About This Book

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To My Colleagues

This book translates the language of rhetoric textbooks into the language of actual students, most of whom will never become English majors. The ideas in this book are the basic ideas of argument, together with conventional advice for putting together a thoughtful college essay. My innovation is merely to strip from these ideas the terminology by which English majors will sometimes identify themselves.

The Humble Argument by Roy K. Humble, front cover

The placid countenance of the non-major should not be mistaken for comprehension. These students have merely learned that it’s best to remain quiet as we wax on about commas and syllogisms and Beowulf. By using ordinary language, this book helps those uninitiated students to grasp the ideas of argument on their own. It helps them to put those ideas to good use, too, without having to raise their trembling hands and ask us to explain what exactly we mean by “enthymeme.”

The first section introduces the argumentative essay and sound argumentative practices by comparison to inadequate versions of the same. The second section focuses on the process of building an inductive argument, moving from question to evidence to conclusion to presentation. The third section presents guidelines for constructing a solid but not particularly fancy college essay.

In the final section, I attempt to strengthen this working understanding of argument and the college essay by stepping gently in the direction of traditional terminology and rhetorical approaches. These chapters augment the inductive process from earlier chapters with deductive reasoning and more direct consideration of audience, but they are only an introduction so that others more ambitious than I might continue in that direction.

Colleagues, I agree that traditional rhetoric has for several dozen centuries required no help from the likes of me. Exordium is exordium is exordium — whatever else I might call it — and I do not suggest otherwise. This translation of mine is merely the consequence of my own failure to draw students into that finer vocabulary. If you have succeeded where I have failed, I salute you. However, if you too have struggled to make traditional rhetoric useful to your students, then perhaps this book will serve as a useful addition to your classroom, a bridge over which your students might travel more easily.

To My Student Writers

Student writers, now that the first introduction is over, the rest of this book belongs to you. It will provide you with some sensible guideline and friendly advice. Between that and the invaluable help of your writing professor, you are well on your way toward a successful term of writing.

The most important requirement now is simply that you shy away from the work at hand. You will need to write, and write a lot, so you can see for yourself what it means to put these guidelines into practice. Learning to write the college essay is like learning to French kiss. Reading about it will only take you so far. To learn how to actually do it, you have to actually do it, again and again. That’s the main thing.

So please pause now and give thanks for your writing assignments. They, more than anything, will help you to put these guidelines into practice as a successful college writer. Embrace these assignments with gusto and the blind faith that they will do you some good. Ignore any anxiety you might feel. Repress unpleasant memories. If you’re going to learn anything of lasting value in a writing class, the assignments will teach it to you.

Don’t be afraid of struggling, either. You’re learning new skills here, after all, and new skills do not come easily. Making mistakes will be an unavoidable and important part of the learning process. They are in fact evidence that you’re getting somewhere. So just make your mistakes, correct them, and then move on to make more sophisticated errors. That’s the way the game is played, and writing professors tend to reward you for taking risks.

When I was in second grade, I came running into the house one afternoon yelling for my mother and blubbering because I’d gotten a frowny face on a math test. We’d moved into long division without any warning, and I’d missed six out of ten problems. Mom was on the roof cleaning out the gutters, as I recall, but my older sister Nadine was in the living room practicing for her interpretive dance recital. I told her about the frowny face.

“It’s just math,” she said, waving her arms to simulate the branches of a tree enlivened by a summer breeze. “Anyone can learn math.”

It’s the same story with argument and the college essay. It might feel overwhelming at first, particularly if these are new ideas for you, but it’s just argument. It’s just the college essay. You don’t need any fancy books or websites or interactive DVDs. Just do the work in front of you. You’ll get where you need to go.

Anyone can learn writing, and that includes you.

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