Unsure of Reader Objections to Your Work? Strengthen Your Argument by Playing Devil’s Advocate

It can be difficult to imagine how readers will respond to your written scholarship, particularly, to your Argument. What do you leave out, gloss over, or phrase vaguely? What questions will your readers be left with as they read? What might lead readers to raise a counterargument against what you are saying? This revision strategy asks you to play devil’s advocate, a useful way to anticipate what your reader’s objections might be and, most importantly, to respond to them.

The goal of academic writing is to convince readers that your knowledge contribution is valid. Consequently, good academic writing doesn’t just lay out a proof of its findings; it also stages a conversation with various intrigued-but-skeptical readers who can’t help but scrutinize your choices. Imagine such a reader asking the following questions as they work their way through an article: Why did they think it best to use X method instead of Y method? Is Z really the best example for the point they’re trying to make? Are they compounding variables here? Is their analysis mistaking a particular for a universal? These will vary because academic disciplines differ in the kinds of questions a reader might ask when testing the validity of a published study, but whatever your discipline, readers will raise questions.

Ultimately, good academic writing is selective in its engagements with possible objections, meaning that only the most significant potential questions should be voiced and responded to. That being said, it is not possible to make selective decisions until you have a better idea of all the skeptical questions a scholar might ask when reading your piece of writing. Playing the role of devil’s advocate is one way to generate a  list of possible concerns your reader could be thinking about as they encounter your text. From there, you can begin the process of narrowing down to the smaller list of questions and objections you’ll want to build into your written argument.

Step 1: Highlight or otherwise mark all the places where you make a choice. If marking all of your choices feels overwhelming, and it probably will, then narrow the scope of your attention by reviewing only one section or by limiting yourself to a particular kind of choice that readers commonly evaluate: evidentiary, methodological, interpretive, etc.

Step 2: Now comes the work of identifying the questions and concerns that are most important to acknowledge in your own piece. There are several considerations you’ll have to keep in mind at this point, and it will be up to you to decide how they fit together. The first step in doing this is to consider the choices you highlighted (not the skeptical questions you’ve identified). Go over these choices and rank them in terms of how common or uncommon each is. Is a particular method that you use the expected norm or a surprising deviation from that norm? Does your interpretation stick closely to common sense, or is it highly counter-intuitive? The more uncommon your choice, the more likely it is that your reader will have questions that they will need you to answer in order to continue finding your work persuasive.Write down any questions you anticipate that you reader will have.

Step 3: Go back over your list of choices and rank them in terms of how pivotal they are. In other words, consider what would happen if a reader were to decide that you’d made the wrong choice (the wrong interpretation, method, etc.). Would a reader who remains unconvinced about this one choice in turn be likely to doubt the validity of all or part of your knowledge contribution? If so, then the need to prove that you’ve made the right choice is very high, and the way to prove the validity of your choice is to acknowledge the presumed question or concern a reader might have and respond to it. Again, write down any presumed questions or concerns that you reader might have.

Step 4: Consider the list of questions and concerns you generated. Rank these questions in terms of how likely it is that a significant number of your readers would think of this concern as they read your piece. The more you anticipate people posing a given question, the more significant it is for you to respond to it.

Step 5: Finally, review the questions and concerns you’ve imagined a skeptical reader posing and consider whether you see any validity in them. Sometimes, scholars will give voice to a skeptical objection in order to defend their choices and explain why that question or concern is in fact immaterial. However, there are also times when we realize that there is real merit to a potential objection. When that happens, you have two choices: (1) build a moment of “evolution” into your analysis by giving voice to the objection, acknowledging its validity, and adjusting your conclusions accordingly; or (2) revise your work in such a way that your presumed reader would never ask that particular question in the first place.

Once you’ve completed these steps, you’ll be ready to begin revising your piece in ways that more successfully stage a critical conversation with your reader. Keep in mind that you have two main ways to stage this conversion. First, by including it as a step in the body of your piece. And second, by including it in a footnote. If you need help deciding whether a body paragraph or a footnote is the right way to go, see “Am I Including The Right Amount of Contextualizing Information? A Promote-Demote Exercise.” For more on becoming your own audience see: Is your prose murky and full of jargon? This this writing exercise: “What I really mean is…”