholder buy-in.


Wisdom from the Scholarly Arena

I remember vividly my first experience with live-action academic combat. As a doctoral student at the University of Toronto back in the early 90s, I had the opportunity to witness a guest lecture by a young scholar interviewing for a faculty position. During the question period, faculty lobbed queries at the candidate as if they were grenades. I didn’t know whether to run, duck, or just cover my eyes.

I also came to recognize that even the fiercest academic debates are governed by a certain decorum. What once seemed to me cruel blood sport actually works as a kind of dance. Like bullfighters, or fencers, or martial artists, scholars presenting academic arguments move back and forth both with and against their opponent. They know how to deflect and deliver blows with diplomacy and respect.

This agility in dealing with an opposing perspective seldom gets taught as part of business writing, but it’s a crucial skill for anyone writing to change the status quo and create impactful change with their work.


Five Ways to Undermine your Opponent Without Being Underhanded

Taking a page from the way academic writing works, you can craft a compelling argument and defend your research by using these five combat moves:

  1. Get Crystal-Clear on Your Own Argument

To create a written argument is to engage in an intellectual contest. It’s your idea against an existing idea or set of ideas, and the goal is to win the audience’s support. But how can you do that if they can’t clearly differentiate between your new concept and the concepts they’re already familiar with?

Before you enter into combat, clarify—down to the nth detail—your own position. A simple (and critical) test to try is this: state your main idea in a single, complete sentence. If you can’t do that, then you may not have clearly formed a coherent argument. You may merely have chosen a topic, and you may need to do some more work to clarify the specific position you’re taking on the topic.

“Disease control is an issue in healthcare” is an idea that is not yet fully formed into a position statement. In contrast, here’s a genuine position statement expressing your core argument: “As the transmission of diseases in healthcare settings remains a pressing issue, now is the time to explore the use of HEPA ventilation systems in clinic waiting rooms as a control measure.”

  1. Acknowledge the Strengths of the Opposing Position

Every false argument contains a smidgen of truth. If you look hard enough at what your opponents are saying, you’ll find they’re getting some things right. Those might be small things—but that’s all you need to gain the upper hand. 

By acknowledging what the opposition does well, you can show how your approach builds on the groundwork they’ve laid. This is a powerful way to gain the trust of an audience that’s skeptical about moving away from a known idea to the upstart idea you’re introducing. This tactic also makes you seem reasonable and fair, and that’s a great foundation for building trust ,which is essential in fostering long-term relationships with stakeholders and policymakers.

  1. Be Gracious About the Weaknesses of the Opposing Position

When you point out the holes in the opposing perspective, do so gently, recognizing the limitations or challenges that cause them. Perhaps, for example, the conclusions your opponent has reached are perfectly natural for someone who hasn’t had access to new data that wasn’t previously available.

The more generous you are as you acknowledge your opponent’s weaknesses, the more likeable and fair you seem as a contestant in the arena. And as you politely point out the gaps in the opposition’s knowledge and logic, you’ll subtly build up your own profile as the expert among experts.

  1. Back Up Your Claims about Your Position

It takes two basic ingredients to make a viable argument: claims (contestable statements about a topic) and evidence (supporting details to support the claims).

A simple recipe, but many business writers fail to follow it, and their arguments fall apart as a result. In my work as a writing trainer and coach, I see two common issues: lack of evidence and evidence that lacks credibility.

  1. Admit to the Limitations of Your Position

This final move may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s truly a master-level maneuver. Besides pointing out the weaknesses in the opposite point of view, acknowledge your own biases and the limits on your perspective. 

By showing such self-awareness, you’ll demonstrate transparency. By showing you have nothing to hide, you’ll come across as someone who’s humble, honest, and genuinely interested in finding the truth. In the competition for your audience’s belief and trust, such qualities count as gold. 

With Grace Comes Gratitude (And Trust)

Think of these five writing tactics as the fancy footwork of a skilled combatant who defeats their opponent so gracefully that the struggle looks more like a ballet than a fight. Remember Muhammad Ali’s mantra, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”? That’s a great mantra for anyone writing to advance a new idea, particularly one that has the potential to change lives. 

Handling arguments with such a light but skillful touch increases trust in you, your work, and your argument – and trust is the ultimate ingredient in building working relationships that support and further your research.



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