Three tips for writing a persuasive essay

academics writing

At some point in your academic career, you’ll likely have to write an essay where you argue for or against a specific point of view. This may be for a standardized test or for a class you’re taking, and it’s important to always follow the directions that are specific to that assignment. Still, I’m going to offer some advice about writing persuasive essays that will be helpful in all kinds of different contexts.

1. Familiarize yourself with some common logical fallacies.

Logical fallacies are ways that people commonly go wrong when they’re reasoning. You want to make sure that you identify any fallacies in the arguments you’re responding to, and that you don’t make those same mistakes yourself.

Here are some examples:

Begging the question

Sometimes people use the phrase “begs the question” to refer to someone raising a question. But technically, "begging the question" makes an unsupported assumption about what you’re trying to prove. 

Suppose you’re responding to an argument that the government should intervene less in people’s lives because people generally do the right thing on their own. This argument is trying to establish that generally people are good and make the right kinds of decisions. If you use the phrase "begs the question" here, you would be assuming that generally people are good, but you would not be arguing for that claim. This assumption makes the argument unsupported and therefore unsuccessful. Persuasive writing must be argumentative and supported with concrete details and evidence; as such, you should eliminate the phrase "begs the question" from your vocabulary.

The Straw Man Fallacy

When people commit The Straw Man Fallacy, they make uncharitable assumptions about what their opponent is saying and respond to a weak version of their argument. You want to make sure that you give your opponent the benefit of the doubt. If you are able to do that and still show that their view is false, your essay will be much more persuasive!

Take that same claim that the government should intervene less in people’s lives. Someone committing The Straw Man Fallacy might assume that the person in question is arguing that there should be no government or laws whatsoever, which is much harder to defend than the view that there should be less government intervention. 

2. Think about your potential opponents. Who might disagree with you, and why?

Sometimes when you write a persuasive essay, you strongly believe the conclusion that you’re arguing for - maybe so strongly that you can’t even understand why someone might hold the opposite view. It can be very satisfying to argue for claims you genuinely believe in, but you want to make sure that you recognize other perspectives and give them a fair shake. If you can, talk to someone who disagrees with you about your position, and ask them to tell you about theirs. Taking other perspectives into account and recognizing that reasonable people might disagree with you doesn’t take anything away from your argument and can often make that argument even better.

3. Read your essay aloud.

This is the biggest piece of advice I always give anyone about improving their writing. Reading your work aloud will help you see how well it flows, identify typos, and also identify potential gaps in your argument. Hearing your work aloud gives you a new perspective on it. I always read my writing aloud - including this blog post! 

Larisa received her BA in philosophy and psychology from Simmons College, an MA in philosophy from Tufts, a PhD in philosophy from UNC-Chapel Hill, and she was a postdoctoral scholar at OSU. Larisa was recently a Lecturer in the Brandeis University Philosophy Department. She is currently working on a book project about responsibility and forgiveness after traumatic wrongdoing.

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