Describe a Controversy

This page provides suggestions for how to approach an assignment to describe a controversy.

Often when we’re asked to provide a description of a situation we focus on what things looked like or provide a summary of what happened. But describing a controversy almost always involves more than reporting just the facts. The following are a few tips to help you develop an assignment to describe a controversy.

Think beyond pro vs. con

“There are two sides to every story,” or so the adage goes. But based on personal experience alone, you’re likely aware that in most controversies there are often many more sides than that. Some questions you might want to ask: Who does this controversy affect? How might the outcome of this controversy affect the people involved? Why is it important that people who are not directly affected by this controversy know something about it?

If you’re having a hard time finding more than two different positions, a search for articles in periodicals across the political spectrum may help. (For a list of some periodicals online, head to the Selected Websites page.)

Search for the core of the controversy

What are the greatest concerns of each side? What seems to concern each least? How do the values of each side influence the position it holds? Some controversies seem so heated that it seems the sides have nothing in common. But sometimes the sides in these controversies disagree the most because they have the most in common. Some other questions to ask as you search for the core of the controversy include:

What events or reasons turned this issue into a controversy?
Do the sides of this controversy share similar values?
How might the arguments of one side influence those made by other sides of this controversy?

Don’t forget the why
It’s easy to get lost in the who, what, and where of a controversy, but don’t forget that one of your primary tasks as you describe a controversy is to explore why each side holds a certain position as well as the history of how this controversy came to be. One way to help insure that you will address the “why” of your controversy is to anchor your paper with a focused thesis statement.

Thesis statements for this type of assignment can be frustrating at first because of the requirement to remain neutral. It might help, though, to think of your thesis statement for this assignment as a concise assessment of what you consider to be the central parts of this description. What do we need to know about this controversy and the people involved for us to understand the reasons for this conflict? Why do the sides involved disagree? And what do you want your audience to know about this controversy after reading your paper that it may not have known before?

This handout can help you think through and practice writing objective thesis statements.

For more suggestion about how to remain neutral in your writing, head to this page.

Leave a strong impression

If you are having a hard time with your conclusion, it may help to think of your paper not as the final word on your issue but as an introduction to the debate and a suggestion as to what the next step in the discussion might be. Your task is not to “solve” the controversy or provide a resolution. If you are giving a speech, it can be useful to remind your audience of your main points or key ideas in the conclusion. But, if you are writing a short paper, a recap is often not as necessary. Instead you might provide an additional observation, an example or situation that exemplifies the conflict. Or you might pinpoint one or two issues that you see as central to future discussions about this controversy. Where might there be common ground? What types of questions might each side need to ask one another (and themselves) as they continue this debate? If you feel that your controversy is one that deserves wider attention, where might your reader get more information?