How to Argue
Imagine your favorite band, the Groove Tones, is coming to town Friday night and your best friend surprises you with a ticket to the concert. The problem is, you’re scheduled to work the closing shift at Taco Hut that night. You’ve got to convince your manager to give you the night off. How would you do it?
Would you beg him?
Mr. Ramirez, I’ve just GOT to go to this concert Friday night! Please, please, PLEASE let me off!
Would you threaten him?
You either give me the night off, or I’m quitting.
Would you stretch the truth?
I’ve had a really important engagement come up unexpectedly…
Would you appeal to his emotions?
Mr. Ramirez, Didn’t you have dreams when you were a kid? I’ve dreamed about going to this concert for months. You wouldn’t rob me of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, would you?
You might try any of these approaches, and depending on your boss’s personality and frame of mind, you might get the night off. But if you know anything about the fine art of persuasion, you’ll realize that none of these are very wise or strategic plans of attack.
Writing persuasive papers, whether a written appeal to your boss, a movie review, a letter to the editor, or a literary essay, require strategy. In general, people are not quick to change their minds. Good persuasive writing, however, aims to do just that — convince people to agree with you.
To do that, you have to know how to argue. I don’t mean fight. Anyone can yell and call people names. I mean argue — think of a high-priced lawyer making his closing arguments to the jury. Good persuasive writers know how to structure an argument so that it is most likely to persuade the reader. There’s no guarantee of success no matter how well you argue, but you can increase your chances by being strategic.
How to Argue
The notes below are based on psychology and good old common sense. Following this basic outline for an argument will not only help you construct a well-written essay, but might also help you convince your boss to give you the night off.
Being abrupt isn’t usually effective. It puts the reader on the defensive right away. A good introduction leads your reader naturally to your thesis (the main point of your argument). At the same time, you don’t want to leave your reader wondering what the paper is all about. In general, a good place for your thesis is at the end of your first paragraph.
The introduction should start with a statement that directs the reader toward your topic without revealing your position. From there, move quickly to your thesis, your main point.
With our concert scenario, don’t start off with, “Mr. Ramirez, I need Friday night off to go to a concert.” That’s too abrupt. You’ve got to ease into it:
Mr. Ramirez, did you know that I’m a huge fan of the Groove Tones? Yup. I’ve got all their CDs. What’s amazing is that I’ve got an opportunity to see them in concert this Friday. Isn’t that great? The only problem is, I’m scheduled to work that night. Listen, would you consider giving me the night off?
Make a Concession
It’s important that your audience views you as fair and open-minded. This will make them much more likely to consider your position. Making a concession early in your argument helps demonstrate that you have looked at both sides of the issue and are willing to admit that other points of view have merit. A concession is when you admit that the other side is right about something.
Find an aspect of the opposing position that you can agree with and talk about it early, probably in your second paragraph. Don’t linger there, and be sure to use transition words or phrases like, admittedly, or it is true that, or I understand that. Without these clues the reader might get confused about what you are trying to say.
Once you’ve made your concession, immediately show how that point isn’t enough to be convincing. The word however can be helpful in making this transition:
I understand that what I’m asking puts you in a tough spot. I know it must be difficult to arrange the schedule every week. And something like a concert must seem like a pretty unimportant thing to put you through all that trouble. My situation, however, is unusual.
Weakest to Strongest Point
In the body of your paper, you’ll want to build your argument by offering a number of points that support your thesis. We recommend having at least three supporting points, although two strong points may be sufficient.
In general, you should use at least one full paragraph to explain each point. If the point is difficult to explain or complex, it may take more than one paragraph. In some cases, a point may have several sub-points – points that support your points. In this case, one paragraph for each sub-point may be necessary.
You’ll want to address each point strategically. The most convincing approach is to order your points from least persuasive to most persuasive. Keep your audience in mind here — your most persuasive point is the one most likely to persuade your reader, not you. By saving the best for last here, you gradually build a stronger and stronger case and leave the reader with your most convincing argument, like a knock-out punch:
- This band is really special to me. My brother bought me their first CD for my twelfth birthday, just before he went off to college. Their music always reminds me of him.
- This is also the first time I’ve asked for a night off, and I promise not to make a habit of it. In fact, I’d be happy to work that shift for the remaining Fridays this month.
- And, to make things easy on you, I’ve already asked Sharon Benson if she can cover for me that night. She said she’d be happy to (as long as I get her a Groove Tones T-shirt from the concert).
In this situation, you know that Mr. Ramirez isn’t very sentimental, so the point about your brother and your twelfth birthday is probably the weakest. Your best point is that you have already found a replacement. Leave that for last.
Closing the Door
Every good argument provides a sense of closure. You’ll want to wrap things up with a strong final paragraph. The closing paragraph should not include any new points or information. It should briefly and memorably restate the point of your paper. Don’t just repeat your thesis or list the points you’ve made — that’s annoying. Use new words to remind your reader of your main idea and a thought or two from the paper that you want to stick with him.
So, if there’s any way you could change the schedule, I would be super grateful. I’m a big fan, but I also want to be a responsible employee. Would you make an exception this one time? What do you say?
Keep in mind that the example we have used here is more informal than you will be using in your persuasive papers. That’s because it is a “spoken” example rather than a written one. Notice, though, that the tone is respectful and rational. The best persuasive papers rely on convincing arguments, not unreasonable appeals to emotion. Not that our emotions don’t enter into it – our hearts and heads are connected, after all. But purely emotional appeals are usually considered manipulative and unfair. Assume your reader is intelligent and fair-minded, and use sound arguments to win him over.