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Persuasive writing is, in my estimation, the style that is easiest – and the easiest to thoroughly botch.
If you are writing with the goal of convincing your readers of the truth or correctness of a particular viewpoint, opinion or set of factual conclusions, the process of writing is frequently easier than when employing other styles. Why? Odds are, you are writing because you are already invested in the correctness of your thesis statement and committed to the written product’s end result. Because of that fact, the cliche holds true: “Therein lies the danger”. Persuasive writing has the potential to take the writer “over the top” with the result too often being just the opposite of what he/she set out to accomplish. Therefore, effective persuasive writing requires discipline, objectivity, and, maybe most importantly, flexibility.
The following suggestions come not from any particular textbook or writing course. Rather, they are based solely upon my own experience (successes and failures) and observations.
1. Don’t attempt to sell your readers an idea, opinion or conclusion that you don’t or can’t believe yourself.
If you don’t believe what you are asserting, how can you expect your readers to buy in?
That is not to say that you must unequivocally embrace the concepts contained in the piece, but you must find some aspect(s) of your thesis, however minor, that you can support without reservation in order to bring an authentic voice to the product. Don’t underestimate your audience by assuming that you are such a skilled writer that you can “snow” them. You can’t.
2. Ensure that your conclusions are unassailable.
The research phase will, in virtually all instances, be the most time-consuming part of the process. Success requires gathering or accessing the data necessary to ensure that the conclusions contained in your writing are absolutely accurate and well-founded.
3. Reconsider and reformulate your thesis statement in light of your research.
It is critical to remain objective while investigating and developing the facts undergirding your conclusions. That’s because you can be practically assured that the thesis statement you began the project with will differ, sometimes vastly, from the thesis statement included in the final draft. Be willing to fine-tune your contentions and assertions in light of what you learn along the way.
4. Acknowledge and incorporate, but discredit those facts that militate against the correctness of your conclusions.
This is where persuasive writing has the potential to become art.
Truly convincing writing openly recognizes and acknowledges those facts and circumstances that do not support the writer’s conclusions, but succinctly illustrates why those facts and circumstances are not compelling enough to undermine the thesis.
As an attorney arguing on behalf of my client, I always want to be the first to draw the court’s attention to the strongest and most empathetic aspects of my opponent’s case. You might find that odd. But I want the court to first hear that information from me – accompanied by my assessment of why the court can quickly evaluate and disregard those facts to rule in my client’s favor.
Effective advocates know that it is critical to admit the existence of and candidly discuss the facts that undercut your proposition(s), emphasizing and highlighting the facts that do support your conclusions. Always draw the reader’s attention back to those points.
This is the crux of your efforts, so be prepared to spend the most time drafting, reviewing, and rewriting these sections of the piece.
5. Allow yourself sufficient time to write well.
I admit to being a major procrastinator and was known for “pulling” more than one “all-nighter” during finals in college. But more than with any other style of writing, I have, over the years since, become convinced that successful persuasive writing cannot be the end result of procrastination.
We all have deadlines and routinely fail to perfectly manage our time. Nonetheless, I believe it is imperative to work within our individualized constraints to schedule the drafting of a persuasive piece such that we have the luxury of walking away from it for a time. After resting and thinking about other matters, come back afresh and reread what you have written. Does it still sound as convincing to you as it did when the words were first flying off the ends of your fingertips? Step back and critically ask yourself if you have accomplished what you set out to, i.e., constructed an argument that compels the reader to adopt your thesis statement. Does the piece resonate with the truth and accuracy of your contentions and oblige even the most headstrong and recalcitrant reader to accept them?
6. Eliminate hyperbole.
Those second, third, fourth . . . readings are when you and your editor(s) will detect and eliminate any hyperbole that has crept into your writing.
It is extremely easy for the most accomplished writer to overstate or embellish when writing on a topic about which he/she feels passionate or has strongly-held opinions. We are all guilty, but at this stage of the process, it is essential to double-check your reference materials and assure that your arguments are supported by non-embellished factual underpinnings.
The example cited by Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus for “exaggeration” is a fabulous illustration of the point: “Their exaggeration was such that a rainstorm became a hurricane.”
7. Know when to say “when.”
There’s an old saying related to oral debate or legal argument: “When you’re winning, shut up.”
I learned this lesson early in my legal career and have since witnessed the same phenomenon more times than I can count. I was arguing a motion and it was clear at the outset that the judge was leaning toward ruling in my opponent’s favor. Opposing counsel interjected valueless comments as I argued the various points. By the time we left the courtroom, I had secured a victory for my client because the more my opponent talked, the more he infuriated and alienated the judge.
The principle translates to the written word. Here’s my motto: “Say it once. Say it well. Move on.”
Key points may be summarized in one or two concluding paragraphs, the length of which will depend upon the topic, nature of the publication, length of the piece, and your audience. Be sure, however, that those paragraphs are, in fact, nothing more than a summation designed to remind the reader of and clarify your line of reasoning. If the reader is unclear about any aspect of what he/she has read, he/she is free to re-read your carefully constructed assertions. Thus, it is preferable not to run the risk of alienating other readers by needlessly reiterating the same information.
8. Monitor your tone.
Nobody responds favorably to a bully. Be sure that the “voice” and tone of your writing evinces respect not only for your readers, but also for all persons who embrace viewpoints and opinions that differ from yours. You’ll never convince anyone of anything by being disrespectful of their perspective or boorish in your approach. A confident, yet gracious tenor will sway your readers.