How to read (and then to write)

By Don Watkins

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Learn to Read

If you want to communicate ideas effectively, try this:

Read the writers with whom you agree from the perspective of the readers you want to persuade.

We are, as a rule, way too easy and forgiving of writers who support (or who seem to support) our own views. And when we read them uncritically, nodding along as they make well worn points we agree with, what we automatize is: reading our own work uncritically.

To read writers critically doesn’t mean trying to pick apart everything they say, like a graduate student trying to sneak her thesis past hostile professors.

It means not duping yourself into thinking that the reader will drop his own context, follow your deductions, and embrace your conclusion just because you think each step flows obviously from the last.

It means understanding what would genuinely convince your reader — what would, in the space available, make your conclusion not just logically argued for but overwhelmingly obvious.

Thinking and Writing

“Okay, Watkins. But how does a writer do that?”

The short answer is: the same process by which we validate knowledge for ourselves — reduction.

When we reduce an idea we ask, “What are the steps I went through or would have to go through to get this idea from reality?”

When we communicate we ask: “What steps will my audience have to go through to get this from reality — given their existing values and beliefs?”

That last clause is crucial. Too many liberty supporters (and Objectivists in particular) try to persuade by asking themselves, in effect: what are the logical steps required to prove this given my philosophic framework?

Example: The Bad

For example, take the issue of conservatives accusing Silicon Valley companies of “censorship” and threatening to make them host views those companies don’t want to promote.

Here’s how a typical Objectivist writer might approach it:

“Well, the government’s job is to protect individual rights so we can live by reason. And living by reason requires freedom of speech and it requires property rights. In this case, companies are using their property rights to decide what ideas to promote, which is an exercise of free speech, not a violation of it. So I just need to convey to the reader:

  • The government’s job is to protect rights

Now, of course, we all know that we have to address the reader’s context. But an Objectivist on this approach views addressing the reader’s context as adding some trimmings, like defining some of the concepts and tackling some of the major objections or confusions the audience might have as it encounters each of these premises.

Then they’ll write an article, it will convince no one, Objectivists will read it uncritically, nod along, and the next generation will write equally unpersuasive articles.

Why unpersuasive? Because it is all written from the perspective of how to validate an idea given the Objectivist framework.

But that’s not how you persuade. You cannot bypass the audience’s context, nor can you give him the Cliff’s Notes to your full philosophic framework.

Example: The Good

What’s the right way to approach writing on this topic? How would you answer the question, “What steps will my audience have to go through to get this from reality — given their existing values and beliefs?”

Well, for starters, you’d think:

Why are my readers (let’s assume they lean conservative) confused on this issue? In part, it’s because they equate a private company suppressing ideas with censorship. And then they believe that all of the major social media platforms are dominated by people hostile to conservative ideas. And so the main channels for promoting ideas today are censoring their ideas.

Notice that even having identified that much you could never write anything like the bad Objectivist article. To a conservative who feels like he’s being shut out of the debate, all of your abstractions about living by reason and property rights will seem utterly beside the point.

So now you’d think, okay, so my reader sees Silicon Valley as a threat to his ability to promote his ideas. So what does he need to grasp to see that government control of speech isn’t the solution — that, in fact, it would be worse than the problem he’s trying to cure?

Well, to begin with, he would need to grasp that what the government is threatening to do is to control speech. Is there an example or an analogy that might resonate with him? Oh, what about Jordan Peterson’s fight against Bill C16, which mandated using gender neutral pronouns? Yes, that’s an example of government forcing people to promote ideas they disagree with. And so I need to get my reader to think: okay, if government has this power, what happens when AOC wields it, instead of Ted Cruz?

But, then, the reader might think: “Isn’t this different because social media companies aren’t individuals, but platforms — and doesn’t Section 230 provide special protections for platforms because they don’t act like publishers and decide which speech to host?” So I’ll need to correct that misunderstanding.

So what I’ll have established now is that giving the government control over speech won’t make things better. But I still haven’t addressed the concern that conservative ideas are being suppressed.

Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that they are hardly being suppressed in a way that resembles genuine censorship. Even when a social media company suppresses a story, like the Hunter Biden story, that brings it more attention precisely because, unlike with government censorship, we have avenues to discuss it. Stalin didn’t allow people to complain about censorship in Pravda!

But then there’s another issue that’s relevant: why have social media companies started suppressing speech? Part of the story is that government essentially threatened them with regulation after 2016 because they didn’t police speech on their platforms. What conservatives object to is the result of the very course of action they’re endorsing. . . .

The Idea, Not the Philosophy

Obviously, that’s not an outline. But what I hope you’re seeing is what it looks like to think about how to persuade: you have a conclusion you’ve reached from your philosophic context, but your total focus is on how to get the audience to see the truth of your idea given its context.

Notice: this doesn’t mean appealing to aspects of its context you disagree with. You wouldn’t say, “Well, my reader is probably religious, so maybe I’ll throw in some Bible verses that support me.”

You’re making arguments you agree with — but which arguments you make and how you make them are all conditioned by the audience’s context.

Here, then, is the essential issue: your philosophic framework is what allows you to grasp certain truths that most people will miss. But the point of your article isn’t and can’t be inject your audience with your philosophic framework (unless you’re writing an article about your philosophic framework).

The point of your article is to get it to grasp a specific conclusion or make a specific choice. You can and should bring in elements on your philosophic framework — but only when and as needed to achieve that goal.

Or, to put it another way: your communication reduction asks, “How can I use my context, including my philosophic framework, to help the reader get this idea from reality?” It DOESN’T ask, “How can I help the reader get this idea from my philosophic framework?”

The Next Frontier

What I’ve been discussing is your basic orientation as a persuader: is it to recap your philosophic framework or to help your audience grasp your conclusion from reality?

But to really take this view seriously, it will permeate every decision you make, from your tone to the examples you use.

Above all, it will shape the structure. When your audience reads something, its implicit question at every step is, “Why are we talking about this right now?” The hallmark of someone trying to recapitulate their philosophic context is that the audience will regularly be confused, wondering, “Why are we talking about this? Why is he making this point? How is this relevant?”

Actually, what I said is not quite right. It won’t regularly be confused because after one or two instances of this kind of mistake, you won’t have an audience.

Key Takeaways

Communication follows thinking. First, you need to get clear on the truth from your philosophic context.

But when it’s time to communicate, your total focus needs to be on: what does the audience need to know to reach this conclusion from reality, given its context?

To answer that, don’t start by trying to draft or even outline a piece. Think on paper, the way I did in my second example.

Then organize your thinking into an outline, trying to make each point follow inexorably from the previous point, so that the audience effortlessly follows you from start to finish. Make sure it never has to wonder why you’re saying what you’re saying when you’re saying it.

Do that, and you’ll be unstoppable.

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