Rhetoric, Writing, Dialectic, Education

Overcome Writer’s Block: The Common Topics

Writer’s Block

You’ve had it, I’ve had it. It’s not pleasant.

As far as I can tell, there four reasons for writer’s block:

  1. Trying to sound profound (This is part of the game in fiction and poetry.)
  2. Poor research
  3. An inability to make an argument
  4. Nothing to actually say
  5. Bonus Reason Five: You’re just procrastinating.

I have very little to say to help poets and fiction authors to overcome writer’s block. What I will say is this: Write about something else. Literally just write a narrative or a poem about something entirely unrelated to the project that has left you stumped. Write a narrative about your trip to the bank or a rhyme about your wait in the grocery line. That helps me come up with sermon illustrations and illustrations for speeches on engineering topics as well.

The big question is this. What can people who are writing term papers, essays, sermons, and persuasive speeches do to overcome writer’s block?

I introduce to you: Aristotle’s Common Topics

The traditional term for this typology of argumentation is “The Common Topics.” They received this name because they represented the forms of argument that could be utilized in any form of persuasion whereas some arguments (like mathematical proofs) are only specific to their field. But it’s important to note that the list below includes argument forms that function on the level of persuasion as well as on the level of discovering the truth. I pulled most of it from Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Corbett and Connors), but some of it is from more modern rhetorical experts, and the list itself is based on Aristotle’s work. Here are the common forms of argument (common topics):

  1. Definition – Arguments are frequently as effective as the definitions of terms allow. And so to define a term is to control the conversation, or at least to narrow it.
    • Genus – To define an item by its genus is to describe what is essential to its nature. “Computers are devices that can be programmed to perform human inputted calculations at inhumanly fast speeds.”
    • Speciation – This is to define something by how it differs from others in its class. “A laptop is a portable computer that sits in your lap.”
    • Division – This is defining something by describing its parts or by explaining what fits within it. “A computer refers to a calculator, a smartphone, a desktop, a mainframe, etc.” Or “A computer consists of a CPU, input, output, a power supply, and software.” 
    • The Reframe – This is more useful for disagreement or for personal mindset shifts. It’s where you reframe a definition to be in favor of your position. In political discourse, the word Nazi has been used as a reframe technique to brand Republicans as uniquely wicked.  
  2. Comparison
    • Similarity – When you’re trying to study, explain, or write about a topic, think about things it is similar to. Argument by analogy is a powerful persuasive tool and analogies often help people discover new solutions to old problems by reasoning like this, “Problem ‘x’ is similar to problem ‘y’ and problem ‘y’ had this solution.” Hofstadter actually calls analogies the fuel and fire of thought.
    • Difference – In order to advertise a product, you might explain how your product is unique among competitors either by being local, non-local, better, cheaper, etc. Differences are obviously useful for explaining how things work or why something is superior to another thing. Kinds of differences include function, composition, size, appearance, accomplishments, honor, goodness, and so-on. When refuting an analogy, you use difference to show how two things are not similar enough to make an analogy.
    • Degree – Comparisons of degree concern how close an object is to embodying its kind compared to another object of that kind. A lab is a better dog than a chihuahua by virtue of one being a dog and the other being too cat-like…a defective dog of sorts.
  3. Relationship – When we write, speak, or study we are always exploring relationships. Galileo studied the sun and the earth, Descartes studied the mind and the body, and Moses studied laws and theology. But what sort of relationships can objects or claims have?
    • Cause and effect – this is the relationship where something is directly attributable to something else. Aristotle described four causes: material, efficient, formal, and teleological.
    • Antecedent and Consequent – Does something become before or after something else? The answer may determine whether something cannot even be cause-and-effect.
    • Contraries – Contrary statements are statements like this, “All dogs are pets.” “All dogs are not pets.” One or the other can be true or both can be false. But both cannot be true.
    • Subcontraries – These are statements that that describe groups in terms of not entirely overlapping. Some dogs are pets, some dogs are not pets. These statements are not quite contrary, they may both be true, or one of them may be true.
    • Contradictories – These are statements of the sort that only one can be true. Example: All dogs are pets. Some dogs are not pets.
    • Implication – Implication is where one statement, if true, means that another statement must be true. If we accept, “All dogs are not pets.” Then it must be true that “Some dogs are not pets” is also true because some is a subset of all.
  4. Circumstance
    • Possible and Impossible – In the art of persuasion, it’s important to help people see a course of action can be done. It’s also important to show people why or how they are wasting their time doing it otherwise. Aristotle gives a few categories that help you figure out what to say about what is possible: If the parts are possible, the whole is possible. If one of a pair of contraries is possible (the water is hot/the water is not hot), then the other is possible. If one of a pair of similar things is possible, then the other is possible (if a man can ride a bike, he can probably ride a motorcycle). If a difficult thing is possible, then an easier thing is possible. If something can begin, then it can end. Finally, if something can be done without skill or planning, then it can be certainly be done with them.
    • Past Fact and Future Fact – How can you show people what could happen or could have happened or could not or could not have happened? Aristotle gives some pointers. If a less probable event occurred in the past or could occur, then a more probable event is likely to have occurred or will occur. If the result of an event occurred, then the event that caused it occurred, too. Or if the cause of an effect occurs, then the effect will occur. For instance, if obsidian is found, then lava must have flowed. Finally, if a man has/had the power, desire, and opportunity to do something, he probably has done it or will do it.
  5. Testimony
    • Authority – Citing a figure or book that is trusted for expertise or imbued with cultural or religious significance is persuasive. Pastors and their churches agree that the Bible is an authority, so pastors cite the Bible in preaching and counseling. Scholars cite experts to make points. This can be a useful part of dialectic (showing your work) but also a way to make you seem trustworthy, well-informed, and on the side of the experts. Think of how often “scientific consensus” is cited. When you’re writing, researching, or preparing to speak, ask what the experts and authorities say. To assume they are always right is a fallacy, but to neglect their voices is folly.
    • Testimonial – This is an anecdote from somebody who has experienced what you’re writing/talking about or what you’re studying. Testimony is typically considered less reliable than “science” or statistics. It is usually more effective and it may be more reliable because it is less filtered by processes of review that can confuse issues. If scientists say, “Eating meat makes you sick,” but individuals who eat meat say, “I’m really healthy, strong, and fit,” who will the average person believe?
    • Statistics – Citing stats and reviewing them is a good way to get bored and be boring. They’re more useful for dialectic unless they are rounded and very simple. Think of how effective the “1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college” stat was at creating mass fear campaigns despite not being true.
    • Maxims – Citing common phrases considered to contain wisdom can be powerful. When you’re trying to write, ask yourself, “does a proverb or maxim help make my point?” If so, use it. Maybe even describe what it means and how it applies. This uses a phrase people know as a hook, then you hang the coat of your ideas on it.
    • Laws – This is mostly useful for political or legal reasoning. But also, one could use the language of laws rhetorically. “The law of gravity states that masses in space attract one another and the same is true of great minds. We’re in a room filled with great minds.” That sort of thing helps people feel connected with you. But the main purpose Aristotle uses this category is for reminding people what the customs and legal precedents are.
    • Precedents – Think of this as picking historical, contemporary, or fictional examples that illustrate your point. This is useful for writing fiction because you can create a narrative in your story that matches some other story. This is useful in legal reasoning because court precedents create the common-law tradition.
  6. Personal – these are more like personal techniques to help you make your case rather than specific modes of argument, but they are ways of being/presenting material that make it persuasive without necessarily making the case for the truth, goodness, or beauty of your position. These topics of persuasion help you with how to write, and less with what, though they help you there, too. Understanding these elements of persuasive technique will also help you focus on the truth of what is said as you learn to see through the glitzy package.
    • Reciprocity – People are willing to act/believe people who have helped them. That’s why your pest-company does a free inspection.
    • Halo Effect – The halo-effect is the idea that if you display competence in one thing, people will believe your competence in others. This is why you dress nicely for job interviews. It’s also why you want to pay attention to somebody’s skills more than their image if you’re interviewing or hiring them. Image building is a skill and often times people with a shoddy image are low-skilled. But this is not always true. In Antifragile, Taleb tells us why he prefers doctors who don’t look like doctors. They must have gotten through med-school via skill.
    • The Neg – The neg is a sort of back-handed remark that causes the recipient to seek social approval from the one who made the remark. It is commonly used in flirting and car-salesmanship. There are some examples in the Bible as well.
    • Social Proof – Robert Cialdini, in his book Influence describes the principle of social proof, “We view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it.” If you’re writing a persuasive piece you want to make something bad seem rare and good seem common, insofar is fitting in makes people feel safe. Though, this is not always true if you are appealing to an audience’s sense of individual identity. Social proof is the principle behind laugh tracks and identity theory in advertising.
    • Scarcity – This persuasive principle centers around making a product seem valuable and limited. Higher prices make objects seem less available and therefore scarce. It also works on the principle that people supposedly fear to lose as much as or more than they love to gain/win.
    • Charisma – This is the cluster of traits that make you attractive to others. Olivia Cabane narrows them to power, warmth, and presence. People want to know that you can do things, that you care about them personally, and that you are with them.

Uses of the Common Topics

  1. Research Tools:
    When you’re doing research look for these types of support for your thesis statement, topic sentence, or rhetorical purpose. Find definitions that frame the paper in the direction you want it to go. Look for research that determines relationships, find testimonials and statistics about your topic, look for old quotes that seem to carry handed down truths, and try to determine logical relationships (possible/impossible). If you find enough evidence to establish deductive certainty or a high probability that a position is correct, then you are not only closer to that elusive truth you wish to grasp, but you are also ready to write a paper!
  2. Persuasive Tools:
    If you know your audience, then you can determine which types of arguments will most convince them. For instance, personal testimonials work really well for people who want to experience personal transformation, whereas statistics and maxims do not seem to work very well. In a courtroom testimony, by way of example, is a very common form of argument. One tactic that I’ve witnessed work on a jury is utilizing audience sympathy for a party who, on the evidence presented, did not seem guilty. But when admissible evidence remained scarce, an appeal to pity worked very well.
  3. Reading Tools:
    When you read a book and wonder, “How is the author actually making this point?” The common topics give you the tools. If the author makes the point without using them, then the point is not being made well or you’re not reading carefully enough.
  4. Mindset Tools:
    The common topics give you mindset tools that help you be confident and humble when giving a speech and answering questions. You can say things because you have good evidence and feel confident and courageous in the process. But, because you know why you accept an idea, you can also be humble because other people might have good reasons for rejecting the idea. Knowing the common topics and how to use them can arm you for more confident and humble conversation. Knowing the common topics can also guard you against smooth operators who make claims with no support or spouts profundities with no apparent meaning.

Conclusion

The Common Topics are quintessential for any liberal arts education. Really, they matter for engineers and scientists. One has to consider whether or not the evidence in favor of a proposition of any type is compelling and which lines of it are most convincing to a particular audience.

Appendix:The Specific Topics

  1. Deliberative (speeches meant to call people to action)
    1. Inherent Worth
    2. Utility
  2. Forensic (speeches meant to convince people of the truth of a proposition concerning past fact)
    1. Evidence (whether something happened)
    2. Definition (what is the nature of the thing)
    3. Motives/Causes (qualities and circumstances)
  3. Ceremonial (speeches celebrating people, virtues, institutions, and so-on)
    1. Virtues and Vices
    2. Personal Assets and Achievements

Works Cited Corbett, Edward P.J, and Robert J Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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