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Effective Writing and the Art of Inferences
Picture this scenario:
An inference is a belief (or statement) about something unknown, made on the basis of something known.
The ability to make inferences is a basic human skill. You hear a siren; you infer _____ (?). You smell smoke; you infer ______ (?). A husband comes home late with lipstick on his collar; his wife infers _____ (?). All inferences have two parts: a basis (the known factors; specific and indisputable) and the conclusion (the educated guess: a generalization based on evidence, but nonetheless uncertain).
Understanding inferences is crucial to effective development of most essays, particularly argumentation. A GOOD WRITER SHOWS, NOT JUST TELLS. That is, he or she clearly establishes the basis (details, facts, examples, descriptions) for any conclusion (thesis, topic sentence) offered in an essay. For any claim, the reader must be shown the grounds upon which that claim rests. Most readers prefer to see for themselves, rather than being merely told what to believe.
In a sense an essay is thus an attempt to get the readers to make the same inferences the writer has made. Your readers are like a jury in a court of law; they will accept your claim (conclusion, thesis) only if you present sufficient evidence (basis, grounds).
Many students have difficulty with providing adequate development in their essays. One help in understanding development is to discuss inferences. If, in a narrative essay, a student writes "The hotel clerk was a slob," the instructor might remark, "How do you know? Details? Proof? Descriptive imagery? Examples?" If, in an argumentative essay, a student declares "Americans today are more politically conservative than three decades ago, " the teacher could (and should) again request some development of support, some proof. In both cases, the student/writer has made an inference, possibly valid. But the out-of-context examples simply tell, not show. Thus the teacher/reader is informed of the conclusion, but not necessarily the basis for the inferences, and therein lurks the major weakness in such writing.
Effective writing (narration, description, exposition, and argumentation) depends more upon showing the known details that triggered the writer's point of view than upon telling the readers (however eloquently) what the point of view is.
As a means of checking for adequate development of supporting details in any type of essay, writers may follow a process of inference examination, as follows:
REMEMBER TO SHOW, NOT JUST TELL.
Make the readers experience the particulars of your reality, not just hear what you believe.
Taken and adapted from a Houston Community College English Department handout.
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