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: The Common Methods of Argumentation

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 smart phone, a desk top, a main frame, etc.” Or “A computer consists of a cpu, input, output, a power supply, and software.” 
    • The Reframe –
  2. Comparison
    • Similarity
    • Difference
    • Degree
  3. Relationship
    • Cause and effect
    • Antecedent and Consequent
    • Contraries
    • Subcontraries
    • Contradictories
    • Implication
  4. Circumstance
    • Possible and Impossible
    • Past Fact and Future Fact
  5. Testimony
    • Authority
    • Testimonial
    • Statistics
    • Maxims
    • Laws
    • Precedents
  6. Personal
    • Reciprocity
    • Halo Effect
    • The Neg
    • Social Proof
    • Scarcity
    • Charisma

Uses of the Common Topics:

  1. Research Tools:
    When you’re doing research look for these types of support in relationship to 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.

AppendixThe 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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