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Writers Talk About Writing

Five High School Debating Tactics to Make You a Better Writer

I recently spent an entire Saturday listening to a bunch of 16-year-olds argue with each other. And then I graded their efforts to help determine a winner. Sounds odd, I know. But that's the world of competitive debating. And what works for these high schoolers on the podium, can work for your writing, too.

If you've never watched a high school debate, you don't know what you've missed. Alternately mind-numbing and exhilarating, it allows you to see teenagers become adults before your very eyes. They take a complicated topic -- at this competition it was "be it resolved that Canada cease trade with China in view of the latter's human rights abuses" -- and argue the pros and cons in a highly stylized fashion. Of course it's not like real life. But in writing and delivering their speeches (they get a total of eight minutes per debator), these kids learn how to present in public, make persuasive arguments and think fast on their feet.

I attended the event as a judge. It was karma, you see. As a high school student, I was a serious debator -- although I want to emphasize that I stopped well short of wearing a pocket protector. But I'm not joking when I say that everything I know about writing, I learned from debating.

Here are five key speaking/writing lessons I was reminded of while watching the latest crop of young Clarence Darrows.

  1. Don't bury people in facts and statistics. In watching the debate on China, I soon felt as though I'd mistakenly wandered into a conference on economics. I heard way too much about trade surpluses, trade deficits and gross national products. But after a very short while, the billions of dollars began to blur and I became desperate for a good anecdote. The speakers who won my heart and mind were the ones who told stories and used metaphors. In other words, they appealed to my emotions, not just my brain.
  2. Be organized -- have a structure. The classic public speaking advice is: "The mind will only tolerate what the seat can bear." When you speak you need to be concise and well organized. I used to like using a structure of three -- three points per debate. Enough to be persuasive but not enough to bore. I introduced the points at the beginning and recapped them at the end. Listeners -- and readers -- LOVE structure. That's why this article is shaped as a list. Five points. The promise of brevity. That's what's keeping you reading, right?
  3. Show energy and passion. As I listened to the kids talk about trade with China, I could see some were boring even themselves. They were tired, lethargic, ho hum. And then their rivals jumped up. They spoke quickly and dynamically. They gesticulated. They emoted. And they made me snap to attention. I find the same thing with writing. I can tell when the writer is bored, fed up, just grinding out the word count. Instead, I want to read someone who is passionate about the subject he or she is writing about.
  4. Be bold. Sometimes, when you're making an argument, you just need to go for broke. As I watched this debate, I could see the affirmative side getting destroyed. After all, it's hard to argue that a pipsqueak country like Canada -- and I can say that only because I'm Canadian -- could realistically have an economic impact on a trade giant like China. I spent the entire day waiting for at least one debator to argue: "It's not about dollars. We should do this simply because it's the morally correct thing to do." Of course, an argument like that is frightening because it's so simple. But as the guys who play Texas Hold 'Em will tell you, sometimes you need to be bold. No guts; no glory.
  5. Be yourself. Some people are naturally funny. Some are serious. Others, sincere. But when you stand up to deliver a speech, you need to be yourself. If you take on another persona (for example, trying to be a comedian when you're not hardwired that way) you'll fall flat. In writing, I often see literary pratfalls when people have taken copywriting classes. They start sounding like their mentors -- well, sort of. The problem is, they end up looking like 5-year-olds in mommy's lipstick and high heels -- their writing doesn't quite "fit." That's because they've failed to adapt the writing tricks to their own voice.

Thirty years ago, I learned that debating isn't just talk. It's about persuading. Similarly writing is not only imparting information. It's about influencing. Absorb that essential difference and you'll find yourself writing articles that people will be eager to read.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday March 27th 2007, 1:35 PM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
The point on appealing to emotion , not just the brain, is well taken. As author John Junor once noted, “An ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts.”
Thursday March 29th 2007, 3:07 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I enjoyed thinking about debating and writing. Yes, writers also tend to get mired down in boring facts and the audience never bothers to finish the article. Imparting information and keeping the interest of the reader is a challenge. If your personality can't shine through the numbers and explanations, you have written the piece without much thought for your audience. Finding the way to make dull words sparkle is what makes the difference.

Easier said than done, but your point about retaining your own writing style hit home. I'm trying to write a church history of 150 years from a collection of material which has little humor or personality in it. My fingers are poised over the keyboard, but my brain has stalled out in low gear. I am renewed now to let my own personality tell the story. Thank You. MBC
Thursday March 29th 2007, 4:17 PM
Comment by: John P.
I like the string of short, descrptive sentences: "They spoke quickly and dynamically. They gesticulated. They emoted. And they made me snap to attention." in speaking/writing lesson #3. It's a lesson within a lesson.
Thursday March 29th 2007, 10:18 PM
Comment by: Daniela B.
I always use a trick: make your audience laugh. If I cannot connect at that level and pull them off their seat a bit, then I did not succeed engaging their brains...
Monday April 2nd 2007, 7:05 PM
Comment by: Tyrone P.
A key point of view is to avoid the logical fallacies, simple put it is hard to beat sound reasoning and truth.

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