How Do I Back Up What I Say?

No doubt, you are a warm, wonderful human being who would never lie to a soul. Nevertheless, no experienced reader will believe you unless you support your statements with proof and explanations. These strategies can help you back up what you say.

Reading This Page:

Notice what these strategies have in common:

  1. Show, don't just tell. They are all filled with specific, memorable information that supports their point. The student spent an hour discussing a Sheryl Crow CD. The runner was a sophomore who was recovering from a cold. Mrs. Suarez wore orthopedic shoes. We don't read any of the numb generalizations that require the reader to fill in the blanks.
  2. The writer's feelings aren't the basic support. When Mrs. Suarez walks in, we don't hear about the student's sweating hands and pounding heart. That would not give us sweating hands and pounding heart. We hear about her appearance, her voice, and her attitude toward slackers.
  3. The examples are free from cliché. We are not tortured by a continual stream of "I think that" and "To me this means." We can pretty much assume that the writers think these things because the writers have written them down.
  4. The well-developed statements run longer than the undeveloped generalizations. The general, undeveloped statement about distance running is 52 words. The example adds another 119 words. A 1000-word essay that depends entirely on cliché generalizations ("She was always there for me") is very difficult to write, but adding specific evidence to prove the point helps you meet the length requirement—and makes your essay a lot more interesting to write and to read.

Use Your Own Experience

Your own life experiences can provide convincing evidence. Say, for example, that you are discussing problems created by computers, and you make the point that computers often contribute to procrastination. You might write a paragraph like the following, based on your own experience:

Computers can be great time-wasters. The last time I sat down to write a paper, I found myself playing solitaire instead of drafting. The next thing I knew, an hour had gone by. I got myself back on task, but when I became stuck, I decided to check my e-mail. By the time I read and responded to five messages, another 20 minutes was lost. I tried to work on my paper again, but I was lured away by my favorite chat room. I couldn't believe it when the clock in the corner of my screen showed that I had spent an hour discussing the latest Sheryl Crow CD. When I realized how much time I had wasted, I went straight back to my paper, but I was so tired that I know I didn't give it my best efforts. I probably would have done better had I used a pen and paper.

Danger point:

Be aware that in some disciplines and for some audiences and purposes, personal experience may not qualify as convincing support. For example, in a research paper about computers and procrastination for a psychology class, your own experience with procrastination will not be convincing because it can be seen as an isolated case. However, a study reporting that one-third of all college students play computer solitaire instead of studying can serve as convincing evidence.

Use Your Observations

Your observations of the world can offer excellent support for ideas. Say you are discussing the trend to require volunteerism in high schools. Your observation of the volunteer work students do could lead to this paragraph:

Students can learn a great deal when they are required to perform volunteer service. However, care must be taken with the kinds of activities they are allowed to engage in. At our local high school, students were at first involved in such worthy activities as volunteering in hospitals, purchasing groceries for elderly neighbors, and coaching youth soccer. Now they receive volunteer credit for such dubious activities as helping out in the school office during study hall, working on theater sets for the senior play, and selling programs at football games. I doubt very much is learned from such work.

Tell A Story

Search your own experience for brief stories that can drive home your points. Consider this passage:

Distance running is an excellent sport for adolescents because even if they do not finish near the front of the pack, they can still feel good about themselves. Shaving a few seconds off an earlier time or completing a difficult course can be a genuine source of pride for a young runner.

Now notice how the addition of a brief story helps prove the point:

I remember a race I ran as a sophomore. I was recovering from a miserable cold and not in peak condition. Just after completing the first mile, I developed a cramp in my side. However, I was determined to finish, no matter how long it took me. Quarter mile by quarter mile, I ran rather haltingly. My chest was tight from lack of training because I had been sick, and my side hurt, but still I kept on. Eventually, I crossed the finish line, well back in the standings. However, I could not have been more proud of myself if I had won. I showed that I had what it took to finish, even though the going was tough.

Describe People and Places

Description creates vivid images that help readers to see and hear the way you see and hear. It also adds interest and vitality to writing. Consider this passage:

The best teacher I ever had was Mrs. Suarez, who taught me algebra in the ninth grade. But even more than teaching me algebra, Mrs. Suarez showed me compassion during a very difficult time in my life. I will always be grateful for her understanding and encouragement when I needed them most.

Now notice the interest created with the addition of description:

The best teacher I ever had was Mrs. Suarez, who taught me algebra in the ninth grade. But even more than teaching me algebra, Mrs. Suarez showed me compassion during a very difficult time in my life. To look at this woman, a person would never guess what a caring nature she had. With wire-stiff hair teased and lacquered into a bouffant, Mrs. Suarez looked like a hard woman. Her face, heavily wrinkled, had a scary, witch-like quality that fit the shrill voice she used to reprimand 14-year-old sinners who neglected their homework. She always stood ramrod straight with her 120 pounds distributed over her orthopedic shoes. Many a student has been frightened by a first look at this no-nonsense woman. However, appearances are, indeed, deceptive for Mrs. Suarez was not the witch she looked to be. In fact, I will always be grateful for her understanding and encouragement when I needed them most.

Give Examples

Nothing clarifies or proves a point like a well-chosen example. Examples can come from personal experience, observation, reading, research, or classroom experience. Assume you have stated that television commercials cause us to buy products we do not need. You could back up that point with examples you have observed, like this:

Television commercials often make people want products they do not need. For example, Tony the Tiger urges children to eat highly sugared cereal, while gorgeous, bikini-clad women romp on the beach, luring men to consume beer. Before Christmas, expensive toys based on the latest action hero are advertised relentlessly, until children are convinced they cannot survive without them. Or course, the worst offenders are the advertisers of hair dye, mascara, lipstick, perfume, and teeth-whiteners, who convince women they cannot be attractive without a drawer full of these products.

You could also take an example from personal experience (the time you went to a tax preparer because a commercial wrongly convinced you that you could not do your own taxes); you could draw an example from research (talk to others about unnecessary products they have purchased as a result of commercials); or you could cite an example you learned in the classroom (perhaps statistics on the number of people who buy a particular unnecessary product).

Give Reasons

Reasons help prove that something is true. Let's say that your point is that final examinations should be eliminated. These reasons could help prove your point:

Here is how those reasons might appear in a paragraph:

Final examinations should be eliminated because they are not a sound educational practice. For one thing, these exams cause too much anxiety among students. They worry so much about their performance that they lose sleep, stop eating, and show other signs of stress. Certainly, they cannot demonstrate what they know under such circumstances. They also cannot show what they really know because the tests cannot test all of a body of knowledge—just what the teacher wants to test. As a result, some of what a student knows may never be asked for. Furthermore, if the test is poorly constructed (and many of them are), students may further be kept from demonstrating their real learning. Then there is the fact that that many students are poor test-takers. They may know the material just fine, but be incapable of demonstrating their knowledge because they have never mastered the art of test-taking.

Show Similarities or Differences

Assume you are writing about ways to improve the quality of life in nursing homes, and you make the point that nursing homes should allow residents to have pets. The following paragraph shows how you can back up your point by citing similarities:

Because nursing homes have long recognized the value of having young children visit residents, preschool classes are often invited to spend time in the facilities. Allowing residents to have pets would be similarly beneficial. Just as the children do, the pets would provide companionship for the residents and give them an opportunity to express affection. Also, just as it does with the children, the interaction with the pets would provide intellectual stimulation and an opportunity to forget about infirmities. Of course, in one respect, pets are better than children: They do not have to go home at the end of the day because they already are home and can continue to make life better for residents.

Now assume that you want to argue that having pets in nursing homes is not a good idea. Showing differences can help you back up your point:

Some people claim that having pets in nursing homes would be beneficial in the same way that having preschoolers there is beneficial. This contention is not true. First, children do not add to the cost to a nursing home or its residents. Their parents feed them and take care of medical expenses, but the residents or nursing home would have to assume these expenses for pets. Also, because children are supervised by teachers while in the facility, residents need not watch them very closely. Pets, on the other hand, need to be restrained from entering the rooms of residents who do not want to be near them. Since many residents cannot supervise the animals all the time, an already overburdened staff would have even more responsibility. Finally, children go home at the end of the day, but pets stay and require ongoing care, which can drain nursing home resources.

Explain Causes or Effects

If you are writing about sex education in schools and make the point that it should be mandatory, you can back up this point by citing the positive effects of sex education, like this:

Sex education's most obvious benefit is increased knowledge. Since it is unlikely that sexually active teens will start to abstain, increased knowledge about birth control will prevent unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, the same knowledge can help teens protect themselves against sexually transmitted disease. When fewer teens become pregnant, more of them will stay in school and thus will not fall victim to unemployment, drugs, and crime. When more teens protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases, fewer of them will die.

If you want to emphasize the need for sex education by citing the pressure on teenagers to become sexually active, you might explain what causes teenagers to become sexually active, like this:

One reason teenagers are sexually active at a younger age is that they are bombarded by sexual messages. On MTV, videos are populated with women wearing next to nothing; men and women are touching, groping, and grinding in sexually provocative ways. On the radio, rock lyrics glorify teen sex as healthy rebellion and a sign of independence. Movies, too, send sexual messages. Sex scenes and nudity are frequent in PG-13 movies and are standard fare in R-rated movies that teens get into with no trouble at all.

To discover causes, ask yourself, "Why does this happen?" The answers may provide your details. Similarly, to discover effects, ask yourself, "After this happens, then what?" The answers may provide details as well. For example, ask, "Why do teenagers engage in sex?" and you might get the answer, "To be more like an adult." The desire to be mature then becomes a cause. Ask yourself, "After sex education courses are offered, then what?" If you get the answer, "Teenagers learn safe sex practices," you have an effect of sex education.

Explain How Something Is Made or Done

Assume you are discussing simple things people can do to combat prejudice. If you make the point that people do not have to put up with racial, ethnic, or sexist humor, you might back up that point by explaining how a person can deal with such offensive humor, like this:

Many people do not know how to respond when they are told a racial, ethnic, or sexist joke, so they smile or laugh politely, even though they feel uncomfortable. A better approach is to say something simple, such as, "I don't find such jokes funny." Then, you can quickly turn the conversation to some neutral topic. If the joke was told to several people, and you do not want to embarrass the speaker, draw him or her aside later and say, "I'm sure you did not mean to, but you made me very uncomfortable when you told your joke." Both of these approaches let the speaker know that hurtful jokes are not universally welcome.

Explain What Would Happen If Your Assertion Were Not Adopted

Assume that you are advocating the passage of a tax levy to fund the building of a new high school. To help make your point, you can explain what would happen if the levy did not pass, like this:

Without the passage of the levy, funds would not be available to finance a new high school. Yet without the high school, our children will suffer. The current building is too small and enrollment is projected to increase over the next five years. Thus, classes will be seriously overcrowded. Furthermore, the current building lacks an auditorium, making it impossible to have a theater program. The lack of an auditorium also means assemblies and band concerts must be held in the gym, where the acoustics are poor and the seats are uncomfortable. Most worrisome is the fact that that the renovations required in the existing building, including asbestos removal, a new roof, and updated heating system, will cost almost as much as building a new school. If we spend the money on these renovations, the children will reap no benefits, the way they would with a new building.

Consider Opposing Views

Think about the assertion of those who disagree with you. You can acknowledge a compelling point and offer your counter-argument. For example, if you were advocating warning labels on CDs with sexually explicit lyrics, you could write the following:

People against warning labels cite the "forbidden fruit" argument. They say that young people will be encouraged to buy music with the labels, expressly because they are being warned away from them. To some extent this is true. However, the labels will still provide a guideline for parents who want to buy music for their children. They will also create an atmosphere of respectability. Although young people may ignore them, the labels still send a message that some things are more appropriate than others for teenagers. This atmosphere is an improvement over the current "anything goes" climate that sends the message that teens can buy and do whatever they please.

Use Material from Outside Sources

Statistics, facts, quotations, and idea from outside sources can provide important support for many topics. These sources can include your textbooks and class lectures, newspapers, magazines, and sources you discover in the library or on the Internet.

Danger Point:

Plagiarism Alert: When you use material from an outside source—whether that source is electronic or paper—be sure to document the material according to standard academic guidelines.


Adapted from:
Clouse, Barbara Fine. A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers. 5th ed., McGraw, 2008.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/20/19 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.