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How to write a persuasive essay

A step-by-step guide with instructions, outlines, and samples

Quick AnswerVideo

Write a great persuasive essay by first picking a topic that interests you, then make an outline of your arguments before you start writing. Start with a strong thesis statement, support your argument with facts and emotional appeals (logos and pathos); however, don't rely too much on pathos.

A persuasive essay is one of the main forms of writing that may be required of you in college. This article will provide you with a thorough overview of how to write a persuasive essay. The article will address the following areas:

  • Purpose of a persuasive essay
  • Elements of rhetoric
  • Elements of a good persuasive essay
  • How to write a great persuasive essay
  • Samples/examples
  • Best practices and advice
  • Additional information

By the end of this guide, you should feel like you're on sure footing when it comes to the persuasive essay and that you will be able to handle this kind of writing when it is assigned to you. This guide has been developed over many years by Ultius writers who specialize in writing purchased persuasive essays.

The purpose of a persuasive essay

As the name of the document type indicates, the purpose of a persuasive essay is to persuade the reader of your view on the subject under discussion.

In this sense, the persuasive essay can be meaningfully contrasted against the expository essay.

Whereas an expository essay is about just telling people the facts of the subject, the persuasive essay is intended to make people feel a certain way, or to sway their opinion about the subject.

You should be careful not to confuse persuasive and expository essays because they have different purposes (shown below):

Persuasive Essay vs. Expository Essay
 
Here is a table comparing the persuasive essay against the expository essay.
 Expository essayPersuasive essay
PurposeTell people the facts about a subjectConvince people of a position on the subject
LanguageObjective, third-person, impartial, only reason-based arguments are allowedMore subjective, first-person can be okay, emotions are allowed
Example of a claim"Guns kill X number of Americans every year.""Guns should be banned, because it is awful that they kill so many Americans."
Examples of publicationsScientific journals, WikipediaVox, National Review, other political or opinion sites

Why are persuasive essays important?

A persuasive essay is the main form of writing that you can use to convince other people that your view of an issue is the right one. Today, there are clearly a lot of different issues about which we all have some very strong feelings.

These include such topics as:

Persuasive essay topics
 
Here is a table listing the most common essay topics around culture, LGBT issues, politics, and religion.
CultureLGBT/Gender IssuesPoliticsReligion
Video Games (good/bad)LGBT equality (rights, employment, etc.)Gun control (pro or con)Catholic Church scandals
Marijuana legalization (pros/cons)FeminismAbortion (pro or con)Pope Francis (resign or no)
#MeToo MovementSame-Sex-MarriageImmigration policy (against or for)Religion vs Science
Celebrity DeathsGender pay gap (is it real)?Economics (min-wage debate)Choosing a religion
Health Concerns (opioid epidemic, diet, etc.)Military Service (women/trans in combat)Trump (good or bad)Is one religion superior to others?
Tech items (gadget comparisons)Bathroom issues for trans peopleMidterm elections (importance of)Separation of church and state (yes or no)
Fake News (deciphering real news)Becoming Trans (How young is too young?)Employment/Unemployment (stats)Religion in public schools (yes or no)
Social Media ConcernsHealth concerns affecting LGBT community (aids, etc.)#BlackLivesMatterIs religion necessary? (yes or no)
Natural Disasters (responses, comparisons)Housing trans inmates in jails/prisons (How to handle)Worthiness of Supreme Court nomineesCan a soul really be saved?
Current Events (Things in the news)Adoptions for LGBT couples (pro or con)Antifa/Alt-Right conflictsIs there a god?
Literary Censorship (necessary or not)Is conversion therapy ethical? (yes/no)Euthanasia (humane or not)Evolution vs creation
Climate Change (real or not)Businesses refusing to serve LGBT peopleNet neutrality (pro or con)Examining Islamic ideologies (is Islam inherently violent?)

A lot of energy is taken up by people yelling about these issues at each other on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But what if you could make a great, beautiful argument that not only emotionally moves the people who read it but also convinces them that your position on the issue is the right one? What if you were able to change minds and get others to agree with your position? This is what a good persuasive essay can do.

The elements of rhetoric and logic

In order to write a good persuasive essay, you need to have a solid grasp of the basic elements of rhetoric.

There are three such elements. They are: logos, pathos, and ethos.

Three forms of logic
 
The three common forms of logic are logos, pathos, and ethos.

It is worth discussing each of these elements in turn.

This theory of rhetoric was developed a long time ago by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, and clearly it has withstood the test of time.

It is worth considering each of these elements in turn.

Logos

Logos refers to the part of rhetoric that deals with rational persuasion. This has to do with whether the argument you are making makes sense and hangs together at the level of logic. It should go without saying that if you want people to accept your argument, then you should pay careful attention to the question of whether your argument does in fact make sense.

Logos is related to the formal rules of logic. Here are some of them:

Some Rules of Logic
 
For your rhetoric to have logos, your argument must follow the rules of logic.
RuleFormExample
Transitive lawIf A is B and B is C, then A is C.If junk food is bad for you and French fries are junk food, then French fries are bad for you.
Law of identityA is A.The cat is the cat.
Law of the excluded middleEither A or not A.Either I am a human or I am not a human.

Source(s)

Bonevac, Daniel A. Deduction: Introductory Symbolic Logic. Blackwell Pub., 2003

The rules of logic are objective, meaning that they are clearly there whether you like them or not. And if you fail to follow the rules of logic, your argument will not make sense. Your rhetoric will lack logos. Since most people try not to believe in an argument that doesn't make sense, breaking the rules of logic in your argument can have crippling effects on the persuasive power of your essay.

Pathos

The second element of rhetoric is pathos. This refers to emotional appeal, or the extent to which your argument moves the reader or listener at a non-rational level. In fact, pathos may well be the most commonly used element of rhetoric, for the simple reason that it is easy to use, especially if you aren't good at logos: you could try to persuade people by just scaring them or angering them, as opposed to making a rational argument that truly convinces them.

Pathos is very common in almost all political news rhetoric today.

Below, you can see how arguments based on logos and pathos would look regarding two current political issues.

Examples of Pathos and Logos
 
The use of pathos is very common in political rhetoric. These are fictional examples of the sorts of things that people often say about these issues.
IssuePathosLogos
Gun control"A school shooting happened, so if you don't want your child to die, then make sure you support gun control.""Legal gun owners commit crimes at rates lower than police officers."
Immigration"An illegal immigrant just killed an innocent American woman, which goes to show you that the borders have to be shut down.""Most statistical data indicates that immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans."

Politics especially relies on pathos because this is a good way to get people riled up and ready for action, which of course is what politics is all about. We like to believe that our political discourse is a rational one, but this is most often not the case. It is most often guided by pathos and not logos.

Don't be evil

The close relationship between pathos and political rhetoric may make you wonder if pathos is a bad thing that you should avoid in your own persuasive essay. But this is not the case! The point here is that pathos is usually a problem when you only have pathos without any logos.

If you're appealing to the emotions of people without even trying to make sense, then in a way you would be manipulating them. But if you do have a solid argument that you believe in and that makes sense at the level of logos, then there is nothing wrong with appealing to both the hearts and the heads of your readers. Pathos can thus serve you well when writing a persuasive essay.

Ethos

Finally, the third element of rhetoric is ethos. This refers to the character of the writer, or the extent to which people are inclined to trust the writer's words and thoughts. If you have some pundits or commentators that you follow on Twitter, then this is probably because to you, those people have ethos. You trust them to provide an accurate and meaningful opinion that can help guide your own thinking on the issue at hand.

On the other hand, you might not listen to conspiracy theorists, because to you, such people would have no ethos.

Academic credentials tend to be one key signifier of ethos. This is why if a book is about health, then the author may include the credential "M.D." next to his name on the cover (and if the book is about politics, then he might include (PhD).

This is a way of communicating to the reader that the author is not just some random guy off the street, but rather someone who has spent a lot of time exploring his subject and thus has authoritative knowledge of that subject.

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This would enhance the author's ethos in the eyes of the readers, and they would be more likely to listen to him and take him seriously.

Can you use ethos?

When you are writing a persuasive essay, you may not be able to consciously include ethos in the document itself. This is because ethos doesn’t deal with the writing itself, but rather with your social reputation. This means that you can boost your ethos by being a good student, getting good grades, being known as trustworthy, and so on. But there is no way to insert ethos into the text of the persuasive essay itself, because ethos isn't really about that.

What make a persuasive essay great

There are several elements that go into the making of a good persuasive essay.

A distinctive position

One of the most important elements of a strong persuasive essay is that you take a distinctive position on the subject that you are arguing. Unlike an expository essay, a persuasive essay is meant not to lay out all sides of an argument, but rather to stake out one position and make the strongest possible case for it. If you bring up the other side's argument, then this will be mainly so that you can shoot it down, thereby making your position even stronger.

The position you take does not necessarily have to be the one that you believe in. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to argue the opposite of what you believe in, because this can be a great way to understand the opposing position as clearly as possible.

This is common in debates, and it sometimes referred to as steelmanning the opponent's argument. Notable intellectuals Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, for example, did this with each other's arguments in a recent series of debates.

Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris
 
They disagree with each other, but they were still able to give accurate accounts of each other's positions.

A strong stylistic voice

A good persuasive essay is usually written with a strong voice and compelling style. This has to do with the pathos element of rhetoric that has been discussed above. Voice and style have a way of moving or influencing the reader beyond the strict technicalities of what is said at the level of reason; and if the writing is beautiful, then people are more likely to be persuaded by it than if the writing is stilted or boring.

This can be understood in terms of the psychology of advertising, as advertising is all about persuading the audience. A commercial may have sexy models in it for the simple reason that sex sells by appealing to pathos; the models may not actually have anything to do with the product in question at the level of logos. But as Derek Thompson has written in The Atlantic:

"Advertising execs and researchers commonly say that all ads are either rational or emotional. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, and everybody knows it. Rational ads can still be beautiful, and beauty influences. Sexy ads can be logical, and logic persuades."

The best persuasive essays have an ideal combination of logos and pathos—rational appeal and emotional appeal. If a persuasive essay is all emotional appeal with no solid argument in favor of the thesis, then it is just a bad essay.

On the other hand, if the persuasive essay has perfect logic but it is written in a bad and/or boring style, then the essay will lose persuasive power at the level of pathos.

Coherent organization

You may already know about the five-paragraph organization style for essays but, you don't literally need five paragraphs in your persuasive essay. You will need to have a good organizational structure for the essay, and this structure involves an introduction, several body sections (depending on the length of the essay), and a conclusion.

The thesis, or the main argument that you be making, should generally be the final sentence of your introduction.

Sections of a Persuasive Essay
 
These is a general schema for the organizational structure of a good persuasive essay.
 SectionPurpose
1.IntroductionIntroduce your reader to the general subject that you will be discussing, and then formulate your argument in a strong thesis statement. Also give the reader some map of how your essay is going to flow.
2.Body section #1This should include the first point that you are going to make in defense of your thesis.
3.Body section #2, etc.Further points in defense of your thesis.
4.Counter and rebuttalConsider the strongest argument against your thesis, and then show why that argument is not valid.
5.ConclusionProvide a quick recapitulation of everything you have covered in the essay and leave the reader with a memorable outro.

In some persuasive essays, a counter and rebuttal may not be required. That depends on how argumentative and in-depth the essay is supposed to be, and may bleed over into an argumentative essay.

Some persuasive essays require that you just lay out your own position, whereas others require that you also engage with the opposing position. This depends on the nature of the assignment at hand.

How to write a great persuasive essay

In order to write a great persuasive essay, you will want to leverage the elements of rhetoric (discussed above) to maximum advantage. As we have noted, you can't really do much about ethos within your persuasive essay itself, since that depends on your social reputation more than your performance on the specific assignment at hand.

However, you can still strive to achieve the best possible balance of logos and pathos to achieve the highest level of persuasive power.

Again:

  • Logos is about making a logical argument and appealing to the head
  • Pathos is about making an emotional statement and appealing to the heart

If you had to pick just one, then it would be better to write a persuasive essay that is pure logos than one that is pure pathos: a work of pure pathos would barely even count as an essay, and it would be unlikely to get you a passing grade. Fortunately, though, you do not have to choose, and you can include the element of pathos into a persuasive essay that can also stand on its own in terms of logos.

It helps if you’re passionate about the topic

If you are free to pick any topic you want for your persuasive essay, then all else being equal, we recommend that you pick a topic that you actually care about. This is because if you have passion for your topic, then you are more likely to write about it in a passionate way, which will automatically raise the level of pathos in your persuasive essay.

On the other hand, if you are bored about your topic, then this may also come across in your writing itself, and your persuasive essay will thus have no pathos.

For example, do any of these topics especially call out to you as something you care about?

Most people have at least one pet issue that they care about more than others. So, if you're free to pick the topic of your persuasive essay, then you should go ahead and pick that one. You should also feel free to argue the position that you believe in. Arguing the opposing side is a somewhat more advanced technique, and it's okay if you don't feel comfortable with that right away.

Don’t get swept up in your own persuasion

When you write about a topic that matters to you, be careful that you don't get completely carried away with pathos. (After all, a persuasive essay is not the same thing as a tweetstorm.)

Although, pathos is important for a persuasive essay, the logos is still foundational.

It is very important that you make an argument, as opposed to just airing your emotions about a given subject.

It is important to remember that just because you feel something is true does not mean it is objectively true. Just because you feel strong pathos for an idea doesn't mean that there is strong logos to back it up.

If you are writing about a subject you care about, you may need to be open to changing your argument somewhat on the basis of the facts that you discover while conducting your research.

Plan your persuasive essay before you write it

Unless you are a very experienced writer, you are likely to get lost in the middle of your persuasive essay if you just jump in without having any sort of plan. For example, you may lose the thread of your argument and start rambling, or you may go off on tangents that don't have very much to do with the central argument that you were trying to prove.

To avoid this, you should conceptualize your persuasive essay before you start writing it.

This means that you should develop an outline. An outline will give you a map of how your persuasive essay is supposed to look, and it can help you make sure that the various sections of your essay will flow in a coherent way and add up to a strong argument in defense of your thesis. The outline will show you the scope of your persuasive essay, and it will help ensure that you don't get lost in the middle of the writing process.

Example of a simple outline
 
This could serve as an outline for a short persuasive essay on gun control.

You can see how having this outline would help you write your persuasive essay.

There are three clear points that are made in favor of the main thesis, and they flow from one to the other in a logical manner.

There is a hook at the beginning that connects the essay's subject to current events, thereby drawing the reader's attention.

And the conclusion includes a recommendation of what should be done on the basis of the argument that has been made.

Include personal examples, if applicable

A persuasive essay, unlike an expository or analytical essay, allows for the inclusion of emotional appeals (pathos). So, if you can think of things to say that would add personal color and emotional support to the logical argument that you are making, then you should feel free to do so.

You should not rely on such anecdotes too much, and they should not be expected to bear the weight of the argument. But if you have a solid argument and you also have personal examples that you can include to enhance the pathos of your argument, then you may do so.

Examples of Pathos and Logos
 
The use of pathos is very common in political rhetoric. These are fictional examples of the sorts of things that people often say about these issues.
 LogosPathos
Statement"Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans; as a population, they thus pose no threat to national security.""My grandmother immigrated here, just like most of all our ancestors at one point or another. And no, we're saying we don't like immigrants?"
ImplicationIt is illogical to believe that immigrants pose any greater a threat to American security than Americans themselves.We all know and love people who were immigrants once upon a time, so we should be kinder to the immigrants of this day and age.

This example shows how logos and pathos can work together in a powerful way if done right. As you can see, the argument does not depend on the pathos (appeal to one's grandmother); the argument can stand on its own based of the logos (statistical data).

But when the pathos is combined with the logos, it can add additional power to your persuasive essay by speaking to not only the heads but also the hearts of your readers.

Samples/examples

 

A sample persuasive essay (shown below) highlights how it should look like.

Click here to see more samples of different kinds of essays.

Best practices and advice

This guide has provided you with a thorough overview of how to write a great persuasive essay. At this point, perhaps it will be worthwhile to summarize the best practices that have emerged over the course of this discussion.

Five points can be highlighted here.

1. Pick a topic that is of interest to you

If you have any choice about the topic of your persuasive essay, then you should pick a topic that matters to you. This is because passion has persuasive power, and if you are passionate about your topic, then this is likely to show through in your writing itself.

2. Develop an outline before you begin to write

It is important for your persuasive essay to have logical flow, and this means that you should outline what you are going to argue before you get into the writing process. This can help ensure that you don't get lost in the middle of your essay or go off on tangents that don't support your main argument.

The more focused your persuasive essay is, the more persuasive it will be, and developing an outline is a very good way to maintain that focus from start to finish.

3. Shoot for the perfect mix of logos and pathos

Logos is rational argument, whereas pathos is emotional appeal. These are both important elements of rhetoric, and they both have an important role to play in a great persuasive essay. Ideally, your essay will have a core flow of logical argument (logos), which will be embellished and made stronger through the inclusion of personal examples and emotional flourishes (pathos).

4. Don't expect pathos to do the heavy lifting

Just because a persuasive essay allows for pathos doesn't mean that you should rely on pathos. You are still expected to make a strong and coherent argument that follows the rules of logic and is supported by relevant evidence. In other words, the persuasive essay is still a normal essay, and it is not acceptable to just make an argument purely based of how you feel about your topic.

5. Know where to get help

If you’re still stuck, websites like Ultius are here to help. Not only are there comprehensive guides on how to produce these works, but we also offer various essay writing services. There is also an extensive writer help section there to assist with any and all facets of writing.

Good luck and remember to have fun while you are developing the life-long skill of persuasion!

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