A recent batch of links at the LJ community, metafandom, really stirred some people up. I'm no exception, though it appears what most irritated me wasn't what irritated anybody else. While other fans seem upset about some of the opinions expressed in the links, I'm more torqued by the lack of cohesive argument in most of the links I followed. In each case, the piece would start out with what I felt was a clearly-stated premise, and then wander away from it, often devolving into simple axe-grinding by the end. I'm not entirely sure why I'm seeing more and more such cases cropping up, but I thought a review of the basics of debate and essay might be timely.
NOTE: The following assumes that the fannish essayist wishes to present her views clearly and concisely, to persuade other fans as to the logic of her points, and to engage other fans in reasoned debate. If all you wish to do is write an ode to your favorite character, or preach to the converted about a particular point, or get your rant on, then these guidelines aren't going to do you much good. Other forms have other guidelines (squees and rants, in particular, rely on the emotional tide that interferes with a successful essay, though every form does require knowing your point and making it).
Most of the following are things I learned in high school while working on the school literary magazine and newspaper, and crafting oral presentations. College refines these rules and adds new ones, but the foundation remains the same, and it's the foundation I'm concerned with. So I'll start with the things that appear to be hardest for fannish essayists, some with good reason. I'll start with:
1. Determine your point and stick to it. Determine where you stand, and what you want to say about it. Figure out your point before you start writing, and build up to it from your very first word. Don't allow yourself to be sidelined or distracted; only make brief diversions if they're going to end up feeding back into and strengthening your main point. Resist the urge to get off-topic. If another point you want to make occurs to you, note it somewhere else as the topic of a future essay, and get back to this one. Unless you decide the new point that occurred to you is actually the one you really want to make, in which case, restructure what you have so far so it leads naturally to your new point.
2. Check your passion at the door. This is a tough one. Fandom is driven by passion and, indeed, most essays/rants/debates begin with passion, so let me unpack this a little. The fire that drives you to write up that first draft of your argument is similar to the thought of "they'd look so hot together" that starts you on the path of your latest crossover. They're both excellent starting points. Just like the thought, though, the passion is only the catalyst; you're going to need more than that initial push to make both story and essay work, and often the initial push gets in the way of building that more. Why? Because you're now working at a level and an angle where passion and hotness are both irrelevant. What you need now is a foundation, supporting arguments, logic. You need to connect the dots so that, even if they end up not agreeing with you, at least your readers can see how you got to where you are.
3. Resist the urge to grind axes. Again, the wish to grind a particular favorite axe is what often prompts the first draft of an essay, but if your aim is to point out an issue to people who don't share said axe, it's best to take a more reasoned approach. If the particular issue connected to the axe is not your main point, but feeds into your main point, touch on it as objectively as possible. If it doesn't feed into your main point, don't touch on it. I repeat, don't touch on it. It doesn't matter how much you want to, it's going to undermine what you're saying and put people off, not just of this essay, but likely off of you as a reasoned individual. If you wish to be seen as reasoned, don't be unreasonable.
4. Be aware of your assumptions. Whether you're assuming, "of course all authors want to improve," or, "critics aren't authors," or, "anyone who likes this pairing must dislike that pairing," or, "anyone who dislikes/doesn't write this character is sexist/racist/ageist," or, "anyone who reads/writes this subgenre is young/shallow/elitist/perverted," or, "anything under 1000 words was dashed off by a lazy author," or, "anything over 10000 words is in desperate need of an editor." We make assumptions every day about other people and the way the world works, but you can't bring your assumptions unexamined to an argument and expect to be taken seriously. It's best to state any assumptions you're consciously making at the beginning of your essay, and be prepared to be called on them, especially if they are assumptions based on gross generalizations.
5. Own your biases. Perhaps one of the things I like best about fandom in terms of debate is that we are all well aware we are viewing our shared interests through subjective lenses. The wise essayist acknowledges this upfront, and the wisest is self-aware enough to know the shape of her tunnel vision, and lay it out so her readers are also aware of it. This does not mean one should not attempt to move outside one's comfort zone, or see the other viewpoint; it is not an excuse to become more firmly entrenched in a myopic outlook. To be blunt, if one has such a desire, one is not likely to succeed as an essayist.
6. Know the difference between opinion and fact. The order of this list is based on ease of topic flow, otherwise I would place this guideline much higher. This is a huge problem in fandom, and indeed, a huge problem in the world at large. Without the proper training, most people seem inclined to believe that what they like and what is good are of course one and the same. It's often a great shock when they first encounter the idea that this is not the case, and kneejerk violently defensive reactions are the usual order of the day. Such reactions have led to a number of fannish essays, and of course the situation is only exacerbated when readers do not react to such essays with reassurances that of course the essayist's preferences match up to objective standards of taste (as if there is such a thing). This actually feeds back into guideline #4, "Be aware of your assumptions," as well as guideline #6. In order to recognize the assumptions one makes and the biases one has, it's necessary to realize what opinions one holds and to recognize that they are opinions. It's also necessary to review the definition of fact so that one is less likely to commit the absurdity of claiming, "That's your opinion," when presented with a fact one finds unsavory.
7. Cite your sources. This one can be tricky in fandom, since a locked post or personal email is as likely to spark the desire for discussion as an unlocked comment. However, the fact remains that if you are responding to a specific statement, or refuting a specific assertion, referencing said statement or assertion is most useful for presenting your point in context. Along with this, trying to convince your readers that a whole group of people support what you say is far more likely to work if you can point said readers to where said supporters are, in fact, supporting you. It should be a given by now that "the lurkers support me in email" is not going to convince anybody of anything except that you don't have enough investment in your own convictions to admit you stand alone.
8. Be certain you know the full meaning of every word you use. It may be tempting to grab words from the dictionary to make yourself look more erudite, but such an approach will inevitably bite you on the ass. If your aim is to present your view on something, and to present it clearly, you're only getting in your own way by using vocabulary on which you are wobbly. Yes, there are readers who are impressed by the use of words with which they themselves are only passingly familiar, but impressing people is not the same as getting them to understand what you're saying. As I mentioned above, these guidelines are about aiding comprehension of your point, so I'm assuming you'd rather people understand you than be impressed by you. Even if you'd rather they were impressed, it would behoove you to keep in mind that for every reader impressed by your use of a word you're not entirely clear on, there is another reader for whom you've lost all credibility because they do know the full meaning of that word, and the way you used it was inappropriate.
9. Betas: not just for fiction. Just as when writing stories, it can be hard to truly see the flaws in the essay you've just constructed. A beta can catch those leaps of logic, those areas where you skipped an entire phrase because you were writing so fast, that sentence where you started out making one point and ended contradicting yourself. If you can, get a beta who has less investment in the topic than you; someone who agrees with you might miss an assumption you both make, and someone who disagrees might get too caught up in the debate herself to help you get your essay polished and out to the general public. Better yet, get at least two betas, one who agrees with you and one who disagrees, as they will cover each other's weaknesses as well as your own.
10. Always keep in mind that the internet is a public forum. If you're only looking for a particular kind of interaction, you'd do best to post in a place where you're likely to only get that type of interaction. There has been a great deal of debate about how much one's own LJ or mailing list is a public space and how much a personal one, and that debate is not likely to be settled any time soon. In the meantime, if you consider LJ or a mailing list a personal space, it might be wise to lock both only to members/friends, just as you close the door of your house if you don't wish strangers to wander in. This doesn't mean your friends or members might not still disagree with you, but it's easier to enforce a stated desire for only one kind of interaction if you've limited your audience.
Now, lest you think I'm handing down these guidelines from some kind of lofty position, you should know that I have written many fannish essays in my time, and I have violated nearly all of the above at least once. Were you so inclined, you could doubtless find where I violated some of them in this very essay. Luckily, this is a case where my own fallibility will work in my favor. If you can see where adherence to these guidelines would have strengthened my position, then you can see the point of the guidelines, and I've done my job.