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3.8: Persuasion (Part 1)

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  • The Purpose of Persuasive Writing

    The purpose of persuasion in writing is to convince, motivate, or move readers toward a certain point of view, or opinion. The act of trying to persuade automatically implies that more than one opinion on the subject can be argued.

    The idea of an argument often conjures up images of two people yelling and screaming in anger. In writing, however, an argument is very different. An argument is a reasoned opinion supported and explained by evidence. To argue in writing is to advance knowledge and ideas in a positive way. Written arguments often fail when they employ ranting rather than reasoning.

    Most of us feel inclined to try to win the arguments we enter. On some level, we all want to be right, and we want others to see the error of their ways. More times than not, however, arguments in which both sides try to win end up producing losers all around. The more productive approach is to persuade your audience to consider your opinion as a valid one, not simply the right one.

    The Structure of a Persuasive Essay

    The following five features make up the structure of a persuasive essay:

    • Introduction and thesis
    • Opposing and qualifying ideas
    • Strong evidence in support of claim
    • Style and tone of language
    • A compelling conclusion

    Creating an Introduction and Thesis

    The persuasive essay begins with an engaging introduction that presents the general topic. The thesis typically appears somewhere in the introduction and clearly states the writer’s point of view.

    Acknowledging Opposing Ideas and Limits to Your Argument

    Because an argument implies differing points of view on the subject, you must be sure to acknowledge those opposing ideas. Avoiding ideas that conflict with your own gives the reader the impression that you may be uncertain, fearful, or unaware of opposing ideas. Thus it is essential that you not only address counterarguments but also do so respectfully.

    Try to address opposing arguments earlier rather than later in your essay. Rhetorically speaking, ordering your positive arguments last allows you to better address ideas that conflict with your own because it allows you to focus on countering those arguments. This way, you leave your reader thinking about your argument rather than someone else’s. You have the last word.

    Acknowledging points of view different from your own also has the effect of fostering more credibility between you and the audience. Readers will know from the outset that you are aware of opposing ideas and that you are not afraid to give them space. It is also helpful to establish the limits of your argument and what you are trying to accomplish. In effect, you are conceding early on that your argument is not the ultimate authority on a given topic. Such humility can go a long way toward earning credibility and trust with an audience (“ethos”). Audience members will know from the beginning that you are a reasonable writer, and they will trust your argument as a result. For example, in the following concessionary statement, the writer advocates for stricter gun control laws, but she admits it will not solve all of our problems with crime:

    Although tougher gun control laws are a powerful first step in decreasing violence in our streets, such legislation alone cannot end these problems since guns are not the only problem we face.

    Such a concession will be welcome by those who might disagree with this writer’s argument in the first place. To effectively persuade their readers, writers need to be realistic in their goals and humble in their approach to get readers to listen to their ideas. See Table of Phrases of Concession for some useful phrases of concession.

    Table of Phrases of Concession
    although granted that
    of course still
    though yet

    Exercise 24

    Try to form a thesis for each of the following topics. Remember the more specific your thesis, the better.

    • Foreign policy
    • Television and advertising
    • Stereotypes and prejudice
    • Gender roles and the workplace
    • Driving and cell phones

    Collaboration: Please share with a classmate and compare your answers. Choose the thesis statement that most interests you and discuss why.

    Bias in Writing

    Everyone has various biases on any number of topics. For example, you might have a bias toward listening to music radio stations rather than talk radio or news programs. You might have a bias toward working at night rather than in the morning, or working by deadlines rather than getting tasks done in advance. These examples identify minor biases, of course, but they still indicate preferences and opinions.

    Handling bias in writing and in daily life can be a useful skill. It will allow you to articulate your own points of view while also defending yourself against unreasonable points of view. The ideal in persuasive writing is to let your reader know your bias, but do not let that bias blind you to the primary components of good argumentation: sound, thoughtful evidence and a respectful and reasonable address of opposing sides.

    The strength of a personal bias is that it can motivate you to construct a strong argument. If you are invested in the topic, you are more likely to care about the piece of writing. Similarly, the more you care, the more time and effort you will put forth and the better the final product will be.

    The weakness of bias is when the bias begins to take over the essay—when, for example, you neglect opposing ideas, exaggerate your points, or repeatedly insert yourself ahead of the subject by using I too often. Being aware of all three of these pitfalls will help you avoid them.

    The Use of “I” in Writing

    The use of “I “in writing is a topic of debate, and the acceptance of its usage varies from instructor to instructor. It is difficult to predict the preferences for all your present and future instructors, but consider the effects it can potentially have on your writing. Be mindful of the use of I in your writing because it can make your argument sound overly biased. There are two primary reasons:

    Excessive repetition of any word will eventually catch the reader’s attention--and usually not in a good way. The use of “I” is no different. 2. The insertion of “I” into a sentence alters not only the way a sentence might sound but also the composition of the sentence itself. “I” is often the subject of a sentence. If the subject of the essay is supposed to be, say, smoking, then by inserting yourself into the sentence, you are effectively displacing the subject of the essay into a secondary position. In the following example, the subject of the sentence is underlined:

    Smoking is bad.

    I think smoking is bad.

    In the first sentence, the rightful subject, smoking, is in the subject position in the sentence. In the second sentence, the insertion of I and think replaces smoking as the subject, which draws attention to I and away from the topic that is supposed to be discussed. Remember to keep the message (the subject) and the messenger (the writer) separate. Indeed, your argument will be stronger if you remove the I think and simply assert “Smoking is bad.” For more information about pronoun focus in an essay see Chapter 1 “Introduction to Writing.”

    key takeaways

    Developing Sound Arguments

    Does my essay contain the following elements?

    • An engaging introduction
    • A reasonable, specific thesis that is able to be supported by evidence
    • A varied range of evidence from credible sources
    • Respectful acknowledgement and explanation of opposing ideas
    • A style and tone of language that is appropriate for the subject and audience
    • Acknowledgement of the argument’s limits
    • A conclusion that will adequately summarize the essay and reinforce the thesis
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