Another Brilliant Tip for Writers: Don't Annoy People You're Trying to Persuade!

Next Saturday at Regent College I’ll be conducting my annual Writers’ Seminar: 12 November, 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., nominal charge, register with Regent’s academic support staff or show up and pay. (Do I have a knack for writing ad copy or what, eh?)

Among the exciting new things I’ll be teaching is this one I’ve learned just this past week from blogging on the Occupy movement: Don’t attack something with smarty-pants sarcasm if you want to win over people who don’t already agree with you.

Isn’t that an amazing insight? I agree!

Ruefully, I have to admit that after publishing–oh, let’s call it hundreds of thousands of words over almost three decades, I have been slow, so very slow, to internalize this elementary principle of rhetoric. Sometimes, to be sure, I have understood it and put it to use. Sometimes, I am the very model of the patient, accommodating, sympathetic interlocutor.

But when I get ticked off by something–and yes, even in my lofty position of advanced spirituality, sanctification, and all-around wonderfulness, the occasional matter does ruffle my gorgeous white plumage–I succumb to the scourge of all journalists and just open up and let ’em have it. It’s terribly exciting to blast away, as all of us in the blogosphere know. And terribly unrewarding.

I mean, look at the comments following my post on the Occupy movement. It is clear that I not only have annoyed obviously decent, thoughtful people in several countries (!), but have managed to rouse the ire even of favourite former students and current (?!) friends of mine. And you’ll also notice how much trouble we have in directly meeting each other’s points in the exchanges, even as I credit most of the commentators with evidently trying hard to do so, as I have.

So, my friends, I repent of my irritating voice in this matter. There are times when such a voice might be valid. Indeed, according to Holy Scripture, the Apostle Paul and even our Lord himself resorted to it on occasion. But I resort to it ‘way too often, as anyone can tell, and I resorted to it wrongly here.

Why “wrongly”? For two reasons. First, it was unjust and unkind to many of the subjects of the piece–and that’s the main reason. Second, it also was ineffective, managing to persuade very few, I’m guessing, who were not already persuaded and upsetting others who might have been open to the same arguments presented without all the nasty points sticking out.

So I apologize, both for the unhappiness rendered to people I don’t want to make unhappy and for setting such a lousy example.

Come to the writing seminar next week and see what else I’ve learned!

(Sheesh, et cetera.)

0 Responses to “Another Brilliant Tip for Writers: Don't Annoy People You're Trying to Persuade!”

  1. Spencer Capier

    OH don’t apologize for annoying people. Was your intent to persuade the easily queasy? Christopher Hitchens annoys the hell out of me, but I still enjoy reading him. People who read blogs ought to be forewarned their shorts might get knotted.

  2. D.J. Brown

    Contrary to the stereotype of apologetic Canadians, I think sincere apologies, which by definition include an honest admission of having erred, are exceedingly rare, even in Canada.
    I applaud you, John, for your apology.

  3. Heather L.

    I was sent to these posts by a Facebook acquaintance and read the previous blog and comments thoroughly, and then this one. I have always had great respect for your work, Dr. Stackhouse, both in the academic and the public worlds. And so I felt particularly dismayed, bewildered and ultimately deeply confused and disappointed by the time I had read the previous blog and the comments. Such a wonderful group of apparently very thoughtful and articulate people all talking past one another instead of coalescing around a constructive focus. I am deeply thankful for this apology, and also for your dialogue with ‘Beth’ in the previous blog. The tone is much more constructive and helpful. I value what you were trying to do in the previous blog, but I also really value that you recognize that you did not achieve your goal.

    To Spencer, above, I want to say that I am absolutely not afraid of reading or listening to people with whose ideas I profoundly disagree (such as Hitchens). But what I do find frustrating is reading or listening to an argument that continually gets bogged down or tainted by unnecessary name-calling. There is a huge difference between legitimately calling a sister or brother to account and scolding them like a parent to a young child.

  4. Spencer Capier

    Yes, it’s a good thing all those old testament prophets made sure they didn’t offend any of their listeners as they proclaimed what they new must be said.

    No, I’m not comparing John to an old testament prophet. Okay they all had beards, but that’s it.

    • Glenn Runnalls

      Gotta say the obvious. When people suggest that the OT prophets only spoke with one kind of voice and that they were only concerned with proclaiming and use that construction of the OT prophet to “justify” unhelpful communication it means they haven’t been reading the prophets.

  5. Spencer Capier

    Heather, I think John’s tone wasn’t meant for children and shouldn’t be taken as such. Also, this is a Blog for heaven’s sake, by definition there’s going to be an element of polemic, or else how does one start a conversation?

    You know I don’t totally agree with what John was saying in the other essay, but I sure like the short hand in which he delivered his opinion, devoid of back eddies of reassurance and coddling the way we often do in evangelical circles.

    How about this: let’s assume these kinds of conversations are occurring after we’ve all made polite conversation at a dinner party and we’re now settling into a serious conversation. It’s understood at that point that our intentions are not to offend but to get to the heart of a matter quickly.

  6. Jen

    Thanks so much for this, John. I was one of the irritated people who felt nauseated at your Occupy post (especially because I had just written an article for the Et Cetera about Why Christians Should Occupy – go to my wordpress blog to read it). I then read your exchange with Beth (who I work with now at Jacob’s Well) and now I am very much softened towards your perspective with this show of humility and repentance. This is something I have slowly had to learn as a writer, as well, and something biting sarcasm was something I had to earnestly fight against as I wrote my Et Cetera article, as I was responding to a friend of mine who i just thought was dead wrong. It is true that people do not care what we know until they know that we care. A good thing to be continually reminded of.

  7. Kevin Faulkner

    Sarcasm always a disrespectful response. The art of debate without consequence of verbal violence and without leading to physical violence is essential to humanity’s well-being and survival.
    More flies are caught with honey than with vinegar (Old Dutch proverb).

  8. Alex Fritz

    I fully relate. I’m one of those that just enjoyed your rant cause I’m a “member of the choir” you were preaching at, but this follow-up is very helpful.

    It’s funny how things mesh, cause I was just reading Luke 6:27-36 this morning and I feel like I was convicted by v. 36, which really drives it home. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

    Also reminds me of a funny quote by Tom Hanks character in You’ve Got Mail. “…I must warn you that when you finally have the pleasure of saying the thing you mean to say at the moment you mean to say it, remorse inevitably follows.”

  9. D.J. Brown

    This quote that arrived in my inbox today seems like a wise reminder to us all.
    “There is a great difference between a lofty spirit and a
    right spirit. A lofty spirit excites admiration by its
    profoundness; but only a right spirit achieves salvation and
    happiness by its stability and integrity.
    Do not conform your ideas to those of the world. Scorn the
    “intellectual” as much as the world esteems it. What men
    consider intellectual is a certain facility to produce
    brilliant thoughts. Nothing is more vain. We make an idol of
    our intellect as a woman who believes herself beautiful
    worships her face. We take pride in our own thoughts. We must
    reject not only human cleverness, but also human prudence,
    which seems so important and so profitable. Then we may enter–
    like little children, with candor and innocence of worldly
    ways–into the simplicity of faith; and with humility and a
    horror of sin we may enter into the holy passion of the cross.”
    … Francois Fenelon (1651-1715),

  10. peggy

    you might get some comfort and ego-bolstering from victor davis hanson’s post yesterday: “Occupy What?—on his home blog of his own name. i loved your original post and his. keep up the good thinking and writing.
    peggy mcd-c

  11. rob

    Oh, come on. This is taking things just a little too far. You are by nature sarcastic. Don’t try to hide it. Those of us who have seen you live at many Regent events know how to take what you dish up. It’s not delivered with malice. It’s often hilarious. Keep up the good work. And further, you are not necessarily writing to convince those who disagree with you. You are also writing to sway those who are unsure and to shore up those who already agree.

  12. goodnewsfortodaysyouth

    “But when I get ticked off by something–and yes, even in my lofty position of advanced spirituality, sanctification, and all-around wonderfulness, the occasional matter does ruffle my gorgeous white plumage–I succumb to the scourge of all journalists and just open up and let ‘em have it.”

    John, I absolutely love your humor! You bleed sarcasm in this quote, and it’s so good for my soul to laugh. I’m loving reading through your posts.


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