|Persuasive Essay: A Quick Review and Guide
By Bianco Hernandez and Morton Reads
The introductory paragraph is the first-paragraph in the persuasive essay. The introductory paragraphs should have three parts: an attention-catcher, athesis, and a preview. The introductory paragraph is perhaps the most important paragraph in the essay because it is the first and possibly last chance to make an impact on the reader. It should clearly express the subject of the essay as well as the writer’s position. While it is generally not required, previewing the main points shows readers that the paper has been thoughtfully composed rather than free formed. If a student can write a good introductory paragraph, then he or she can write a strong persuasive essay. Every introductory paragraph should begin with an attention catcher.
The attention catcher or lead should be the first sentence in the persuasive essay. It is the writer’s first chance to make an impression on the reader, so it should not be spent thoughtlessly. A good attention catcher is angled in a way that immediately pushes the reader toward the writer’s position. Here is an example:
Example of a Weak Attention Catcher:
Do you think students should have to wear uniforms?
Notice that this question is open-ended and does not provide an opinion. If a student wrote this, we would not know which side they were arguing. This should not be the case. The writer’s position should be clear before they even mention it based on the strength of their attention catcher.
Example of a Strong Attention Catcher
Should students be forced to wear pants when it is over 100 degrees?
This example is much stronger because the writer’s position is clear from the first line. They ask a question to which they already know the answer. Persuasion is about forcing others to think along your lines. Practice this in your writing by using attention catchers that are angled toward your position. It may take more time to write your attention catcher than any other sentence in your essay, but this is time well spent.
Attention Catching Techniques
Here is a short list of attention catching techniques for persuasive essays. This list is not to be thought of as exhaustive, but rather as a few guiding examples to help you get started. I encourage you to combine and experiment with these techniques as your writing develops.
Asking a Question: This is a favorite technique because it can be used on any topic at any time. Additionally, it has a strong rhetorical effect on readers: people are conditioned to think about questions because answers are often expected of them. When you ask a question in your paper, readers are more likely to consider your ideas. As with any attention catcher, you’ll want to take your time making a good one that begins persuading your audience immediately. Remember to AVOID weak questions that merely restate the prompt or ask an open-ended question to which there is any answer.
Quotation: A wise person once said, “No matter what you’re trying to say, someone else has probably said it better.” Many times, this statement is true. While you are unlikely to have access to the necessary resources to dig up quotes for a timed essay or standardized test, if you do have time (example: a high school application letter), using an appropriate quote is a classy way to start off your essay. Just be sure that the quote is connected to your topic in some easily identifiable way.
Anecdote: An anecdote is a short story. Beginning your essay with an anecdote that is clearly related to your topic is another great way to get the reader’s attention and briefly demonstrate your descriptive writing ability. There are a couple things to keep in mind, however, when using an anecdote to catch the reader’s attention:
Stay on Point: as with everything in your paper, your attention catcher, especially if it is an anecdote, should be related to your topic and position.
Stay on Mode: Remember that you are writing a persuasive essay, not a narrative. Your anecdote should be limited to a few sentences, lest your writing may be perceived as off mode.
Startling Fact or Statistic: Two out of three persuasive essays do not begin with a proper attention catcher! Using a startling fact or statistic is another great way to pique the reader’s interest, assuming that you can locate just such a fact. Students should not fabricate facts or statistics when other sources are unavailable, because it seems academically dishonest.
Imaginative Scenario: Picture this! There is only forty-five minutes to write an essay and no attention catcher comes to mind. What can be done? One way to do this is to create an imaginative scenario such as the one just described. Immerse your reader in an example of the problem and show them why they should care. Use descriptive writing and sensory details to either positively or negatively charge your writing; however, as with telling anecdotes, be careful not to stray off mode. Remember that your main purpose is to write arguments not to tell stories.
Combinations: You might find yourself using some hybrid of two or more of these techniques, which is completely acceptable. You can begin with an imaginative scenario and end with a question. Try something wild. When it comes to writing, the most restrictive limitations are the bounds of your own imagination. Stretch those bindings whenever you have the opportunity.
A thesis is a clearly worded statement telling readers exactly what the writer intends to do in the essay. Good persuasive writing does not make the reader guess as to what the author’s intentions were. The writer’s intent should be made very clear. The best place to do this is immediately after the attention catcher. After gaining the reader’s interest, clearly state the position of your essay, as in the following example:
Should students be forced to wear pants when it is over 100 degrees?
(“Of course not,” thinks your reader…so you state:)
Students should not have to wear uniforms.
The emboldened text represents the thesis or central argument in the essay. Every sentence in the paper should in some way connect to that central argument. Any sentence that is not furthering the thesis is distracting from it and should be removed. Clearly state your thesis in your introductory paragraph and spend the rest of the essay trying to support it. If your position changes during the course of your writing, don’t be afraid to go back and revise your thesis, but your thesis must align with the arguments in your essay.
The preview briefly states the main points that will be argued in the essay. The preview is not where the arguments are developed. The preview merely summarizes each point in as few words as possible. (We sometimes refer to this as the thesis or controlling idea. Do not worry about its name-concern yourself with what it does!!) Each body paragraph should have one main point. All of the main points should be concisely stated in the preview. An appropriately structured five-paragraph essay will preview three main points. It is important for writers to preview their main points in the exact order that they will be developed. For example, the essay will argue square, circle, and triangle. The first body paragraph should be about squares, the second should be about circles, and the third should be about triangles. Put the previews right after the thesis statements in the introductory paragraph.
Educators and professionals argue back and forth on the value of previewing points. Consequently, previews are not required on many standardized tests; however, it is an easy way to tell if they are considering format in their compositions. Previewing and structuring main points in this manner is a good way to scaffold into a more personalized and sophisticated writing style.
The term body refers to all paragraphs after the introduction and before the conclusion. The metaphor that comes to mind most often in describing this structure is the sandwich: the introductory and concluding paragraphs represent slices of bread while the body paragraphs are the meat and cheese of the essay, so to speak. There are three body paragraphs in a five paragraph persuasive essay. Each body paragraph should focus on one argument, called the main point. Though students should have three body paragraphs, it is certainly possible to write a successful essay with more or fewer body paragraphs. Be sure to fulfill the requirements of the task.
A main point is the purpose of the body paragraph. Each body paragraph should have one clearly stated main point that is expressed in the topic sentence of the paragraph. The main point should then be developed and supported with emotional or logical arguments. A five-paragraph persuasive essay should have three main points and each main points should support the thesis of the essay.
Students should not have to wear school uniforms because they limit students’ ability to express their individuality.
Notice that this example has two parts: the non-emboldened text restates the thesis of the essay and the bold text is the main point. The rest of the paragraph should argue the main point.
Supporting details are arguments, examples, or descriptions that justify, explain, and develop main points. Students struggle with properly supporting their main points. In order to help, use thought stems to extend and develop the arguments. These thought stems are something like training wheels for writing: once students learn to write they won’t need to them; but when they are first learning or are stuck, students can learn to better sequence and develop their support by using thought stems.
Persuasive Essay Thought Stems
What is meant by this is…
Another way to say this is…
This connects to the argument because…
The reason for this is that…
To put it another way…
This shows that…
This is important because…
With a little bit of practice, students can use these thought stems to better explain and support their arguments.
Making the connection is when the last sentence in a body paragraph connects the support back to the main point. My students generally do pretty well at coming up with main points and creating support, but they often fail to connect the two. That is to say, they put the support next to the main point but don’t clearly explain the relation between the two or how they connect. The analogy I use to explain this is that of the prosecutor in a criminal case: the attorney doesn’t just say, “There were some blood drops in the defendants car,” and then end his argument. Having evidence is not enough. The prosecutor must explain what the evidence shows. Likewise, writers need to explain what their evidence shows to make the connection. Don’t make the readers draw their own conclusions; that’s your job. You are trying to persuade them to believe as you do!!
We should not have to wear school uniforms because they limit our ability to express our individuality. What is meant by this is that students have the right to express who they are and how they are feeling. One of the most important ways they do this is through dress. This is how we show the world who we are, particularly in an environment where we are forced to be quiet for 90% of the day. Our fashion makes a unique statement. If students are forced to wear uniforms, their ability to express themselves will be severely limited. Schools should promote student expression not restrict it.
This paragraph begins well by clearly stating the position on the topic and the main point of the paragraph. The paragraph is well developed with logical arguments, and then it closes strongly. But imagine if it ended without the parts in bold? This is how many of my students write: they state their point, they support it with some evidence, and then they move on with the essay. Bringing the argument back to the topic sentence is an essential and often overlooked step. By connecting the support to the main point, writers help readers make the connection. This is entirely essential to writing excellent paragraphs.
The conclusion is the last paragraph in the persuasive essay. A good conclusion will not only restate the main points of the argument, it will bring something new to the table and end with strength and resolution. It’s been compellingly argued that readers or listeners best remember the first and last things stated. With this notion in mind, you should allot yourself an appropriate amount of time to craft a resonant introduction and conclusion. One way to write a strong concluding paragraph is to restate the thesis and main points of the essay, but then attempt to leave a strong impression on the reader by ending on a clinching statement.
Restatement of Points
A restatement of points is when the writer briefly reviews the main points of their argument. It is very similar to the preview in the introduction but, while maintaining the sequence of the arguments, the writer should not repeat it word for word. Say it another way. Educators argue over the value of having a preview and review in the introduction and conclusion. The main argument against it is that such practices promote formulaic writing, but it is extremely helpful until students develop a strong sense of the structure of a persuasive essay.
The clinching statement is the last idea in the persuasive essay. Since it is your final opportunity to leave an impression on the reader, you should attempt to close with finesse. Here is a list of a few techniques that may help you end your persuasive essays more effectively.
The Better World:The writer attempts to describe an idyllic scenario that will occur if their proposal is accepted. The sun will shine brighter and the sky will be bluer if the writer’s resolution is adopted, so to speak. Example: If students aren’t forced to wear uniforms, our school will have a much more pleasant and productive environment in which everyone will learn and grow.
The Worst Case Scenario:The writer again attempts to describe a scenario, this time imagining how bad the world might become if their proposal is rejected. Fear is a highly motivating emotion, so the writer should strive to make their scenario as frightful as possible without sounding ridiculous. Example: If students are required to wear uniforms, the environment of our school will become drab and colorless, and the structure of our hallowed institution will be further from a college and closer to a prison.
The Call to Action: Another good way to end your essay is to ask or demand that your reader take some action in support of your proposal. Perhaps you ask them to write a letter or email to their congressman or relevant authority. Perhaps you ask them to recycle their trash instead. The scope of your call is dependent on the topic.
Example: If you understand how important it is for students to have the right to dress themselves, it is your civic duty to attend your local school counsel meeting and demand that this proposal be rejected.
These are just a few suggestions to get budding writers to think about how to effectively close the persuasive essays. No matter which approach you choose, remember the importance of your parting words to the reader and dedicate an appropriate amount of time to closing the essay with finesse.