When Fiction is a Bad Idea

by   |  04.09.10  |  Rhetoric & Persuasion (Argument)

Sometimes, writers make things up out of thin air when writing introductions of essays intended to be nonfiction.

A bad example of this is seen in an article titled “Nov 20, 1984: SETI Seekers Find a Home.”  This article begins with the claim that “Man’s fascination with the possibility of intelligent life existing elsewhere has been around since the first Cro-Magnon cast a wondering eye to the heavens.” This is a claim about ancient history or anthropology that has nothing to do with the purpose of the article: to inform an audience about the SETI project. The introductory claim is not common knowledge, no evidence from Cro-Magnon writings or artifacts are presented to support the claim, and none of us are old enough to have observed what Cro-Magnons were thinking when they “cast a wondering eye to the heavens.”

Apparently, the introductory claim in this piece was simply made up from a careless assumption or from a misguided attempt to attract a casual reader’s attention.  Such devices may score points in editorials or popular magazines, but these kinds of claims do not work in academic writing—they cause you to lose credibility with your academic audience.

When writing about texts, don’t write fiction. Your academic audience wants to know your claims about a particular text, so keep your introduction (and your entire paper) focused directly on your primary text(s) and avoid the urge to make unsupportable claims about history, anthropology, science, philosophy, theology, etc. that are not addressed in the language of your primary text(s).