We recently completed a Rhetoric and Persuasive Writing course by Harvard University and we would like to share the main things we’ve learned from it.

To begin with, let’s establish that rhetoric intended to persuade (i.e., “deliberative” or “legislative” rhetoric) concerns itself with constructing and defending effective arguments either through persuasive writing or through persuasive speech. In this article, we will focus on written persuasive texts. Keep on reading to learn the hacks, tips, and secrets to master persuasive writing!

Why Is Rhetoric Important?

Rhetoric, or the art of argument, has inspired people to do both great things and terrible things. In the age of mass media, persuasive messages surround us. Most people, at some point in their lives, want or need to persuade other people to adopt their point of view. It’s the case of lawyers, politicians, marketers, entrepreneurs, and all producers and consumers of information.

Rhetoric has a real effect on people’s behavior! Words move us to action and drive our decisions. In fact, whether at work, in school, on social media, or around the kitchen table, we are constantly finding ourselves in situations where it is important to articulate our thoughts.

Persuasive Writing Essentials: Your Thesis

The most important part of your argument is its substance—that is, the point you are trying to prove. This can usually be summed up in a thesis: the statement of your argument in a single, declarative sentence. The first step in composing a piece of persuasive writing is to compose this sentence. Once you can state your idea in its simplest terms, you are ready to build an argument around it.

The best pieces of writing and speaking fit together as one coherent, organic whole to communicate the thesis, which is the central idea. What’s the simplest way to do that? The Harvard course we took suggests telling a friend what it is you’re trying to say and taking it from there.

Persuasive Writing Essentials: Modes of Appeal

There are several “modes of appeal”, or ways in which you can get your audience to agree with you. The main ones are:

  1. Logos (or “appeal to reason”): it uses logical reasoning to convince an audience. It may work through deductive reasoning (making one or more propositions and then working through their logical implications) or through inductive reasoning (making probable conclusions from examples or pieces of evidence—such reasoning is always conclusive in proportion to how representative the example is).
  2. Ethos (or “ethical appeal”): it is based on establishing the credibility of the speaker or writer.
  3. Pathos (or “emotional appeal”): It involves evoking positive emotions, like pride or hope, or negative ones, like fear or hatred.

These modes of appeal are artistic (in the sense that they involve an art that can be learned); “non-artistic” means of persuasion, by contrast, include things that do not rely on the skill of the rhetor, like cited sources, statistics, testimony, and proverbial wisdom.

The Importance of Structure for Persuasion

The old Latin term “dispositio,” or “arrangement,” refers to the division of a text into its components.

Classical rhetoric divided a composition into five parts: (1) exordium, the introduction; (2) narratio, the statement of the context or situation; (3) confirmatio, the presentation of arguments and facts; (4) refutatio, the presentation and refuting of counterarguments; and (5) peroratio, the conclusion.

Of course, a given composition might have only some of these, and it might have them in any order, but there are some predictable patterns.

Style in Persuasive Writing

Almost every single twist of syntax (word order) and diction (word choice) has the power to make prose more compelling and turn a text into a piece of persuasive writing. Together with tropes, syntax and diction are part of a text’s style.

Diction involves precise word choice, as well as the use of different kinds of vocabulary or “register” (e.g., poetic, technical, casual, or slang); and patterns of sound, like repeated consonants or vowels. Various sentence lengths and syntax help develop a distinct stylistic pattern, as does the design of paragraphs. Finally, there are tropes, or turns/twists/play on meanings, from metaphors to puns.

Martin Luther King - Persuasive writing and speech

Designing Your Persuasive Text

Once you have written your thesis down, you are ready to begin designing your persuasive text around it.

–> Introduction

The introduction of a piece of writing can take many forms, but it has three primary jobs to do: break the ice, name the subject, and engage interest and attention. Breaking the ice is most important in an oral presentation (greeting the audience, identifying yourself as a qualified speaker, etc.). In relation to naming the subject, you should ask yourself how much of what you have to say you want to reveal from the very beginning (for example, you might want to open with a question, withholding your answer until later). In terms of engaging the audience, this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of any introduction. There are many strategies for getting your audience’s attention. A few of the most common include:

1.     Opening with a question, and telling why the answer to that question matters.

2.     Opening with a refutation: someone—or everyone—has misunderstood your subject, and you have come to set things right.

3.     Opening with a story: often called a “hook,” the opening anecdote is one of the most tried-and-true ways of opening a composition.

–> Statement of Fact

This is where you support your argument or thesis. A lot of the time, the “facts” speak for themselves or can be made so to speak by vivid description. In supporting your argument, you will likely have to make a series of points, and each should be supported by clear pieces of evidence, clearly connected to the preceding and following claims.

–> Counterargument

The refutatio is your opportunity to anticipate the objections of your opponents and the doubts and questions of your allies. Where and how you do so depends both on your thesis and on the nature of your topic.

–> Peroration

The peroration can be nothing more than a summation, but it can also be so much more: a stirring call to action on the claims you have made, a prediction of the future success of your cause, an invocation of respected predecessors, a vivid image, or a personal anecdote in closing.

Example of Highly Persuasive Writing

Here’s a link to The Tragedy of Commons by Garrett Hardin, where she argues for the bold idea that limiting procreation is a necessary and normal step people should take for the common good. It’s a great example of persuasive writing: can you identify the thesis, the supportive arguments, and outline the structure? If so, let us know in the comments!

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