Constructing and Reflecting on Arguments in Different Kinds of Writing

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In Module 5 we consider how arguments are constructed. As an initiate, you will construct your own arguments. We will also explore key aspects of writing good critical essays. The competencies acquired here will be of great value to you throughout your studies.

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Module 5 covers the following topics:

  • Different kinds of writing
    • Expressive writing
    • Journals
    • Communicative writing
  • Writing argumentative essays
  • The philosophical attitude

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After successfully completing Module 5, you should be able to:

  • Distinguish between different kinds of writing.
  • Understand and follow generally accepted guidelines for constructing arguments when writing argumentative essays.
  • Understand that a critical evaluation of the ideas and beliefs of other people requires a critical attitude of self-reflection and critical evaluation of our own biases, misconceptions and preconceived ideas.

Study Materials

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By now you should have a clear idea of how to analyze and evaluate the arguments of others. But this is only one aspect of your task as a critical reasoner. A second, and equally important task, is the construction of arguments — that is, the construction and defence of a philosophical argument of your own. Obviously, you should expect your own argument to meet the requirements that you demand of any other argument. Your argument must be coherently stated and its premises must supply sufficient and relevant reasons for the conclusion to be accepted.

Because critical reasoning is about arguments and argumentation, its primary focus is argumentative writing. However, it would be a mistake to think that argumentative writing is the only kind of writing. There is nothing new in telling you that writing can exist in different forms. Most likely we have all composed both a grocery list and a love letter at some point in our lives already, so we needn’t tell you the obvious. There is also descriptive writing, comparative writing and narrative writing. Although we are concerned only with argumentative writing in critical reasoning, we should know about other kinds of writing, because this will help us to better understand what argumentative writing entails.

In order to help you to begin to think about the issues we need to address, write down answers to the questions following below in your journal before you read any further:

  • Why do students write?
  • What are the different kinds of writing which, up to now, you have been asked to use in the school or university environment?
  • Why is it necessary to have different kinds of writing?
  • What do different kinds of writing have to do with philosophy? Please do not take this exercise lightly. Remember that, through journal writing, you write in order to understand yourself better. In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself to understand himself … (Alfred Kazin)

Why do students write? Easy, most students would say, “Because we have to.” Honest, perhaps, but discouraging. It makes writing seem pretty trivial. How about another go? Here’s a likely second answer: “To show what we know.” Hmm, we’re not sure we like that much better. Isn’t there something more positive we can say about writing? Yes, there is. The best reason to write is the best reason to do anything: because it helps you grow and develop your potential. Writing is a terrific way to learn. When you write you discover whether you really understand something, or just think you do; and the very process of writing makes you think, and think hard. The process of writing pushes students toward the true goals of higher education: critical thinking, creativity, analysis, synthesis, and informed judgment. Therefore, writing is primarily about learning, not showing off what you already know. If writing an essay teaches you nothing, the assignment has been a failure. One common way to categorise writing is to distinguish between expressive and communicative writing

Expressive Writing

Expressive writing is personal and informal, written to encourage comprehension and reflection on the part of the writer. Open-ended and creative, expressive writing is a good way to start learning about a topic. By contrast, communicative writing is analytical, formal and more or less impersonal. It presupposes that the writer already has considerable knowledge and understanding of the topic and is writing to inform a reader. It demands adherence to established conventions of tone, voice, diction, evidence, and citation; these conventions will vary according to discipline and type (e.g., laboratory report, history paper, business plan, legal brief).

Writing as learning begins with expressive writing. Consider what it’s like when you’re first learning about a topic. Everything is unfamiliar. It’s like being in a strange land where not only the terrain but even the signs and maps are unfamiliar, and the words themselves are foreign. That’s the situation students find themselves in when they begin studying a field like history or anthropology or biology or business. Expressive writing gives students an opportunity to start to make sense of the world they find themselves in, to bring the myriad facts, definitions, rules, theories, and perspectives to life and impose some order on them. There are many different kinds of expressive writing: one kind used in this course is journals.


Many educators rely on journals (also known as learning logs, idea notebooks, laboratory journals, or commonplace books) to encourage student thinking. Journals give students the chance to reflect on what they’re studying, to record thoughts, questions, ideas, hunches, or seemingly stray tangents.

Journals are easy to fit into any course – five or ten minutes of journal writing once or twice a week can be enough to keep a journal going (and spark better understanding of what you know and do not know). Even if a lecturer doesn’t require journals, you should consider keeping one. It can help you keep track of ideas you may wish to develop later on.

Communicative Writing

With communicative writing, logic and argumentation count a great deal. Communicative writing includes essays, final papers, laboratory reports, hand-outs accompanying student presentations, senior theses, and the like. Outside the classroom, communicative writing includes reports, plans, official documents of all sorts, letters of application, and so on. What all these kinds of writing have in common is the great weight they place on logic. University assignments like essays or laboratory reports give students practice in writing for others according to a strict format and fixed conventions. Writing assignments trains students to turn personal observations into impersonal prose, avoid value judgments unwelcome in the sciences, and write with economy and precision.

Other kinds of writing include:

  • descriptive writing
  • comparative and contrast writing
  • narrative writing
  • argumentative writing

These kinds of writing can largely be classified as communicative writing.

Read the following passages and identify the kind of writing in each text. In each case, we will provide you with some background on the quoted text so that you have a context in which you could make sense of the passage and identify the kind of writing apparent in the text.

The following text was taken from a book on social psychology, dealing with social influence, attitude change, group processes and prejudice. TM Newcomb was a social psychologist, who conducted a study of student attitudes at Bennington College in Vermont. Vermont is one of the six New England states in America. Newcomb’s study reports the impact the college environment had on student attitudes (Collins 1970:75):

“Newcomb chose to focus on changes in political and economic attitudes brought about by the Bennington experience. This was a topic of some concern to the community in general and provided an excellent opportunity to study the impact of the community on individual members. He found that the college community did indeed have a marked impact on students’ attitudes. The generally liberal atmosphere resulted in a definite decrease in conservatism as the girls went from their freshman to their senior year. The senior class was more liberal than the freshman class; the attitudes of the students became more liberal each year they spent at Bennington. Newcomb’s study, with this finding alone, provided an important starting point for the study of social attitudes, since it showed that attitudes can be modified as a result of social experience. Newcomb was also able to give us some insight into the specific mechanisms by which the values of the college community were internalised into individual attitudes.”

Feedback: This text is an example of descriptive writing. The author describes the impact of the community on individuals’ attitudes. Note that the author is not telling a story, comparing phenomena, or engaging in an argument.

The text that follows was taken from a book written by Ursula LeGuin. Le-Guin is well-known for her poetry and science fiction writings. This text was taken from her book, The left-hand of darkness (LeGuin 1992:170):

“How the devil can I believe anything you say!” he burst out. Bodily weakness made his indignation sound aggrieved and whining. “If all this is true, you might have explained some of it earlier, last spring, and spared us both a trip to Pulefen. Your efforts on my behalf —”

“Have failed. And have put you in pain, and shame, and danger. I know it. But if I had tried to fight Tibe for your sake, you would not be here now, you’d be in a grave in Erhenrang. And there are now a few people in Karhide, and a few in Orgoreyn, who believe your story, because they listened to me. They may yet serve you. My greatest error was, as you say, in not making myself clear to you. I am not used to doing so. I am not used to giving, or accepting, either advice or blame.”

“I don’t mean to be unjust, Estraven —”

“Yet you are. It is strange. I am the only man in all Gethen that has trusted you entirely, and I am the only man in Gethen that you have refused to trust.”

Feedback: This kind of writing is narrative writing. Note that the text does not argue for or against a particular point of view. Rather, the text aims at unfolding a story.

We have constructed the next below to serve as an example of a particular kind of writing. It is up to you to identify what kind of writing this is:

Concerns about human rights presently fall into two schools: liberal and communitarian. Liberals base the notion of human rights on the democratic basis of basic civil and political rights of all citizens as individuals and insist that, since the individual’s interests can easily be threatened, all citizens should be protected against the oppression of the state and against collective authoritarianism. In contrast to the liberal perspective, communitarians argue that the community, rather than the individual, the state, or the nation, is the ultimate originator of values and, in their analysis of human rights, group or communal rights, rather than individual rights, are emphasised.

Feedback: This kind of writing is comparative writing. Here the author compares two different approaches to human rights: liberal and communitarian.

The following text was taken from a book written by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) was a French philosopher and contemporary of Jean-Paul Sartre, the well-known existentialist philosopher. Merleau-Ponty wrote numerous books on phenomenology and perception. The text below is taken from his book, Signs (Merleau-Ponty 1964:109):

“Since we are all hemmed in by history, it is up to us to understand that whatever truth we may have is to be gotten not in spite of, but through, our historical inherence. Superficially considered, our inherence destroys all truth; considered radically, it founds a new idea of truth. As long as I cling to the ideal of an absolute spectator, of knowledge with no point of view, I can see my situation as nothing but a source of error. But if I have once recognized that through it I am grafted onto every action and all knowledge which can have meaning for me, and that step by step it contains everything which can exist for me, then my contact with the social in the finitude of my situation is revealed to me as the point of origin of all truth.”

Feedback: This text is an example of argumentative writing. It argues about the philosophical problem of absolute truth versus subjective truth.

You should now have a basic idea of what the various kinds of writing entail. Let us look for an opportunity to practice this basic competence by doing the following activity. This activity could be done in a public or private library or online. Identify and collect a range of hard copy or digital versions of magazines newspapers and books. Select an example of each of the following different kinds of writing- descriptive writing, narrative writing, comparative writing, and argumentative writing.

You may need to consult a variety of books, dealing with different topics, such as philosophical problems, psychology, law, history, and fiction. But in the end you should have selected only four different passages, each of them representing a particular kind of writing. Now make a collage of these four passages by making photocopies of them and pasting the photocopied passages in your hardcopy journal or by scanning copies into your digital journal. Mark each of them according to the appropriate type of writing and add a full reference for the source of each example.

Writing Argumentative Essays

Good critical essays cannot be plucked out of the sky. They depend on a good knowledge of the issues and arguments dealt with in a particular topic. A good starting point when writing critical or argumentative essays is to apply the experience and competence you have gained from your critical reasoning studies. A careful reading of the suggested resources and other philosophy texts will give you a good idea of how to write argumentative essays. Don’t worry if you have difficulty in understanding some of what you read. It is not easy to reach a full understanding of a complex philosophical text on an issue which has puzzled minds much greater than yours and mine. So you should not expect to understand such a text before you have read through it several times. All we expect is that you offer a reasonable interpretation. Keep in mind that the more you read, the easier you will find it to understand these texts.

Earlier on we have said that critical reasoning is concerned about argumentative writing. The aim of this section, then, is to introduce you to some key features of argumentative writing. This should enable you to start writing argumentative essays within the framework of an acceptable structure. As you become more skilled, you may want to change this method and organise your arguments differently. Until then, this method is useful to get you going and, by using it, you can be confident that you have adopted a sound approach.

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Writing Argumentative Essays

When writing argumentative essays, we should keep the following key points in mind:

  • Clearly state the thesis that you intend to defend in your essay.
  • Analyse and explain the problem the thesis deals with.
  • Use research material, documentation and referencing.
  • Provide sufficient and relevant reasons to support the thesis.
  • Define the key concepts used in your arguments.
  • Consider/anticipate possible opposition (counterarguments) to the thesis.
  • Reply to possible opposition.
  • Use appropriate language and structure.

Below is a brief guide to writing argumentative essays. These hints will probably dovetail well with the key aspects of argumentative essay writing that you will explore in the suggested resources. Consider these hints together with the key aspects and do the activity that follows (Jordan-Henley 1988).

When we write an argumentative essay, we should consider the following points:

  1. Explain the relevant problem/claim and say what it entails; then state the position you are going to defend (your thesis).
  2. Argue your claim, by giving acceptable and adequate reasons for your standpoint.
  3. Your discussion must be relevant. Make sure that you discuss the issues raised in the premises.
  4. Illustrate and clarify the points you are making by giving examples.
  5. Always consider the opposite viewpoint and discuss one or two possible counterarguments to your position.
  6. Always include a bibliography, listing the sources that you have consulted and referred to in your essay.

Let us put some of these guidelines into practice and write brief notes on an argument that deals with abortion. Let us say our thesis is the following:

The practice of abortion is morally permissible when the mother’s life is endangered by continued pregnancy.

One argument we might use here is that, since everyone has a right to self-defense and even the right to kill someone when this is the only way to save oneself, therefore a mother has the right to defend herself against a foetus whose continued existence clearly and unambiguously threatens her life. Here there is an appeal to a general principle that “everyone has a right to self-defence.” We might defend this by showing through examples how the principle fits in with what we take to be reasonable. For instance, could we morally blame someone who defended herself from a lethal attack from a man wielding a knife if she deliberately pushed her attacker over a cliff and this was the only way to save herself? Surely not. We may then go on to claim that a mother who requests an abortion when continued pregnancy is a clear danger to her life is doing nothing more than the victim in this example and, by parity of the same kind of reasoning, we should attach no moral blame to such actions.

We may offer further arguments claiming that, since a foetus is not yet, properly speaking, a person (perhaps only a potential person), the rights of a mother (who is a person) should take precedence over the less important rights of the foetus. Here we would have to defend our definition of “person,” and show how being a person makes one a rights-bearer, and how some rights are more important than other rights. Our definition of a person may assume some factual claims about human abilities, such as the ability to reason and communicate, and these assumptions would have to be articulated and defended.

In general, whatever arguments we use, all the points that we made in the preceding topics (on awareness of fallacious reasoning and avoidance of fallacies, and on argument analysis and evaluation) should guide us in our defence of our thesis. We should take care never to simply make an assertion but always back it up with reasons which we ourselves would accept as appropriate and well founded. When we write an argumentative essay, our opinions carry more weight if we look at both sides of the issue. In other words, we acknowledge our opponents’ views but try to convince the reader that our own argument is stronger.

Our essay would be extremely dull if we used the words “supporters” and “opponents” all the way through. Similarly, it would be unimpressive if we only used the verb “say” to refer to people’s opinions. The tables are below and contain lists of useful alternatives. Study them and then do the gap-fill task that follows.

Table 1

Positive Negative
supporters Opponents
proponents opponents
those in favour of … those opposed to …
defenders of … critics of …
advocates of … objectors
pro-… (eg pro-abortionists) anti-… (eg anti-abortionists)

Table 2

Alternative words
say that … argue









point out </blockquote>

Complete the text below using words/phrases from the tables above. (Solid lines relate to the first table; dotted lines relate to the second):

______________ of TV …….…………….. that it exposes us to too much violence and, as a result, we become less sensitive to real-life violence. They also ………………………. that schoolchildren neglect homework and have problems concentrating in class as a result of spending too much time glued to

the box. Finally, ____________ ……………….……. that television has turned many of us into over-weight, unfit “couch potatoes”.

_______________________, on the other hand, …………..……… that it is a blessing for lonely, elderly or housebound people. Furthermore, they ………………….., it does not simply entertain; it can be very educational as well. Another argument ______________ of TV is that it sometimes plays an important role in fundraising for disaster relief and various charities. For example, the “Live Aid” rock concert in 1984 raised millions of pounds for victims of the Ethiopian famine.

The philosophical attitude

In all the sections of this course, you have been doing (or practicing) philosophy. But what does it mean to “do philosophy”? It is not easy (perhaps not even desirable) to give a definition of philosophy. So, it is equally difficult to say exactly what we are doing when we engage in philosophical reasoning. Although it would be convenient to have a recipe, it would be contrary to the spirit of philosophical enterprise — which demands a critical and open attitude toward the ideas and beliefs of other people; a critical attitude and evaluation of our own beliefs and assumptions; and a critical, open attitude toward philosophy itself.

In the following few paragraphs we discuss some of the key features of a philosophical attitude to questions and problems. There is no recipe here: merely a few essential ingredients.

Philosophers have an absolute regard for clear and rigorous reasoning and the clear and rigorous use of language.

Clarity in thought and language leaves few hiding places for prejudice and distortion. Clarity is therefore essential if we are to achieve an acceptable understanding of the fundamental questions which puzzle us and if we are to obtain the likely answers to these questions. This is not to say that philosophical writings are easy to understand (they seldom are), but rather that the difficult and complex concepts and arguments employed should be articulated in a way which is precise and exact.

The philosophical attitude requires tolerance of the opinions, thoughts, attitudes and arguments of others.

Philosophers should be swayed only by the cogency of an argument, not by preconceived ideas and prejudices. This calls for an openness to other viewpoints, however unpalatable these views may seem to us at first. This does not mean that a philosopher may not strongly and forcibly advocate a particular position (the best philosophers always do). What it does mean is that a philosopher’s advocacy stands on a reasoned conviction that his or her arguments are sound, together with an openness to the possibility that he or she is mistaken.

Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it on something solid. (GK Chesterton)

The philosophical attitude is a critical one.

The questions philosophers ask are important and they are aimed at the foundations of our thought about the world and our place in it. A critical attitude takes nothing as “given”. This may appear to the outsider as “nitpicking”, but there is no surer way of being led astray in thought than simply to assume that something is true. To allow one’s mind to glide over uncomfortable and difficult issues is the opposite of the philosophical attitude. However, having a critical approach does not mean that we argue merely for argument’s sake. Philosophers treat their questions seriously and treat arguments with respect.

Finally, a philosophical attitude demands imagination.

The best philosophy invites us to look at our world in fresh and new ways. This requires an imaginative approach. To have an imaginative approach means to be creative about other possibilities, to imagine alternative scenarios and consider different options.

In this course we have invited you to explore the path of critical self-reflection and self-discovery. If you have taken your role as “initiate” seriously by actively participating in the “initiation process” and you have worked conscientiously, you will have acquired the competence and experience to reflect on your own thinking, to develop a critical attitude towards all kind of stereotypes, biases and fallacies in reasoning, to analyse and evaluate different kinds of arguments, and to construct your own critical arguments.


Module 5 has three (3) activities. Each of the Journal activities is accompanied by a self-assessment rubric. The quizzes have an answer key. Once you have completed the journal entry, you can use the rubric to evaluate how successful you were in meeting the learning objectives. While the assessments are optional, and the grades will not be directly related to whether or not you receive credit for this course, completing them will help you gauge your progress and prepare for the TECEP© exam.

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Journal Assignment 8

Write an argumentative essay on a topic of your own choice by applying the key rules of writing argumentative essays. Your essay need not be longer than 600 words. We will give you examples of argumentative themes but the choice of topic is entirely yours. Have fun and enjoy writing in order to understand yourself better!:

  1. When, in your opinion, is euthanasia legally and morally acceptable?
  2. Do you think cloning human beings should be allowed? Why? Why not?
  3. Give an informed opinion on the looming threat of bioterrorism.
  4. Is affirmative action, according to you, justifiable? Give reasons for your answer.
  5. Express an informed opinion on the moral permissibility of the death penalty.
  6. What is your opinion on human trafficking?
  7. Give an informed opinion on the issue of xenophobia.

So, what do you write about? Pick a well defined, controversial issue. (Spend some time with the latest copies of several news magazines, watch 60 minutes, or listen to National public Radio to generate ideas.) Readers should understand what the issue is and what is at stake. The issue must be arguable, as noted above. After stating your thesis, you will need to discuss the issue in depth so that your reader will understand the problem fully.

  1. A clear position taken by the writer. In your thesis sentence, state what your position is. You do not need to say: “I believe that we should financially support the space station.” using the first person weakens your argument. Say “funding for the space station is imperative to maintain America’s competitive edge in the global economy.” The thesis can be modified elsewhere in the essay if you need to qualify your position, but avoid hedging in your thesis.
  2. A convincing argument. An argumentative essay does not merely assert an opinion; it presents an argument, and that argument must be backed up by data that persuades readers that the opinion is valid. This data consists of facts, statistics, the testimony of others through personal interviews and questionnaires or through articles and books, and examples. The writer of an argumentative essay should seek to use educated sources that are non-biased, and to use them fairly. It is therefore best to avoid using hate groups as a source, although you can use them briefly as an example of the seriousness of the problem. Talk shows fall into the same category as they are frequently opinionated or untrue.
  3. A reasonable tone. Assume that your reader will disagree with you or be skeptical. It is important, therefore, that your tone be reasonable, professional, and trustworthy. By anticipating objections and making concessions, you inspire confidence and show your good will.

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Journal Assignment 9

Turn back to Module 1 and reflect critically on the following:

At the beginning of this course, we said that the aim of this course is to equip you with the necessary critical thinking tools to critically analyse and evaluate knowledge claims and provide you with the skills to develop a critical attitude towards cultural stereotypes, biases and preconceived ideas. We also said that these tools are vitally important for making informed, rational and responsible decisions so that, when you are faced with ethical dilemmas in your professional or even private lives, you will have the tools that will enable you to make the appropriate choice. Now take your journal and write reflective answers to the following questions:

  1. What did you gain from your studies in critical reasoning?
  2. How did critical reasoning help you to make responsible decisions and to justify choices in difficult situations you encountered in your work environment, your home life and interaction with your community?
  3. Did critical reasoning assist you with your studies of other disciplines, such as Psychology, History, English, Political Science and Health Care?
  4. What, according to you, does it mean to think critically about the world?

The point of this exercise is to make you aware that our worldviews colour our perception of the world, other people and ourselves. People differ in their approach and views on issues because they see things differently. That is, their understanding and interpretation of issues differ. The way a person sees things is fundamentally influenced by his or her worldview. A worldview is the comprehensive framework of a person’s basic beliefs about gender, race, religion, life and death, the meaning of human life, and so on. In turn, these beliefs influence our values, attitudes, assumptions and emotional experiences. Fortunately, our worldviews are not static but they change as we go through life, encountering a variety of experiences. Reflecting on your own thinking about these issues might give you the opportunity to “dig a little deeper” to uncover your framework of basic beliefs and see how these beliefs influence your attitude and behaviour. A further point of this exercise is to share with you the idea that a critical attitude calls for an openness (which is not the same as blind acceptance) to the viewpoints of other people.

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Quiz 7

Identify the kind of writing required by the following scenarios:

ER = Essay/Report

DW = Descriptive writing

CCW = Comparative and contrast writing

NW = Narrative writing

AW = Argumentative Writing

J = Journal

CW = Communicative writing

  1. You have a summer job as an intern for your local congressman who is running for reelection in the fall. He asks you to research information on various forms of alternative energy that might work in your state.
  2. You are planning to appear at a public hearing to represent the Sierra Club. They have assigned you the task of defending their position on building an offshore wind farm in your state.
  3. Your boss asks you to produce a marketing report for the development of a new design for an ergonomic computer keyboard.
  4. Your economics professor asks you to research the relative merits of buying free trade coffee.
  5. Jane works as an assistant in a doctor’s office. She has been asked to prepare information for a brochure for patients with high cholesterol.
  6. You have begun researching the genealogy of your father’s family. In the process you have discovered that some of his ancestors migrated from Ireland to America in the 1840’s during the Great Irish Famine. You decide to write a brief account of that period to share with the extended family.
  7. You are making a long dreamed of tour of Italy this summer and want to record your impressions for yourself and for posterity.
  8. Isabelle wants to entertain her grandchildren with stories she has been telling for years. In order to preserve the stories for them to pass on, she creates a book for each of them, illustrated with her own watercolor illustrations.
  9. You are taking your cousins sailing for the first time. You want to send them instructions about the basics to read before they arrive.
  10. You are a new parent and want to preserve the memory of every new event in your child’s life.
  11. You are about to go on trial for theft. You need to explain all the facts of the situation to your lawyer so he can prepare your case.
  12. You are outraged that American college students pay such a high interest rate on student loans. You decide to write to your congressmen as well as to the editors of your local newspaper.
  13. You have been asked by your boss to write instructions on how to troubleshoot problems for new user’s of the company’s latest computer printer.
  14. You are planning to attend a writing conference in which everyone is asked to present the story of their life.
  15. You are a member of your local beach town’s land use planning board. They have asked you to prepare information on the history of lighthouses along the shore.
  16. You are a soldier and responsible for writing details of what your unit experiences out on a mission.
  17. You are a soldier and want to write home to your family to let them know what you are experiencing and how you are.