Advocacy-Oriented Genres

Writing for advocacy is always about using one’s communication skills to try to achieve changes in local, state, or federal law. The United States has always proudly declared itself a “nation of laws,” governed by “the rule of law,” and so the laws of the land have profound effects on people’s experiences. They govern whether people have access to very basic needs, including healthcare, clean drinking water, adequate food, and shelter. Changes to laws and regulations are often the fastest way to have the most positive impact on the largest number of people, so social workers have an obligation to undertake advocacy for policy changes that would benefit our client populations, who are often underserved or disadvantaged. Since most laws are written to deal with important social problems, advocacy-oriented writing often has to deal simultaneously with the social problem and the policy the writer wants to change. In order to convince those with the power to change policy to actually change policy, it is often necessary to employ a variety of rhetorical strategies, but also to base our assertions on reliable evidence that the reader will also be willing to acknowledge. Because different policy genres address different audiences, their length, tone, and use of evidence may vary a great deal.

Audience

Because the goal of advocacy-oriented genres is to change the laws of the land, they have to address those people best able to take the right actions and make those changes. In a democracy like the U.S., there are a variety of possible target audiences, and each one changes the kind of writing we have to undertake. Nearly all audiences have to be convinced that the social problem addressed by a specific law is important, which is why most advocacy-oriented writing starts off with some facts and figures about a social ill, and who suffers from it. However, if our audience is “legislators themselves” (as in an advocacy letter or email) or “voters in this district” (as in a position paper or editorial) we will need to speak as quickly, clearly, and simply as possible. These are people whose attention we cannot keep for long, and we will have to work hard to get and hang onto it—so sometimes a quick anecdote (a very short narrative) about a personal experience or example client case can establish human interest, and keep the audience reading. By contrast, if our audience is “legislative staff-members” or “other social work academics engaged in advocacy work” (as in a policy analysis) we can—and should—take longer to build up our case, working more meticulously with the available data, and avoiding using personal anecdotes to get attention. In all cases, we will want to write with specificity and precision, and use reliable factual information to support arguments about what is happening, or what is wrong.

Argument

Advocacy genres almost always need to argue that a specific law is not working well enough, in order to convince the reader to take action and change it. Establishing that a law is not working can be easy in cases where, for example, congress passed the law to look like something was being done, but then did not fund it at all, or in cases where the law clearly operates against social work ethical principles. Such laws will have a hard time achieving desirable results because of how they are written. However, these laws are rare, and are often struck down by court challenges. More commonly, we will have to use some form of data or empirical conclusion to support an argument that a law is not working well enough. Arguments that advocate for policy change almost always begin with a summary of the social problem, establishing exigency by the seriousness and negative consequences of that problem, and then identifying what policy needs to change to improve it. Such arguments usually conclude with specific recommendations for what changes need to be made. Given the audience, we do not want to take them all the way through the argument, and then finish with a generic exhortation to “do something!” We need to suggest what specific actions need to be taken, and why.

Evidence

In supporting an argument that a specific law is not working well enough, we will need to rely upon trustworthy data. In most cases, it can be very helpful if other academics have written articles or books on how well a policy has worked, but if the policy has passed recently, or has been amended a great deal, such information may not be available or meaningful. We would therefore need to look for reliable public data, and the most reliable sources would tend to be government departments that collect and archive rigorous data (for example, the US Census Bureau, or the department of Housing and Urban Development, and so forth). Most information we find online on other websites comes from these kinds of sources, so it is usually best to go to these sources directly. However, it is important to keep in mind that the kind of writing we are undertaking will change the kind of evidence we can (and should) be using.

Hybrid advocacy-oriented writing

If we are writing to legislators themselves (in an advocacy letter/email), or to members of the public (in a position paper or editorial), we have very little time to get and keep their attention, so we can often use our own or our clients’ experiences as “human interest” examples, or “pathos appeals” directly to the emotions. These should of course be carefully chosen, and should not constitute the only evidence we use. Academic sources and reliable public data should support assertions about a law’s overall effectiveness—so this “hybrid” writing has to switch effectively from personal to empirical data. This kind of writing appears in advocacy letters to legislators, some policy briefs, and other short advocacy documents with wide audiences.

Theoretical advocacy-oriented writing

If we are writing a policy analysis for a legislative staff—the aides, associates, or clerks who actually write the laws themselves—or to social work academics interested in advocacy, the standards for proof are higher, and we should devote most of our attention to academic and reliable public data sources. Other sources, if present, should be simply establishing what positions specific public groups or individuals have taken on the policy or social issue.