In an effort to help pry our writers loose from the death grip of formulaic writing, my PLC went out on a limb last year. We decided to see what would happen if we let the kids cut loose with their argumentative voices and throw caution (and, to some extent, evidence) to the wind.
I’m talking of course about that most wonderful of all internet prose, The Hot Take. If you aren’t familiar, the genre basically entails an excessively strong opinion piece about a hot button issue. And it doesn’t usually entail much else! It’s an impassioned, evidence-deficient perspective being shouted from some jagged rock of a blog by some bleating, bloviating pundit or opinionated amateur who just doesn’t have time for evidence, dammit, but if you’d only listen to how LOUDLY he’s shouting then you’d understand how right he is!
They’re delightful to read. A few respectable voices on the internet have even embraced and defended them.
Whatever your personal opinion of them, they certainly brought our more timid writers out of their shells. The results were some of the most personalized and impassioned–and organizationally liberated!–writing we’d seen in years.
The only problem was, they produced what we’d asked them to produce with the mentor texts: Beautifully-voiced writing that could be blown over by the slightest breeze of evidence or data. We’d solved a huge problem in enticing them to write with passion and personal perspective (you should’ve SEEN the three-word paragraphs they produced for emphasis!) but at the cost of exploring effective use of evidence.
This year, we decided the assignment had worked too well to set aside, but also needed to be reined in. But how do you tell young writers to cut loose and have fun, but not too much fun?
For us, the answer was to better define the tools of impassioned hot takes and teach them how to balance them with well-reasoned evidence. We also taught them how to embed that evidence in the form of hot links in place of old-fashioned citation.
What Makes a Hot Take Hot?
For a mentor text, we chose an astonishingly evidence-free piece from The Odyssey and then talked to them about how the author had made it feel like she was providing the reader with evidence. Here’s what our students explored:
First, the author, Paige Turcotte, employs a LOT of rhetorical questions–almost all of them appealing to a sense of nostalgia. She convinces readers that we’ve lost a lovely bygone age of our childhoods by posing questions like “Think back to a time when you never had a cell phone, you were probably really young, right?” It felt very convincing until we actually stopped and answered some of her questions bluntly in a group discussion. It didn’t take long for her argument to feel threadbare.
So we looked elsewhere. And the students noticed that Hot Takes seemed more likely than traditional argumentative pieces to use parenthetical asides, often sarcastically, to emphasize their perspective. Still not evidence, but often highly persuasive! My students loved goofing with these. I encourage them to write from a place of humor and this proved to be a natural form for many of them.
The other trend they noticed in the mentor texts we looked at was a tendency to favor anecdotes and what we came to call “casual evidence” over actual research-based evidence. Casual evidence took many forms, but mostly it was soft, smushy ideas disguised as something more convincing. Turcotte’s piece, for example, repeatedly applies statistical language to non-statistical evidence, like when she says she sees people overusing cell phones “almost 95 percent of the time I go somewhere.” A regular Rainman of judging public behavior, she is.
Evidence Is Cool
So now my students had several concrete tools of persuasive writing and several healthy models of how to use them excessively and recklessly. Our final step was to seek out some writers who were strong on voice but also knew to bring level-headed evidence to the table to back it up (they’re out there–honest!). This was a healthy search for my students. We root for the Detroit Lions in our town, so several infuriated beat writers served up some flaming hot takes for us, and since football is a game of numbers, they backed up every tongue of flame with some cold, hard numbers.
I’m not linking to any particular articles here on purpose because I think having the students seek out balanced pieces of argumentation is much more useful–they don’t spend enough time browsing news and culture sites and this provides an easy reason to set them loose into that jungle.
Once we’d found a few balanced models, my students were ready to attempt their first Hot Take. For my PLC, it was Hot Take 2.0: A much meaner, more menacing machine. None of the passionate language of last year’s crop of takes was missing from these new student writings, but in place of flimsy reasoning appeared glowing, cool-blue hot links, icy reasoning, balanced writing, and more confident opinion writers.
How do you encourage strong voice in your writers? What’s your secret to balancing casual and anecdotal evidence with hard research and data? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter ( @Zigthinks ) or Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.