As someone who was in school for longer than I care to admit, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned. The persuasive essay is something dear to me, as I’ve continued to write them in my blogging career after school.
Remember, every teacher is different and will be looking for specific things. Always consult their rubric if they have one.
Skip to Number 4 if you want the easiest, best thing you can do!
Persuasive essays are one of the few skills that transfer to the real world.
Blogs are persuasive essays. Youtube video essays are persuasive essays. Arguing with someone on Reddit is a persuasive essay. Sending an email to your boss about why you deserve a raise is a persuasive essay.
It’s definitely worth your time to practice these.
Here are my 5 tips for a killer persuasive essay. I’ll indicate when I think there’s a difference between one for school and one for “real life.”
The format is one of the most important parts of a persuasive essay because it determines the structure of the argument you’re making.
Remember, much of persuasion is having a clear, understandable train of logic. An outline forces you to articulate this logic ahead of time.
Trust me, it’s worth it. Outlines don’t have to be these precise things that teachers sometimes force. Here’s all you need.
Write down what it is you want the person to be persuaded of (usually called the “topic”). This should be one sentence and focused. The more focused you can be in outlining, the more persuasive the final essay will be. You can be creative and loose later while drafting.
Next, write down all the main pieces of evidence you’ll need to make your case. Again, each should be one short sentence.
If you can’t fit it into a short sentence, it’s likely there are two separate ideas in there. Figure out what they are. This is the whole point of outlining!
Now, when you write, use this outline by keeping each of the topic sentences in bold capital letters above where you write (I’m assuming you’re at a computer and can delete it later).
If you’re writing during an exam, use a separate sheet of paper with the outline for reference.
The first section of the essay should begin with a statement of the argument in full so the reader knows where it is headed.
Each section should flesh out the topics you’ve chosen with arguments and evidence. Continually refer to the bold sentence to make sure you don’t meander off track.
Then reiterate the argument in full at the end.
2. Define Your Terms
This goes along with the standard advice to “know your audience.”
If you’re writing a persuasive essay for a general writing class, you’ll need to define most key terms. Specialized terms and assumptions enter our vocabulary quickly and easily, so it’s easy to forget that other people might not be familiar with it.
Even when they are familiar, key pieces of your argument will probably hinge on the reader knowing exactly what you mean.
Defining your terms up front makes any essay clearer and easier to read. The easier something is to read, the more time you can spend trying to be persuasive.
On the other hand, if your essay is for an advanced topics class on Kant, you shouldn’t waste time defining the “categorical imperative.” You’ll have to use your judgment on this.
I’d always err on the side of defining, though. An unnecessary definition will come across as a gentle reminder, but an undefined term the reader doesn’t know will spoil the whole essay.
3. Keep the Language Simple
When I first got to college, someone recommended to me the book The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing by Michael Harvey.
He had a great phrase for the type of academic language students (particularly good ones) try to use. He called it “the pompous style.”
This book opened my eyes, but I’d recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk and White these days.
They both teach the same types of things. Effective writing is clear writing. The more you try to sound smart with fancy words, complicated sentence structures, and what you think sounds “academic,” the harder the essay is to read.
The harder it is to read, the more chances you have to be misunderstood. Thus, you’re likely to get a worse grade.
You’re not Proust creating the next literary masterpiece. Teachers will not be impressed by this style. They can out-academic your writing any day.
Keep it simple. Developing your own style and voice will go a long way in your persuasive writing, but this should come later.
I know a lot of people think I’m a horrible person for advocating this, but I really think you should learn to be clean and simple first. Learn the rules before you break them. Slowly add personal flair in once you’ve mastered a clean and simple style.
I’d say you should study those books, but this leads me to the next point.
4. Use Technology
What if you could see your teacher’s red pen marks before they even read your essay? Back in my day, we didn’t have such technology.
Now, the technology is actually really good.
Use a tool like Grammarly.
There are others, like ProWritingAid, but I’ve tried them all. Grammarly sticks out as the best.
The free version connects right to a Word document. There are browser and desktop versions if you don’t use Word.
It will check for all the common mistakes: duplicated words, typos, homophones, comma errors, starting three sentences in a row with the same word, tense shifting, passive voice, and many more.
The paid version is worth it if you take your essay writing seriously. It will check for all those style errors I pointed out above in Tip 3.
But, isn’t this cheating? Of course not! All the best writers, including Stephen King, have editors. It’s pretty much impossible to catch everything yourself.
It’s also a really good teacher. Once the software corrects you a few times to remove the word “really,” you’ll start to catch it yourself.
Seriously. Try it out free now to see a big change in your writing. If you go with the paid version, you won’t even need to read Strunk and White.
5. Appeal to Emotion with Story
Unfortunately, humans aren’t rational. This means you can write the most persuasive and logical essay of all time, and there will still be people who don’t believe it.
In classes, you’ll want to stick to that method, because appealing to emotion and giving anecdotes are logical fallacies. You could lose points for doing this.
In the real world, we call this “rhetoric,” and it’s an important part of any good persuasive essay.
People believe stories and narrative over facts. If you want to be persuasive, you’ll want to wrap your essay in a convincing story that appeals to people’s emotions.
There are some masters of this out there that you should study if you want to up your persuasive essay game.
I’d recommend starting with anything by Malcolm Gladwell. Each of his books is a huge persuasive essay, and he always wraps it in a convincing story.
The best part about this technique, when it’s done well, is that it sounds like part of the argument. People remember the story later even when they’ve forgotten all the details.
If you’d like to see these tips in action, check out my persuasive essay: Artificial Intelligence Future Risks are Already Here.