It seems like writing a piece governed by cause and effect should be easy. After all, the logic of causes and effects helps give meaning to our lives. Without cause and effect, we might not stick to our exercise or healthy eating regimens. But we think, if I work out, I’ll be more fit. If I eat right, I’ll be healthier. These if-then statements are examples of the logic of cause and effect in action.
Powerful stuff, right? Cause and effect is as natural to our thinking processes as peanut butter and jelly, ham and cheese, hummus and tabouli…. But actually, cause and effect’s seeming ease hides a morass of possible problems. It’s a lot harder to construct a powerful cause and effect argument than it appears.
As you construct your next cause and effect argument, take care to avoid these pitfalls:
Don’t confuse correlation with causation. Say, for example, that you come to work on time or early every day for a week. Then, imagine that your boss gives you a surprise raise. Did your newfound punctuality cause your raise?
In terms of logic and argumentation: no. The punctuality occurred before the raise; the punctuality did not necessarily cause the raise. Timeline correlation doesn’t equal cause and effect.
Resist using cause and effect to place blame. We know two things about the blame game. First, nobody wins. Second, few games are more tempting. Placing blame is a culturally-reinforced behavior, but it is one that many of us want to do less.
Differentiating between determining cause and assigning blame can be difficult, but the easiest way to do it is through tone. Present the cause as objectively as possible, and save your persuasive chops for proving that cause’s validity.
Another way to walk the line between causation and blame is to present evidence fairly and fully. The more completely you can provide evidence to support your causation claim, the less like blame it will seem to your reader.
Beware the temptation to simplify. I love simplicity. Love it. I recently wrote a guest post for LivSimpl that focused on ways to simplify your writing. What is good for your schedule, your living environment or even your writing style, however, is not generally good for your argumentation.
Think of an effect in your life, like stress. What is its cause? Is it your job? Your family? Too little sleep? Too many Twinkies? Not enough exercise? Onerous commute? Deferred life goals? Chances are, more than one factor is causing your stress, and pretending otherwise only heightens that stress.
As you can see, cause and effect is complex and multifaceted. By respecting its inherent complexity, you can construct more effective cause and effect arguments.
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