I’ve taught expository writing in the Ivy League for several years now, and one of the most common problems I see is student papers that overstate their argument. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix this issue—a trick that makes pretty much all argumentative claims much more convincing.
Before we get to the solution, though, let’s try to better define the problem.
What’s an overstated argument or claim?
An argument is overstated when it lacks the necessary supporting evidence. Often, for example, students will claim that something is always true—or, conversely, that something is never true.
I can understand why students make claims like these. After all, they’re trying to make an argument that sounds confident and authoritative, and they likely think that refusing to make any concessions will help.
Unfortunately, however, overstating the claim often does the opposite: it makes the reader doubt the truth of what you’re saying.
Why are overstated claims a problem?
In everyday life, we are free to make very large generalizations with little or no supporting evidence (e.g., “Purple is the most awful color in the history of the world!”). In expository writing, however, you always need to show the reader the evidence for your claims, so they can assess the evidence themselves and see if they agree with your interpretation.
To borrow a legal term, the standard of proof is much higher with expository writing—and your claims should reflect your awareness of those heightened standards.
The solution to overstated claims: hedging
This is where the small, surprising trick of the title comes in. You can fix overstated claims by hedging them. Hedging an argument means adjusting the certainty of your claims to reflect the amount of evidence you have.
For example, if you were to write, “Idealized images of the past always trigger nostalgia in viewers,” the reader would expect you to support this huge claim with a similarly huge amount of evidence. You would need to provide evidence that this claim is always true for all people in all circumstances—a tall order for any writer, much less a student writing a short expository essay!
By contrast, if you hedge the claim—making it into something like, “Idealized images of the past often trigger nostalgia in viewers”—you now have a much smaller (and therefore more manageable) claim to support.
Summing it all up
Hedging an argument effectively makes it more persuasive by tempering the kinds of overstated claims that will make the reader doubt your argument.
This is true, moreover, for more than expository essays—any kind of writing that makes an argument can benefit from hedging. (Blog posts are no exception. Check out the list of hedging words below, then reread this entry. How many hedged claims can you find?)
Can, could, may, might, seem, tend, likely, generally, seldom, often, occasionally, presumably, probably, some, etc.
Adapted from teaching materials developed in the Harvard College Writing Program.