In a Writing Tip called “Grade Levels,” I demonstrated how several individual related but unconnected claims can be connected with transitions and logic to guide readers through an argument. This post expands on that tip and offers practical advice on how to achieve certain types of connections.
But first, a paragraph:
“To serve and protect” is the motto of any United States police officer. Police officers are supposed to be men and women you can immediately trust without the question of corruption. Troy Davis was executed this Wednesday, September 21, for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia, that occurred back in 1991. At 11:08 eastern time, Troy Davis used his last words to state, “I am innocent. The incident that happened that night is not my fault.” The death penalty is a flawed program. Inmates can end up dying on death row waiting to be executed, even after numerous appeals looking for justice. In the case of Troy Davis, police went one step further and committed their own errors, on top of the already flawed capital punishment system. After several witnesses recanted and 630,000 people supported a stay, a questionably convicted man was executed.
The sentences in this paragraph are fine; they make straightforward declarations more or less effectively and without contradiction.
But they don’t guide readers through an argument; instead, they allow readers to make the connections between the claims each sentence makes. In fact, they sound very much like a list of claims the author intends to make:
- “To serve and protect” is the motto of every United States police officer.
- Police officers should be men and women we can trust to be honest.
- Troy Davis was executed this Wednesday, September 21, for the murder of a police officer in Savannah, Georgia 22 years ago.
- He used his last words to state, “I am innocent.”
- The death penalty allows inmates to die on death row filing appeals.
- In the case of Troy Davis, police added errors of their own to the system.
- After several witnesses recanted and 630,000 people supported a stay, a questionably convicted man was executed.
To rewrite this paragraph to guide readers through its logic, we first need to decide where its logic leads. The paragraph contains evidence of several apparent inconsistencies in the capital punishment system:
- Police officers should be honest, but they introduced flaws into the trial of Troy Davis.
- Troy Davis was executed although he protested his innocence to the end.
- The death penalty should result in speedy execution but often prisoners die in jail.
- The original witnesses and a legion of supporters argued for exoneration, but the execution took place.
Clearly, the disparity between what happened and what the author believes should have happened are the heart of the argument this paragraph makes. Therefore, the very first sentence should indicate to readers that something unexpected, incorrect, or regrettable has occurred. If possible, each sentence should accomplish a similar goal, to guide the reader to the inevitable if subconscious conclusion that something went desperately wrong with the system.
Connect claims into small one-sentence arguments.
- The Savannah, Georgia police, who swore to “serve and protect” their civilian neighbors, failed to serve or protect Troy Davis.
- Police, who should be honest, coerced witnesses into lying under oath to convict Davis.
- When witnesses recanted their testimony, there was no longer sufficient evidence to execute him.
- Swift execution would have been a travesty, but 22 years of appeals with no new trial is worse.
- The pleas of 630,000 supporters and Davis’s own protestation of his innocence did not prevent a wrongly convicted man from being put to death.
In each sentence, conflicting characteristics are identified. The police swore (but failed) to protect. The police should be honest (but coerced lies). Evidence failed (but was considered sufficient) to convict. Appeals should (but didn’t) overturn bad verdicts. Wrongful conviction should (but didn’t) prevent execution.
The final step is to connect the sentences by carefully providing a link from each sentence to the next, using a variety of techniques to avoid falling into an artificial-sounding pattern of “this but not that.”
1. The Savannah, Georgia police, who like all police in this country are sworn “to serve and protect” their civilian neighbors, failed to serve or protect Troy Davis. 2. The uniformed officers we count on to be honest coerced witnesses into lying under oath to convict Davis, once they had settled on him as their suspect. 3. When, long after his conviction, those same witnesses recanted their testimony, there was no longer sufficient evidence to execute him, which should have resulted in a new trial. 4. But justice in this case was neither swift nor fair: 22 years of appeals did not prevent Davis’s eventual execution. 5. Neither did the pleas of 630,000 supporters, and Davis’s own protestation of his innocence keep a wrongly convicted man from being put to death. 6. Davis’s final words: “I am innocent,” are a righteous rebuke to the system and the individuals who carried it out.
The transition from 1 to 2 depends on two parallels. The police of 1 are the uniformed officers of 2. The oath to protect of 1 is the expectation of honesty of 2.
The transition from 2 to 3 depends on the chronology of the testimony to convict in 2 and the recanting of that same testimony in 3.
The transition from 3 to 4 depends on the similarity of the new trial in 3 and the prevention of execution in 4, plus the failure in both sentences to achieve those goals.
The transition from 4 to 5 is the citing of two possibilities to avoid execution, the appeals in 4 and the protests of supporters in 5.
The transition from 5 to 6 depends on two similarities, between protestation of innocence in 5 and “I am innocent” in 6, and between wrongful conviction in 5 and righteous rebuke in 6.
Next, you’ll have a chance to try some similar techniques on another writing sample.