Writers of persuasive essays take a stand on a controversial issue and give well-researched arguments to support this position. This section will help students define the persuasive essay as well as understand its purpose and structure.
What is an Argument?
In today’s society, arguments are all around us, in our every waking moment throughout the day, whether in online ads or in the messages one reads on one’s favorite box of cereal. The ability to think critically in terms of deciding what to believe is highly important due to the fact that individuals are bombarded by arguments, on the internet and elsewhere, on a daily basis. Deciding what arguments to accept or reject not only makes for a good essay, but has implications for success in life and for one’s future career.
Understanding the nature of argument is essential to writing a good persuasive essay. So, what is argument? It is not the act of proving who is right or wrong. Television and social media convey argument as a means of proving one’s point for the sake of arguing. This is not argument. Ancient rhetoricians such as Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates understood argument in terms of truth-seeking, and conceptualized it as a means of preventing war. In this vein, good writers engage in truth-seeking to find out what is valid so that they may communicate truths to others. Sometimes in this process of truth-seeking, the writers themselves may change their minds on a given topic. Leaders such as Queen Lili‘uokalani and Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate argument as a means of engaging in truth-seeking. See A Letter of Protest (Queen Lili‘uokalani of Hawai‘i, 1898) and Letter from a Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., AU, University of Alabama, April 16, 1963).
Structure of a Persuasive Essay
Before students begin creating persuasive essays, they should engage in preliminary research. Persuasive essays often include quotes or paraphrases from experts or statistics from academic studies. These essays must also demonstrate the writer’s ability to think critically and to avoid logical errors.
Note: Persuasive essays often require research, so students should see the Research and Plagiarism chapter of this text before drafting the essay.
After writers have conducted some preliminary research to enter the conversation, they will be ready to begin writing. Drafting should include at least four aspects:
- Introduction and thesis
- Strong arguments and evidence in support of thesis
- Opposing and qualifying ideas
- A compelling and satisfying conclusion
Creating an Introduction and Thesis
The persuasive essay begins with an engaging introduction that presents the general issue. The role of this paragraph is to do the following:
- Create interest.
- Introduce a controversial topic.
- Include a thesis statement that clearly presents the writer’s position on the chosen issue, and the major points to be discussed. Instructors will give students further guidelines on where the thesis should appear, but it is usually located at the very end of the introduction.
Strong Arguments and Evidence in Support of the Thesis
The body of the persuasive essay presents the reasons for the writer’s position on the issue. Writers should provide at least three solid reasons for their position.
When developing arguments and evidence, a writer would be wise to do the following:
- Provide at least one paragraph for each reason that is presented (though some reasons may require more than one paragraph). Clearly state each reason in a topic sentence.
- Provide sufficient evidence for each reason. Much of the evidence will come from research, though writers can effectively integrate their own knowledge as evidence.
- Explain ideas thoroughly and carefully, connecting one’s sources together smoothly and logically.
- Provide follow-up discussion or explanation for the researched information one has provided.
- Remember that arguments are usually “won” or “lost” on the quantity and quality of the evidence.
Ways to Persuade
There are three primary ways to appeal to the emotion and response of readers: ethos, logos, and pathos.
Ethos is the appeal to what is right, fair and trustworthy. For example, if Aaron is arguing for more access to parks in Hawai‘i for individuals who are disabled, he could do so by pointing out that many citizens who happen to have some sort of disability pay taxes that support these parks and yet are denied access simply due to design. The unfairness of this situation would appeal to the readers’ sense of what is right or fair.
Logos appeals to the reader’s logic and reason. If Aaron is arguing for the need to make college tuition more affordable or even free, such as is the case in Norway, Sweden, and Germany, among other countries, and he uses statistics about the number of students who would not be able to obtain a college degree without some country-wide assistance, he is appealing to his reader’s logic.
An argument with pathos appeals to the reader’s emotions. In his essay in favor of students joining a sports team in high school, he could highlight his own experience of overcoming fears and physical challenges while running in high school. Such an approach would pull the heartstrings of his readers who are touched by his success due to the self-discipline, social connections, and physical strength he developed through running on a team.
Addressing Opposing Ideas and the Author’s Position
Any good argument anticipates the opposing arguments and attempts to answer or refute its main points. In refuting the opposing point, writers do the following:
- Address at least one major opposing point. Writers briefly summarize viewpoints on the other side of the argument.
- Provide reasons and evidence showing the weaknesses in this opposing idea. They may address more than one opposing viewpoint.
Conclusion: Call to Action
The conclusion should provide insight into the significance of the issue. Most important is the fact that such a conclusion would do well not to use the word “should” as in the following. “In order for the United States to increase college attendance, encourage young people to seek out higher education and advanced knowledge to be used within the professional world, and truly support the process of learning, making college tuition more affordable or even free is key.”
If writers have proven their stance within the body paragraphs using examples and quoted, paraphrased, or summarized information from professionals within the given community, a “should” isn’t needed because the reader has already been convinced.
- Take a look at advertisements for products. How are advertisers trying to persuade you to purchase their product?
- What facts (logos) does the advertiser provide?
- What emotions do you feel after viewing the advertisement?
- What occurred in the advertisement to cause these emotions (pathos)?
- What occurred in the advertisement that appealed to your sense of morals and ethics (ethos)?
- Overall, was the advertisement effective to persuade you to purchase their product? Why or why not?
- Read more about writing a thesis statement in the handout by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Thesis Statements, The Writing Center.
- Watch the following video to learn more about persuasive appeals: Ethos, Pathos, Logos
- Read more about counterarguments and the language used to signal the counterargument and refutation in this handout by Harvard College Writing Center: Counterargument, Writing Resources.
- See sample persuasive essays in “Chapter 15: Introduction to Sample Essays,” Writing for Success.
- Other sample persuasive essays are “Online Monitoring: A Threat to Employee Privacy in the Wired Workplace“; (Hacker), and “Performance Enhancement through Biotechnology Has No Place in Sports“; (Hacker). These essays are excellent references because they contain notes in the margins that explain the components of the essays and MLA format.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). “Transitional Devices,” The Purdue OWL.
Hacker, Diana. Writer’s Reference. Bedford/St. Martins, 2007.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” AU, University of Alabama, April 16, 1963.
Lili`uokalani (Queen of Hawai`i). Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives (protesting U.S. assertion of ownership of Hawai`i), U.S. National Archives, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, Record HR 55A-H28.3, 19 December 1898.