propositional writing

Propositional Manifestos and Expositions

Some Propositional Manifestos

Some Propositional Expositions

What is Propositional Writing?

Propositional writing is a method of writing which gives primary emphasis to propositions.

Most writing on the web contains headings and text. The headings are given emphasis, by font size, and often also by spacing, font weight and perhaps colour. The headings describe the content of the text.

In propositional writing, instead of headings, there are propositions. Propositions can be given emphasis using the exactly same techniques as used for headings, i.e. using size, spacing, weight and colour.

However, in propositional writing, the propositions are the content.

There is also text following each proposition, which consists of one or more paragraphs which explain that proposition.

So visually, propositional writing is very similar to "traditional" writing. The difference is in the structure of the content, and in the relationship between the large emphasised text and the smaller less emphasised text:

In propositional writing, the propositions are always sentences, whereas in traditional writing the headings are usually not full sentences. (And, if one or more headings are sentences, this may be because the writer is following a propositional style of writing.)

Why Do We Need Propositional Writing Now?

I have developed the concept of propositional writing as an experiment in presenting ideas and arguments in web pages.

But it is not obvious that the technology for presenting writing to the reader has changed in a way that particularly enables or facilitates the use of a propositional style. Propositional writing can just as easily be used in writing which is intended to be printed on paper.

Indeed, there are almost certainly existing examples of written prose which was published in printed form, long before there was any internet or world-wide web, and where most or all of the headings are propositions, and the text following the headings consists mostly of explanations or elaborations of the headings.

The Readers Have Changed ...

What has changed, with the development of the web, is not so much how written prose can be presented, but how readers now read content.

What has happened is that we have all become skimmers.

We have so much content that we have to read, or that we might want to read, that we no longer have time to read every word in every written article. So we tend to skim through the article, looking at anything but the actual textual content, looking for information about whether the article is worth reading in full.

This leads to the advice (to writers) to put extra care into how we write our headings, and also to make sure that we write enough headings, so that the skimming reader has something to read.

But, if readers start off only reading the headings, then perhaps we should go one step further, and put all the substantial content into the headers, with the rest of the text just being explanation and elaboration of that content.

Not only does this put the primary content exactly where the reader will first see it, it also allows the reader to instantly see that your writing does have actual content in it.

Two Types of Propositional Writing: Manifestos and Expositions

Propositional Manifestos

A propositional manifesto is close to what would traditionally be considered a manifesto because it advocates a series of arguments in favour of a particular agenda.

Propositional Expositions

However, it is also possible to use propositional writing for articles which are not manifestos in the sense of advocating an identifiable agenda.

For example, my article On Relationships Between Music And Other Things states and explains various propositions about music, which are different to what many people believe, and which I believe deserve serious consideration. However it does not come with any agenda or call to action, other than the implicit request for the reader to consider the stated propositions and their explanations. For this type of article, the name "manifesto" does not make sense, so I have chosen to call such an article a propositional exposition.

Propositional Documents

So far, all types of propositional writing that I can imagine writing fall into one of these two categories, i.e. propositional manifesto or propositional exposition.

To avoid having to write "propositional manifesto or propositional exposition" over and over again, I will use the term propositional document to describe the general category of documents, i.e. manifestos or expositions, which are written in the propositional style.

What Propositional Writing Is Not

It Is Not A Structured Argument

A propositional document is not a structured argument. Propositional items may be in a logical order, and certain items may make more sense if they come after other items. But it is intended that each item represents a self-contained defensible proposition.

It Is Not A Full Essay

A propositional document is not intended to be a detailed discussion or argument in favour of the propositional items, although in practice individual explanations may expand to the point where each explanation is a mini-essay.

It is better if each explanation of a proposition can be just sufficient to give a basic outline of why the author believes the proposition is true, and, if the reader wishes to investigate further, they can follow it up. Where relevant, web links should be given to more detailed references. (It may also be useful to add a general list of references at the end of a manifesto.)

Licensing and Forking

The primary goal of propositional writing is to provoke and to persuade. But what if a reader is mostly persuaded by the propositions in a given manifesto or exposition, but feels that it could be improved in some way?

One approach would be for the reader to email a list of suggestions to the original author. However the original author might not agree with the suggested improvements.

To avoid this difficulty, the best option is for the reader to fork the document, and create their own improved version of it.

It is much easier to do this if the propositional document is properly licensed. In the long run it may be useful to create a license specifically designed for propositional writing.

For the moment, I would strongly recommend the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.


Some readers of your manifesto or exposition may be less inclined to improve it in some way, and may be more interested in critiquing it.

There are many ways to critique a manifesto or exposition, and a license which allows a document to be freely improved upon will also necessarily allow it to be freely critiqued. Which is of course a good thing, because that is how constructive conversation on controversial topics occurs.

A Proposal For A Standard Format For Critiques.

It would nevertheless be useful to propose a standard format for critiquing propositional writing. This format would extend a standard format for the original uncritiqued propositional writing (which is effectively defined by the HTML elements I have used in the examples given above).

Suggested format elements to use in a critique:

For an example of a critique which uses this format, see A Money Making Manifesto and Critique of "A Money Making Manifesto".

The advantage of using a standard format is that it will allow readers of a critique to quickly identify which elements are part of the original document, and which elements are part of the critique.

Forking A Critique

If a propositional document can be improved upon, then so can a critique. If a critique is given in a standard format as an extension of the document it is critiquing, where the original document is licensed under a "Share Alike" license, then the critique is necessarily licensed by the same license. In which case it can be forked and improved upon in exactly the same way as the original document.

Critiquing A Critique ...

It is conceivable that the author of a propositional document may wish to critique a critique of their document. However, in most cases, if the arguments in a critique are plausible, it is preferable to use this information to change the original proposition or propositions, or to add something to the associated explanations, to deal with the issues raised by the critique. This approach is consistent with what a propositional manifesto or exposition is intended to be, i.e. a list of very defensible propositions, and not an extended structured debate.


Propolize is a Ruby gem I have written which implements generation of HTML from a Markdown-like syntax which can be used to write propositional documents.

(Examples of the source code can be seen as comments within the source code of the example propositional pages listed above.)