English Composition I
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Argument papers are opinion based, pure and simple. But it’s not enough just to have an opinion. Anybody can have an opinion. Most people’s opinions, however, are simply repeating what they’ve been told or heard. Educated people are expected to be able to do more than just repeat what they’ve been told. Educated people are expected to be able to explain and defend their positions on issues, their opinions and views. At the same time, educated people should also understand that their view is only that: ONE position, A view, AN opinion, not THE truth.
Persuasive essays are different from the other essays that you have encountered. If you were going to write an essay with the subject of gun control using those styles of organization, it might sound like this:
Personal Narrative: “Guns saved my family’s life”
Process Essay: “Current Gun Control laws work like this”
Classification/Division: “Gun Control laws take these forms”
Compare/Contrast Essay: “Gun Control plan A versus Gun Control plan B”
Cause/Effect Essay: “Gun Control laws create these problems”
These essays are informing the reader about the subject of Gun Control with a particular focus. However, in a persuasive essay, you aren’t just trying to inform the reader about the subject. A persuasive essay takes a stand, supports an opinion, a position on the topic.
A persuasive essay would argue:
“Gun Control is necessary” or
“Gun Control is unconstitutional.”
A persuasive essay is designed to create change of some sort. Change in how the reader sees the issue. Change in society’s views on the subject. Change in how the subject is taught or discussed. What the author should NOT be trying to do is change the reader’s own opinion. There is an important difference between changing how a reader sees an issue and how they feel about it. People’s minds are not changed, usually, on the basis of one argument or essay, but rather by an accumulation of evidence and ideas. Since most people don’t form their opinions or views based on a single source or argument, trying to accomplish that feat with your own persuasive argument is a fool’s errand. A successful persuasive essay leaves the reader thinking “Hmm, I never thought about it that way before,” not “Wow! I’ve been so foolish up until now. Now I understand the right way to view this issue.”
Successful persuasive writers will use the Defensive Approach to an argument. Attacking other people’s views, especially if that’s all the writer does, is going on the Offense. The other views are wrong, and the writer is going to prove it! The problem with the Offense Approach is that if your audience happens to hold that view, your offense has offended and insulted them. Instead, a persuasive essay should focus on defending the writer’s view. Explain how and why you came to this conclusion. What evidence convinced you? The reader is free to accept or reject the evidence without any challenge or insults.
American society likes its arguments to be dichotomies: two-sided, right/wrong, good/bad, us/them. Unfortunately, most subjects and arguments exist on a spectrum of ideas and opinions, shades of gray. It is essential that any writer understand this difference and that other views are not simply dismissed or labeled as “different, and therefore wrong.” The defensive writer can still argue against other views, but by explaining why those views don’t work for him/her, not why they shouldn’t work or make sense to anybody. In a persuasive essay, even though you are arguing what you believe to be true, you are still only presenting ONE possible view, A position, AN understanding, not THE truth, THE one and only valid opinion.
Additionally, for the purposes of most persuasive writing, arguments should be based on empirical evidence: things that can be shown to be physically true, are repeatable in a controlled environment and/or verified through a reputable source. What is not usually acceptable is arguments based on articles of faith. Faith, by definition, is believing in things that cannot be empirically proven to be true. One’s belief that they are true is thus “faith.” In certain circumstances, on certain issues, and for certain audiences, faith based arguments are acceptable. For most professional and academic situations, they are not.
Evidence is the key to a successful persuasive essay. The writer can not just state that things are true; there must be some sort of proof. In the Defensive Approach, the writer should include the specific evidence, examples or experiences that have convinced him/her of this view. An essay that simply states “Gun violence is too high” and then goes on to another issue is not successfully arguing its case. The writer needs to give specific statistics and evidence, from law enforcement professionals or other reputable sources, that support what the actual level of gun violence is. Then the argument that this level is too high needs to be addressed and supported by some sort of comparison or definition. After all, to some people, ANY gun violence would be too high. The better and more reputable the source, the stronger the argument will be. Statistics taken from an anonymous web page will not carry as much strength as FBI or Police Department statistics.
According to Aristotle, a successful argument will contain three key elements:
Logos logic, data (the specific evidence that supports the position)
Ethos ethics, credibility, morality (how is argument presented morally)
Pathos people, human-side, emotion (the human face, the specific examples used)
These three elements are used in different combinations and proportions (some will emphasize logos, others ethos), but all three elements should be present in order for a persuasive argument to be completely successful. An argument that over-emphasizes one element, or eliminates one, might be successful in the short run, but the long-term success of the argument will not be there.
Think of the movie Erin Brockovich. The movie had to present its case and make you be on the side of Erin Brockovich, so it’s a form of persuasion.
Because this is an entertainment and not a more formal essay, the pathos element is used heavier than most essays would use it, and the logos is more downplayed (it’s easier to show logos in written work than in a movie). However, all three elements are in there, and it is a successful work of persuasion.
Remember to have a solid balance of Aristotle’s three elements. Too many writers emphasize only the evidence, the logos, and forget to show the reader the human faces of the people being discussed. On the other hand, many writers do a great job with the pathos and really make us feel sorry for little Timmy, but haven’t given us the evidence to understand how to change anything or make the situation better in the long run. A writer should make sure that they have all three elements, in a proper proportion for the context and purpose of the specific essay/argument that s/he is presenting.
A successful persuasive essay should contain Aristotle’s 3 elements, and a successful persuasive essay body paragraph should contain 3 important components as well.
Assertion thesis or claim to be proven
Evidence Specific and direct to the assertion, from reputable source
Analysis explanation of how evidence supports assertion
Here is an example of a persuasive essay body paragraph so you can see the three components in action: http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/features/00/08/03/NAPSTER.html
Assertion -- Napster claims free downloading hasn’t hurt CD sales, and some musicians and merchants agree. “The more people ware downloading an artist freely on the
Evidence -- Web, the more likely we are to see a lot of sales on that artist, “ says Derek Sivers of CD Baby, a site that sells independent-label CDs. “People come in to buy CDs of artists they hadn’t heard of till they discovered them on MP3.com or
Analysis -- Napster.” But if MP3s are sparking CD sales right now, it’s because CDs are still easier and more portable. As technology improves, that’s likely to change.
Notice that this essay doesn’t just make the assertion, give some support evidence, and go on to the next idea. The ANALYSIS element of the body paragraph is essential. That is what separates a repeated opinion from an educated opinion. The writer should show the reader that s/he understands the view and has made a reasoned, evidence based decision.
Here is a process to follow when writing a persuasive argument (not THE best, just A good one):