In a persuasive essay, the writer aims to convince the reader of an opinion or stance on a topic using a mixture of research-based evidence, emotion, and appeals to credibility. Persuasive essay writing is sometimes conflated with argumentative essay writing. However, while both genres aim to justify a claim and persuade the reader, they differ in style and tone. Whereas argumentative writing is structured strictly and carries a dispassionate and even impersonal tone, persuasive writing is more open-ended. In a persuasive essay, the writer is free to use a more informal tone, write in the first person, and employ a creative or non-traditional structure.
Think about a lawyer making a case in front of a jury, a politician making a speech on the campaign trail, or an essayist writing an opinion-editorial. While the majority of their argument may be rooted in fact and research, they may also use emotion and rhetorical devices to manipulate the audience. Rather than strictly following the structure of an academic essay, in which the argument and evidence are laid out clearly, they may draw the audience in with a personal anecdote, disarm them with humor, or call them to action with a chant. Ultimately, the goal of the essay is to convince the reader to adopt their position on an issue.
In this essay, we’ll discuss the style, substance, process, and structure of persuasive essays.
Style of persuasive essays
In persuasive writing, the operative concept is persuasion, so the tone of the writing may be serious, but informal, and information may be presented in a way that may manipulate the reader with poetic flourish. The writer may utilize various rhetorical techniques and strategies to sway their audience and compel them to adopt their opinion. As a result, hard evidence, while useful and important, is not the sole form of justification for their position that a writer can use. They can also appeal to morality, ethics, logic, opinion, and emotion.
Rhetorical appeals: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos
Over 2,000 years ago, the fabled Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle provided a theory of rhetoric, or persuasive language, that is still widely applicable today. Aristotle theorized three main tools of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos. Understanding these concepts and how they operate will help any writer craft more compelling and persuasive writing.
Ethos, the Greek word for “character,” describes an appeal to authority, credibility, or ethics. When a writer utilizes ethos, they attempt to demonstrate to their audience that they are a trustworthy and credible voice on the subject that they are discussing. Audiences are more likely to trust experts, such as a doctor writing about health, a lawyer writing about law, or an economist writing about the economy. However, writers do not need to be experts in order to establish ethos. Writers may build credibility by citing respected sources, using strong grammar, acknowledging contrasting opinions, and establishing common ground with their audience.
Even if a writer lacks authority on a subject, they can garner the trust of their audience by demonstrating their integrity and honesty. For example, a politician may not be an expert on a given subject, but they can win voters by successfully painting themselves as a person of strong character and morality. In order to establish ethos, it is crucial for writers to identify and speak directly to their target audience in order to build their trust.
Logos, the Greek word for “reason,” describes an appeal to logic. In order to establish logos, a writer must use sound evidence, appeal to fact, and lay out their argument in a logical and convincing order. In order for an argument to be logical, it should follow the following rules:
- It should rely on several relevant premises, or statements that support a conclusion.
- The premises should be laid out in a cohesive and sensible order.
- All premises should be accurate and defensible.
- Altogether, your premises should address all of the most important issues relevant to your topic.
- Your premises and claims should not be overly vague, too strong, distracting, or irrelevant to your conclusion.
- You should avoid logical fallacies.
By following these rules, you should be able to craft a logical argument. While logical arguments do not always need to utilize facts and research, the use of these tools always helps to strengthen your case. Importantly, persuasive writing should always avoid illogical arguments, i.e., arguments that can be disproven using logic, but they may include non-logical arguments, i.e,. arguments that cannot be proven or disproven using logic, including appeals to emotion.
Pathos, the Greek word for “passion,” “suffering,” or “experience,” describes an appeal to emotion. Emotion can be a very persuasive tool if used well. A writer may utilize emotion by evoking positive emotions, such as desire, aspiration, and love, or they may evoke negative emotions, such as anger, shame, and fear. Writers may try to appeal to universal ideals or the specific beliefs of their audience. There are various ways that writers can evoke these emotions:
- Storytelling: Narratives can be very effective at drawing in an audience and inspiring emotion.
- Imagery: Vivid imagery can help a writer evoke a time or place in the audience’s mind, drawing out the emotions associated with them.
- Emotionally-charged vocabulary: Emotional vocabulary, whether it evokes fear, anger, joy, or security, can inspire those emotions in the audience.
- Humor: Humor can be used to disarm the audience and help the writer come across as likeable and charismatic.
- Slogans and repetition: Repeating catchy phrases can help draw your audience in, reinforce a message, and inspire an audience to action. Think of former President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech.
These are just a few examples of ways that writers can use pathos. You might have noticed that many of these strategies are frequently used in speechwriting and in politics. This is no accident; pathos is very effective at rousing the sympathy of an audience and helping a candidate come across as likeable or inspiring.
Process of writing persuasive essays
The process of writing a persuasive essay is similar to that of many other types of essays in that it involves a research stage, an outlining stage, a writing stage, and an editing stage. However, in persuasive writing, the writer typically comes to the table with an argument in mind before the research stage. Evidence is gathered in support of a predetermined position on a topic.
- Choose a topic
The first step of writing a persuasive essay is choosing a topic to write about. In general, persuasive essays focus on topics that are controversial, meaning there are at least two, if not more, positions on the topic that strongly disagree with one another. Persuasive essays are often written on issues of public importance, such as divisive political or social issues. However, persuasive essays may also be written about art or literature. In any case, the author must be able to take a strong stance on their topic and defend it through a mixture of logical reasoning, hard evidence, and compelling rhetoric.
- Construct argument
After selecting the topic of the essay, the writer should define their position on the topic. Oftentimes in persuasive writing, the author is motivated to write the paper because they have a strong position on an issue and want to convey it through their essay. In an opinion-editorial, for example, a writer comes to the table with an opinion and sets out to convince their readers of the validity of their opinion.
This contrasts with other forms of expository writing, such as argumentative writing, in which the writer researches their topic before they formulate their stance on the issue.
Once the writer has formulated their argument, they can start conducting research on the topic. In a persuasive essay, the writer should primarily highlight evidence that supports their position on the topic. However, in order to make a strong, informed argument, the writer must have a thorough understanding of the debate surrounding the topic, including positions that do not align with their own. As a result, it is important for the writer to research both positions and collect evidence that strongly supports their position in the face of counter-arguments.
In a persuasive essay, your goal should be to present the evidence that supports your argument, and only present counter-evidence as a means to address and invalidate counter-arguments. In other forms of essay writing, such as academic papers or argumentative essays, the writer is obligated to consider all evidence and seek an unbiased opinion. In persuasive writing, the writer recognizes their bias, and solely seeks to advance their own position. Furthermore, because of this crucial difference in approach, in a persuasive essay, writers may use some forms of evidence that may not be considered valid in other genres. For example, in a persuasive essay, a writer may use a personal anecdote as supporting evidence. In most academic writing, this would often be considered weak or insubstantial evidence. In persuasive writing, narratives and anecdotal evidence can be an effective tool if used correctly.
- Organize evidence
After you have your evidence collected, you can start to organize your evidence to support your argument. In order to communicate your argument effectively, the evidence must be laid out logically. As you organize your evidence, it can be helpful to group pieces of evidence into themes or subsections, which you can then use to build supporting claims for your thesis. By the time you have finished organizing your evidence, you should have a strong idea of how you will present your argument.
- Build outline
Once you’ve got your evidence organized in a logical and compelling progression, you can begin to outline your essay in earnest. A complete outline should contain a draft of your thesis, topic sentences for each body paragraph or section, and evidence organized under each major claim you make throughout the essay. By the time you finish your outline, you should have completely finished gathering and organizing your evidence.
For details on how to craft a persuasive essay outline, check here.
- Write the essay
After building your outline, you should be ready to start writing in earnest. With a complete and thorough outline, the essay-writing process should mostly consist of connecting evidence and fleshing out sections of your paper with transitions. It is important that your paper has a natural and logical flow and reads clearly. In persuasive writing, your paper may have a serious but somewhat more informal or casual tone than other types of writing. Reading opinion-editorials, magazine essays, and other types of popular nonfiction writing can help you get a sense of the cadence and tone of the genre.
- Reread, revise, and edit
After you have completed a full draft of your paper, you should always go over your work carefully. First, read your draft aloud to yourself and try to identify any obvious errors and areas where your writing is unclear or confusing. Reword and rephrase these areas to the best of your ability. Pay close attention to the flow of the argument: sometimes during this stage, you may realize that your essay could be structured better and you may have to reorganize sections. After you’ve looked over, revised, and edited your paper thoroughly, pass it off to a friend, colleague, parent, professor, or teaching assistant and have them read it over for you. Having a second set of eyes on your paper can help you identify areas of weakness that you missed, or grammatical errors you were unaware of. In the end, you should have a paper that is tightly-edited and contains few to no grammatical or syntactical errors.
Structure of persuasive essays
In general, persuasive essays follow the structure of a typical expository or argumentative essay: an introduction that includes a thesis, body paragraphs providing evidence, and a conclusion restating the thesis and outlining broader implications. However, in persuasive writing, the author may take some more creative liberties than in other styles of writing. Depending on the target audience and the publication format, the author may use non-traditional paragraph structures and utilize storytelling and narrative. Furthermore, drawing the reader in immediately with a strong hook is ever-important in persuasive writing.
Introduction to persuasive essays
In the introduction of a persuasive essay, the writer’s primary goal is to introduce the topic of the essay, state their thesis, and, importantly, draw the reader in.
In life and in writing, first impressions are important. The hook — the first one or two sentences of an essay — serves two primary purposes: to introduce the reader to the topic of the essay and to grab their attention and compel them to read on.
In a traditional expository essay, the hook will typically make an assertive claim related to, but not explicitly stating, the paper’s thesis. In a persuasive essay, the writer may be a little more creative with their hook. Some persuasive essays begin with a compelling quote. Others begin with a brief story, a vivid description, or a metaphor. Some writers may begin with a statistic or piece of information that illustrates an important point about the topic they are writing about.
In any case, the hook must always clearly introduce the topic of the essay. A hook that is not directly related to the topic or thesis of an essay will ultimately distract, and even confuse the reader. In order to write a compelling essay, the writer should always strive for clarity above all else.
After the hook, the writer will begin to elaborate on the topic, providing background information that is necessary to fully comprehend the topic they are writing about. Sometimes referred to as the exigence, this section of the introduction is where the writer states their reason for writing.
For example, in an essay discussing the implications of a rise in crime, the writer may use this section of the introduction to briefly illustrate the rise in crime and explain why this is an issue worth discussing.
Importantly, the writer should not start providing supporting evidence for their thesis and should be careful not to go into too much detail on the topic. Rather, this section is meant as a general introduction to the issue at hand.
The thesis statement is the heart of a persuasive essay. A thesis is an arguable statement on a given topic, defined in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “a position or proposition that a person (such as a candidate for scholastic honors) advances and offers to maintain by argument.”
The thesis should make a specific, defensible, and debatable claim about an issue that will be defended through the revelation of evidence throughout the essay. A thesis statement is neither a statement of fact, nor is it an opinion. Rather, it combines these two elements, such that it is a statement of a position that can be supported by evidence.
The thesis should also telegraph how the writer intends to present and defend their argument in the rest of the paper. It should not list evidence. However, a reader should be able to read your thesis statement and have a sense of the types of evidence that you will present throughout the paper.
Body of persuasive essays
In the body of a persuasive essay, the writer should present their evidence clearly and systematically. Each body paragraph should flow logically into the next, presenting evidence in such a manner that the reader can easily understand the argument as it unfolds. In a persuasive essay, the writer intends to persuade the reader to adopt a position, so evidence should be carefully selected and presented to the reader in order to convince them of the writer’s thesis.
- Topic Sentence
Each body paragraph begins with a topic sentence that makes a claim supporting the thesis. For each of these claims, the evidence will be laid out throughout the rest of the paragraph. Each claim should have a logical connection to the thesis and introduce new evidence supporting the paper’s overall argument.
The bulk of each body paragraph should consist of evidence that supports the claim made in your topic sentence. The strongest essays present their supporting evidence in a logical order with smooth transitions. In persuasive essays, you can use a variety of types of evidence, including both hard, research-based evidence, and soft evidence, including anecdotal evidence, narrative, metaphor, and logical reasoning. All of the evidence in a paragraph should reinforce the claim made in the topic sentence. All evidence should also clearly support the thesis.
Conclusion to persuasive essays
At the very end, the conclusion should reframe the thesis in the context of the evidence provided throughout the paper. The writer should never present new evidence in the conclusion. Rather, the conclusion is an opportunity to discuss and reconsider the main points made throughout the paper. It is a space to draw new conclusions and point to the big-picture implications of their argument and the evidence provided throughout.
The process of writing persuasive essays is not unlike that of many other essay styles, but it does differ in key ways. Namely, the emphasis on persuasion allows writers to be slightly more creative than other forms of essay writing: they can use various rhetorical techniques to manipulate their audience into adopting a viewpoint. Follow the steps in this essay to create an engaging and convincing persuasive essay.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.