Choosing an Order for Parallel Reasons

There are two kinds of reasons. Parallel reasons< are logically independent from one another: Each one supports the claim on its own, without reference to the others, and you could add or drop one reason without affecting the others. Sequential reasons< are connected to each other because they follow a logical sequence or because they relate to external factors. Whether your reasons< are parallel or sequential, readers expect them to come in an order that makes sense. Here are some ways to order parallel reasons< (click here for ways to order sequential reasons<.)

Strength:<

Ask yourself how convincing each reason will be—not for you but for your specific readers. Focus on your strongest reason: Will readers be more convinced if you build up to the strength of your argument? Or should you start strong?

Build from weak to strong. This can be an effective order when you want your argument to build to a climax. If your reasons< are equally strong, look for some other principle for ordering them. But if you have one very strong reason and other weaker ones, build up to the strong one. When you begin with the strongest, there might be little reason for your readers to continue reading. For example, here is zookeeper Ned explaining to his boss, Ellen, why he has wasted space by putting only one kind of fish in a tank:

Ellen: Why does this tank have only one species?

Ned: That's the piranha tank.

Ellen: We can't combine them with any other species?

Ned: Well, they would eat any of the other species we could put in a tank that size.

Ellen: Ah.

Ned: Also, the other species we could put in that tank can all be accommodated in other places, and the piranha food we have might lower the pH in the tank and make the other fish sick.

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Ellen has to wonder why Ned goes on after his first reason: once the piranhas have eaten the other fish, who cares if the pH might have made them sick? If you have only one decisive reason, you may feel that there is little point in raising weaker ones. In fact, in a business context, it may be best to ignore weaker reasons< if you have one truly decisive one. But in academic papers, readers want to learn about all of your support for a claim, so cover the weaker reasons< first and build to the strong one.

Build up to what readers care about most. Often, reasons< are most convincing because they settle the issue—once the fish are dead, their health is no longer an issue. But sometimes reasons< are most convincing because they deal with matters that readers already care about. For example, on July 2, 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that traffic fatalities declined by nearly 10 percent from 2007 to 2008, which was great news ("U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood: Overall Traffic Fatalities Reach Record Low," http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov ). The report lists four reasons< why fatalities had declined:
The country has made major strides in increasing seat belt use, curtailing impaired driving, making roads and highways safer, and maximizing vehicle safety, all of which play important roles in the declining death rate.

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While each factor is important in explaining the decrease in fatalities, they don't depend on each other. So different factors might seem more relevant to different readers. For instance, the data show that the number of fatalities traceable to seatbelt use varied widely by state. In North Dakota, seatbelts were not used in 62 percent of fatal accidents, while nationwide this was the case in only 44 percent of fatal accidents (NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis, "2008 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment – Highlights,” June 2009). An advocate for traffic safety in North Dakota, therefore, might build up to the factor most relevant in that state:

Traffic fatalities declined nationwide last year for three reasons. Roads and cars have been made safer; drunk driving is down; and drivers are buckling up more, except in North Dakota. Last year North Dakota had the highest percentage of fatal accidents in which seatbelts were not used. Therefore, the state should begin a comprehensive campaign to educate drivers about seatbelt use and increase the penalties for driving without a restraint.

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In Kansas, however, alcohol is the most relevant factor: nationwide, alcohol-related deaths fell by about 9.7 percent, but in Kansas the percentage of fatalities involving alcohol use actually increased by 33 percent ("2008 Traffic Safety”). Advocates for traffic safety in Kansas, then, might choose another order:

There are many reasons why traffic fatalities declined last year. Roads and cars have been made safer; drivers are buckling up more; and drunk driving is down, but not in Kansas. Last year Kansas had the highest increase in the percentage of fatal accidents in which alcohol was involved, up 33 percent. Therefore, the state should begin a comprehensive campaign to educate drivers about the dangers of drunk driving and increase the penalties for driving under the influence.

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In each of the cases above, advocates present the reasons< for the decline in traffic fatalities in order of relevance to their state's situation, from least to most relevant.

Start strong. In some cases, readers may not wait for a strong reason that you have saved for the end. So if your argument is long and your readers are busy, don’t keep them waiting: start strong. You may also want to start strong if your readers will resist your claim. When readers do not want to accept your claim, they will find all the holes in your weaker reasons<. Better to start strong so that you cut down on their resistance as soon as possible.

Acceptability:<

Ask yourself how ready your readers will be to accept your reasons< as relevant to your claim; they may be more likely to accept some kinds of reasons< than others. For instance, if your readers think of a problem as primarily economic, they will find reasons< concerning costs and benefits more acceptable than reasons< that involve moral principles. Conversely, readers who think of a problem as primarily a moral one may need help to see the relevance of economic evidence. If you have some reasons< that readers will readily accept as relevant and others that will surprise them, start with the more acceptable reasons< and build to the less acceptable ones. For example, a cookie company needs to reduce production costs on Mock-Choc cookies. Amy would like to present the idea of reducing packaging as a way of cutting costs. Currently, the packaging for a box of 24 cookies includes individual foil wrapping for each cookie, a 24-slot plastic tin, cellophane wrapping around the tin, and an outer cardboard box. In crafting her proposal to discontinue the individual foil wrapping, Amy considers two main reasons<:
A) Eliminating individual foil wrapping will cut costs without altering the popular cookies themselves.

B) Reducing packaging is environmentally friendly, and therefore the ethical move.

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Given that those who will review Amy’s argument view the initial problem (how to cut production costs on Mock-Choc cookies) as largely one of economics, they will likely find it easier to accept reason (1) more than reason (2). In fact, Amy’s proposal could probably be accepted with just reason (1). But including (2) as a second reason might help her proposal be chosen over others—such as using half as many nuts in the cookies or removing the coconut shreds—which cannot claim to be the environmentally friendly, ethical option. If, on the other hand, Amy decided to begin her argument with reason (2), there is a good chance that her readers—her bosses and coworkers in a profit-making company—would find the reason irrelevant to the problem at hand. They might be skeptical about, or even disregard altogether, the rest of her argument, unless she can show them that the ethical choice also has economic consequences—that it might appeal to customers, for example. Amy’s argument benefits from leading with the reason her readers will find most acceptable and applicable to the problem at hand.

Challenge:<

Ask yourself whether your readers will find some reasons< harder to understand—because they are more complex, involve technical concepts, or are just plain difficult. You help your readers accept your reasons< if you build up to the more challenging ones. For example, Timothy writes a blog about exercise and health myths. Here, he is introducing a posting about the health effects of caffeine:

Contrary to the popular myths about caffeine—that it is addictive, that it causes osteoporosis, heart disease, or cancer—studies in the past two decades have shown that its health benefits greatly outweigh its costs, and that many of these costs have been exaggerated. In fact, caffeine has many advantages.

First and most obviously, caffeine can keep you awake or get you going in the morning. Caffeine inhibits the uptake of adenosine, the chemical that tells your body it is sleepy.

Second, it can also boost metabolic activity and in some cases can be used as a healthy alternative to weight-loss medications or appetite suppressants, according to a recent study by the Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Third, and most important, are its long-term effects. Caffeine has been shown to correlate with lower risks of diabetes, colon cancer, and cirrhosis of the liver. A growing body of clinical literature also suggests that life-long caffeine use can have a positive impact on geriatric health: “Harvard researchers have determined that men who drink 4 cups of caffeinated coffee a day are half as likely to develop Parkinson's disease as those who skip the java. . . . What's more, blocking adenosine may slow the buildup of amyloid-beta, a toxic brain plaque that's associated with Alzheimer's disease. . . . [W]hen Harvard researchers tracked the coffee intake of more than 128,000 people, they determined that drinking more than six cups of coffee a day didn't boost the chance of developing heart disease. And last year, scientists at Brooklyn College found that men who drank 4 cups of caffeinated coffee daily had a 53 percent lower risk of dying of heart disease than those who never took a sip” (www.menshealth.com).

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Here, Timothy makes his less challenging points—caffeine keeps you awake and can help with weight loss—before going on to the more complex introduction to caffeine's effect on disease. When you start with reasons< that are easier to understand, you allow your reader to build up some momentum before moving on to the more challenging ones.

Familiarity:<

Ask yourself whether some reasons< will be more familiar to readers than others, and start with the more familiar ones. For example, in a history paper that discusses how the American Revolution affected the economy of Europe, Sara's problem statement concludes with her main claim:
In addition to having consequences for the future of the North American continent, the outcome of the American Revolution had a lasting impact on the British economy, the relations among Britain, Spain, France, and Holland, and the relationships Britain and Spain maintained with their colonies in the Caribbean and India.

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If Sara’s readers know European history, they would be most familiar with how the war affected Britain and least familiar with how it affected life in the colonies. Presenting her argument in this order allows her not only to develop the more familiar information first, but also to use the material she presents early as background for the later, less familiar information:
As I have shown, the decisions made by the European nations to support or ignore the 13 colonies' pleas for military help had more to do with their economic relations with England than with any political idealism that might have led them to support the colonies on philosophic grounds. This pattern of behavior also determined the form that their help to the colonies took, especially in the case of Spain. Spain's colonial holdings in the Caribbean made it difficult for Spain to openly or directly fund the American colonies' revolution. While Spain wanted to use the revolution to drain England's resources and deplete its military, and thereby weaken its power in Europe, Spain also could not afford to appear to endorse revolution in terms of the colonists' rights. Such an endorsement could lead to uprisings in their own colonies, especially those of the Caribbean, who were immediately at hand to witness the revolution against Britain.

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Here, Sara uses the information that she believes will be most familiar to her reader—the eighteenth-century struggle for power in Europe—to contextualize a less familiar set of issues, namely the interactions among Spain, the British colonies, and their own colonies in the Caribbean.