David Foster Wallace's advice on arguing persuasively
David Foster Wallace, born in 1962, was one of the most respected writers of his generation. His novel Infinite Jest was considered by many one of the great English language novels of the late 20th century. In addition to his novels and short stories, Wallace wrote penetrating essays about a wide variety of subjects: philosophy, mathematics and the annual Maine Lobster Festival. But one of his favorite topics was language and what he once described as “the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography,” whose perverse politics “reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale.”
In a lengthy interview with me in February 2006, Wallace discussed many points of interest to legal writers. It proved to be one of his last long interviews (he committed suicide in September 2008). What follows is an excerpt from a newly released book, Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. Royalties from the book support the David Foster Wallace literary archive housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
BAD WRITERS AS GOOD READERS
Garner: A lot of lawyers say to me they’re writing for judges who themselves don’t write very well, who write a lot of jargon-laden stuff, so they think the best expressive tactic is to mimic the style of the judges for whom they are writing. Does that make sense to you?
Wallace: This gets very tricky. The same thing happens in academia. When students enter my classes, very often what I end up doing is beating out of them habits they were rewarded for in high school—many of them having to do with excessive abstraction, wordiness, overcomplication, excessive reliance on jargon, especially in literary criticism.
But it gets tricky because they will point out that some of the other professors in the department appear to expect this kind of writing. It’s the sort of prose in which their syllabus and handouts are written. So to a certain extent, it’s tricky. What I say to these students is: “Between you and me, different people have different levels of skill at writing.”
Somebody like a judge or a professor who is himself [whispering] a really bad writer is nevertheless usually a really good reader. And he or she will not necessarily make the number of connections you’re worried about when you worry that “if I turn in this pellucid, lapidary marvel, somehow the judge won’t like it because it’s not like the judge’s own style.”
I would say if judges are like profs, 99 percent of them will reward you for clarity, for precision, for minimizing the unnecessary effort they have to make. And it probably won’t occur to them that it would be a darned good idea to incorporate some of these principles into their own writing because some people are just dumb as writers.
So that is an argument, I think, for: Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, …. the fact remains, particularly in the professions, that the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.
G: Why do so many English professors write so poorly?
W: A lot of academic writing—and my guess is a lot of legal, medical, scientific writing—is done by … [pause] All right. How to do this?
The simple way to put it, I think, is: Writing, like any kind of communicating, is complicated. When you’re writing a document for your professional peers, you’re sending out a whole lot of different messages. Some of them are the stuff you’re arguing; some of them are stuff about you.
My guess is that disciplines that are populated by smart, well-educated people who are good readers but are nevertheless characterized by crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose are usually part of a discipline where the dynamic between writing as a vector of meaning—as a way to get information or opinion from me to you—versus writing as maybe a form of dress or speech or style or etiquette that signals that “I am a member of this group” gets thrown off.
There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.
I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.
G: Do you teach argumentative writing at all?
W: I have. Do you mean in freshman comp: “Here are the rhetorical modes”? Mostly now, if I’m not teaching straight-out fiction writing or essay writing, I’m teaching lit. And most lit papers are argumentative, which is a shock to many students. But what you’re really arguing for is something you must yourself create, which is an interesting reading of something.
G: Let’s take argumentative writing. Do you have a view of what a good opener should do—what you do in the middle, and what you do at the end?
W: A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: Why should you spend your time reading this? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.
G: What do you do in the middle part of an argumentative piece?
W: You’re dividing an argumentative piece up into kind of three tragic acts, then. Because I’d resist the idea that it’s dividable into three, but … .
G: Do you think of most pieces as having, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle and an end—those three parts?
W: I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is: How much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act … a three-part structure?
G: Well, the middle is the biggest puzzle, I think. To say, “Oh, this is what you do in the middle.” I think your statement of the opener is excellent. What about the closer? What about the end? What do you try to do? What are the ends in your essays?
W: The middle should work. It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.
I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Like: “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Parsing Infinity: Footnotes from David Foster Wallace on arguing persuasively.”