Strategies for Writing Convincing Essays Help (page 4)
Strategies for Writing Convincing Essays
While strong evidence is essential for an effective essay, it may not be enough to make your essay convincing. This lesson offers several strategies to help make your essays more persuasive.
Most essays are exercises in persuasive writing. You may want to persuade your reader to change his or her point of view, support a specific cause, or agree with your opinion. In an SAT or ACT essay, your goal is to convince the scorer that you can write well. For a college application, your essay needs to persuade the admissions officer to accept you. On a more general level, because essays are built on the assertion → support structure, your underlying goal is to convince your readers that your thesis is valid.
The best way to convince readers that your thesis is valid is to provide strong and sufficient support. However, support alone is not always enough. The way in which you present your evidence, though, can mean the difference between a successfully persuasive essay, and one that is easily dismissed. Here are six strategies that work with your supporting evidence to make your essays more convincing:
- Be specific.
- Don't include ideas you can't support.
- Establish credibility.
- Acknowledge counterarguments.
- Avoid absolutes.
- Don't offend.
Whatever your topic or assignment, the more precise you are throughout your essay, the easier it will be for your readers to accept your assertions. Specific examples and details make abstract ides concrete, and something that's clear and concrete is more easily accepted than something vague and abstract.
For example, look at the difference between the next two paragraphs. The first lacks specific examples and details and therefore lacks persuasive power. The second paragraph, however, offers some very specific examples and details. It is much more convincing than its vague counterpart is.
To confirm my hypothesis, I asked my peers about the balance between work and play. Most of them said they thought the balance should be about equal. Several of them pointed out that because of technology, the distinction between work and home is fading, so it's especially important to set aside time for play.
To confirm my hypothesis, I interviewed 30 of my peers—students from both the public and private high schools in my area. I asked, "What do you think is the right relationship between work and play?" Twenty-two respondents said they think work and play should have equal time in our lives. "We should play at least as much as we work," said Ellen Reese, a senior planning to major in computer science. "Of course, that's a lot easier to do if you love your job, because then that's part of the play, too." Andrew Fry, a junior who wants to be a journalist, was one of the 12 respondents concerned with the collapsing distinction between work and home. "Between e-mail and the Internet, wireless connections, and cell phones, we can take our work with us anywhere and work any time of the day. So many people bring their work home with them and let it eat up their play time. I think it's really important to set aside time each day, or at least each week, to relax and play."
Notice how the writer of the second paragraph offers specific information: the number of students polled, the kind of students polled, and the exact question she asked them. This gives the reader a much clearer sense of her survey and helps him or her better understand the results. Then, instead of generalizing the responses, she offers more specifics, such as exactly how many students felt there should be an equal balance. Importantly, she also offers specific responses. She doesn't just tell us what people said by paraphrasing; she shows us by quoting their responses. Once again, abstract ideas and generalizations are made more concrete—and therefore more convincing.
If You Can't Support It, Don't Include It
Imagine you're on a jury. The prosecuting attorney turns to the jury box and says, "The defendant is clearly guilty. I just know it. "He doesn't offer any evidence to support his assertion. Absurd, of course. No legitimate lawyer working in her client's best interest would make such a claim if she weren't able to support it. The rule is if you can't support it, don't include it, and it is as important for writers as it is for attorneys.
For example, you might believe that Americans today work more hours and have less leisure time than at any other time in our history. There are probably statistics out there to support this assertion, but after a quick search on the Internet, you find nothing. Unless you're willing to put in more research time to find what you need, as strongly as you may feel about the idea, since you can't support it, you shouldn't include it.
That doesn't mean you have to scrap the idea altogether, though. If you can't find evidence for the claim that Americans in general work more and play less than ever before, you might be able to find evidence that supports the assertion on a smaller scale. For many types of essays, you don't need the kind of evidence that's only found though research. Personal examples supported with specific examples can work if your assignment isn't a formal research paper. You could rework your assertion by reducing its scope and stating the following:
These days, everyone in my family is working more than ever—both at home and at the office.
By using specific personal examples, facts, and anecdotes, this type of assertion can have a legitimate place in your essay.
Credibility is the quality of being trustworthy and believable. The more credible a person is, the more likely you are to accept his or her opinions as valid (well founded, logical). As a writer, you need to establish credibility on two levels: your own credibility and the credibility of your sources.
Credibility is built upon two factors: expertise and freedom from bias. A bias is an opinion or feeling that strongly favors one side over others. Expertise is established by education, experience, job or position, reputation, and achievements. In general, the greater the expertise and the lower the potential for bias, the greater the credibility.
The Credibility of Your Sources
When you use expert opinion or analysis to support your assertions, it's important to let readers know who your sources are and what the nature of their expertise is. Of course, you don't have room to include extensive biographies or resumes of each source, but some basic information can establish their authority. If your source is a person, include his or her title, affiliation (does he or she work for a recognized or renowned organization or institution of higher learning?), and a major achievement or two. If your source is an organization, let readers know something about its history and achievements. For example, let's look again at the expert sources used for the flat tax essay:
- Dr. Alan Auerbach, professor of Economics at the University of California of Berkeley and former chief economist at the Joint Committee on Taxation, estimates that the average family of four will have $3,000 more in income per year with a flat tax.
- The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit tax think tank, estimates that America spends $140 billion complying with the current tax code—a cost that would be reduced 94% by instituting a flat tax.
In the first example, the writer tells readers Dr. Auerbach's current and former positions, both of which demonstrate that he is an expert on the subject of taxes. In the second example, the title of the organization—The Tax Foundation—tells readers that the organization is devoted to the subject. The writer describes it as a "think tank, "which suggests that it seeks out and employs experts on the subject.
These sources then, have expertise. But that doesn't mean they're credible. Many seemingly knowledgeable and trustworthy sources are actually incorrect or biased. In order to trust the source of any information, you need to determine the agenda of the person/organization disseminating it. Are they simply trying to relay facts, or are they trying to get you to believe something, or change your mind on a subject? It can be difficult to find a direct answer to that question, but you can begin to get a clearer picture by looking into the following:
- What are the author's credentials on this subject?
- Does the author document sources?
- Are the sources balanced and reputable?
- What do others say about the author (whether individual or group)?
Is he or she qualified to write on the topic based on background or education? For some subjects, it is acceptable to use information obtained from a hobbyist, self-proclaimed expert, or enthusiast, if you can verify it elsewhere. However, you should obtain most information from a reputable source. And since you need to verify anyway, why not use information, for instance, derived from Yale University's Thomas Hardy Association, rather than from John Doe's personal website homage to his favorite writer, Hardy?
Where do relevant facts and figures come from? If you are consulting print material, there should be footnotes and a bibliography that show the author's sources. On the Internet, you may also find such documentation, or sources may be documented by using links to other websites (see the following section on evaluating a website based on links). Even documentaries, to use a previous example, should cite sources in their credits.
Pages of footnotes are meaningless if they simply indicate that the author used untrustworthy sources him- or herself. Check some of the sources to verify that they are accurate and unbiased. For example, a book on gun laws that relies heavily on material published by the National Rifle Association is not as reliable a source as another book on the subject that uses a wide variety of sources representing both sides of the issue.
A quick way to check for opinions is to "Google" the author. Simply put his or her name (or the name of the group if there is no individual author) in the search box in quotes. The results can be revealing. However, remember to read them with a critical eye. If you are searching for someone with a radical or controversial view, you'll probably find detractors. A handful shouldn't deter you, but pages of negative information might.
Your Own Credibility
The best way to establish your expertise is to demonstrate to readers that you've "done your homework"—that is, that you've considered issues carefully and consulted the research, if necessary, to support your position. To show your audience that you are not unfairly biased, you'll also need to acknowledge counterarguments and make concessions. These two strategies are explained in the sections that follow.
An important part of establishing your credibility and persuading readers is acknowledging counterarguments. Counterarguments are ones that might be offered by someone supporting the other side of your argument. If you are asserting that medical research on animals is unnecessary, you need to consider what someone asserting that it is necessary would think.
Acknowledging counterarguments strengthens your argument. It shows that you have considered all sides of the issue and thought carefully about the logic of your position. More importantly, it helps you better defend your position. If you know what objections your readers might have, you can systematically address those objections in your essay (without, in many cases, revealing them as possible objections). Furthermore, acknowledging counterarguments enables you to persuade your readers to believe you by addressing their concerns and then countering each concern with a reasonable premise of your own.
Compare these two arguments:
Lukas, can I borrow your car tomorrow morning? I have a job interview and I can't get there by bus. I really want this job. What do you say?
Lukas, I know you don't like to let other people drive your car, especially since you put so much time into rebuilding it. But I'm hoping you'll make an exception. I have a job interview tomorrow and I can't get there by bus. I'm really excited about this job. I promise to have it back by noon with a full tank of gas. And to show my appreciation, I'll take her to the car wash on my way back.
It's clear that the speaker in the second paragraph took some time to consider Lukas's point of view. By addressing his concerns, the writer shows Lukas that he's put himself in Lukas's shoes, and this kind of empathy can be a powerful tool for convincing a reader.
To help you acknowledge counterarguments, play "devil's advocate. "While brainstorming or outlining, take a few minutes to consider the opposite thesis; how would it best be supported? What arguments would likely be made? If you can anticipate what the other side will say, you can acknowledge those arguments and come up with effective counterarguments. It will also help you find any holes in your argument that you may have missed.
Acknowledging counterarguments is not the same as supporting them. In fact, if you acknowledge them strategically, you can actually use them to support your case. For example, you are arguing that school uniforms should be mandatory for all public school students. One of your major supporting ideas is that school uniforms will create a stronger sense of community. After playing devil's advocate, you realize that people against the idea of mandatory uniforms would argue that they create a culture of conformity. Here's how you might acknowledge the counterargument, show its weakness, and set the reader up for your position:
Many people have argued that school uniforms would encourage conformity, and that schools should do all they can to help students develop a sense of individuality. But as much as we want to believe that the way we dress is an expression of our individuality, for most students, clothing is more often a means of conformity. Students want to dress like their peers. They want to wear the same brands and the same styles as their friends (or the people whom they wish were their friends). It is the rare student who truly uses clothing as an expression of individuality.
Now that the writer has addressed the counterargument, he can go on to develop his position—that school uniforms will create a sense of community.
Persuasive writing involves pitting one side against another—and showing why one side is superior. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of black and white. If one side is correct, that means the other side is wrong, right? When you write in terms of absolutes, especially all or none, you weaken your writing. There are always exceptions, and a good essay is one that's careful to avoid statements that don't allow for those exceptions. Most absolutes are gross generalizations or stereotypes, both of which you need to avoid.
Failure to acknowledge exceptions will seriously undermine your credibility with your reader. Here's an example:
Little Red Riding Hood is portrayed as naïve and innocent, just like all girls in fairy tales.
Well, maybe in all the fairy tales you've read, but in fact, many fairy tales describe girls who are sophisticated, cunning, and even dangerous. There are many exceptions to the "rule" this writer just established, and thoughtful readers will be put off by such a statement.
To allow for exceptions, exchange absolutes for less restrictive words and phrases. A single word such as many or most can change a problematic, implausible absolute into a plausible, provable statement. Here are some of those exchanges:
The fairy tale statement could be revised as follows:
Little Red Riding Hood is portrayed as naïve and innocent, like many girls in fairy tales.
If you want to successfully persuade your audience, don't offend them. Students often don't realize that something they've written may be offensive—but that's usually because they have a very specific reader in mind. That is, they imagine a general reader who has a lot more in common with them than a true general reader might. This kind of thinking can produce statements such as:
All people who claim to believe in the existence of alien life forms are simply unable to distinguish between fact and opinion.
Besides being an absolute (suggesting that all people who claim to believe in alien life forms can't distinguish between fact and opinion), this claim is insulting to those who believe that some kind of alien life does exist on other planets. You may believe that the existence of extraterrestrial life is an invalid theory, but many people (including some very highly regarded scientists) do not. If your reader happens to believe that we are not alone in the universe, he or she probably won't take your arguments seriously (no matter how strong they might be), because he or she has been offended. Even if your audience is made up of those who share your opinions, they're likely to bristle at your insensitivity, and as a result, you'll lose credibility in their eyes as well.
Writers use many strategies to make their essay more convincing. They provide specific details to make ideas more concrete, they establish credibility and acknowledge counterarguments, they don't include assertions they can't support, they avoid absolutes, and they take care not to offend their audience.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Strategies for Writing Convincing Essays Practice.
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