Is your writing too defensive?

All writers have bad habits. One of mine used to be addressing invisible critics. I couldn’t write about my ideas without imagining objections to them. This affected how I structured my work.

Compare the two essay outlines below. Both are arguments for the convenience of large supermarkets built outside English towns. This is controversial in England. Before internet retail began driving small stores out of business, big supermarkets were blamed for doing the same thing.

This first essay outline answers the question.

Why are out of town supermarkets good?
– Everything you need is in one place.
– There is a large car park, so no more difficulty parking.
– There are parking spaces for the disabled and parents with children near the doors.
– Everything is under cover, so shopping is comfortable in bad weather.
– The site is often more secure and better lit than some town centres.


The second essay outline is baggy and out of control. The writer explains why the supermarkets are good and then argues against critics who might disagree. This defensiveness weakens the argument for supermarkets by highlighting the arguments against.

To readers unfamiliar with criticisms against supermarkets it’s also not clear why the writer talks about problems in town centres. So for these readers some of the essay content looks very irrelevant.

Why are out of town supermarkets good?
– Everything you need is in one place, any small shop that can’t compete needs to diversify on the internet.
– There is a large, convenient car park, and if they have bus stops everyone can get to them.
– There are disabled and young family parking spaces, though you have to get there early.
– Everything is under cover which is great in bad weather, and in good weather the convenience of shopping in one place leaves more time to go to the park.
– The site is often more secure and better lit than some town centres. The increase in cafes in town centres is bringing life back to them.


When I wrote defensively I never knew what my problem was. I felt that my writing was spinning out of control but couldn’t see why. I would write an idea and then think “but someone might argue xyz.” Then I’d have to say something more.

My readers didn’t know that I’d imagined someone might argue xyz. So my argument against xyz looked like an odd digression from the flow of the text.

I see this defensiveness problem quite often in other people’s non-fiction writing. It’s never so bad that every paragraph looks messy. It tends to show up in small patches here and there.

Defensiveness is probably a particular problem for individuals writing in support of new, controversial, disputed or challenging subjects. To wean out defensiveness in your writing, check every sentence and ask these questions.

  • What is the purpose of this sentence?
  • Who is this sentence talking to?
  • Will readers know why I’ve written this?
  • Does this sentence belong here?

5 thoughts on “Is your writing too defensive?

  1. The French do this in their dialectic dissertations. You present your argument in paragraph one, refute arguments against it in paragraph two, and finally compare the two to show why your original premise was correct.
    So you’re not defensive, you’re French 🇫🇷 😊


  2. One of my bad habits while writing philosophical essays is my use of subjectivity. I use too many self-identifying pronouns as if to offer some caveat and not fully stand behind my work.


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