The Turnpike Troubadours, a (possibly defunct?) country band, have a song called “Unrung” in which the narrator admonishes an older friend about a relationship with a much younger woman. The song begins,
I could tell you she’s a bad idea,
For all the good it would do.
You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her–
Hell, you bought it new.
I want to look at those four lines for a minute in order to point out a few things about the use of concrete specifics, both in storytelling and in persuasive writing.
Good persuasive writing typically moves from claims (or opinions) to facts. It is helpful to know the difference, especially in a cultural climate that seems to be post-factual. Some things actually are verifiable facts whether you like them or not–also, whether you wish to believe them or not. Not everything is an opinion. It seems bizarre to be living in a world where one has to point these things out, but there we are.
So, there are facts, and there are claims (or opinions). Facts are important and necessary in a piece of persuasive writing. But they aren’t where persuasive writing starts. You might remember this from Basic Composition: a good thesis statement makes a claim. Two things are true of a claim worth writing about:
- It can be supported by facts, and
- People can disagree with it.
Consider this statement:
- Samuel Clemens died in 1910 at the age of seventy-four.
That’s not a claim (at least not in the sense that I’m using the term). It’s a fact. Nobody can disagree with it.
Or this statement:
- Samuel Clemens died in 1936 at the age of ninety-eight.
That’s neither a claim nor a fact. It’s a falsehood. Unless, of course, you have factual information that nobody else knows about, in which case you’ve got a dynamite thesis statement for your American Lit essay.
Also, a mere preference isn’t a claim–at least not a claim that you can write persuasively about. My favorite color is yellow makes a terrible thesis statement because there are no external facts you can appeal to in order to support your claim. Just as importantly, nobody can disagree with you about what your favorite color is.
The song I quoted above, however, starts with a legitimate claim. This relationship, the narrator claims, is a bad idea. Can another person disagree with this claim? Well, sure. The friend who has gotten himself into this relationship presumably thinks it’s a good idea on some level.
Is there data to support the claim that this relationship is a bad idea? Yes: there is a big age difference between the two parties involved. This age difference is a matter of fact, not opinion.
However (and this is a big ‘however’), there is always the question of whether the facts are relevant to the claim. This relationship between fact and claim is known as the “warrant.” Do the facts warrant the claim? Sometimes you need to make the warrant specific, and sometimes you can work from the assumption that the data’s relevance is obvious, so you don’t have to spell out the warrant.
The claim-data-warrant structure might look like this:
- Claim: This relationship is a bad idea.
- Data: You, friend, are a couple of decades older than the woman you are dating.
- Warrant: History shows that when there’s a big age difference between the parties in a romantic relationship, that relationship tends to be short-lived and/or end badly. (Insert statistics here, if you have them).
- Therefore: You can expect this relationship to be short-lived and/or end badly.
But, of course, this is a country song we’re talking about, not an op-ed column. A claim-data-warrant cycle with statistics would not improve the song one bit.
So what happens instead? The songwriter (his name is Evan Felker) leaves the warrant implied but makes you feel the fact of the age-difference through the use of concrete specifics.
One way of being specific would be tell the woman’s age, tell the man’s age, and/or tell their age difference. That would be specific, certainly, but it wouldn’t really be concrete. Numbers, after all, are abstract concepts. I love what Evan Felker does instead:
- You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her–
Now we have anchored that age-difference in something that feels more like a story–that is, in something that we experience directly in the world God made.
“You’ve got a car as old as her” would have been very good. But “You’ve got a Chevrolet as old as her” is even better. Why? Because we are getting even closer to the concrete specificities of the world we experience. We are narrowing down, getting more precise.
You don’t see cars rolling up and down your street. You see Chevrolets and Fords and Toyotas. Or if you’re so uninterested in cars that you don’t know the difference between a Chevrolet and a Ford, you see black cars and white cars and red cars. You don’t see animals in your yard. You see squirrels and rabbits and dogs and cats.
Big category words like “car” or “animal” certainly have their uses, but we mostly experience the world in terms of concrete specifics, not in terms of categories.
Speaking of concrete specifics, I love what happens in the next line: “You bought it new.” Not only is the car as old as the woman in question, the man in question is old enough to have bought the car new. The writer is doubling down, going from precision to even greater precision.
If you associate precise writing with lawyerly or robotic, bloodless writing, these funny and poignant lines from a country song show that it’s not. For one thing, greater precision often makes a funny line funnier. (Consider Harrison Scott Key’s remark that the men in his family “could not get to the end of a story if you gave them a map and a footpath lined with Nilla Wafers.) For another, precision is crucial to vivid, descriptive writing. Description isn’t about ornamentation, but about greater precision and narrowing. “The blue Ford pickup that my father gave me when I went to college” narrows the vast category “truck” to something much more specific.
There is more than one kind of precision in writing. In one sense, of course, the argument laid out in the first four lines of “Unrung” is much less precise than the “Claim-Data-Warrant” argument that your Freshman English professor was looking for. But it is still precision that makes those lines sing, if you’ll forgive the pun.