How to write a persuasive essay? Persuasive essay writing has a bad reputation. At its worst we picture a slimy hoodlum twisting someone’s arm to “persuade” him to tell where the diamonds are. We think of battleships and bombers hovering off the coast of a tiny country to “persuade” its government to change its policies. Cigarette advertisements in magazines “persuade” men that one brand will make them feel as if they’re riding a snorting stallion on the range while another brand will make women feel daring and rebellious. How about empty political campaign speeches or a father screaming at his late, tipsy teenager at 2 A.M.? Persuasion is commonly pictured as forcing, tricking, seducing, or lecturing people to buy or do something not really in their best interests. Too often these tactics work. But that’s not the kind of persuasion we’re interested in here.
How to Write a Persuasive Essay:
- Persuasive Essay Definition
- Persuasive Essay Structure
- Persuasive Essay Outline
- Persuasive Essay Writing Tips
- Persuasive Essay Ideas
Persuasive Essay Definition
A persuasive essay is an essay used to convince a reader about a particular idea or focus, usually one that you believe in
Persuasive essay utilizes logic and reason to show that one idea is more legitimate than another idea. It attempts to persuade a reader to adopt a certain point of view or to take a particular action. The argument must always use sound reasoning and solid evidence by stating facts, giving logical reasons, using examples, and quoting experts.
When planning a persuasive essay, follow these steps:
- Choose your position. Which side of the issue or problem are you going to write about, and what solution will you offer? Know the purpose of your essay.
- Analyze your audience. Decide if your audience agrees with you, is neutral, or disagrees with your position.
- Research your topic. A persuasive essay must provide specific and convincing evidence. Often it is necessary to go beyond your own knowledge and experience. You might need to go to the library or interview people who are experts on your topic.
- Structure your essay. Figure out what evidence you will include and in what order you will present the evidence. Remember to consider your purpose, your audience, and your topic.
The following criteria are essential to produce an effective argument
- Be well informed about your topic. To add to your knowledge of a topic, read thoroughly about it, using legitimate sources. Take notes.
- Test your thesis. Your thesis, i.e., argument, must have two sides. It must be debatable. If you can write down a thesis statement directly opposing your own, you will ensure that your own argument is debatable.
- Disprove the opposing argument. Understand the opposite viewpoint of your position and then counter it by providing contrasting evidence or by finding mistakes and inconsistencies in the logic of the opposing argument.
- Support your position with evidence. Remember that your evidence must appeal to reason.
Persuasive Essay Structure
1. The Introduction
The introduction has a “hook or grabber” to catch the reader’s attention. Some “grabbers” include:
- Opening with an unusual detail: (Manitoba, because of its cold climate, is not thought of as a great place to be a reptile. Actually, it has the largest seasonal congregation of garter snakes in the world!)
- Opening with a strong statement: (Cigarettes are the number one cause of lighter sales in Canada!)
- Opening with a Quotation: (Elbert Hubbard once said , “Truth is stronger than fiction.”)
- Opening with an Anecdote: An anecdote can provide an amusing and attention-getting opening if it is short and to the point.
- Opening with a Statistic or Fact: Sometimes a statistic or fact will add emphasis or interest to your topic. It may be wise to include the item’s authoritative source.
- Opening with a Question. (Have you ever considered how many books we’d read if it were not for television?)
- Opening with an Exaggeration or Outrageous Statement. (The whole world watched as the comet flew overhead.)
The introduction should also include a thesis or focus statement.
The Thesis/Hypothesis is your statement of purpose. The thesis/hypothesis should be one sentence in length. This is the foundation of your essay and it will serve to guide you in writing the entire paper.
There are three objectives of a thesis statement:
- It tells the reader the specific topic of your essay.
- It imposes manageable limits on that topic.
- It suggests the organization of your paper.
Through the thesis, you should say to the reader:
“I’ve thought about this topic, I know what I believe about it, and I know how to organize it.”
2. The Body
The writer then provides evidence to support the opinion offered in the thesis statement in the introduction. The body should consist of at least three paragraphs. Each paragraph is based on a solid reason to back your thesis statement. Since almost all issues have sound arguments on both sides of the question, a good persuasive writer tries to anticipate opposing viewpoints and provide counter-arguments along with the main points in the essay. One of the three paragraphs should be used to discuss opposing viewpoints and your counterargument.
The following are different ways to support your argument:
- Facts – A powerful means of convincing, facts can come from your reading, observation, or personal experience. Note: Do not confuse facts with truths. A “truth” is an idea believed by many people, but it cannot be proven.
- Statistics – These can provide excellent support. Be sure your statistics come from responsible sources. Always cite your sources.
- Quotes – Direct quotes from leading experts that support your position are invaluable.
- Examples – Examples enhance your meaning and make your ideas concrete. They are the proof.
Hints for successful body paragraphs:
- Clarify your position in your topic sentence – state your argument or reason that supports your position (thesis), think about what needs to be explained, and then think about how you can elaborate.
- Include Concession Statements (address opposing viewpoints!) : concession: If you’re writing a persuasive piece, you might consider beginning with a concession–that is, by beginning with an acknowledgement of part of your opponent’s argument as being valid. Remember that a concession is not a form of weakness. In fact a concession is a strength as it finds common ground with your opponent and establishes your ethical appeal: you are a reasonable person willing to listen to/acknowledge that there are more sides to an issue than yours.
You can’t ignore compelling opposing evidence. You must address strong arguments on the other side; if you don’t, it looks like you are not well prepared and have not looked at the issue you are writing about from all perspectives.
Example: “True, gun control legislation in Canada needs to be tightened to prevent the United States from becoming as violent as its neighbors to the south. The proposal that has been submitted, however, does not go far enough. Instead,…[now writer begins building his side of argument, showing how it is stronger than the opposing side’s!]
- Use transitions between sentences to serve as cues for the reader (first, second, then, however, consequently, therefore, thus, still, nevertheless, notwithstanding, furthermore, in fact, in contrast, similarly, instead)
3. The Conclusion
A piece of persuasive writing usually ends by summarizing the most important details of the argument and stating once again what the reader is to believe or do.
- Restate your thesis or focus statement.
- Summarize the main points: The conclusion enables your reader to recall the main points of your position. In order to do this you can paraphrase the main points of your argument.
- Write a personal comment or call for action. You can do this:
- With a Prediction: This can be used with a narrative or a cause and effect discussion. The conclusion may suggest or predict what the results may or may not be in the situation discussed or in similar situations.
- With a Question: Closing with a question lets your readers make their own predictions, draw their own conclusions.
- With Recommendations: A recommendations closing is one that stresses the actions or remedies that should be taken.
- With a Quotation: Since a quotation may summarize, predict, question, or call for action, you may use a quotation within a conclusion for nearly any kind of paper.
As a general guideline, when writing a persuasive essay:
- Have a firm opinion that you want your reader to accept.
- Begin with a grabber or hook to get the reader’s attention.
- Offer evidence to support your opinion.
- Conclude with a restatement of what you want the reader to do or believe.
If you have the time and creativity to invent your own persuasive structure, do it. But over 2000 years from Roman orators to today’s editorialists, one model structure stands out. Not only does this model help you organize your ideas, but also it generates new ideas and makes sure you cover key aspects of any persuasive presentation. The four-part structure is Introduction, Main Supporting Ideas, Refutation, and Conclusion.
The introduction should begin by intriguing us with a concrete problem that is difficult to solve and end with your solution to this problem, your thesis. You establish a reasonable, ethical, knowledgeable tone here by showing the reader your familiarity with several issues involved.
The introduction should also outline in detail exactly what you are proposing. Explain how your plan will work, define key terms, who will do what, how it will be funded, what the timetable or stages are. Before you defend it, show the reader exactly what you propose. A complex plan may require several paragraphs to explain. Don’t skimp here!
The main supporting evidence should be arranged tightly, one paragraph or perhaps two for each main supporting idea, and the paragraphs filled out with examples, facts, appeals to value, and logic that support the idea. In papers of three to five typed pages, you should have room to develop three to four supporting ideas. In papers of one to two pages, two supporting ideas may be all you can support in depth.
To outline, list the main arguments and fill in support from brain teasers under each. Try several scratch outlines until your main headings are crisp and distinct. The Roman orators believed support should start strong and end strong and that the less strong arguments should be in the middle. Their rule of thumb: Second strongest argument comes first, strongest comes last, and the others in the middle. If you have a flimsy argument, put that in your wastebasket.
The refutation comes next in the paper. After raising your main supporting ideas, take time to consider one or two major objections someone might have against your views or proposal. Some people may ask, “Why should I attack my own case?” Why indeed? Well, in a written persuasive paper, as contrasted with a debate, you have total control over the presentation of ideas; no one can raise questions about your ideas—except the reader! And believe me, when someone is trying to persuade a person, he will raise objections. Most people love to find reasons why things cannot be done. Hiding weaknesses in your position won’t work with a good reader. So be honest. Also, by considering objections, you can modify and improve your ideas to be more convincing. It’s not only honest but in your best interest as an arguer and will help you improve your ideas. As John Locke once observed, “To judge other men’s notions before we have looked into them is not to show their darkness, but to put out our own eyes.”
In the refutation section, one strategy is to show how the objection is flawed. You must state opposition ideas with full honesty—so it would satisfy the opposition. Present these as valid questions, not as pesty troublemakers. Then, pinpoint fallacies in the objection, correct “facts” the objection may have mistaken, or question the values in the objection. In other words, the same brain teasers used to create support can also create refutations to an objection.
Suppose you have written an essay defending television, saying it contributes much to American culture and is a great educational tool. In your refutation section, you must consider objections people might have to your view. One objection would be that television watching has caused a decline in children’s ability to read. This contradicts your claim of television’s educational value. To be an honest arguer, you might point out that children do seem to watch television more than they read books; perhaps you might acknowledge that reading scores on standard tests have declined steadily in the past 15 years. How do you refute this now? Begin by seeing if the objection falls into a logical fallacy. Faulty cause and effect, for instance, seems to apply. Just because a decline in reading scores followed an increase in television watching does not prove one caused another. We have had Republican presidents most of the past 50 years; can we claim they caused a decline in reading scores? Of course not. In refuting, you should also suggest possible causes of the decline other than television. Perhaps the schools aren’t teaching reading the best way; perhaps school discipline problems disrupt the teaching of reading; perhaps the lack of family togetherness (reading aloud after supper, discussing the newspaper) has contributed.
Question the facts. Are the reading tests outdated? Do the lowest test scorers watch the most television, or do the best readers also watch television? You can get examples from your classmates or perhaps do some quick research. You can also question the values behind the objection. You might argue it’s too easy to blame a machine for our problems as a society when we ought to blame ourselves for not working hard enough to learn, support, and teach reading.
A second way of handling a refutation is to concede some truth to the objection. “Television has probably contributed somewhat to a decline in reading ability. However. . . .” Then writers usually say despite this drawback, there are too many good reasons to let this one objection stand in the way. This is often the only solution where there is no compromise possible, usually because of moral issues. If you were in favor of allowing abortions, for instance, you may have to concede that aborting a fetus really is the taking of a human or potentially human life. You might even acknowledge this would be wrong in a perfect world, but that the misery an unwanted or deformed child endures is worse yet.
Another type of concession offers compromises. People who are against abortions, for instance, might reluctantly agree that a woman in danger of dying in childbirth may be granted an abortion. But they should probably add that the principle of the sanctity of human life is still not compromised— that the taking of a life is to save a life.
The refutation section of a persuasive essay is perhaps the most important; it establishes your integrity as a writer, it forces you to consider your thesis more deeply, and it gives you the chance to make your argument even stronger. Refutation may be placed in a separate section of the essay, or you may handle it as objections might be raised against your supporting points.
The conclusion in persuasive writing can be a simple reaffirmation of your thesis, but it’s usually better to look forward. You might paint a picture of the world in which your plan is enacted, or you might paint a picture of how less effective plans than yours would affect people’s lives. Or you might end with a dramatic statistic or example.
Persuasive Essay Outline
- Get the readers attention by using a “hook.”
- Give some background information if necessary.
- Thesis or focus statement.
I. First argument or reason to support your position:
- Topic sentence explaining your point and reason
- Possible concession toward opposing argument
- Elaboration to back your point.
II. Second argument or reason to support your position:
- Topic sentence explaining your point and reason
- Possible concession toward opposing argument
- Elaboration to back your point.
III. Third argument or reason to support your position:
- Topic sentence explaining your point and reason
- Possible concession toward opposing argument
- Elaboration to back your point.
IV. Opposing Viewpoint:
(This is optional, however highly recommended, so that the reader will know you have considered another point of view and have a rebuttal to it.)
- Opposing point to your argument.
- Your rebuttal to the opposing point.
- Elaboration to back your rebuttal.
- Summary of main points or reasons
- Restate thesis statement.
- Personal comment or a call to action.
Persuasive Essay Writing Tips
Honest, ethical persuasion means bringing readers—through their own reason and emotions—to believe or act as the writer does. In this sense, readers willingly and consciously discover that it is in their best interest to agree. This type of persuasion, which will be required of you in many college assignments and in most persuasive writing done in business, professional, and technical careers, is an honest appeal to reason and feeling.
Audience and Tone
Advertising, political speeches, and barroom debates often imply the audience is so dumb or so bullheaded that it must be pounded into submission. Reasonable persuasion assumes your audience is uncommitted (unless you know for sure you are dealing with supporters or those holding opposite views). It assumes your audience is educated and will weigh your arguments reasonably. This audience wants facts and logic, expects you to be ethical, will be critical of shortcomings in your position, and will not fall for the gimmicks of advertising.
This means that you, as a persuader, must achieve a good persuasive tone. You do not have to be somber or dull. In fact, humor not only enlivens persuasion but can demonstrate the writer is broad-minded. Overall, strive for perspective and common sense. Sentences like “All people who support abortion are murderers!” or (from the opposing side) “Antiabortionists want to enslave women!” share the same hysterical tone. Wild, undisciplined language usually results from wild or undisciplined thinking, and smart, open-minded readers will be skeptical about writers who lose their tempers. Assume your readers are intelligent, present many facts and reasons for your position, and trust them to see the logic. If you try to bully readers into agreement with shouting, they won’t be convinced—they’ll only want to get away from you.
Before we agree with an argument, we must trust the arguer. Give readers reasons to trust you. Is the persuader ethical? Knowledgeable? Reasonable? Your credibility is damaged by using profanity, bullying, ranting, or threats, by twisting facts or calling rumors “facts,” and by relying on slogans, clichés, stereotypes, or other oversimplifications. The writer who calmly helps a reader sort through the complexities of a situation, who honestly shares the difficulties of right and wrong in the issue, and who respects the truth will open doors with a quiet knock. The persuader who approaches with a battering ram or who tries to sneak in a back window is the one against whom readers build barricades.
So before you begin persuading readers, try to put yourself in an honest, helpful frame of mind; open yourself to alternative viewpoints in the early stages especially, so the point you set out to prove is as reasonable and fair as it can be. Keep Joseph Joubert’s statement in mind: “The aim of argument should not be victory but progress.”
As long as you consider your audience’s reactions and are willing to modify your ideas to strengthen them, you will make honest progress. If you seek victory over a reader, ignore or hide facts that threaten your idea, or lose control of your emotions, your case will start to crumble.
To help achieve a good tone, write to real people for a real reason— actually send your ideas to someone. You can write to your student loan service center with suggestions, to your boss at the retail store about changing an exchange policy that costs the store thousands of dollars, to a local high school principal to persuade him to make driver’s education a required course, to the campus facilities director to add a bus route for the dorm in the woods, to a father to persuade him not to retire from racing, to the Hallmark Company persuading them to sell Christmas jewelry you designed, to Apple Computer proposing a software registration plan that will keep prices low and prevent others from duplicating the software. These are all recent papers my students wrote—and sent. Or, like other students, you can join 53 million bloggers who post their ideas on their websites. Some of these are personal journals, but many develop arguments and debate issues. Going “live” can give you some of the best education you will have in college. But do wait for peer and/or your professor’s reactions before sending out your ideas.
Supporting Evidence in a Persuasive Essay
A reasonable person expects reasonable evidence before believing something. In the previous examples, you’d want to be convinced that cash motivation would work for grades: that it would be fair, that the specific economics of the plan would fly, and that it would be good for students and teachers.
Can you imagine three or four questions you’d want answered before investing in shuttle buses if you were the store’s manager? Always anticipate your audience’s barriers to belief.
When you argue persuasively, pack in as much supporting evidence as possible. Think of yourself as a lawyer convincing a jury. There are three types of evidence:
- Appeals to values
These are new brain teasers for persuasive writing. Make a list of all the facts you know (or need to know so you can research them later), all appeals to value you can use, and all logical arguments you can use.
Using Facts in a Persuasive Essay
Statistics are one type of fact you can use to support a thesis. A proverb says, “There are two kinds of lies: regular lies and statistics.” It means that statistics can be twisted to bolster weak arguments. Maier’s law even says, “If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.” This attitude may be held by less reputable advertisers or politicians, but in honest, ethical persuasion, you must be especially careful to handle your statistics fairly and accurately. If we say, for instance, “A recent study found that 94 percent of people surveyed believe the ban on television advertising for cigarettes is unfair,” our reaction to this statistic changes if we learn it was conducted by a tobacco company in the town where its factory is located. An ethical arguer must reveal such information or not use the statistic.
The source of your fact strengthens or weakens its impact. Generally, your facts will be more credible if they are based on recent research conducted by an expert and published in a reputable journal, web site, or book. Material from The National Enquirer, material assembled by astrologers, or work done 30 years ago in fast-changing fields such as psychology or physics is generally not considered reliable. Even experts are not absolutely trustworthy. Lord Kelvin, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sigmund Freud all made whopping errors in their fields.
Another problem with statistics is simply making the reader see them clearly. Today we are bombarded with numbers: billions of dollars, millions of highway deaths, thousands of recalled products. Despite our modern sophistication, big numbers seem unreal for most people, and the writer must help the reader see what the number means in a concrete way. When the United States went past the $1 trillion mark of indebtedness, for instance, most people simply shrugged until one representative of Congress visualized the statistic. He calculated that if we stacked 1 trillion $1 bills on top of each other, the pile would reach the moon! That gave people an image of $1 trillion they could visualize, and it persuaded many people to demand government action, as the representative had hoped. 2006 debt is $9 trillion.
Here are three facts. Which is the most visual?
- 200 million tons of dirt/rocks were dug to create the Panama Canal.
- A typical hurricane releases 50 times the energy of the first atomic bomb.
- Hoover Dam holds back 10 trillion gallons of water.
Some statistics can come from your own observations. In a letter to the Vice President for Facilities Management at the State University of New York at Buffalo, a student proposed that the college expand its parking facilities. At one point, she produced her own statistics by driving around campus counting spaces:
—–It may also be possible to turn parts of faculty lots into student parking, since faculty lots are seldom full. There are 27,000 students and 4,000 faculty members at UB. All 19,000 commuter students, and, I estimate, one quarter of the 8,000 who live on campus drive to class. There are eight student lots on North Campus, three of which hold approximately 300 cars, five of which hold 200 cars, for a total of 1,900 spaces. Yet there are five faculty lots with a total of 1,000 spaces. On the South Campus, there are four student and two faculty lots, each accommodating 200 cars. I calculate the ratio of faculty to parking spaces is three to one and of students to student parking spaces is eight to one. After viewing the parking lots throughout the semester, I believe you can afford to transfer at least several hundred spaces to students.
—Tina C. Maenza
There’s a second kind of fact, one handy for all of us: examples. Use examples from (1) what you’ve seen; (2) what your friends and families have seen; (3) historical or current events; and (4) hypothetical cases.
If you’re writing about the law that forbids those under a certain age from drinking alcohol, for instance, you probably know a dozen cases that could support either side—from firsthand experience, from what others have told you, and from the news. Everyone can dig up a couple of examples of drunken teenagers causing fatal accidents—or of drunken middle-aged people killing sober teenagers; of teenagers bribing an adult to buy illegal liquor—or of responsible teenagers arranging a designated driver who will not touch alcohol during the evening.
Historical and news stories carry more weight with a reader—she can think, “Oh yes, I remember that.” It is verifiable. Personal examples may make the reader wonder if you’ve colored the facts; however, your own examples give you the chance to write vividly. You can describe the accident scene, quote dialogue from the beer party, build narrative conflict, and write with a freshness you can’t with historical cases—and you should. Examples you heard from your friends are less satisfactory because, as lawyers say, it is “hearsay” testimony. It is one step further removed from the reader and hence less reliable. We all know truth has a way of getting watered down (or spiced up!) as it gets passed along.
Hypothetical examples are necessary to fill in gaps when facts are not available or to project future events for which there are no facts. Hypothetical examples are simply made-up cases of things likely to happen. In the abortion debate, for instance, several hypothetical cases are usually raised: “Suppose a woman gets pregnant through rape” or “Suppose a pregnant woman discovers the fetus is badly deformed.” Both scenarios are likely to happen sometime in our society. We might be able to track down facts about actual women in these cases, but if we can’t, a hypothetical example can appeal to the reader’s common sense. The reader will test your common sense in explaining the hypothetical case as well. You would be on shaky ground, I think, to portray a woman pregnant through rape as a person who should forget how she became pregnant and within months develop normal maternal tenderness, or look forward to the experience of childbirth the way an intentionally pregnant woman would. There are noble people who can do this—but wouldn’t you agree that they are rare? It would be equally rare for normal women, even under such stress as this, to be driven to suicide should they not be allowed to have an abortion.
Facts and examples are important support for most arguments; pack plenty in your essay, and use them fairly and vividly. Rely most on firsthand experience and reliable sources. Secondhand and hypothetical examples should be used as last resorts.
Appeals to the Reader’s Values in a Persuasive Essay
People are persuaded not only by facts but by realizing that your proposal supports values they believe in. Facts without a context of values seem meaningless much of the time. Amory Lovins, an energy expert, calculated in 1980 that if the United States were to take all cars off the road with gas mileage of less than 15 miles per gallon and were to replace them with cars with gas mileage of at least 35 miles per gallon, the United States could reduce its gasoline consumption by 15 percent. Ho-hum, right? Well, it becomes more interesting when Lovins reminds us today that if we reduced oil consumption 15 percent, we would have needed to import no oil from the Mideast, need station no ships in the Persian Gulf, risk no soldiers’ deaths, perhaps have fewer diplomats, reporters, or businesspeople there taken hostage. This puts the fact about gas mileage into a values context.
Some values that writers consider in persuasive writing are economics, fairness, health, safety, love, environmental impact, freedom, beauty. As Abraham Maslow showed in his hierarchy of needs, certain basic needs must be met before people are willing to consider others. We are, therefore, unlikely to consider an appeal to our sense of beauty (put up a gorgeous city sculpture that will delight our minds) if the project will bankrupt us or be dangerous for children to play on. Maslow said we must have safety and basic physical needs met before we strive for “higher” values such as fairness and freedom. After we achieve basic needs, Maslow argued, humans give priority to love, beauty, and spiritual matters. Here is a simplified list of Maslow’s values, starting with the most basic:
- Physiological (food, shelter, water, health)
- Safety (security, order, stability)
- Belongingness and love (family, friends, social groups)
- Esteem (status, power, recognition, money)
- Self-actualization (reaching your individual potential; for example, oneness with God, nature, or lover; creativity, justice, beauty, and freedom)
Maslow was being descriptive of how people behaved, not how he thought they ought to behave. By contrast, most philosophies and religions insist spiritual values are more important than, say, status, recognition, or even safety. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, as well as thousands of unknown people, have put justice, freedom, creativity, or love above personal health, safety, and status.
You will have to decide for yourself if Maslow is right about what values motivate people the most. Would you, for instance, bulldoze a beautiful neighborhood park for an industrial plant if it meant secure jobs for your family? Would most people? Germany, where most wilderness has been devastated, values nature preserves more than Brazil, which is burning down its vast tropical rain forest for industry in hopes of improving its people’s standard of living. One of the more interesting aspects of persuasive writing is dealing with the changing, conflicting values of people and groups.
In practical terms, the persuasive writer might generate ideas to defend a proposal by going down a checklist of values, asking how each value can suggest new arguments to support his position. Suppose I am proposing that my state outlaw legal gambling and close betting parlors. The list of values below is written so you can use it as a brain teaser to think up support for many topics.
- What economic benefits will my position have? For whom? How much?
- Will it increase people’s security or satisfy basic needs?
- Is it fair to all parties involved? Think through—one at a time—how various people might see it.
- Will it enhance or limit anyone’s freedom?
- How will my plan affect families?
- Will my plan appeal to the reader’s concern for beauty?
- Will my plan affect the environment?
- Will my plan build self-esteem or status for anyone? Who? Why?
- How might this help people actualize their potential?
- List other values of importance to yourself. How can they be appealed to by your proposal?
Using Logic in a Persuasive Essay
Strange as this may sound, logic alone rarely makes readers shout “Amen!” or write checks to support your cause. We tend to agree with ideas partly based on our trust of the writer (how well she connects to us and how fair her tone is), and also partly on our emotional response to the values and feeling behind the proposal. These are seldom totally logical. While good logic may not win agreement, bad logic can kill the deal. Logic draws together facts and appeals to values, and if you do not make a tight connection, the reader will have a good reason to reject your thesis. In its simplest form logic takes one fact (the minor premise) and one value (the major premise) and shows that if they both are true, a reasonable conclusion drawn from them must also be true. Let’s take an example.
Suppose I want to persuade people that abortion is morally wrong and ought to be illegal. To do this I present a value—killing a human being is morally wrong and illegal. Then I present a fact—that a fetus is a human being. If these two are true, then the conclusion is inevitable: Killing a fetus is wrong and should be illegal. My logic (the connection between the two premises) is valid. Someone who disagreed with me, however, might argue that one or both of these premises are not true. With the abortion issue, people usually question whether a fetus is really a human being. Do you see how the logic of my claim disintegrates if that “fact” is proved false? The opposition might also question my other premise by pointing out that killing humans is morally or legally acceptable in a number of circumstances. Can you name some?
Logic, then, is rarely perfect. One or both of the premises can be questioned. The flaws writers fall into when using logic are called “logical fallacies” because they make any argument that uses them invalid. They are forms of dishonest persuasion. Here are nine of the most common logical fallacies.
- Endorsement. A basketball star likes a certain hamburger. The commercial claims you will like it too. A doctor on a TV show recommends a particular kind of coffee. Are you persuaded to buy it? Obviously we suspect that these people’s recommendations are strongly influenced by what they are paid. But the endorsement’s fallacy isn’t really lying, but logic. There is no necessary connection between the tastes of one person and another. Had a genuine doctor recommended a coffee for its health effects, we might have had a stronger case. An athlete endorsing a hamburger is far less effective than an athlete endorsing sneakers. In such cases there should also be an explanation of why the product or viewpoint is correct. Does the hamburger use the highest quality meat, cost less, or avoid dangerous preservatives? These are the real issues. This applies to experts you may quote in your papers as well. It’s not enough to say Abraham Maslow or Rachel Carson believed something. For the reader’s understanding you also need to explain how the theory works or what the facts are.
- Hasty Generalization. I hate Professor Smith. My friends in the class hate him. Therefore, Professor Smith must be an unpopular teacher. Sorry. You need more evidence. Several students from a class of 25 are too few to support such a claim. Perhaps your group is on Professor Smith’s bad side because of poor performance or attitude. How about this: The Democrats always start America’s big wars—Democrats were presidents when Vietnam, Korea, and World Wars I and II started. This is also hasty generalization— can you explain why? A hasty generalization means you base a conclusion or claim on too few examples or oversimplified evidence. You can overcome this in your essays by deluging your reader with cases and examples.
- Bandwagon. This is similar to the endorsement, except that instead of picking a prominent person who supports your claim, you say your position must be right because many people support it. There’s a quick cure for this fallacy: Just remind yourself how many millions of people thought Hitler and Mussolini were saviors. Closer to home, remind yourself how President Richard Nixon won a landslide election and resigned a year later for dishonest and illegal activities. Was his presidency justified because so many people supported him? No. What makes an argument right is that it is right, not that millions of people believe it’s right. Your job is to show how it’s right, not how it’s popular. Robert Frost summed this up neatly: “Thinking isn’t agreeing or disagreeing—that’s voting.”
- Tradition. “It’s always been done this way” or “My parents taught me to believe. . . .” This is a cop-out from thinking. You’re hiding behind someone else’s thinking instead of walking the reader through the arguments themselves. There’s a quick reminder you can use if you’re tempted to rely on this fallacy: Suppose the first human beings one million years ago had latched onto this principle: “We’ve always eaten our meat raw and slept in trees. No fire, no caves!” Traditional beliefs prevent people from rushing to each wild, untested idea that floats along, but just because a belief once may have been valid does not mean it still is. Tradition fights good new ideas as well as bad ones.
- Unqualified Generalization. In our enthusiasm for a claim we sometimes exaggerate: “Television reality shows are the worst thing for our children’s minds today.” Really? Worse than pornography? Worse than fighting parents? Worse than an abusive teacher? A statement like the previous one shows the person has simply not thought through the idea. Qualifying makes it more acceptable. “Television reality shows are bad for children’s minds.” It is now no longer at the head of a list of everything bad. You could also say, “Some TV reality shows may harm a child’s mind as badly as pornography.” The reader cannot toss these away at first reading—she must first see how you support such a view. Avoid words like “all,” “always,” “never,” “nobody in her right mind,” or “everyone.” Use considered words like “most people,” “usually,” or “under normal circumstances.”
- Faulty Cause and Effect. This means claiming one thing caused another to happen when the only tangible relationship between the two things is that one preceded the other. You may be able to prove the one did indeed cause the other, but a simple time relationship alone does not. “My parents got divorced after I was born. Therefore, I broke up their marriage.” Or, “Every time I get a day off, it rains.” Or, “The family has deteriorated in the past 20 years—since feminism became strong. That proves how harmful feminism has been to America.” None of these holds water as complete arguments. In the first case you need to prove that your parents’ marriage was solid before you came along and that you were the key problem in arguments your parents might have had. In the second, you’d have to establish that meteorological powers infuse your body on a day off. With the antifeminist statement, think of all the competing explanations for why the family has deteriorated: decline in church-going, increased violence, increased sexual activity outside of marriage, increased drug use, increased materialism, worse public morals, a more highly mobile society. All three cases need to show a connection between cause and effect.
- Sentimentality. This means pleading a cause based on your feelings (usually misery) rather than on its merits. “You’ve got to give me a ‘C’ in this course or I won’t graduate”; “You can’t withdraw me for absences; I’ll lose my state aid.” Sorry. The grade in a course says you have performed at a certain level, and your misery at not doing well should not persuade a professor your merit is greater than it is. Your state aid is given assuming you will attend class; you earn it by attending and performing at an acceptable level. “A promotion will make me so happy!” By itself, not good enough. The logical questions are: Did you earn it? Do you show potential?
- Attacking Your Opponent. Instead of attacking a position, value, or fact to advance your case, you attack the person who made the proposal. “Don’t support President Bush’s plan to reform business ethics; he did the same corrupt things before he was president.” To a fair-minded reader, this is con artistry. The bill and its sponsor are two separate issues, and the plan should be discussed on its own merits. How about these cases; are they valid criticisms?
- “We shouldn’t elect Hilary Clinton president; she is married to Bill Clinton.”
- “We shouldn’t do business with the Captain Computer Company; its head salesman smokes pot.”
- Either . . . Or. “Either we enact the president’s plan or the economy will not recover.” “We should either marry or break up.” The “or” part of these statements may happen if we don’t do the first part, but there are lots of other possibilities, too. We can compromise on the president’s plan and on dating less seriously. The economy (and our love life) may go downhill for a while, then recover on its own. There may be several creative alternatives. “Either . . . or” limits the possibilities to only two choices when there are many. People who want you to be either for or against gun control, drug legalization, or human cloning and who refuse to notice gray areas, and alternatives falsify the issue to make it a choice between good and evil. Most of the time, things are just not that way.
Persuasive Essay Ideas
- Read the letters-to-the-editor section of several papers and pick out an example of a letter with an appealing tone and a letter whose tone put you off. Explain why one works and why the other doesn’t. Bring the letters to class.
- Write a tell-off letter to someone who holds an idea you don’t accept. Attack! Be sarcastic, abusive, snotty, and personal. Let it rip! Then, rewrite the letter as good argument, as though hundreds of calm, unbiased, decent people have come to listen respectfully to you.
- Write an introductory paragraph for a paper on teenage sex. Your job is to show the reader how difficult the problem is to solve and also how important it is to solve. Establish a tentative thesis by the end of the paragraph.
- List a page of statistics, examples, and hypothetical examples that could be used to support one of these theses:
- Baseball is America’s most exciting game.
- Most white people have little idea what subtle discrimination most minorities suffer in an average day.
- The rules of normal life are suspended once you enlist in the armed services.
- Raising a child isn’t as sweet as many people believe.
- High school is a time of continual humiliation for many students.
- Old age can be the best time of a person’s life.
- Use the value list on page 246 to support or refute the following proposals:
- “The CIA should assassinate known terrorist leaders.”
- “Gay or lesbian teachers should not be hired in elementary schools.”
- “Public television stations ought to be supported by a special tax of $50 on all television sets sold.”
- Write examples to illustrate five fallacies. These can be real or made up. Label each example with the fallacy it demonstrates.
- Pick out a web page or print ad, and write a paragraph explaining a fallacy in logic in the ad.
- If you could change one historical event, what would it be? For examples, have Jesus not be crucified or warn New York City, London or Madrid before the terrorist attacks on those cities. Speculate on the hypothetical effects this change would have; then defend your change by appeals to value.
- Write a response to an editorial in the local or college newspaper. Respectfully disagree with the author. In your introductory paragraph, accurately and fairly present the author’s views; then work on refuting logic, facts, and/or values.
- Write a one-paragraph letter to persuade your mother you really are working hard at college. Help her visualize the amount of work you’re doing by making the statistics (number of pages read, papers done, hours studying, and so on) more visual.
- Write a personal letter to a family member or friend to persuade that person to change his or her mind about a personal issue.
- Write a one-page letter to yourself, persuading yourself to reform some habit or trait you know is wrong. Be sure to consider a refutation.
- Write a one-page persuasive essay on some subject of college policy. You may be asked to send a copy to the student newspaper.
- Write a letter persuading a company to change its television advertisement that you find offensive. Address it to the Public Relations Department and provide a stamped envelope so your professor can mail it.
- Write a letter to any bureaucratic official, persuading him or her to change some policy or activity you don’t like.
- Write a proposal to your employer to solve a company problem. After revision, send it to your supervisor.
- Write a job application letter for yourself. Apply for an actual job you want now or imagine one you will want after graduation. Honestly sell yourself by referring to your main accomplishments, skills, experience, and personal qualities. If there is an obvious refutation (your lack of experience, for instance), answer it.