Schools from high school on up are a little schizophrenic about autobiographical compositions. Look at a few guidelines on each side of the question:

  • Anti-autobiographical – Don’t use the first person personal pronoun in your compositions. That is, don’t say I.
  • Pro-autobiographical – Write about what you know best: yourself. Draw from your own experiences.
  • Cite authorities! Your argument is much more persuasive if you refer to experts – people who have published work in the area you’ve chosen for your subject.
  • Let your readers know who you are, and where you’re coming from. They don’t want to guess about that. They want to connect with you and your background.
  • To persuade your readers, use reason, logic, sound evidence, thorough research, effective comparisons, historical references, and any other argumentative techniques that strengthen the points you want to make.
  • Tell a story. Tell several related stories. A lawyer knows that’s the most effective way to persuade a jury. Don’t use abstract logic and complicated arguments, because people understand things on a personal level. Tell stories that connect your readers’  experiences with the subject matter.

We could add to the last point, the best stories come from your own heart.

That gives you an idea of what I mean. If you want to find definitive instruction about first-person, autobiographical exposition, you won’t find it in classes on writing. Academic journals and most scholarly books clearly rule it out, but that’s a pretty narrow genre. What’s a non-academic writer to do, given all those years of instruction that point in both directions?

Well if you’re a Supreme Court justice, you cite precedent and make your argument as abstract as you like. You address your opinion to other judges who think the same way you do. In other settings, citation of a century-old court case won’t get you so far. So you do have to be aware of your audience, and what they expect from you.

I remember when I was a young, first-year professor, I didn’t have a solid perception of what my students expected from me. I found they were more conservative about the delivery of classroom content than I would have expected. High school had trained them to listen for test answers embedded in the lecture material. If the lecture material was entertaining, so much the better. Those expectations called for a mix of story telling and straight, testable facts, definitions, and concepts.

Why are these questions on my mind right now? I’ve written about politics a fair amount by now. Not so much of that writing has been autobiographical, or in a story-telling mode. Yet the more I think about these subjects, the more I find myself doing it in personal terms. Back when I wrote The Last Jeffersonian, I would push all the personal stuff out, thinking to myself: “No one cares what you think, Steve. Keep the focus entirely on your subject matter.”

The book turned out well, but I do think writing comes more easily when you bring both your heart and your mind to it. Your heart gives you energy to write in the first place. It gives you courage to write, too. It’s your mind’s source of passion and drive. Why leave it out of the final product? We say to someone who wants to succeed, “Put your heart into it.” Why shouldn’t that apply as well to our written arguments?

I’m about to undertake a couple of new writing projects. That’s why my thoughts turn to these questions. I don’t want to hear that inner voice say, “No one cares what you think, Steve.” I care what I think. If other people want to read what I write, that’s good. If even one person finds the thoughts persuasive, that’s a modest but worthy goal. For political arguments as for all successful endeavors, the same basic advice applies. Put your heart into it.