Chapter 10: Earn Your Credibility
Your credibility as a writer is the confidence your readers place in you. It’s their judgment of just how seriously they should take you and your ideas.
In this chapter, you’ll take a closer look at this peculiar relationship you have with your readers. It’s not the most rewarding relationship in the world. As you’ve seen already, it requires serious effort on your part. You have to be thorough in your research and thoughtful with your evidence. You have to plan and present your ideas carefully. And after all of that, your readers still might not take you seriously, possibly because of a stupid little mistake like using the word “defiantly” when you mean “definitely.”
Credibility is tough to earn and easy to lose, but it helps if you know what your readers are looking for in a trustworthy writer. You can start by examining the nature of the writer-reader relationship. From there, you’ll turn your attention to some practical tips for earning credibility from your readers.
The Key to a Successful Relationship Is You Doing All the Work
In recent months, I’ve learned a lot about readers from taking care of the cat that my former girlfriend forced on me when she moved out. “Here,” she said, handing me the cat. “Evolve.” I’m still not sure what she meant by that, nor have I been able to remember the cat’s name, but I can tell you this — taking care of a cat teaches you plenty about the writer-reader relationship and credibility.
The first thing you learn is that your relationship with a cat exists solely for the benefit of the cat. Your job is to provide what the cat requires, and the cat’s job is to grudgingly receive it. That’s how it works with your readers, too. You provide. They receive. It’s a one-way street.
More importantly, you are the only active participant in the owner-cat relationship. If you bring home the wrong brand of cat food, you have failed, and the cat can’t do anything to fix your mistake. All she can do is walk away from the cat food she hates and maybe tear up the arm of the sofa to express her disappointment.
But even if you buy the right kind of cat food, your work isn’t done. To be a credible provider, you also have to offer her the food in the right dish. If you put it in a dish she hates, you fail. She can’t move it from the green bowl that she hates to the pink bowl that she loves. And she’s certainly not going to change her mind about the green dish just because you put food in it. She’s a cat, and she’s made it perfectly clear that the green dish is out. If you don’t want her to walk away and tear up your sofa, you have to put the food in the right dish.
It’s the same story with your readers. The food is the essay you offer them. Your readers won’t tear up your sofa if you offer them a shoddy idea, but they will walk away. They’ll withdraw their confidence in you as a writer. But offering them a good idea is only the start. How you offer it also matters. They’re your readers, and they’ve made it perfectly clear that they expect things to be just so. If you want to earn their confidence, you have to take their expectations seriously.
I’m starting to think that most writing professors are more like dogs than cats. Dogs will eat anything you give them and then thank you for it. They’ll do everything they can to make you feel good about yourself, too, even if you don’t deserve to. That’s nice of them, I know, but you’ve probably figured out by now (inductively) that most of your actual readers are more like cats than dogs. Other professors, scholarship committees, court officials — these are people who are fussy not only about what you offer them but also how you offer it.
If you write a traffic judge a serious letter arguing that your fine should be reduced, for example, the judge isn’t going to smile just to see an envelope with her name on it. She’s not going to automatically reduce the fine and throw in a coupon for free pizza. That’s how a dog would respond if a dog were a traffic judge, but a real traffic judge acts like a cat. You’ll have to offer some good reasons to defend your idea, and you better not make your ideas unpalatable by explaining them with a handwritten note on unicorn stationery.
This is how it works with you and your readers. They are the cats, and their job is to sit in judgment while you do all the work. That’s not fair to you. You would prefer a more equitable arrangement, and rightly so. However, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do all the work. That starts by you accepting this lopsided relationship for what it is.
Do Credible Work
You earn your credibility by showing your readers the qualities that deserve to be taken more seriously — thoughtfulness, hard work, intelligence, precision, and so on. The main way you do this is by building a credible essay.
When you raise a good question, you show readers that you’re an inquisitive thinker. When you gather and consider sufficient evidence for your question, you demonstrate that you’re a hard worker. When you develop an insightful and convincing answer to your question, readers see how intelligent you are. When you translate your idea into a well-organized and technically excellent essay, you show readers that you are skilled. Your readers, impressed as they are by these qualities in your essay, are more likely to take you seriously.
In the same way, any weaknesses in your essay show readers that you lack important qualities as a writer, and you lose credibility. If you leave out evidence that readers know about, they’ll wonder whether you’ve done that intentionally, to tilt the evidence in your favor, or from lack of effort. Either way, you’ll have a harder time convincing them because you’ve lost some of their trust. If you offer a reason that isn’t logical, your readers will find you less intelligent. That will throw all your ideas into question. If you’re a worse speller than your readers, or if you include hilarious spell-checker errors, you might lose all credibility with your readers. That’s like putting the cat food in the green dish. Your credibility might never recover from that kind of mistake.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Besides building a credible essay, you also earn — or more often risk losing — credibility by how you address your readers. My sister Nadine once told my mother to “get the hell out” of her bedroom. In the following weeks of retribution, it was discovered that Nadine had presented my mother with a reasonable suggestion. Nadine had been preening in front of the mirror in her underwear when Mom barged in to ask if she had the vacuum cleaner. Nadine, then in the bloom of her prolonged adolescence, was reasonable in making a claim for privacy. Her claim might have been taken seriously, too, if she had chosen her words more carefully.
Student writers, we hope, are not likely to swear at their readers, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t undo a lot of otherwise good work by choosing their words without care. Consider this paragraph:
Nowadays it sucks to be a student because there’s never any way to make it happen without taking out TONS of student loans. My dad got GRANTS to go to school back in the day, free money, money he didn’t even NEED, really, and his parents gave him money, too. Going to school now means basically taking out a mortgage on my LIFE. Is that fair? No way!
If we look just at the observation and its short bit of evidence, this is a reasonable opinion that has some basis in reality. For this student, going to school requires many dollars in student loans. Compared to the public support that was available to the student’s father, the student is in a far worse situation. However, that’s not what you notice about this paragraph. You notice the CAPITAL LETTERS and conversational tone and the word “sucks.” This approach is not uncommon for student writers. Wanting to connect with readers, they work hard to not show off their intelligence with smarty-pants techniques such as precise language and grammatical sentences. Instead, they translate their complex ideas into a friendly but vague conversational style.
Foolish student writers! That’s not how you earn credibility. Your readers don’t want to be your friend. They are cats, and cats are critical, and if you’re going to connect with cats, you do so by rising to their high standards and earning their trust. That means addressing your readers precisely, intelligently, and respectfully. If you have a good idea — and I’m confident you do — then translate that idea into exact, formal language and assume that your reader is up to the task of understanding it. Don’t try to be friends with your catlike readers. That only makes them reject you — and probably your idea, too.
Besides adopting a more serious tone, you should also avoid inflammatory words. Swear words, for example, are almost never credible in the college essay. Vulgarity rarely works. You know that, though. A more common mistake is to present your ideas with words that make fun of topics or ideas that are important to your readers. In doing that, you make fun of your readers, too.
Consider these three topic sentences for the same paragraph:
Senate Bill 211 could have the unintended consequence of raising the mortality rate in our state.
Senate Bill 211 is a threat to children.
Senate Bill 211 is ridiculous.
Now imagine that you support Senate Bill 211. In the first topic sentence, the writer states an idea that you can see you should take seriously, and there’s nothing here to put you on the defensive. This is only a possibility to consider. The writer assumes that it would be an unintended consequence, not a malicious act by its sponsors. The sentence is objective about its concern. As a supporter, this sentence is still challenging for you. You may not want to hear this. However, because the writer brings it up respectfully and objectively, you are likely to read the paragraph that follows with an open mind. The writer has earned enough credibility for that.
The second topic sentence is less precise, so you’re not sure what to expect from the paragraph, but the real barrier is the word “threat.” Senate Bill 211 might indeed be a threat, so the idea might be accurate, but that word suggests intentional harm, and that could make you feel defensive about the bill, even though you don’t know yet what the writer means by this word. The vagueness gives the impression that the whole bill is a threat, too, so that’s more reason to continue with a much less open mind. The writer has made the job of convincing you more difficult by using this inflammatory word. It lowers your confidence in the objectivity of the writer.
The third topic sentence is insulting, and you as a supporter know that the real-world evidence about this bill doesn’t support that kind of disrespect. The bill isn’t worthy of ridicule. It’s thoughtful work. It might not be perfect, but it wasn’t written by baboons. When you see a vague and insulting topic sentence like that, it almost doesn’t matter what follows. The writer has shown contempt for something you support, and that’s contempt you might easily feel on a personal level. If you were a cat, this is when you would tear up the sofa. As a human, if you read the paragraph at all, you will read it with distrust for this writer. A single word has cost the writer most of his or her credibility.
If you’ve taken the time to build a good essay, take a little more time to choose your words carefully. Presenting your argument with careful, appropriate, respectful language helps to preserve the credibility you’ve earned.
Respect the Views of Others
You also earn credibility by showing respect for those with whom you disagree. And by “showing respect,” I don’t mean faking it. It’s easy enough to say that you respect the views of others, but to actually show that respect, you need to state their positions fairly, adapt your own position in light of their ideas, and rebut their positions honestly. If a person you disagree with happens to be one of your readers, this kind of treatment helps them to take you and your ideas seriously. However, even if a reader agrees with your views, you earn additional credibility by providing consideration of other evidence and ideas.
One worry that student writers often have about addressing alternative claims or contradictory evidence is that it will weaken their arguments. You should only worry about that when your argument is weak. If, for example, your argument makes sense only if you ignore contradictory evidence, then presenting all the evidence will make that flaw clear to readers. Or if you present an idea as the best answer to a question but it’s really just one of three equally good answers, then presenting those other two equally good answers will make readers wonder what makes your chosen answer any better than the others. The solution to this problem, however, is not to hide the evidence that makes your argument look weak. Your argument doesn’t just look weak. It is weak. The solution is to write a better argument.
I’ve also heard student writers quietly confess that they don’t want to appear wimpy by having to qualify their ideas or acknowledge that other alternatives are also pretty good. I assume that this is a lingering bit of persuasive paper strategy, the urge to bowl the readers over with boldness.
The goal of the college essay is not to share strong opinions. The goal is to share honest opinions. Considering and respecting alternate views helps you to improve your own ideas, to make them more honest, by tempering them and expanding the basis of evidence for your judgments. A bold display of unearned confidence is thus a sign of weakness, not strength. You’re overcompensating for something, the careful reader thinks — which is a catty thing for readers to think, but then again, your readers are catlike.
The best way to show respect for alternative positions is to present them fairly and accurately. It might be tempting to present them negatively or to present a weakened version of any opposing arguments. However, an informed reader will see what you’re doing and hold it against you. If the opposing position really is weaker, you should be polite and honest about that and let readers see that weakness for themselves. There’s no need to beat up on the opposition.
Suppose you have just written a convincing argument that people should stop drinking cow milk because 80 percent of cow milk now comes from mega-dairies that pollute the environment with methane and liquid manure. One opposing position is that children should drink cow milk because it’s such an efficient way for their developing bodies to get the nutrients they need. Another opposing position is that people should drink only organic milk because it doesn’t contain any of the drugs used to make cows produce large quantities of milk. How do you include those views in your essay? Here’s one option:
It will come as no surprise that some people have no real concern for the environment. All they care about is meeting their own needs. Parents, for example, might say that cow milk is an essential food for growing children. That might be true, but a lot of good it will do those kids if they don’t have an environment to grow up in.
Your local hippie farmers may look like they care about the environment because so much of the environment is caked to their boots and overalls. They may claim, too, that their organic milk is safer because they don’t pump their cows full of pregnancy hormones. But the fact is that whether these farmers look eco-friendly or not, and whether the milk is safe or not, the hippie cows still produce the same amount of manure and methane as mega-dairy cows. The milk might be better to drink, but the cows are still bad for the environment.
There are reasons to say yes to cow milk as food, but that’s not the real issue here. The real issue is saving the environment. Without a safe environment, we die. Every time these parents and hippie farmers say yes to cow milk, they’re saying no to Mother Earth. They’re committing a slow, lactose-friendly form of suicide.
These are bold words, anti-bovine student writer, and while I salute your passion, this presentation of alternative positions makes me question your objectivity. By asserting that parents and “hippie farmers” don’t really care about the environment, you’ve demonstrated that you either don’t understand them or that you think that people don’t really care about the environment unless they care in the same way and to the same degree that you care. Either way, that’s small-minded thinking. Your credibility has decreased.
You’ve also dismissed these views quickly and entirely. Isn’t a parent’s concern for nutrition worthy of consideration? Doesn’t organic farming, at least to some degree, address the problems of mega-dairies? To be fair and accurate, you should present those views in more detail and without bashing them at the same time. See what you think of this:
It’s understandable that parents in particular would object to abolishing cow milk because they have come to rely on it for their children’s health. Cow milk provides easily assimilated calcium to help developing bones, and it’s loaded with other vitamins that children in particular need. Removing cow milk from a child’s diet would require parents to find alternative methods for supplying these nutrients, and that might not always be convenient.
However, it’s still important to consider the long-term perspective with this issue. A child’s health and development are very important, but equally important is the health of the planet. To improve the health of the planet, we have to at least reduce our dependence on cow milk so we can reduce the number of cows. If parents can’t safely replace cow milk, then they shouldn’t. However, they can stop drinking it themselves, and if they can find ways to reduce or remove cow milk from their children’s diet, they should. Every little bit helps.
Presenting ideas accurately takes more time, and so does responding to those ideas thoughtfully. The organic farmers will thus require a better paragraph of their own, a paragraph that you’ll have to write when you have a little more time. In the paragraphs above, however, you can see the difference it makes to more honestly present the specific benefits of cow milk, the reason that parents might have for using it, and the challenges parents might face if they didn’t use it. The language is more neutral and free of disparagement. You even have a quiet show of empathy for these hard-working parents, along with shared concern for the health of the children. Children are our future, after all.
What’s even better, however, is how you now respond to this more accurate and objective parental position. That response illustrates the other two ways that you take opposing views seriously — with concessions and honest rebuttals. In the original version, you conceded nothing to the parental position. If anything, the possible objection of parents made you bolder in your attack. You called parents environment-haters, and said their use of milk was a slow form of suicide. That was bold and colorful, but it was also too much.
In this version, you wisely offer a concession in response to a parental objection. If a parent can’t safely remove cow milk from a child’s diet, then they shouldn’t. Your main idea remains largely in place — stop drinking milk to remove the need for and damage caused by mega-dairies — but this concession to certain circumstances is sensible and makes the idea more complex and more palatable to parents. It’s more realistic to ask your readers to reduce their use of cow milk than it is to ask them to eliminate it. This isn’t a gimmick on your part, either. The concession is warranted. You saw that and made your idea better with this concession. That increases your credibility.
The second part of this improved response is your rebuttal to the parental objection. Instead of going after parents with attack language, you now respectfully put their concern for children next to your concern for the planet. No name-calling is required. Careful readers can see that it’s not reasonable to dismiss long-term problems for the sake of short-term convenience. When you let the evidence make your point for you, and when you concede parts of your point as required by their objections, your readers are much more likely to keep thinking about this.
Keep this in mind when you respond to the organic farmers. They might not be as hard on the earth as the mega-dairies. Maybe you can offer them a concession, too. Maybe they and the parents can get together to provide kids with healthier milk from environmentally healthier dairies. If so, your idea will be even wiser and you will be even more credible.
You can’t always offer reasonable concessions to objections. Some objections are simply wrong. When that’s the case, you have to respond firmly and take even more care to explain objectively and respectfully why an objection is wrong. In those cases, remember that the fault is with the idea, not with those who hold that idea. Your goal should not be to shame those readers away from that bad idea but to help them understand its flaws and why your position makes more sense. You need to be neighborly about it. You need to be respectful.
In return, your readers will find you more credible and take your ideas more seriously. You’re still doing all the work in this relationship, but at least you have that small measure of respect. That’s something.
Understand Your Readers
To show the proper respect for your readers, you also have to understand your readers. You have to pay attention to them and get to know them as well as the moment allows. You have to put yourself in their position, looking back at you and your questionable credibility. This is one more lesson that a cat is willing to teach you about your readers.
To get my former girlfriend’s cat to stop clawing the furniture, I worked diligently to understand her perspective. I studied how she responded to different foods, different bowls, and different television programs. I probably spent a hundred dollars on DVDs of birds and squirrels and mice until I found the turtle DVD that keeps her calm while I’m at work. It’s taken time and discipline to figure out how she looks at the situation, but I get it now. By getting into her head, I can do my job for her a lot more effectively. And not only that, but I have earned, I believe, her respect. That’s a strange thing to be proud of, I know, but I’ll take it.
For you and your college essay, it won’t be quite as hard to figure out how to look at yourself from the reader’s perspective. You are writing the essay because it was assigned. So read the assignment instructions carefully. You’ll find that they are full of clues about what your reader expects from you. Hint: Your reader expects an essay that follows those instructions.
Your professor also expects you to give the essay serious thought and serious work. It wasn’t assigned so that you could knock it off in an hour and go play video games. It wasn’t assigned so that your roommate could do it for you. The essay is there as your opportunity to learn something new. So go learn something new. Your professor can’t do that for you. Neither can your roommate.
If you’re writing to a general audience for some other purpose, take even more time to consider who your readers are and what they expect from you. Is this a letter to the editor? If so, follow the guidelines. If they say the letter should be no more than 200 words long, don’t assume they’ll be twice as happy with 400 words.
And while you’re at it, consider how other newspaper readers might answer the question that your letter answers. Try to be respectful of their views. What issues will they have with your answer? What are the words that will trigger anger or defensiveness from them? Choose your words carefully. That will be easier if you try to understand the reasons they have for their ideas. That makes you a more credible writer because it makes you more respectful and honest.
In the end, all this hard work to build credibility might not be enough to win your readers’ approval. That’s okay. That’s their option. They are cats, after all, and cats will not be told what to do. Even so, your job as a writer is to work on their behalf as honestly and respectfully as you can so that nothing in how you present your idea will prevent your readers from accepting that idea on its own merits. The more you do that, the less likely they are to walk away.