Getting Started - Writing About Controversies

Begin at the Beginning

It seems easy. You get the assignment, circle the due date, then stuff it into a notebook so that you can find it later. Or not. Here are a few suggestions for getting started effectively.

Read the assignment as soon as possible

Your instructor may have discussed the assignment in class, but it’s important to take a few minutes to read the assignment again as soon as you can after you receive it. What seemed crystal-clear in class may no longer be when you start to write.

Underline key words and phrases

Especially the verbs because they tell you what to do. What is your primary task? Purpose? What questions, concepts, or issues will you need to consider while you work?

Note specific instructions

Again, pretty basic, right? But making note of the small details from the beginning likely will save   you headaches in the end. Are you expected to do outside research to complete the assignment?  How many sources do you need to use? What are the requirements for the final draft?

Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask your instructor to explain anything about an assignment that you don't understand. Often the earlier you ask your questions, the more useful the answers will be to you.

Delve into the assignment

All Rhetoric assignments are different, but often they fall in one of three general categories. Understanding the type of assignment ahead of you may help you identify questions and issues you’ll want to keep in mind as you prepare to write. Please note that these are general overviews of typical assignments. It’s important to talk to your instructor if you have questions about a specific assignment.

Analyze a position

Whereas an assignment to describe a controversy asks you to trace several positions that individuals or groups might hold on a subject, an assignment to analyze a position often asks you to carefully consider the arguments presented by a specific writer or speaker. In addition to identifying issues, values and claims, this type of assignment may also focus on the audience, purpose, occasion, and tone of a position--that is, ask you to consider the rhetorical situation of an argument--and/or ask that you evaluate the use of persuasive appeals, such as ethos, pathos, and logos.

Some common key words: consider, assess, evaluate, along with analyze.

Describe a controversy

An assignment to describe a controversy often asks you to introduce the controversy you’ve chosen to your audience and present the issues from the perspective of several sides or positions. This type of assignment may focus on the central issues, values, claims and assumptions surrounding a controversy--an exploration of the debates and why the people who care about this issue may disagree.

Some common key words: map, trace, explore, characterize, as well as, describe.

Often for these two types of assignments your instructor will require that you remain a neutral or objective writer exploring issues without taking a position of your own.

The third type of assignment often asks you to argue in support of a specific stance on an issue:

Advocate a position

An assignment to advocate a position often asks you to persuade your audience of the merits of your personal position on an issue or cause. Though you may have strong opinions on your topic, as an advocate your goal is to support those opinions with reliable evidence and sound reasoning.

Some common key words: persuade, defend, support, argue, justify.

Chart your next move

If your assignment requires that you select your topic from class readings, rereading articles with these tips in mind may help you find a topic that both interests you and matches well with the assignment. If your assignment has you in search of a controversy to research or analyze, this might be an ideal time to begin brainstorming. For more suggestions on how you might search for a topic, you might find the handout Choosing a Controversy helpful.