Get to the Point
Every opinion piece should clearly state a question
Should every opinion piece begin by stating a question?
I will be arguing in the affirmative.
Imagine if every pundit were to start an essay or a podcast in this way, by stating a question and saying whether the pundit will be arguing in the affirmative or in the negative. It would be a lot easier to evaluate essays and podcasts if they provided such clarity.
If you have been following this series of essays, you know that I am trying to administer a scoring system for commentary. The goal of what I call Fantasy Intellectual Teams is to award points for engaging in careful, reasoned argument rather than relying on emotional rhetoric and nasty put-downs.
The epitome of good intellectual discussion is a formal debate. In a formal debate, a moderator poses a question, such as “Will a higher minimum wage help low-skilled workers?” One side argues in the affirmative, and the other side argues in the negative.
It turns out that the most difficult challenge in scoring opinion pieces is that the writer or podcaster rarely states a succinct question. As a reader or listener, I struggle to figure out what the pundit is trying to say.
All too often, someone goes off on a general rant, without stopping to formulate a specific question. Consider three examples from the last few days:
A David Brooks column, The G.O.P. Is Getting Even Worse. He offers a litany of complaints about Republicans. He accuses them of being: fearful; apocalyptic; uninterested in policy; despairing; warlike; beholden to Donald Trump.
Victor Davis Hanson’s recent piece, How much ruin do we have left? He too, offers a litany of complaints, in this case about progressives and Democrats. He accuses them of: altering the constitutional order in order to exercise and retain power; pushing through unpopular policies; running up deficits and denying their consequences; weakening the military; undermining merit and liberal rights in higher education; . . .and many other sins.
Robin Hanson’s blog post, Explaining Regulation. He offers a litany of complaints against elites in the field of public policy. He accuses them of: seizing on the pandemic to elevate their own importance; interfering with private actors trying to solve a problem; preferring to operate by command than by making suggestions; eagerly punishing private actors for bad outcomes without rewarding them for good outcomes; not holding government actors or other policy elites equally accountable; reacting to problems piecemeal rather than proactively designing robust institutions.
I can try to retrofit a question to each of these examples. For David Brooks, a question might be, “Should Republicans focus more on advancing an agenda and less on dissatisfaction with their status?” For Victor Davis Hanson, a question might be, “Are progressives pursuing an agenda that is too aggressive and too broad?” For Robin Hanson, a question might be, “Should elites be less inclined toward top-down solutions to problems instead try to create a context in which decentralized solutions can emerge?”
Perhaps these are the questions that the authors mean to pose, and perhaps not. My point is that posing a question in this manner is necessary for a reader to be able to objectively evaluate how well the author has considered alternative points of view. Recall the eight proposed scoring categories:
playing devil’s Advocate
thinking in Bets
participating in a Debate where each side is given time to make its case
making an argument that Kicks off a discussion
indicating an Open mind that is willing to reconsider
evaluating Research, not simply selecting research that supports your viewpoint
Steel-manning the opposing point of view, giving the audience a two-sided debate
Each of these requires a specific question to be discussed. If the author will not supply it, then that puts the onus onto the reader or the listener.
I would change my mind if someone can show me examples for which the attempt to supply a specific question would make the piece less clear or less persuasive.
I agree with you. I recall that someone said that the first rule of opinion writing is: Have a point and make it. Some Googling suggests that it was Jacques Barzun:
I routinely find myself annoyed when I'm halfway through a long article and still don't know what the writer is trying to say. A very good writer can surely have a point and make it without the crutch of beginning with an explicit question and answer, but I think that a great deal of writing would be improved by that discipline.
Consider the position of Ross Douthat. His pieces cannot be that explicit: if he wrote them that way, it would probably turn off many readers of the New York Times. He has to advance his position softly and subtly--maybe even implicitly. But that is the point.