Knowing the Arguments:
How to argue in a position
Below, the goal, objective, scope, and product for a position paper are specified along with a suggested strategy for writing a position paper.
Critical awareness of your own position, critical understanding of other positions, and willingness to consider and to engage other positions.
Reasoned argument for a position showing awareness of alternative positions and reasoning.
Written document that explicitly argues and aims to persuade. A genre commonly used by policy analysts outside government is the position paper (sometimes called a discussion paper or “white” paper). Products might run to book-length in some circumstances, or they might be much shorter, perhaps two to six pages.
Either a “big picture” of conditions, causes, or consequences relating to a problem or a “little picture” of significant particulars.
To know your position in relation to others. To consider your position ethically and politically:
- Make a list of the known positions on the problem.
- Ask and answer the questions “What does my position have in common with others on this list?” and “How does my position differ from or conflict with others on the list?”
- Note specific commonalities, differences, and conflicts of values, assumptions, or ideas between your position and other positions.
- Identify potential grounds for cooperation and for competition.
Tasks for Preparing an Argument
Task #1. Outline Your Argument
If you are authoring a position paper for a professional association or for a nonprofit organization, make sure you understand its mission and how the position you are taking relates to the mission. Be clear on that relationship. Consult before deviating from the mission.
In most cases, you can use the following outline for informal arguments to construct the logic of a policy position:
Question about the issue that has at least two answers and is therefore arguable
Claim (the arguer’s assertion or answer to the question)
1. reasons (“because,” or the relevance of the assertion)
2. assumptions (“basis” or the values, beliefs, principles, and licenses that motivate the assertion as well as the authority represented in the assertion)
1. grounds (supporting evidence for the reasons and the assumptions)
2. limits (constraints the arguer would place on the claim)
Anticipated reactions (potential responses from diverse other positions)
1. Cooperative or supporting assertions
2. Competitive or opposing assertions
3. Altogether different assumptions
4. Challenges to reasons or to grounds
The outline does not include rebuttal. A position paper should not rebut. Rather, it should state its reasoning in a way that shows that reactions to the writer’s reasoning have been anticipated.
Task #2. Write the Position Paper
Review the general method before you write to get the rhetorical framework for your document in mind.
By consciously thinking about your position in relation to others (Strategy, above) and outlining the logic of your argument (Task #1, above), you have already begun to plan the contents of the document. That does not mean that the document’s contents should simply fill in the outline, however. Think of the outline as a skeleton. The contents are its body, clothed for a particular occasion.
The message that the document conveys will be your claim or your answer to the issue question.
When arguing in a policy context, you must be aware of your authority for making a claim. Authority in argument has two meanings, a practical meaning and a conceptual meaning. In practical politics, authority means credibility and power. Credibility derives more from a role than from a credential such as specialized expertise, although that might be relevant. (The phrase “consider the source” evokes this meaning of authority.) Any role carries its own kind of power, whether it’s the power of elected or appointed office or the power of citizenship or community membership. Conceptually, authority means persuasiveness. Authority in this sense is a function of evidence and analysis. Authoritative writing convinces by the quality of its support for claims and its care for using information reliably. (The phrase “you can rely on it” evokes this meaning of authority.) The best policy arguments are both credible and persuasive.
The document must clearly show whose position it communicates. Yours? That of an organization that you represent? You must anticipate reactions to your position. Go back to the list you made of positions other than your own (see Strategy, above). To each position on the list, add the reaction you might accordingly expect, and then rank the reactions in order of importance to you. Anticipate responses, but do not rebut them in the position paper (unless you are directed to do so). Keep the focus on your position.
Condense greatly, for now. You will likely have later opportunity to elaborate. However, keep this in mind: Ignoring information your readers may ultimately decide (under the influence of other arguments) is important will cost you credibility. Put detailed evidence in an appendix. Charts, tables, other graphics, or extended textual materials should normally be appended. However, the choice to append important details should rest on knowing the circumstances in which the position paper will be read and used. Writers especially should know whether all readers will see the entire document, including appendices. Use a standard citation style for identifying sources. Modern Language Association (MLA) style or American Psychological Association (APA) style might be sufficient.
If you are authoring a position paper that speaks for a group or organization, plan to allow adequate time for consultation. Are you the sole author, or do you have collaborators? Are you ghostwriting for someone else? Plan also to allow for review and revision, possibly multiple reviews calling for multiple revisions. Who will review drafts? Who will make revisions?
Remember to check the final draft against expected standards (checklists) and revise further, if needed, before releasing.