Byron’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Persuasive College Writing

Writing persuasive papers in college is a tricky business. At some point during the time I spent as an instructor in writing-intensive courses, I decided to consolidate the advice and tips that I found myself offering to students in response to recurring problems in their compositions. With two parts Strunkandwhitean minimalism, three parts Floral reader-based writing, a dose of Puritan plain style, and a wry dash of Angostura bitters, this recipe for service-oriented discourse now fills both sides of a single sheet of paper that I hand out at the beginning of each course in which I require a term paper. Whether you agree or disagree with my advice, I hope you'll find this guidance useful!

Byron’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Persuasive College Writing

  • Choose as narrow a topic as you can, subject to the considerations below. The scope of the topic determines the ambition of the paper, and nothing's more disappointing than a paper that sets out to cure cancer but ends up addressing the relative merits of sunscreen products. A paper that bites off a large topic (for example, broad reflections on human nature or gross generalizations about western civilization) but digests only a morsel looks inept. In contrast, a paper that defines a morsel-related issue and takes a stand on that issue looks competent.
  • Have a thesis. To tell whether you have a thesis, you must know what a thesis is: it's a focused, arguable proposition that the paragraphs of your essay will support.
  • Have a good thesis. To tell whether you have a good thesis, you must know what distinguishes good theses from poor ones. Envision a continuum ranging from Glaringly Obvious at one end to Ludicrously Unlikely at the other. Good theses reside somewhere on the middle of that continuum, seeming neither obvious nor ludicrous. The test of whether a proposed thesis is good is to imagine the likely response of a virtual reader: she should respond neither with "Duh!" nor with "No way!", but with "Hmmm. Maybe…."
  • Have a goal. The goal of an essay that has a good thesis is to persuade the virtual reader of the truth or high likelihood of the thesis. Deductive proof of the truth of a claim is seldom necessary; more useful and subtle is the argument that bumps a virtual reader from the place where he says "Maybe" to the place where he says "Probably".
  • Envision a virtual reader and write to that person. The virtual reader needn't be as well-informed as the instructor and shouldn't be as ill-informed as Joe Random plucked from the streets of Whereverville. Suppose that your imaginary reader is generally intelligent, but lacks expertise in the field the essay addresses. Envisioning this scenario normalizes the essay writer's own virtual voice and sets a steady baseline for what may be assumed and what must be explained. The scenario also implies (however fictitiously) that there's a reason to write the essay well: to inform and persuade the virtual reader!
  • Have something to say. Faking it can be effective, but it seldom goes undetected. There's no substitute for actually knowing something and for actually constructing an argument.
  • Aim first for substance, then for structure, and then for style. If casual conversation comes more easily to you than formal prose, write conversationally and then tweak the style afterward. If random, intuitive meandering works for you, write in that way and then tweak the structure afterward. Just get something on paper, so that your task can shift from creation to repair. Creativity will actually benefit from this escape into a repair-oriented mode, since it's often easier to draw inspiration from broken things that could be better than to envision a full, final version from the outset.
  • Proceed empirically. Starting with a conclusion and forcing the evidence onto it will result in a hollow, contrived essay. Instead, brainstorm on the topic before defining a thesis. Read the text, object, evidence, or whatever the essay addresses carefully, and write down everything that seems noteworthy, interesting, puzzling, confusing, or significant. Dump onto paper any idea, any observation, any possible argument. Once this brainstorming is completed and you have a stockpile of information, sort it all into related stacks: major, minor, stupid, stellar, irrelevant, surprising, etc.Those stacks of ideas and observations based on a reading of the text|object|data are evidence of varying quality. Discard the small stacks (or relegate them to footnotes) and consider the medium and large stacks. Each is a potential paragraph, and together they imply or confirm a thesis. Ponder your evidence and derive your thesis from the evidence; as a result, the paragraphs of your essay will actually support the thesis of your essay. Note, too, that some of the stacks will weigh against the tendency of the group. Those stacks that tend not to confirm the thesis are countervailing evidence. Use them, too, in the essay.
  • Write your paragraphs. Each paragraph should address one topic and adduce one coherent set (or "stack") of evidence.
  • Don't repeat in paragraph eight something you've already addressed in paragraph three. Assume that your virtual reader has an attention span sufficient to make it to the end of your essay. Phrases such as "the aforementioned" or "as explained above" are a bright red flag that something's wrong with the essay's organization.
  • Consider the sequence of the paragraphs you've written. They should move steadily toward your conclusion while building momentum or importance.
  • Address countervailing evidence. If you can dismiss it, dismiss it. If you can't dismiss it, absorb it with minimal damage. If you can neither dismiss nor absorb it, rework the thesis to address reality; sometimes, situations are complex and the facts resist reduction to a simple, uncontestable claim.
  • Construct an introductory paragraph that (a) immediately announces the essay's narrow topic, (b) exposes the paragraph structure of the essay (signposting its form to provide the reader a conceptual armature for storing the essay's information), and (c) clearly states the good thesis that the remainder of the essay will support (perhaps with complications).
  • Construct a concluding paragraph that accurately reflects what the essay achieves and that gauges the essay's success in addressing the scope it claimed to address. Cute asides or issues worthy of further reflection may find a home here.
  • Provide transitions from one paragraph to the next. Merely repeating a snippet of the previous paragraph's final sentence works but seems inept. The best transitions go by way of concepts or topics, not samples.
  • Proofread for errors of spelling, grammar, typing, usage, and style.
  • Eliminate all adverbs. Physically eradicate them from the document. Restore only the ones that actually add to the essay's meaning.
  • Circle all instances of "is". Change as many of them as possible to verbs that have flavor.
  • Circle all instances of the present progressive ("Bob is nnnn-ing"). Convert them all to present active indicative conjugations ("Bob nnns").
  • Circle all instances of the passive voice ("the wagons were circled", "mistakes were made"). Figure out who's doing what each instance describes. If you don't know who's doing it, then you don't enough about what you're saying. If you do know who's doing, ascribe agency to the agents ("Bubba circled the wagons", "I screwed up").
  • Omit any sentences that refer to your compositional process ("To deal with this topic, an essay should X, Y, and Z").
  • Omit any remarks that evaluate your essay ("Interestingly", "It is important that", "Now I'll pull out the big guns"). Let your virtual (or actual) reader decide whether your essay has been interesting, whether your comment was important, etc. (Don't talk about being interesting; be interesting).
  • Read the essay aloud, allowing your ears to detect infelicities that your eyes fail to recognize.
  • Make an outline of your finished draft in which each paragraph of the essay is reduced to no more than one short sentence. Evaluate the logic of your argument. Does the evidence prove the thesis? Does it at least tend to confirm the thesis? Has the essay addressed alternate readings of the evidence and dismissed, absorbed, or accommodated them? Is the argument formally valid? Is it fallacious?
  • Condense the essay's language. Eliminate all redundancy. Omit needless words. Compress all wordy sentences. Cut any language that fails to move the argument forward in some identifiable way.
  • Condense further.
  • The essay's still wordy and riddled with redundancy. Condense it more.
  • Allow someone else to read the essay and provide feedback.
  • Hand in the essay and rest confident that you've avoided most of the pitfalls of logic and style that plague contemporary discourse.
  • Await your Pulitzer | Bancroft | Nobel!

3 thoughts on “Byron’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Persuasive College Writing”

  1. Good advice! I would also suggest the omission of hyperbole when describing art (e.g. "the most beautiful sculpture in the world") and dramatic opening paragraphs (e.g. "It was a dark and stormy night, as I made my way to the art museum in order to complete this assignment.").

  2. I'll have you know that I gave great thought to those adverbs! Each is a precious jewel.

    Thanks for the pointer to Pullum's article. I come away with the sense that he's no less blinkered than the targets of his complaint. He lands many a palpable hit, but I reckon he's the only one in the room who's taking the pamphlet's advice so seriously.

    Of course S&W is opinionated and inconsistent; it's a dated, reactionary guide to style and usage! But to assert, as Pullum seems to do, that it's the chief means by which American students learn English grammar and syntax — a point he reiterates — is to guess rather than check, a procedure he faults S&W for neglecting. I suspect he'd discover that most Unitedstatesians learned from the Warriner series (or something equivalent, if such there be), and that S&W is typically assigned as a supplement, not as a core text.

    Pullum is all aflutter over the lack of rigor in Elements, but to fault S&W for its grammatical advice is to take it as a formal grammar. Pullum's hackles notwithstanding, it's not a grammar; it's an informal style guide. S&W are prescriptivists not by professional right or rigor, but in intuitive reaction to the dismal state of composition. Their goal, as I read it, is to prompt inexperienced writers to weigh what they might otherwise neglect, and I'm one descriptivist who celebrates their effort.

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