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Writing A Persuasive Essay

TIP Sheet
WRITING A PERSUASIVE ESSAY

A persuasive essay tries to convince the reader to agree with the writer's opinion on a subject. In your persuasive essay you do three things:

  • Present your position on a discussable issue.
  • Anticipate possible objections and overcome them with logic and evidence to support your claim.
  • Convince readers that they have something to gain by adopting your viewpoint.

Choosing a discussable issue
A discussable issue is one that can be debated. Choose a topic about which there can be more than one reasonable opinion. It may be possible to write a persuasive essay about the need to feed all the hungry children in the world, but it would not be a particularly interesting essay because no reasonable person would declare that all the hungry children deserve to starve. It might be more interesting to try to persuade readers that half of all American tax dollars should be earmarked to go first to all the hungry children of the world; you will probably uncover at least one or two dissenting viewpoints. Conversely, you might suggest that it is wrong to spend American tax dollars this way, and that the hungry children should be taken care of entirely by rich private donors; again, in this you will find a difference of opinion among reasonable people.

It is sometimes easier to persuade someone when you are passionate about a subject. If possible then, pick a subject about which you feel strongly. Make a list of your opinions and feelings about the subject. Is this an urgent issue? Are the implications far-reaching and serious? Does it impact you personally? Do you feel angry about it? Are you worried? Are you excited that taking a particular action on this issue could do a great deal of good to many people?

On the other hand, it isn't necessary to feel strongly about your topic. Sometimes you even may be asked in an assignment to take a stance opposite your beliefs. If you are asked to argue for a particular position, do some role-playing: imagine yourself as someone who feels strongly in favor of this stance, and make a list of your (imaginary) opinions and feelings. This may be challenging, but it is also rewarding. Learning to be persuasive on a subject you yourself do not support wholeheartedly is a valuable life skill-think of marketing, legal, education, and human resources professions, for example. When you practice looking at an issue from many sides, you may find that you have learned something.

Anticipating and overcoming objections
Discussing your topic with others before you start to write may eliminate certain directions your writing could take as well as suggest others. Ask other people how they feel about the issue; test your opinions and reasons on them. Listen closely to their opinions, especially to those with whom you disagree. This will give you a preview of responses you can expect from your audience. Ask people why they feel the way they do. The initiative is yours–you must acknowledge and genuinely understand opposing views and overcome them with the force of your persuasion, for hostile or indifferent readers are not likely to go out of their way to understand you. Take opposing viewpoints seriously and do not oversimplify them. It is not effective or convincing to base your argument on easily refutable points.

Gather facts and evidence that support your position and refute opposing positions. Look online, in newspapers, and in magazines for current articles on the subject. Take careful notes on what you read and use these notes to build a strong argument. Discuss your list of arguments and evidence with someone else to make sure you have covered all the important related points. Draw up a thesis statement–sometimes called a proposition, a statement of what you propose to prove in your writing–and list your reasons underneath it. Beneath each reason, list the facts, figures, examples, or quotations that help support it.

Always state the proposition in positive terms: "Teachers
should be prohibited from secretly searching student lockers," rather than, "Teachers should not be allowed to secretly search student lockers." State your thesis as a fact that you intend to prove beyond a doubt, rather than as an opinion: "Teachers should be prohibited..." is much more persuasive than, "I think teachers should be prohibited...." In a persuasive essay, conviction and strong direct word use is everything.

Convincing readers
Give your reader–even an unsympathetic reader–the respect due him. Be diplomatic. It is not persuasive to suggest that your opponents are morons who simply do not understand the matter, or that they are vicious sociopaths with a destructive hidden agenda. Rely on logic rather than emotion, using words that will elicit a positive reaction from your audience. Give credit to your opponents; then clearly point out the weakness in their position.

As you write, define any key terms that you feel your audience will not understand, and use examples to illustrate your main points. Statistics can be good attention grabbers, particularly in the introduction, but use them sparingly and round off numbers. Use visual images such as metaphors and analogies to compare one thing to another as much as possible. Use your strongest arguments first and last–people are more likely to remember those points placed at the beginning and end of your paper.

The conclusion, while summarizing (not simply re-stating) your position, should say something beyond those points. Appeal to the needs of your audience. Prove to your readers why this issue is important and show what they can gain by changing their viewpoint. Asking rhetorical questions can also be effective in leaving your audience with something to think about. Write with conviction!

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