How Writing an Argument is Like Telling Good Gossip

The argument essay is one that English teachers and professors all dread. This essay is often the toughest to teach and the driest to grade. Every semester we look at that stack of arguments and think out ways to get them graded without actually reading them all. So, far no one has figured out how to grade without reading the essays. However, I have found a way to make the essays much more interesting than they were before — by structuring the argument like good gossip.

Why Gossip?

In my nearly 15 years of professional writing, one of the things that my editors have taught me is that the writing has to be interesting before it can be good. Why interesting? Because the reader must be able to get through it without passing out or wishing they could be doing anything else. You must engage the audience or they will click away to someone else's work.

The same holds for academic essays that kids learn starting in high school. The reader — the teacher in most cases — must be able to stay awake, stay invested in the writing in order to consider it good. You have to hold their attention. The best way is with tension. Tension pulls the reader in and keeps them looking for the next part — and then, the resolution. Humans want to know what happens next. We love gossip because it is a story that satisfies that tension.

Thus, structuring the argument like gossip is a way to improve the essays we grade and read. For students, writing an argument like gossip is a way to better understand how the argument works. It also gives off an air of confidence in the writing that teachers will appreciate with higher grades.

How It Works

Check out this TikTok user Nanny Maw and her video on how southern women gossip. This TikTok creator captures the structure of gossip.

1. The Context and Claim.

This is the who, what, and where of the gossip. Nanny Maw says that her sister Stacey saw Kathy at “the Olive Garden” with someone. Then she suggests that Kathy's companion was not a spouse or family member. This sets up the info we need to know in order to understand what is happening. Somebody is out eating breadsticks with a person they shouldn’t be. And Stacey saw it. Stacey is our first piece of evidence for our claim. Our claim is that Kathy is a cheat!

In writing, this section is where we define a term or concept in great detail, or we lay out the background or history needed to understand the argument. For example, my argument that Indiana should make stricter mask orders needs context. I need to talk about the background on masks and masks orders. I also need to include a little on COVID-19, the pandemic, and lockdown rules. The audience needs this background in order to understand the next parts of my argument. I don’t want to start off confused. I make sure to tie this to the claim I am making (my thesis about Indiana needing stricter masking).

2. The Evidence/Support for the Claim

In the video, Nanny Maw says that the two people were eating breadsticks together and then suggests that they were making out (or doing weird things with tongues in public). This is from our source Stacey who confirms that lewd things were happening between these two people. These details add to the previous information to make a stronger case for our claim that Kathy is cheating.

In my argument paper, I would add another piece of evidence like stats for states with strict mask orders versus states without them. Maybe I would also add a map of the spread of the first wave of the COVID-19 virus. This I would compare Indiana, with its not-so-strict policy — with those of other states with strict policies. Compare the contraction rates and morbidity as well..

3. The Counter Claim

Nanny Maw’s companion breaks in to make sure she got her facts straight. The companion always thought Kathy was suspect. This is where the gossip listener usually injects disbelief and an indication that the speaker, Nanny Maw, hasn’t given enough details to make this gossip work yet.

In my argument paper, I must tell reveal what the opposition says. Why won’t it work? Why is it deemed false? What is the other side saying about my topic? Here, I would talk about how the sitting president and the GOP politicized the health movement. I’d talk about their views and why the Republican party attached politics to masking wearing.

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Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash

4. The Big Unrefutable Evidence

Nanny Maw and her companion then bring in Kathy’s cat hoarding tendencies as further proof that she is a cheater. (Leaning on the Southern stereotype that a woman who does not clean and hoards animals is of questionable moral character.) This is the “icing on the cake,” the piece of evidence that seals Kathy as a cheater. Laughter ensues.

In the argument paper, this part is reserved for the best evidence we have. It’s that quote or stat or story that will bring the whole argument to a close. It’s the information that will make it impossible for our opponents to dispute our claim. This is the stuff that makes our claim rock solid.

Conclusion

Engaging argument papers have the feel of a professional job. That’s because of the tension injected when you structure the paper like good gossip. That tension adds a complexity that readers will notice. It’s an extra layer that with some fixes for tone and mood, can create that image of a paper that is fit for the opinion pages, not just the teacher’s grade pile. I know my grading of these papers has become more interesting and takes less time to complete. The arguments are all enjoyable. I can’t wait to see how the story turns out. Try it in your classroom or on your next paper.

Jonita Davis is a writer, film critic, and professor. She’s a member of NABJ, AAFCA, a Rotten Tomatoes critic, and an adjunct professor.

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