Nothing strikes fear into the creative soul of a writer like being asked to write a persuasive essay. At least, that’s what it looks like every time we check our Super Challenge inbox. We get more questions, comments and concerns about the persuasive essay round than any other round.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! Every piece of writing you do shares your thoughts and ideas with your readers. The only difference between that and a persuasive essay is that you’re trying to convince the reader that your thoughts and ideas on a subject are right. And who doesn’t like to be right?
For this month’s nonfiction knowhow, let’s walk through the steps of writing a solid persuasive essay so that you, too, can approach this style with the confidence you deserve to have.
What’s it all about?
Obviously, the first thing you have to do when writing a persuasive essay is pick a topic. In the Super Challenge and in school, that’s easy: your topic is more or less chosen for you. When you’re writing on your own, though, it might be harder to pick a topic. There are two main sources of information you have to draw on.
Stuff you’ve come to believe
Over the course of your life you’ve probably learned a lesson or two. Heck, those lessons have probably given you a few personal essays along the way. But did you know you can mine them for persuasive essays, too? If you grew up in a part of the country where the water isn’t fluoridated and you’ve always had terrible teeth and over time you’ve come to understand that there’s a causal link, you might want to write an essay to try to convince people that fluoride isn’t scary, it’s a way of taking care of kids for years and saving some money on dentistry along the way. Or maybe you grew up in one church and over time realized that your inner moral compass was more in line with the teachings of another church, or no church at all, you might want to write about how that happened and why you think people in the first church who are like you should explore other options.
Your life can be a rich source of essay topics!
Reactions to things you’ve read or seen
You read and watch a lot of stuff. Some of it gives you feelings, right? Like when one of those pictures of abused dogs goes around on Facebook. Your immediate reaction to that is probably “what can I do about this, this is terrible!” Well, one of the things you as a writer can do is write about it. Maybe you want to write an essay explaining why everyone should get a shelter dog. Maybe you want to write an essay explaining that there shouldn’t even be shelter dogs because all dogs should be spayed or neutered as soon as possible and only responsible breeders should be making the decisions about which dogs should have puppies. Or maybe you want to write an essay advocating for stricter punishment for people who abuse animals. All of these are persuasive essays in reaction to something you’ve seen.
It’s important to not just have a reaction but to communicate our reactions – persuasive essays are how we can use these reactions to create change in the world.
What do I think about it?
Once you’ve figured out what you want to write about, you might want to figure out what you think. Two quick tips: 1) you don’t have to know exactly what you think before you start putting words on paper; and 2) what you think might change over the course of your writing process. Both of those things are okay! Sometimes you have to write the essay before you can figure out what it’s about or what your position is, and then go back and edit out everything that you used to think that doesn’t match your new thesis. That’s a valid writing process! (In fact, when I’m writing essays, I generally do that bit in my head. I go for a long walk or run or bike ride or shower or wake up at 3am, and I start to write the essay in my head and watch as the way I think about something changes when I go from intuitive to linguistic processing. Then when I sit down I can start with my thesis… but my writing process started much earlier than that.)
Ideally, by the time you’re done writing you’ll be able to sum up what you think about the thing in one or two pithy and well-written sentences. Blog/site tip: use those for your snippet or set them up as pull quotes so that if your essay is shared folks have an easy excerpt to use in social media posts. Your SEO will thank you. But it’s ok if you don’t know what those sentences will be when you start writing.
What you *do* need to have is a general idea about what you think, a direction to go. That’s not as complicated as it sounds. Say you just got back from a bike ride and you really think everyone should bike more. So you’re going to write an essay about bikes, advocating for more biking. You’ve still got some choices to make: are you going to talk about making more bike lanes so that people who already want to bike can do it safely? Are you going to try to persuade people to bike instead of driving? But you know what you want to encourage people to do, even if you don’t know how you’re going to phrase that yet.
What do other people think about my topic?
Marginalized communities take a lot of flak for creating “echo chambers” – which supposedly means spaces where they aren’t exposed to competing viewpoints. The reality of the situation is that they’re exposed to views and media which represent and advocate for the dominant paradigm every time they look around them; they’re aware of those viewpoints because they can’t not be.
Similarly, you probably already know what other people think of the topic you want to write about. Let’s go back to the bike essay. If you want to say that there should be bike lanes on every road, take a second to think about what you’ve heard others say. Bike lanes can cut into parking. They make roads narrower. Some bikers hate bike lanes because all the detritus from traffic accretes there and is a hazard to riders and tires. There’s a serious division about whether skateboards should be in bike lanes. And of course in rural areas there may not be enough bikes to justify a dedicated lane when there are already margins (or shoulders, depending on where you’re from) to ride in.
These are all things that people think about your topic which are contrary to the view you want to express. If you express your view without at least acknowledging that these other views exist and are valid, your first dozen-to-hundred comments are going to be “but have you thought about [really common argument that you’ve heard 100 times]” and the conversation can’t move forward productively. Including a nod to these other ways of thinking will help eliminate the need to circle back again and again to “yes, I understand you can’t park there but did you know that if everyone biked we wouldn’t need all those parking spaces” when you know the next comment will be “I haven’t read all the comments but bike lanes cut into parking spaces.”
The good part; or, why I’m right and you’re wrong
Fun fact: other people are generally full of crap. And the only thing that’s better than knowing how full of crap they are is eviscerating their crap in print. While you might want to avoid a full-on feud, explaining what’s wrong with the way people think is one of my favorite bits of writing, because I’m just a terrible person and I also like being right all the time.
Let’s go back to that bike essay again.
You’ve decided that you want to advocate for bike lanes everywhere. You know that some people don’t want that. You know what they think that makes them not want it. So now you’re going to explain why they’re wrong in their brains.
Reasons people are wrong
- They don’t have all the facts. That’s great! You can give them tons of facts. You can talk about how in Seville, a study showed that “every additional mile of protected bike lane somewhere in the city improved safety” and that the most important factor wasn’t just that bike lanes existed, it was that they were connected to other bike lanes. You can even link to the summary and the study itself. Pay attention to how I added that information, though. See how the links are available but don’t interrupt the persuasive flow of the sentences? See how if the reader believes you they can just keep reading and if they don’t trust your paraphrasing they can click through and see the original sources? That’s how you do that. (Also check out Bob from Ohio in the comments of that first link, dragging the conversation back to the stone age the way I warned you about.)
- They’re not making fact-based decisions. This is a harder one. People who are making emotional decisions aren’t always open to having those emotions challenged. On the other hand, you may be able to hand them a competing emotional narrative that makes them consider whether they’ve really thought about the issue or whether they’re having a kneejerk reaction and then only listening to things that reinforce their original thought. For example, if you’re writing an essay about why all dogs should be spayed or neutered as soon as possible, you should consider that many people believe that it benefits their dog to have puppies, and that many others want their children to see “the miracle of birth.” These aren’t fact-based arguments, they’re arguments being made because people love puppies. (I have been known to drop things I’m holding and squeal out loud at puppies.) So what you need is a competing emotional narrative about how many dogs die giving birth, pregnancy infections, the dramatic suffering they experience, and how many “free” puppies end up in shelters, even if the person thinks they’re going to find homes for all those puppies. Then you can get into the facts about what it takes to make sure a healthy dog has healthy puppies, and ask if they’re ready to make that commitment.
- They think they have the facts but the facts they have are wrong. If there’s a huge anti-factual batch of material going around, be aware that you’re going to have to address that. Look at the anti-vax movement. Even though the original study was flawed, unrepeatable, discredited, and ultimately retracted, people still cite it. So you’re going to have to address that study if you want to write about vaccination, even if you can’t understand why anyone would believe that. And you’re going to have to do it in a better way than “you’re dumb for believing that” if you hope to persuade anyone. After all, that’s the point of a persuasive essay, isn’t it? So you can do better than that. You can talk about how it’s understandable that people are reaching for more information than they’re getting from their doctors: after all, doctors routinely disbelieve women about everything from routine physical checkups to extreme medical emergencies. So women have had to become their own advocates in order to get adequate healthcare. The problem is compounded when you add race in – for example, doctors used to routinely sterilize women of color without their consent. Yes, in the USA. Yes, recently. And whatever you think about dividing up gender roles, women right now are primarily responsible for overseeing early childhood care like vaccination. So how about instead of saying “you’re dumb for believing that” you point out ways in which objective studies have verified a lot of the other anecdotal evidence but never verified the anti-vax claims, and do a little teaching about how to distinguish between valid sources and fearmongering.
Dip into your bag of tricks
Now that you know what you want to write about, what you think about it, what other people think, and why those other people should think like you instead, it’s time to look at your framing.
As a nonfiction writer, you have a ton of tricks in your bag, and you can frame your arguments any old way you want in an effort to persuade other people to think like you. Let’s take a look:
- The anecdote. If you’ve decided that emotional appeal is the best way to make your point, use all those creative nonfiction muscles and tell a story that people can connect with emotionally, like this one.
- The thesis. Treat your thesis sentences (those pithy cute ones that you came up with to condense your point, remember?) like the hook of a personal essay. Put them front and center, and circle back to them a couple times as you move between storytelling and making arguments about why your way of looking at the thing is right.
- The conversation. You write persuasive essays in your head all the time. No, really, you do. When you sit down on the couch and talk to someone, whether it’s giving advice or answering a question, you’re writing a persuasive essay. So why not treat your next persuasive essay as a conversation?
- Mix it up. Look, people think a lot of things, and no one technique is going to be an effective counter to all of them. Go ahead and use all these techniques as you move through your essay. Got an anecdote with an article to back it up? Great! Throw that link in there with a smug “and I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.” Got a solid argument about immigration reform and want to cite Warsan Shire? Do it. Find what speaks to your reader, but more, find something that keeps you from being bored. If you’re bored by your own article, everyone else will be too.
Stay on target
It’s not just what Gold Leader says to Gold Five. It’s good advice for your essay. While it’s tempting to go down the rabbithole of counterargument, if you’ve devoted more than about a third of your persuasive essay to refuting what everyone else thinks, you probably haven’t spent enough time talking about what you do think. Positivity isn’t just a tool for therapy, y’all. Making strong positive points in favor of what you think is the best way to spend your time persuading your reader to think that way too.
Don’t be intimidated by persuasive essays. You convince people to take your side all the time, and you have a huge bag of tricks to do it with. I hope I’ve added a few in this post and, er, persuaded you to try it. Because this was a persuasive essay too, in disguise. So there.
About the author:
Rowan submitted exactly one piece of microfiction to YeahWrite before being consumed by the editorial darkside. She spent some time working hard as our Submissions Editor before becoming YeahWrite’s Managing Editor in 2016. In real life she’s been at various times an attorney, aerialist, professional knitter, artist, graphic designer (yes, they’re different things), editor, secretary, tailor, and martial artist. It bothers her vaguely that the preceding list isn’t alphabetized, but the Oxford comma makes up for it. She lives in Portlandia with a menagerie which includes at least one other human. She blogs at textwall and CrossKnit.