Red State’s Erick Erickson and Ann Coulter recently went back and forth in a debate over whether conservatives should support Mitch McConnell. Coulter got things started, using inflamed rhetoric while criticizing “nonsensical jeremiads against McConnell on the RedState blog.” Erickson’s response was quite good. I think a neutral reader with no opinion on McConnell might side with Erickson.
However, I’m not trying to make a case for or against McConnell; instead, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how best to write in a way that helps persuade the reader. Erickson’s response is good in large part because he has logically marshaled the facts in support of his position. In other words, he has presented a solid argument for his side. Another thing to note is that he has done this without using harsh rhetoric or overusing adjectives. On the other side, Coulter’s argument is riddled with gaps and inconsistencies. And it is also riddled with harsh rhetoric and a lot of adjectives.
I suggest the connections between good arguments and good word choice and poor arguments and poor word choice are not coincidental. It is a difficult task to accurately assess and understand complex situations. It is even more difficult to accurately portray in writing what one knows of a situation, not to mention portraying ones knowledge in such a way that a reader 1) understands what is being portrayed and 2) is persuaded. The key thing to focus on in the writing process is precision; the most important thing about precision is that it allows the writer to clearly see what she does not understand.
Here is why: the precise use of language forces a writer to see gaps in her facts, logical structure, and overall argument because the writer will struggle with word choice at places where these things are lacking. More often than not, this is telling the writer that she lacks the knowledge needed to complete her piece and sends her back to the field to learn more. But the overuse of adjectives and the use of harsh rhetoric makes writing—and the writer—sloppy. A writer misses these opportunities to improve his work.
For instance, if he is writing about a stupid person who is commonly seen as smart, it takes a lot of knowledge and effort to persuasively portray the person as stupid. But why go to all that work if he can just call the person stupid! On top of the importance of building a logical, solid case for one’s side, precision is generally more persuasive than harsh language. Even if they don’t understand it, people appreciate precision; we like it when everything fits together properly. And harshness leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.
Finally, people don’t like to be told what to think; they like to decide things on their own. So when Coulter tells her readers that they should be dismayed about the right-wing “mobs” at RedState, she is much less effective than Erickson when he methodically lays out McConnell’s record and lets conservatives become dismayed on their own without his ever having used that word.