Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Understanding Framing in Persuasive Writing

Everyone has heard the cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” To the extent we can reduce this metaphor to a mathematic equivalence, writers create thousands of pictures every day. Importantly, though, each picture captures only a look at a small piece of the world. Imagine a large landscape, with every hill or valley, every dark cloud or sunny emergence representing a fact. The fact landscape stretches through different dimensions: height, width, depth, and even time. Sometimes these facts seem to conflict, but every one forms part of the complex world in which humankind lives, has lived, and will live.

When arguing, capturing every fact—or even every relevant fact—through four dimensions is simply impossible. Accordingly, we try to carve out a portion of this landscape and either confine our point to this area or use that area to make a larger point. This is “framing”: a useful metaphor that describes how we place a frame around that part of the landscape we wish to establish and use for the picture we attempt through argument to present.

In an ideal world, persuasion would consist solely of presenting useful information, and thus leading readers to a particular conclusion. Everyone brings his or her own perspective to the interpretation of information, but the writer should present facts, in their relevant context, to direct and help readers understand what is important, what it means, and why it matters. Not everyone will agree, but everyone will understand better the points of disagreement and the bases and reasons for those points.

But we do not live in that ideal world. While framing is useful and even necessary, the technique allows for deception. Sometimes this deception springs from laziness, an unwillingness to pursue the intellectual rigors of thinking through an issue. Other times, it emanates from sheer dishonesty, a conscious decision to omit some relevant context, or even fabricate entirely the facts that form the argument’s foundation.

As such, understanding how framing works matters: not only to help create sound, persuasive arguments, but also to recognize linguistic chicanery and avoid falling into the trap of beautiful logic built on false premises.

Focal Points: Terms and Definitions

In most paintings or photographs, certain parts of the image stand out as focal points. In persuasive writing, key words serve the same purpose: words marked sometimes by repetition, others by virtue of a pre-established place in the ongoing dialogue over the issue at hand. They leap from the page, directing the reader’s attention to a predetermined place.

The process of framing an argument around these focal points begins with terms and their definitions. What do the words mean, and what import branches from the definitional trunk? What purpose do terms have in establishing parameters of debate? Good writers choose each word with care, selecting impactful terms that drive the writing where the writer wants it to go. Nomenclature matters.

Many political debates use terms to this effect. A piece of legislation now widely panned for its over-intrusive effects and rushed drafting and passage, The USA PATRIOT Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) passed the Senate with a vote of 98-1, with one abstention. Many who voted to approve it confessed later to not having read it. So why did it pass? The urgency of the moment after the Trade Center towers fell led to an overwhelming sense of patriotism—which always has and always will carry different implications for different people—as well as a sense of having to do something. Calling the legislation the OVERREACH Act (“Obliterating the Very Embedded Rights Regular Everyday Americans CHerish”) would not have achieved this effect, however much more accurately it may have represented the bill.

Elsewhere, we see factions creating terms and defining debates in a way that allows them to dismiss the other side, rather than addressing it directly. Abortion rights advocates see “Pro-Choice” and “Anti-Choice,” while opponents of abortion see “Pro-Life” and “Anti-Life.” One side believes it is fighting against people who hate women, while the other believes it is fighting against people with callous disregard for babies. The labels both set up and reinforce the larger points.

In these and many other examples, the writers or speakers choose words for impact. How do we define concepts in a way that motivates or upsets people? Can we use positive-sounding words, especially those with a generally negative opposite, to charge the writing? As a reader, recognizing this helps identify the foundation of an argument—a recognition critical to analyzing arguments, even more critical than the ability to follow the path of logic from that foundation. Even the most beautiful logical house, when built on a swamp, will sink.

Landscape: Words and Contexts

More insidious than terms built on stark contrasts are situations where people use the same word to mean very different things. One person may speak of “freedom” as the ability to allow one person who has accumulated wealth to contribute unfettered to political causes, while another may use the same word to mean allowing everyone to reach an equal footing regardless of achievement. Neither usage is technically incorrect, insofar as “freedom” means being unconstrained by a defined outside force. The implications of each, though, carry different, sometimes diametrically opposed meanings.

Clearly, framing means something beyond word selection, and even word definition. The context into which we layer words gives structure to our words. If the key terms reflect the focal point of an argument, the context represents what the writer brings in to surround those terms. Think of a key term in the writing as akin to a bird in a painting. The same bird reflects different ideas depending on whether it flies over a mountain, rests on a power line, or lies dead in the middle of a highway.

Some of the best examples of laying bare the contexts in which people make points come from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Every episode involves Mr. Stewart or one of his reporters playing with the context around an argument, typically by splicing clips about the same issue from various segments. Sometimes this means demonstrating that one person or news network will make vastly different claims on the same issue depending on who benefits from the claim. Other times, it means dabbling in the absurdity of a claim based on information that the person chooses not to present with an argument. In all of these cases, though, the formula remains consistent: show a claim or argument, reveal different or additional context, and let the audience choose to laugh or scream as appropriate.

The point: just as writers choose the terms and definitions on which they rely, they choose the details to pull inside the frame as well. Just as layers of landscape do not serve as mere filler in a painting, they are not just background information for an argument. Facts abound, littering the internet with enough information to lead someone in any direction he or she would like to go. Recognize that those a writer collects to include are selected for a reason.

The Whole Picture: Reading and Writing with Framing in Mind

As a reader of persuasive writing, understanding everything above helps your understanding of how writing persuades. The best way to determine whether to agree or disagree is to start at the foundation. Examine the words chosen, and ask yourself why they were chosen. Look at definitions not only for what they include, but for what they do not. From here, you can follow the trail through the context provided, looking for gaps in what the writer includes, and looking for signs of misinformation: “facts” provided without any mooring to references, short lines quoted from other writing without context, and bold statements lacking clear support. Investigate these gaps, reading with a skeptical eye. Writers choose words and context from the myriad possibilities for a reason, and you as a reader have every right to investigate the reasons and any alternative information available.

As a persuasive writer, on the other hand, you may choose two routes. One is to focus myopically on the piece of landscape you wish to present. Select the “facts” that support your side, engage in clever wordsmithing, and blend it all into a clear, focused piece that segregates itself from the rest of the landscape. Your writing will be clear and precise, with neither the effort nor the result toward completeness or complexity. You will convince anyone who already agreed with your point.

Alternatively, you may choose a more nuanced path. Acknowledge facts or statements that go against your thesis, and accord them the respect of rebutting them. Demonstrate the existence of a broad landscape, in which easy answers and solutions prove hard to come by. Lay out the facts as you have encountered them to lead your readers through your thought process. Argue for the superiority of your position—forcefully and unapologetically—but accept that intelligent people often disagree. In short, frame your argument to reveal a worldview without using tricks to hide part of the world you are viewing. You will not convince everyone that you are right, but your case will be stronger for showing your arrival at a conclusion even in the face of contrary information.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Write Poetry?

Since publishing Declaration, several have asked why I decided to write and publish a chapbook in the first place. The question feels simple, but none of the quips or pithy responses I’ve given in the moment quite manage to cover it. Certainly the dream of making dozens of dollars while not quitting my day job falls a bit short of justifying the effort. Just as certainly, expressing some organized idea fails to explain it completely. Poetry as a medium achieves some of its beauty in reaching different people in different ways, and on different levels; if I have a single idea or concept, its expression necessarily diffuses even among the small audience a newly-published poet might reach.

Indeed, the reasons that anyone writes, or at least publishes, vary among people and even within a person. My reasons for writing on this blog are different from others’ reasons for writing blogs, and very different from my own reasons for writing a poem or a novel, and the reasons for creating a poetry collection diverged from the reasons for any individual poem. Some write, and sometimes I write, to explain, to teach, to announce, to explore, to advertise, to tell a story, to present an image, or to achieve any number of other purposes, with varying levels of success.

Describing a Complex World

For me, the panorama of purposes falls in line with the reasons I write. We live in a complex world, one no writer could ever boil down into one poem, story, or book. We move by natural impulses to break it into component parts, to create heuristics by which we can simplify that world around us in the hope of understanding it. For the same reasons that a musician subdivides beats to make the music flow while maintaining rhythm, we subdivide a complicated world in the hope that it will make sense to us.

Of course, trying to boil a world down too far can remove the nuance that makes life fun. We each hold within us truths that feel incongruous. As Whitman famously declared in “Song of Myself”:

            Do I contradict myself?
            Very well then I contradict myself,
            (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
A poetry collection allows different, even seemingly competing facets of the world and the self to emerge. A single poem might focus on a single element: music, joy, pain, curiosity, anger, innocence, experience, petty annoyance, or other emotions or thoughts as multivariate as the human experience itself.

Solitude and Community

Perhaps none of the internal contradictions we hold strike as near to a writer’s heart as the needs for solitary contemplation and connection to others. Someone who writes does so from within, trying to access and recreate in words something that resonates deeper. Poetry starts after or outside that experience and attempts to work back inside.

At the same time, though, writing to share means working simultaneously back out, much like Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider seeking spheres to connect. A poet, or indeed any writer, vacillates between the within and the without, dancing back and forth, struggling to access his or her core and then create a path from the inner recesses to the outer audience.

The Writer’s Asymptote

This struggle cannot succeed fully. Explaining a person completely requires more than any volume of texts, map of a genome, or philosophical treatise can hope to accomplish. To use language to connect completely the experiences and ideas of that complex being to those of another, much less to a broad expanse of readers, falls outside the possible.

Still, this challenge drives me and many other writers. How closely can language approximate our experiences, or how clearly lay them out for others to explore, discover, or—dare to dream—feel? We approach the goal, moving closer but never quite touching, riding that asymptote as far and as close as we can.

To me, this represents the thrill and frustration of writing: pushing ever closer to a connection we can at best partially achieve, by shrinking the space between in hope that writer and reader can see each other better, and that maybe, in the process, my examined life can become something I may begin myself to fathom. And I continue to write because I have a long way to go.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Declaration: Writing a Poetry Chapbook

Last week, after over a year of working on poetry, I published my first collection, titled "Declaration."  After looking into several different options, I used Amazon's CreateSpace self-publishing option.  Several other options exist, and I have no reason not to recommend them.  For poetry, though, an up-front investment makes little sense to the unknown self-publisher, whose dream is to have people read what he writes, and perhaps make dozens of dollars without quitting his day job.  Amazon allowed me to create a cover, load my book file, and put the book up for sale without any investment beyond ordering a physical proof (more on this below) and ordering author copies.
While all of the production tools made it possible to put something out there, none of it matters if the poetry doesn't work.  So writing poetry, and writing a chapbook, represent the focus of this post.
What Is a Chapbook?
A chapbook is a small collection of poetry, usually organized around a specific theme.  They may be loose- or spiral-bound, or they may be bound in a more traditional book form.  They may be anywhere from fifteen to sixty pages of poetry, with most in the twenty to thirty range.  The key, then, is to focus on the poetry and the theme, and let the page count work itself out.
Building a Theme
So how do you create a theme?  For me, the theme arrived in two stages.  From the beginning, my concept was the "inalienable rights" that the Declaration of Independence delineates.  I separated the chapbook into three sections: "Life," "Liberty," and "Pursuit."  These categories cross over each other.  Life contains a breadth that includes liberty, and liberty is in turn a necessary component for one to pursue one's bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously urged.  And therein lies part of the point: we label and separate pieces of ourselves and what we do, and I strive in the poems to show the ways everyday life falls both between and across those categories.

As I began to arrange the book, am underlying theme revealed itself: music.  Some of the poems approach music overtly: "Chasing Music" and "Symphonic Suite for a Traffic Jam" rely openly on musical concepts, while "Stolen Guilty Moments" and "Messiah in Waiting" carry music in the text.  Working through, though, the natural music of language pulled at me: ebb and flow, noise and silence, accents and harmonies.  My cover design and subtitle, "A Poetry Chapbook in Three Movements," provide a call out to this theme that came only after I looked at a physical proof of the completed collection.
Revision and Cuts
I completely cut eight poems that I wrote for "Declaration."  Writing sprawls across every emotion, from despair to exuberance.  This, though, hurts the most.  Every poem took work, and represented something that matters to me.  But poetry isn't my soul or my feelings; it is merely an attempt to convey those in a way respectful to my desired audience.  Some poems, I hope and believe, achieve this.  Others, most often the poems born of the rawest emotions, failed, and after trying to find ways to save them, I thought it better to excise them from the collection.
Other poems simply didn't work within my theme, or were such blatant attempts to be clever or discursive that as a reader, I didn't feel right about including them.  Writing for myself is one thing, and I found catharsis or egotistical delight in some poems.  But publishing represents a shift away from this and toward writing for others.  I made decisions to include or exclude accordingly.
Final Product
In the end, this collection contained 24 poems, divided into three sections of eight each.  All are free verse; I worked on a villanelle for weeks, but I found myself writing for the form and losing substance.  Lines and structure matter, but I was able to shape the form of each to the individual poem rather than try to imitate canonical writers.  And all drive through with the overarching themes in mind.
Writing a chapbook means more than writing several poems, and I tried to maintain and revisit periodically the concepts I put in play when creating and ultimately publishing "Declaration."  My goal was to carefully craft parts that fit that whole in a way that lifted the collection above the sum of its component parts.  As with any published work, though, my readers must decide whether I actually achieved this.