Essential Writing Types 101: Persuasive Writing
Writing entertains, informs, persuades, explains, clarifies, and gives the author an avenue for creative and intelligent expression. Writers always have a purpose or goal, which dictates the style a writer must use when approaching composition. Essential Writing Types 101 aims to educate readers on six types one will encounter throughout their academic and professional writing careers. Each chapter will outline textual examples associated with the style and describe the characteristics that make these writing styles distinct. Due to the diversity of rhetorical contexts and audiences, understanding each writing style and the relationship between the purpose and its communicative function will facilitate more effective writers and communicators.
The following is divided into six main chapters:
Expressive & Poetic writing
Technical & Scientific Writing
Essential Writing Types 101: Persuasive Writing
Persuasive writing is one of the most common types of written communication that one finds themselves exposed to and engaged with. From product or service recommendations to political speeches and application cover letters, persuasive writing is an inescapable and crucial skill in communication. After all, communication is a very goal-oriented process. Oded Goldreich et al. (2009), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science, discuss the general theory of goal-oriented communication, in which the function of communication “should be regarded as means to an end” (p. 7). Essentially, communication has a function and purpose for connection and survival. Persuasive writing, then, serves the purpose of convincing one another of ideas. This part of the Essential Writing 101 series will define persuasive writing, discuss its characteristics and goals, and consider the ethics of persuasive communication in specific circumstances.
First, persuasive writing includes the adjective form of ‘persuade’, which is “to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action” (Merriam Webster, n.d.). 'Argumentative writing’ and ‘persuasive writing’ have slightly different definitions and purposes, because argumentative writing carries the connotation of exploring an argument, whereas a persuasive piece has the goal of actively convincing the reader (University of Minnesota, 2010, 10.9 Persuasion). University of Minnesota’s book Writing for Success (2010) outlines the purpose of persuasive writing as follows:
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 more than one opinion on the subject can be argued (The Purpose of Persuasive Writing section, para. 1).
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” (The Purpose of Persuasive Writing section, para. 2). One may put forth the argument that climate change is a serious issue, exacerbated by human actions, and thus want to persuade the reader to take action by taking part in climate conservation efforts. To bolster this argument, one would provide scientific research on climate change and the direct human impact. A persuasive piece may acknowledge those who disagree with the seriousness of climate change, but they would not explore the other arguments for how humanity can combat climate change. Persuasive writing tends to focus and detail on the single argument put forth rather than detail several others that exist.
Additionally, the value of persuasive writing goes beyond a persuasive essay produced for academia or an advertisement for an innovative product or service that someone must purchase. The modern art of persuasion continues to reflect the rhetorical philosophies put forth by Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Plato explores persuasion thoroughly in his work “Laws”, which focuses on a conversation between three elderly men on how to motivate citizens to obey the law and constitutions (Baima, 2016). Aside from governmental punishment, morality stories tied to religion instilled values and behavior, which keep an orderly society by making civilians fear eternal punishment after death. Nicholas R. Baima (2016), an associate professor of Philosophy at Florida Atlantic University, writes the following example: “There are traditional religious myths told to unphilosophical citizens. These stories incentivise virtuous behavior and disincentivize vicious behavior” (p. 123). Today, various religious texts have modern interpretations that continue this method, but in more secular-governing bodies, punishment and negative social stigma related to breaking codes of conduct persuade most people to behave accordingly. The ethics involved in persuasive communication and writing will be explored later.
Moreover, persuasive writing utilizes several linguistic and compositional techniques. Persuasive writing is generally built upon the Aristotelian approach, otherwise known as the Rhetorical Triangle: ethos (ethics or character), pathos (emotion or experience), and logos (words/rationale). In a well-balanced persuasive essay, a strong thesis appeals to logos, the authority of the writer and credible sources appeal to ethos, and the tone or register used in the language to grip the reader appeals to pathos. Presidential speeches, in addition to advertisements, are the most common forms of persuasive communication. Persuasive texts and speeches differ in medium, necessitating two separate forms to craft them. Speeches keep things simplified with only the most essential informational points and also consider both nonverbal and verbal techniques in their delivery. However, the content organization, thesis, and consideration of the audience remain similar to persuasively written works (Sullivan, 1994). Thus, analyzing speeches can be a useful way to familiarize oneself with rhetorical strategies that one can employ in written pieces. Farshad Ghasemi (2020), a professor of Social Sciences at Urmia University, analyzed and deconstructed the Aristotelian model and elements in presidential speeches. Ghasemi cites the following passage from the speech by the former United States President Barack Obama, held in Chicago the day he won the presidency on November 5th, 2008:
'Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too' (as cited in Ghasemi, Table 1, p. 27).
Ghasemi identifies logos through his inclusionary wording of “I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help…” which references the Republican voters who opposed him. Ghasemi also determines “I will be your President too” as the pathos because Obama’s final words indicate an emotion of unity despite disagreement by “Dragging Republicans into the [emotional] fold” (Table 1, p. 27). Although Ghasemi does not pinpoint a linguistic attribute for ethos, one could argue that ethos could be found in the line, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn”. The keywords yet and earn both imply that Obama has a genuine character with the potential to permeate those he has yet to convince. He wishes to not only prove his goodwill throughout the upcoming years of his presidency, but also advocate for political actions that benefit the most Americans possible, regardless of political affiliation. Thus, the ethics of his character will not alienate those who disagree with him.
Accordingly, successful persuasive writing should somewhat acknowledge other opinions and arguments. In the University of Minnesota's book Writing for Success (2015), the key to writing a persuasive essay is advised as follows:
Start by acknowledging and explaining points of view that may conflict with your own to build credibility and trust with your audience. Also, state the limits of your argument. This too helps you sound more reasonable and honest to those who may naturally be inclined to disagree with your view (Writing a Persuasive Essay section, para. 2).
Persuasive writing must come across as reasonable, and therefore must establish the presented argument as one of the many sound arguments available that deserves a seat at the table of discourse. Developing a persuasive piece is like presenting a decadent dish at a buffet of arguments. Others may look inciting, but the goal is for a writer's ‘dish’ to draw the attention and coax those with differing and similar palates to take a piece of the information on display.
Despite the challenging nature of persuasive writing, students who engage in projects that continuously flex this writing muscle will create a stronger inclination to write persuasively. Philip Vassallo (2002), an author and writing instructor for those who work in corporate, academic, and government environments, provides the following instruction throughout his instructional book on how to write persuasively. He suggests powerful openings to hook the attention, establish a clear call to action, anticipate objections, and offer concessions. Vassallo (2002) then argues that this aforementioned framework allows an author to “strengthen the opinions of readers inclined to favor our point of viewpoint but who may lack sufficient information [...] and to create opinions of readers with limited knowledge on the issue” (p.66). A persuasive piece may also have the potential to convince those who disagree because “they may not possess a full awareness of the scope or gravity of the issue” (p. 66). Vassallo’s guidelines confirm the theory that project-based methods for perfecting persuasive writing strategies produce the best learning outcomes for a writer. Danielle DeFauw, an education researcher at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in collaboration with Julie Anne Taylor and Okezie Iroha (2017), secondary education educators, examined the Detriot Billboard Project, a project for a class of high school students that listed the following language arts objectives:
students (a) discussed challenges facing Detriot per their experiences, (b) explored the genre of persuasion by focusing on propaganda, (c) learned artistic techniques to influence the local community, (d) designed billboard messages to influence change, and (e) competed democratically to have a billboard message displayed in the city center (p. 7).
This project instructed students multimodally as they develop an eye-catching visual, strengthened an understanding of persuasive language and imagery, and finally, created a real-world stake after the project by giving their achievement exposure that positively impacts the community.
Therefore, while there is difficulty in producing persuasive writing, the high return value has made it a desired and lucrative skill. As another example, in 2010, the United States updated the Common Core State Standards (CCS), a set of standards of knowledge and skills that students of all states must achieve to prepare them for college and/or the workforce. Likely, the updated standards responded to the following data on writing competency utilization in the workforce. Joanne Addison and Sharon McGee (2010), professors of English at the University of Colorado Denver and Western Carolina University respectively provide the following data on the percentages of writing competency requirements for employees in the workforce:
'upward of 70% of salaried employees have writing responsibilities [...] In Writing: A Powerful Message From State Government, the National Commission on Writing’s study of state government employees, email and memos/official correspondence are ‘frequently’ or ‘almost always' required, followed by formal reports (71%), oral presentations (67%), technical reports (65%), legislative analysis (59%), and policy alerts (51%)(71)' (as cited in p. 154).
These percentages also do not include the writing competencies for business, and even more relevant to 2020s, social media marketing and ad copy. The updated CCS evolved the instruction of persuasive writing in light of empirical data such as the study made by Addison and to prepare students: “Persuasion assignments focus on personal appeals and consideration of what the audience might want to hear, while argument requires a deeper analysis of the opinion itself and of its evidentiary supports” (Shanahan, 2015, p. 467). This personal student-experience focus is a pivotal change in writing instruction standards, stressing the fact that a writer should have extensive knowledge and a personal stake in their topic to write more clearly with a persuasive intention.
Nonetheless, it is also crucial to be aware of ethics in the practice of persuasive writing, since persuasive elements can be used to mislead and exploit audiences into believing falsehoods. The beginning of this essay introduced the example of the use of mythical stories mentioned in Plato’s “Laws” to persuade civilians to obey the law and maintain a productive society. The amount of power and influence it takes to maintain a level of compliance from the masses necessitates methods for checks and balances to maintain ethical practices and avoid corruptive actions. Persuasive writing has a much darker side when it risks an individual’s mental, emotional, physical, and financial health for the benefit of the persuader. Richard L. Johannesen (2002), a professor of communication studies at Northern Illinois University, argues that writers have a responsibility to persuade ethically:
It might be contended that, in argumentative and persuasive situations, communicators have an ethical obligation to double-check the soundness of their evidence and reasoning before they present it to others; sloppy preparation is no excuse for ethical lapses. A similar view might be advanced concerning elected or appointed government officials. If they use obscure or jargon-laden language that clouds the accurate and clear representation of ideas, even if it is not intended to deceive or hide, they are ethically irresponsible (p. 28).
The consequences of irresponsibly written persuasive writing can be significant, especially if that communication comes from those in power who wish to persuade the public into acting upon something, under the illusion that it is in their best interests.
Further, deceptive marketing tactics represent the same breach of ethics, resulting in some form of government legislation worldwide to maintain consumer rights. A company can write a persuasive ad claiming that their jeans are the most high quality in the industry, but if the claim turns out to be false, the worst outcome is an annoyed consumer demanding a refund and a low-star review. However, marketing related to the damage to health and finances is observed much more closely. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigates cases related to misleading marketing of dietary supplements, substances known to be harmful to health (i.e., alcohol and cigarettes), and medications: “The FTC enforces these truth-in-advertising laws, and it applies the same standards no matter where an ad appears – in newspapers and magazines, online, in the mail, or on billboards or buses” (2021). Establishing organizations that implement standards on persuasive communication is an essential ethical safeguard.
In conclusion, persuasive writing is a powerful writing type that maintains a presence in every social context with varying levels of personal concern. Persuasive writing has the power to positively impact individuals and entire communities. Writers should have a thorough understanding of the topic discussed and the possible opinions and attitudes of the audience. The motivation behind a writer’s persuasive texts is also an important aspect of the writing process. Nevertheless, just as it can spread awareness of necessary issues, it can also deceive vulnerable members of society and must preserve ethical preventatives and hold persuasive communicators accountable when appropriate.
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