Every generation has its urban legends, stories everyone believes. When examined, any urban legend tells us something about the culture in which it thrives, as well as why people believe the legends. Using an urban legend as a jumping-off point, explore the legend and develop a theory as to why it is believed by so many people, while also convincingly debunking the legend.
You’re writing for someone who believes the urban legend to be true, with the purpose of convincing them it isn’t true and explaining what is actually true.
Consider how difficult this might be. It’s possible you will be slaughtering someone else’s sacred cow, or challenging something they’re not certain they remember happening. This can be unsettling. No one likes to be told they’re wrong. There’s a reason so many of these legends persist. In many cases people want to believe them.
You’ll have to do a thorough analysis of the audience’s needs, attitudes, and knowledge in order to devise an approach to achieving your goal. You’ll probably have to revisit those thoughts throughout your process, to make sure you’re not unintentionally alienating them in ways that will prevent them from appreciating your message.
- Choose an urban legend
It can be fun to first try to think of something you believe to be true, but on second thought may be an urban legend. The legend need not be something trivial or silly. That we’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day to stay healthy is not backed by any scientific evidence. In some cases it might be actively harmful by overtaxing the kidneys. Go ahead, look it up for yourself! There are hundreds of these sorts of things floating around. It can start to get a little spooky once you recognize how much you think you know is based in…not much.
Find out as much as you can about the urban legend you’ve chosen. Many of them will be debunked by a single website, but don’t settle for one account. You’re looking to surround the problem, including by finding evidence you can that indicate the urban legend might be true (or the origins of why so many people believe it to be true).
- Figure out what you think you want to say.
Different writers will do different things in this step. Some like to do a lot of brainstorming and/or outlining. Others like to arrange their research as they look for inspiration. Personally, I usually just start writing. I grab onto a single idea, write until I’ve exhausted it, and hope and pray that another idea appears. I often don’t even know what I’m writing; I’m just trying to uncover the ideas. You might call it brainstorming.
Keeping your purpose in mind, write a draft. Remember that it’s an argument with a particular purpose, to convince your audience that a particular urban legend is not true. Write until you’ve exhausted what you have to say about your subject. We call this a “down draft,” where you get it all down.
- Shape the writing.
Looking at all the material you’ve generated, and considering your audience’s needs, attitudes and knowledge, shape what you’ve done into a coherent essay that fulfills the purpose of debunking the legend while also offering insight into why the legend is so persistent, and doing it in a way that will convince those who were previously inclined to believe the legend. Think of your audience every step of the way, they will have needs you should seek to meet. If you shock them in the beginning they may resist the rest of your message. A better approach may involve walking them through the evidence bit by bit to induce them to come to the conclusion you’re advocating for essentially on their own.
- Get feedback.
This is a piece of writing that will probably benefit from getting feedback from other people. To help them develop some questions, readers may just tell you if something is good or not. What do you want your readers to consider about your writing?
- Revise, edit, polish.
When you are trying to be convincing, making the piece as polished as possible is usually a sound idea.
A title that invites the reader in, to explore what you’ve found out and opens them up to learning something new feels like the right move here.
Think back on the feedback portion of this experience. How helpful was the feedback to improving your piece? What was helpful? What wasn’t helpful? In hindsight, would you have given your readers different questions to focus on?
Imagine yourself on the other side of the equation, reading someone else’s piece written with the same purpose in mind. What would you do to try to be helpful to them?
The writing experiences for Ignite have been adapted from The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence In Your Non-Fiction Writing by John Warner (2019).