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How to argue in a position paper
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Knowing the Arguments:
Tasks for Writing a Position Paper

The Task Outline provided in this section will help you create communications that effectively meet audience expectations.

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.

Basic Outline

In most cases, you can use the following outline for informal arguments to construct the logic of a policy position:

Problem

Issue

Question about the issue that has at least two answers, and is therefore arguable

Claim (the arguer’s assertion or answer to the question)

Support:

>justification

>> reasons ('because,' or the relevance of the assertion)

>> assumptions (‘why’, or the values, beliefs,
>> principles that motivate the assertion, as well
>> as the authority represented in the assertion)

> elaboration

>> grounds (supporting evidence for the reasons
>> and for the assumptions)

>> limits (constraints the arguer would place on a claim)

> anticipated reactions (potential responses
> from diverse other positions)

>> cooperative, or supporting assertions

>> competitive, or opposing assertions

>> altogether different assumptions

>> challenges to reasons or to grounds

Note: 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 reasoning have been anticipated.

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Task #2: Write the position paper

The message that the document conveys, typically, will be your claim, or your answer to the issue question. Or, it will be a conclusion that you draw that derives from the claim.

Planning and Preparing

Use the General Method before you write.

By consciously thinking about your position and outlining the logic of your argument, 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. In the document, information should be organized according to the needs of readers as well as the aims of the writer. An outline that helps a writer to think might not help readers to understand.

Establish Authority and Credibility

You must clearly understand your authority, and make it clear to the readers. Your authority for taking a position derives from your role and power in the process as well as your credentials.

The document must clearly show whose position it communicates. Yours? That of an organization that you represent?

Anticipate Responses

You must anticipate reactions to your position. Go back to the list you made of positions other than your own (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.

Manage Content

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. By writing your position paper to show that you are aware of both similar and conflicting views, you retain credibility.

Put lengthy evidence in an appendix. Charts, tables, other graphics or extended textual materials should 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. Especially, writers should know whether all readers will see the entire document including appendices.

Document Sources

Use a standard citation style for identifying sources. Modern Language Association (MLA) style might be sufficient. Use government style (Chapter 3) if you are citing government records.

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 ‘ghost writing’ for someone else? Who will review drafts and make revisions?

Review and Revise

Remember to check the final product against the standard Communication Checklists.

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Task Outlines

Download a worksheet (in .rtf) of the Basic Outline for arguments that you can use to get started.