rhetorical devices

Grant writing is a curious thing. I spent much of today sifting through comments from a co-PI and student and most of them were about what would “sell” and what would not. When we say sell, we’re talking about rhetoric and argumentation.

So what sells? For one, coherent logical arguments. If an explanation does not follow logically, it will not sell. Logic is a necessary but insufficient condition. Another crucial aspect is the argument space to which an argument leads. This space of arguments can be sparse or dense. For example, if I try to argue that chickens deserve freedom, I’m entering a space of arguments rife with controversy. Someone might say that chickens are not people and only people deserve freedom. Others might make a historical argument and argue that chickens have been bred by humans as food, so they were never intended to have freedom. This is a dense argument space.

If, on the other hand, I argue that chickens deserve feed, we enter a quite sparse argument space. There is no controversy. Everyone will agree that chickens need food. Some might disagree about the form of the food, but they won’t contest with much passion.

What “sells” in a grant are argument spaces that are neither too dense or too sparse. They are arguments that are just controversial enough to be interesting, engaging and risky, but not so controversial that they fail to persuade. A chicken argument that might sell:

Chickens need genetically engineered organic super feed that makes them both healthier, tastier, and environmentally friendly

See how it tugs in multiple directions? It’s facetted. It involves genetic engineering, but also helps humanity. It seems feasible technically, but it’s not immediately obvious how you might do it. It sells because it’s just barely feasible technically and politically.

Now if only it was logical.

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