Strategies for Mastering the Persuasive Essay



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Strategies for Mastering the Persuasive Essay

  • On the AP Language exam, the persuasive essay calls for a different set of skills than does the rhetorical analysis essay. Two difficult areas on the persuasive essay for my students are
  • offering credible, appropriate evidence to support their claims
  • understanding the difference between defending, challenging, or qualifying their claims

Using Appropriate Evidence in the Persuasive Essay

  • Look at how the requirements for evidence have been worded in the last ten years of the exam:
  • 2000: Support your argument with specific references to your reading, observation, or experience.
  • 2001: Use appropriate evidence to develop your argument.
  • 2002: Support your argument with appropriate evidence.
  • 2003: Use specific evidence.
  • 2004: Use appropriate evidence.
  • 2005: Support your argument with appropriate evidence.
  • 2006: Support your view with appropriate evidence.
  • 2007: Support your position with evidence from your reading, observation, and/or experience.
  • 2008: Using appropriate evidence, write an essay….
  • 2009: Support your argument with appropriate evidence

What does it mean to offer evidence from your observations, experience, or reading?

  • Use your knowledge of any specialized subject, such as
  • history
  • current events
  • science
  • technology
  • music
  • sports
  • human behavior
  • You can either use this knowledge in a way that directly applies to the subject (if that’s appropriate to the subject), or you can create an analogy between this specialized knowledge and your persuasive prompt.
  • Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant.
  • --Horace
  • Consider this quotation about adversity from the Roman poet Horace. Then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies Horace’s assertion about the role that adversity (financial or political hardship, danger, misfortune, etc.) plays in developing a person’s character. Support your argument with appropriate evidence from your reading, observation, or experience.
  • If you were developing an analogy using your knowledge of how muscle mass is produced, you might write something like the following example:
  • The fact that pain and stress create growth is true in both the physical and psychological realm. For instance, stress and even trauma are required to increase muscle mass. Those who lift weights know that when you stress a muscle, you create tiny tears in the muscle fiber. These tears activate cells which begin to replace damaged muscle fibers. These new cells fuse to muscle fibers to form new protein strands, which increases the muscle cells in thickness and in number. In the same way that muscles grow only with stress and trauma, human beings grow psychologically only by developing new “muscles” in dealing with adversity.

Qualifying an Assertion in the Persuasive Essay

  • Often the strongest persuasive essays are those in which the writer qualifies an assertion rather than strictly defending or challenging it.
  • When you qualify, you force yourself to look at an issue from more angles than one and to view it from the vantage point of both sides.
  • Qualifying an assertion shows you to be a person who considers points of view other than your own and a person who respects others’ opinions, all traits which develop your character and credibility as a writer, or your ethos.
  • Students should be aware that rarely is any issue in the public forum cut and dried, right or wrong, black or white. To produce more sophisticated and finessed essays, students should learn how to qualify an assertion.
  • To defend an assertion is to agree with it; to challenge is to disagree with it. To qualify is distinctly more complicated because qualifying demands that students assess the nuances and complexities of the assertion. Often the highest-scoring papers qualify because these students have thought through the complexities inherent in any tenable assertion.
  • Look at some of the prompts appearing on past Language exams, and note that they all deal with issues that could be supported with evidence on each side. (The prompts have been paraphrased.)
  • Wealthy people can buy their justice in our courts system.
  • Photography does not present an accurate view of the world.
  • The entertainment business is ruining society.
  • One’s spoken language is a key to his/her identity.
  • Americans are more materialistic than people in other countries.
  • One’s personal identity is bound up in that person’s external appearance and possessions.
  • Our freedom is endangered when the government does not respect our basic right to privacy.
  • In each of these assertions, reasonable people can disagree. And each of these assertions represents a complicated interplay of ideas and beliefs. The more educated and civilized a society becomes, the more its citizens should be able to discern that most issues in the public forum cannot be simplistically stated.
  • Thus, it becomes important for students to learn to qualify their position when they are defending an assertion or position.
  • Qualifying deals with "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" reasoning.
  • Since most (if not all) issues have two valid sides, reasonable people, people developing their ethos in public or written discourse, should be able to modify their own argument to reflect both sides of the issue.
  • Qualifying, however, does not mean showing both sides of an issue and then leaving it there.
  • In a persuasive essay, the writer’s purpose is to change the audience’s mind or to at least offer compelling evidence why a certain position is valid.

Below is an assertion with sample paragraphs defending, challenging, and qualifying the assertion. In these paragraphs, note that the “defend” and “challenge” paragraphs deal with only one side of the issue. The “qualify” paragraph addresses some of the complexities inherent in most issues in the public forum. This paragraph modifies the assertion to extend its focus only to certain situations.

  • Below is an assertion with sample paragraphs defending, challenging, and qualifying the assertion. In these paragraphs, note that the “defend” and “challenge” paragraphs deal with only one side of the issue. The “qualify” paragraph addresses some of the complexities inherent in most issues in the public forum. This paragraph modifies the assertion to extend its focus only to certain situations.
  • Assertion: Laws which protect citizens from themselves are justified.
  • Defend:
  • Our forefathers determined that it is the business of the government to provide all that shall affect our “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Democracy works because the people have entrusted that power to their elected officials. It is government’s right, yes, and its duty to enact laws that best protect and preserve the lives of Americans. Therefore, the government, through our elected officials, has the right to protect citizens and to make judgments regarding how best to protect citizens from themselves. Because society will have to pay (through health and mental care) for a person who harms himself, society has the right to limit a person’s rights when he tries to harm himself.

Challenge:

  • Challenge:
  • All human beings are distinct entities, possessing a spirit, soul, and body. The right to make private decisions affecting one’s life is a precious one. Any government, even in its best intentions, never has the right to impose its will on its citizens, even when it proposes to protect them from themselves. According to the values of our country, people should have the “liberty” to choose “life” or “happiness” on their own terms.

What is a concession?

  • A concession is an expression of concern for those who do not agree with you. Using concession is a good way to develop your ethos, or your credibility and character with your audience. Using concession shows your audience that you are a fair-minded person, one who recognizes that any issue has two sides. Read the paragraph below. The concession is bolded.
  • Defend or challenge with a concession:
  • Our forefathers determined that it is the business of the government to provide all that shall affect our “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Democracy works because the people have entrusted that power to their elected officials. It is government’s right, yes, and its duty to enact laws that best protect and preserve the lives of Americans. Therefore, the government, through our elected officials, has the right to protect citizens and to make judgments regarding how best to protect citizens from themselves. Civil libertarians might argue that the right to make private decisions affecting one’s life is a precious one, one that government has no right to intrude upon. They would say that any government, even in its best intentions, never has the right to impose its will on its citizens, even when it purposes to protect them from themselves. Yet society will have to pay (through health and mental care) for a person who harms himself. Therefore, society has the ultimate right and duty to limit a person’s rights when he tries to harm himself.
  • Qualify:
  • The Declaration of Independence states that all Americans have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Therefore, it can be argued that our right to “life” sometimes hinges on the government protecting us from ourselves. Thus we have laws such as those prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors and requiring us to wear seat belts in automobiles. Sometimes city, state, or national governments go too far, however, in determining just how Americans should be protected. Some cities have banned trans fats in restaurants, for instance. When a law crosses over the line from protecting Americans’ lives and begins to interfere with their liberties, then that law has gone too far. Laws which protect citizens from themselves are justified as long as those laws do not infringe upon individual liberty.

Common Errors in Persuasive Writing

  • The following passage comes from “The Common Life,” a 1994 essay by the American writer Scott Russell Sanders. Read the passage carefully and then write an essay that defends, challenges, or qualifies Sanders’ ideas about the relationship between the individual and society in the United States. Use specific evidence to support your position.
  • A woman who recently moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington [Indiana] told me that she would not be able to stay here long, because she was already beginning to recognize people in the grocery stores, on the sidewalks, in the library. Being surrounded by familiar faces made her nervous, after years in a city where she could range about anonymously. Every traveler knows the sense of liberation that comes from journeying to a place where nobody expects anything of you. Everyone who has gone to college knows the exhilaration of slipping away from the watchful eyes of Mom and Dad. We all need seasons of withdrawal from responsibility. But if we make a career of being unaccountable, we have lost something essential to our humanity, and we may well become a burden or a threat to those around us. A community can support a number of people who are just passing through, or who care about no one’s needs but their own; the greater the proportion of such people, however, the more vulnerable the community, until eventually it breaks down….Taking part in the common life means dwelling in a web of relationships, the many threads tugging at you while also holding you upright.

Common errors in writing this essay:

  • Problem #1: not understanding the task or the directions
  • Make sure that you read the passage correctly and understand your task. Don’t get caught up in tangential issues. Figure out what Sanders’s central thesis is. This student had trouble understanding the issue:
  • For example, when people get caught doing something wrong and they don’t want to admit to their mistakes, they sometimes think of a lie, which is a defense mechanism people use when in trouble. Who hasn’t lied at some time in their lives? The guilt will haunt the lady in the passage who moved to Bloomington, tearing up everything in her life from inside then out.
  • The example about the woman from Bloomington is not the central issue in this prompt—it is an example Sanders is giving to make his point. What really is his issue?
  • Write the central point he is making, the point that you are to defend, challenge, or qualify.

Problem #2: merely paraphrasing the passage

  • Problem #2: merely paraphrasing the passage
  • If your whole essay consists of explaining what Sanders is saying in this passage, the best score you can possibly make is a 4 out of a 9. Resist the temptation to tell what the passage is saying. The readers know what the passage says. Refer to the passage in as few words as possible. Do not quote long sections of the passage—this eats up time and accomplishes very little. Your job is to figure out what the central issue is and then to defend, challenge, or qualify that issue.
  • In this passage, Sanders writes about the relationship between the individual and society. He talks about a lady that moved from Los Angeles to Bloomington, Indiana. She says she would not be able to stay long because she was already beginning to recognize people. Sanders writes that the lady gets nervous when she is recognized. She liked not being known and not having to get involved in that society. Sanders says that a couple of people like this help society run, but if there were too many, society would collapse. Society depends on some people to interact so that it can keep going.
  • If this were only the introduction, and the student followed up with an assertion that defended, challenged, or qualified Sanders’s assertion, this paragraph would be acceptable, although it’s not necessary to paraphrase this much. But when a paraphrase is your whole essay, you’re looking at a score of 4, at best.

Problem #3: not taking a definite stand

  • Problem #3: not taking a definite stand
  • This is one of the most common errors students make. A persuasive essay is an argumentative essay—you must have a definite opinion and state that opinion unequivocally.
  • Sanders describes the relationship between the individual and society as a contrast. The individual is nervous around a too-familiar society. A society feels threatened by a great number of individuals that are unfamiliar. In a big city, most people become accustomed to unknown people because of the large population. However, in a small town where everybody knows everybody else, a newcomer might be seen as a threat to their way of life. In a small community, most people have their familiar routines. For the traveler, though, it is still a new opportunity for the community. The unknown traveler may be thought of as an alteration to their everyday routine.
  • This essay discusses the workings of a small town and a big city and makes some interesting observations about the contrast. The writer, however, never takes a definite stand on whether or not it is healthy to remove oneself completely from society.
  • This writer takes a definite stand and backs it up with appropriate evidence:
  • Sanders says that “we all need seasons of withdrawal from responsibility.” There are times when people need to forget about what others expect from them and do only what they feel is needed. (concession) While Sanders’s statements are true, people cannot live a responsibility-dodging life forever. He feels that if people are to do so, “We will have lost something essential to our humanity.” If everyone were to give up their responsibilities and do only what was best for themselves, then society would not function. Organizations would fall apart because people would no longer be able to work together. Eventually our entire government would break down and the nation would erupt into total chaos. The more careless people a community has, “the more vulnerable” the community becomes. Thus, people must learn to take responsibility for themselves rather than dodge it. (assertion)

Problem #4: using inappropriate or weak evidence to support your position

  • Problem #4: using inappropriate or weak evidence to support your position
  • The strength of your essay almost totally depends on the strength of the evidence you marshall for your position. Weak or inappropriate evidence will produce a weak paper and a low score. The readers are looking for writers to write logically, to reason, to analyze, to find the best evidence to convince someone of their position. This student’s evidence has to do with crime rates:
  • A small town culture is often seen as boring and old-fashioned, but it is just as important to our nation as any of the modern big cities. In New York City people have that opportunity to wander the city anonymously. Perhaps that is the reason why crime rates are so much higher in larger cities. People are far less likely to behave badly if people they know are watching them. This constant concern of others judging you is perhaps more beneficial than some may have you believe. It can get quite nerve-wracking to always be under watch, but those that watch you also come to your aid in times of need. For example, when you go out of town you can ask your ever-watchful neighbors to keep an eye on your house for peace of mind. If everyone went around with a total disregard for others, society would break down and the world would become a terrible almost primal place.
  • This student effectively supports his position by reasoning that knowing someone is watching you may deter crime. He concedes (another way to reason logically) that it is bothersome to “always be under watch,” but those who watch you also watch over you.

Problem #5: writing a stylistic analysis of the passage instead of a persuasive essay

  • Problem #5: writing a stylistic analysis of the passage instead of a persuasive essay
  • Your job is not to analyze the way Sanders writes. Your job is to write a persuasive essay.
  • Sanders’s use of diction reveals his negative attitude toward wanderers….
  • Sanders uses a word with negative connotations when describing the twisting threads….
  • Sanders was accurate when he said the many threads tug, yet hold one another upright. His metaphor identified individual lives as threads. The metaphor makes the reader reflect to a special blanket or person that brought them comfort, evoking emotional reactions.
  • Sanders is offering an opinion in this passage. You are to either agree with his opinion, disagree with his opinion, or qualify his opinion. Do not analyze the way Sanders writes.

Building your case

  • In the second part, take a stand and support it.
  • Back up your claims with solid evidence:
  • Historical
  • Personal
  • Literary
  • Cultural

Tips to better writing (and scores)

  • Avoid “says” “writes” “thinks” “feels”
  • Use “contends” “asserts” “claims” or any of the myriad other better verbs
  • Avoid “In conclusion” to wrap up your argument.
  • Use “Clearly” or other strong words to lead to your concluding point
  • Avoid “I think” “It seems” “I feel”
  • Use a confident, controlled tone


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