When Martin Luther King, Jr. started scribbling sentences in the margins of a newspaper while sitting in a Birmingham jail cell, he was not only beginning to craft one of the defining texts of the 20th century, but was also exercising a powerful tool of rhetoric: the persuasive essay.
As a response to Alabama clergy’s criticism of the protest marches and sit-ins that were calling for an end to segregation, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” passionately and logically follows a set structure of rhetoric leading the reader to conclude that Dr. King’s call to nonviolent protest was a crucial moral obligation.
Your task as a persuasive essayist is to convince another free-thinking, set in her ways, stubborn individual to agree with your point of view. This may seem impossible. If you follow this step-by-step guide, though, you will see that there is a method to the persuasive essay that will help you to structure your opinions as solid, strongly supported arguments.
Refine Your Research
Writing with the charisma of John F. Kennedy and the passion of William Wallace will only get your argument halfway across to your readers. They will be entertained, but in the end, will still not agree with you. Research is the difference between an essay that is an emotional plea and one that is an unbreakable case. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became a defining text in American history, not only because it is beautifully written in a voice that stirs fiery emotion, but also because each of Dr. King’s claims are supported by research and evidence.
Know Your Audience
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a specific response to eight Alabama clergymen who argued that nonviolent demonstrations should follow the rule of law. Because his audience was clergy, Dr. King was sure to use specific arguments from Christian theologians, like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, in his letter. He knew that using examples from this tradition would resonate more with his audience. Be sure to include arguments in your essay that will appeal to the specific people reading it.
Evaluate Your Sources
Using weak sources that are out-of-date or filled with author bias is like a knight going into a joust with a sword made of aluminum foil. Weak sources will look good from afar, but they will crumble instantly under pressure. Use these tips from Hacker Handbooks to see if your sources hold up in court.
Don’t Be Afraid to Conduct Your Own Research
As the Purdue University Online Writing Lab advises, conducting your own research can add depth to your argument as well as to your understanding of the topic. Don’t be afraid to do your own primary research by surveying or interviewing people in your community. Follow up your primary research with secondary investigations of books and journals that speak to your findings.
Write a Powerful Thesis
The thesis is the battery that will power your essay. The Harvard College Writing Center advises that a good thesis will have the reader understanding that "this essay is going to try to convince me of something. I'm not convinced yet, but I'm interested to see how I might be." The Dartmouth Writing Center furthers this idea by teaching that the thesis is the umbrella idea that links all of your observations into a claim. A powerful thesis will organically grow as the connective tissue between all of your arguments. If you are not sure if your thesis is strong, try free writing on your topic and then examine your arguments to see if there is a central nerve — which will be your thesis. Example: Looking back at “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” we see that Dr. King immediately lets the reader know his intentions. He is writing to disprove claims that the demonstrations in Birmingham were "unwise and untimely" and that he should not be in Birmingham. At the start of his essay, Dr. King makes a central claim: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here...” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Structure Supportive Arguments
Supportive arguments should build like a staircase. Each argument ought to bring the reader closer to accepting the nature of your thesis. One potential pitfall is thinking that the persuasive essay is like a heavyweight boxing match where each fact acts like a jab, and arguments should be propelled at the reader like unforgiving right hooks. Writing in this fashion leaves a person feeling as if she is being lectured to. As the Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric explains, the persuasive essay is not a battle that you can win or lose. Instead, it is an exercise in critical thinking, a space where you can explore a topic and talk through the reasoning for your opinions.
It may seem crazy to bring up an opposing point of view that attacks your thesis, but using your own words to frame and refute an argument is a powerful rhetorical tool. This is one of the most successful tactics that Dr. King uses in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” For example, he addresses his detractors’ argument that staging sit-ins at “white’s only” lunch counters was breaking the law by first giving their argument some credit: “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.” But he then goes on to define “just laws” and “unjust laws” and refutes this counter-argument by providing reasoned support for his contention that there is no moral obligation to uphold an unjust law.
Write a Conclusion
A strong conclusion will tell the reader that “there is nothing left to see here” by restating the thesis and summarizing how you supported your argument. A successful writing tactic for the conclusion is to take a step back and look at the big picture or broader view of your argument.
Dr. King uses this approach in his conclusion to “Letter from Birmingham Jail:” He seals his argument by putting it in the context of American history, where the South will one day recognize the heroes of Birmingham who are “standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Edit Your Essay
The key to editing is forgetting that you are the author and to reread the text as an outsider. In order to do this effectively, you should take a moment to distance yourself from your work after you type that last sentence. Some questions that you will want to ask yourself while rereading your essay are: Am I leaving anything to the imagination of the reader or are my points clear and concise? Does the structure of the essay follow a logical pattern and flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph?
By creating a strong thesis after substantial research, supporting it with thoughtful arguments (and a refutations of counter arguments), and polishing the piece through the editorial process, you’ll have a strong persuasive essay that will get your audience thinking in a new way.
For more advice about writing, follow this link to read "7 Ways to Write a Better Essay".
Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. (2015). Developing Your Thesis. Retrieved from Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric.
Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. (2015). Teaching Argument. Retrieved from Dartmouth Institute for Writing and Rhetoric
Driscoll DL, Brizee A. (2010) What is Primary Research and How do I get Started? Retrieved from Purdue University Online Writing Lab
Hacker D, Fister B. Tips for Evaluating Sources. Retrieved from Hacker Handbooks: Research and Documentation Online. 5th Edition
King ML, Jr. (1963) Letter from A Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania
Rodburg M. (1999). Developing a Thesis. Retrieved from Harvard College Writing Center
What is an Argumentative Essay?
An argumentative essay is a paper that gets the reader to recognize author’s side of the argument as valid. The purpose of this specific essay is to pose a question and answer it with compelling evidence. At its core, the argumentative essay works to champion a specific viewpoint. The key, however, is that the topic of the argumentative essay has multiple sides, which can be explained, weighed, and judged by relevant sources.
This essay often explores common questions associated with any type of argument including:
- What caused this particular issue?
- Who does this issue affect?
- What are the potential outcomes?
- What should people know about this issue?
Argumentative VS Persuasive Essay
It’s important not to confuse argumentative essay with a persuasive essay – while they both seem to follow the same goal, their methods are slightly different. While the persuasive essay is here to convince the reader (to pick your side), the argumentative essay is here to present the information that supports the claim. In simple words, the argumentative essay explains why author picked this side of the argument, and persuasive essay does it best to persuade the reader to agree with your point of view.
Now that we got this straight, let’s get right to our topic – how to write an argumentative essay. As you can easily recognize, it all starts with a proper argument. First, let’s define the types of the argument available and strategies that you can follow.
Types of Argument
When delving into the types of argument, the vocabulary suddenly becomes quite “lawyerish”; and that makes sense since lawyers stake their whole livelihood on their ability to win arguments. So step into your lawyer shoes, and learn about the five kinds of arguments that you could explore in an argumentative paper:
- Claims of cause and effect
This paper focuses on answering what caused the issue(s), and what the resulting effects have been.
This paper explores a controversial interpretation of a particular definition; the paper delves into what the world really means and how it could be interpreted in different ways.
This argumentative essay examines whether a particular fact is accurate; it often looks at several sources reporting a fact and examines their veracity.
This is a favorite argumentative essay in government and sociology classes; this paper explores a particular policy, who it affects, and what (if anything) should be done about it.
This essay identifies a particular value or belief and then examines how and why it is important to a particular cohort or a larger, general population.
The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress. Joseph Joubert
When mulling over how to approach your argumentative essay, you should be aware that three main argument strategies exist regarding how exactly to argue an issue: classical, Rogerian, Toulmin.
This argument structure dates back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In this strategy, the arguer introduces the issue, provides context, clearly states their claim, provides key arguments backed by lots of evidence, and nullifies opposing arguments with valid data.
Hate conflict? This may be the argumentative essay strategy for you. At its core, this strategy works to identify compromise aspects for both sides; this approach works to find commonality and an ultimate agreement between two sides rather than proclaiming a winner or loser. The focus in this argument in compromise and respect of all sides.
Remember Spock? This is his type of strategy; the Toulmin approach focuses solely on logic to persuade the audience. It is heavy on data and often relies on qualifies to narrow the focus of a claim to strengthen the writer’s stance. This approach also tends to rely on exceptions, which clearly set limits on the parameters of an argument, thus making a particular stance easier to agree with.
With that in mind, we can now organize our argument into the essay structure.
Organizing the Argumentative Essay Outline
An argumentative essay follows the typical essay format: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. However, the body paragraphs are structured a bit differently from other body paragraphs. Surely, not something you can see in a cause and effect essay outline.
While the introduction should still begin with an attention getter sentence that grabs the reader’s interest and compels him or her to continue reading and provides key background information, the following paragraphs focus on specific aspects of the argument.
Let’s begin with the introduction.
As its name suggests, this paragraph provides all the background information necessary for a reader unfamiliar with the topic to understand what it’s about. A solid introduction should:
- Begin with a descriptive title that communicates your position regarding the topic
- Use an attention getter to grab the audience’s interest
- Rhetorical question
- Personal anecdote
- Provide necessary background, including definitions of any relevant words
- End with a thesis statement that communicates your position
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Body paragraphs can range in size from six to fifteen or more sentences. The goal of these paragraphs is to support the thesis statement. Recommended areas of focus for the body paragraphs within an argumentative essay include:
- Identifying and explaining the problem
- Identifying the two (or more) sides to the problem
- Exploring the side the writer believes is more appropriate than the others
- Shooting down the other sides, with evidence
- Recommending a course of action for the reader to take
One major way an argumentative essay differs from other kinds is its specific nature. At the end of reading such an essay, the audience should clearly understand an issue or controversy and have enough information to make an informed decision regarding the issue. But what makes an audience make an informed decision? Several things!
- Authoritative sources (experts in their field)
- Real-world examples
- Attributable anecdotes
In this paragraph, often the shortest of all the paragraphs, the writer reviews his or her most compelling reasons for taking a particular stance on an issue. The persuasion should be strong here, and the writer should use combative language including examples such as:
- “,then” statements
- There can be no doubt
- Without immediate action
- Research strongly supports
In an argumentative essay, it is also appropriate to refute opposition in the conclusion. By stating the objections readers could have, and show why they should be dismissed; the conclusion resonates more strongly with the reader.
Argumentative Essay Sample
Be sure to check the sample essay, completed by our writers. Use it as an example to write your own argumentative essay. Link: Argumentative essay on white rappers’ moral rights to perform.
Remember: the key to winning any argument should be reliable sources — the better, the more trustworthy your sources, the more likely the audience will be to consider a viewpoint alternative to their own. And while you may feel a deep passion towards a particular topic, keep in mind that emotions can be messy; an argumentative essay should present all sides to the argument respectfully and with a clear intention to portray each fairly. Let the data, statistics, and facts speak loudly and clearly for themselves. And don’t forget to use opinionated language — using such diction is a must in any strong argumentative essay!