Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on persuasive writing

[This is an edited version of a discussion required for my technical writing class. As I rather like my own analogy, I thought I would crosspost here as well]

As a full-time student, I do lots of persuasive writing on a nearly daily basis: I complete my work for class.

Of course, this is more or less expected of most such students, but do not be fooled by the myriad topics of your homework- in the end, they are all just variations on persuasive communication. The trick is that you have to correctly identify whom you are persuading, their attitude, take into account their likely reactions just as you would in any other form of persuasive communication (say, as in writing a business memo). As I'm sure all of you are intimately familiar with homework, let me review a few key concepts of persuasive writing, interpreted through the analogy of homework.

Being cooperative: If you want a good grade from your teacher or grader, being cooperative is always important for setting the tone of the interaction. This is especially important in writing assignments, because whoever ends up reading your assignments likely would rather be doing more interesting things (as opposed to figuring out why you didn't follow instructions). If you complete the assignment in the incorrect format, or submit it to the wrong place or in the wrong manner, you are being uncooperative. This gives the impression that you do not value the time of those who read your writing, and you are less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

On modesty: Invariably, once in a while you think that you deserve exception. In school, this can take many forms- I deserve an extension, I deserve reconsideration, I deserve leniency, and so on. However, stating that you deserve any of these things to your teacher is a quick way to be ignored or worse. The best way to compromise on a potentially troublesome request, idea, or argument is to express yourself with modesty. Explicitly adding that “you may be asking quite a bit” to your exceptional requests acknowledges that you may be inconveniencing someone else, and have the thoughts of others under consideration.

Exemplifying fair-mindedness: Chances are very good that your teacher has been studying the topic of your coursework for much longer than you have. Thus, when making arguments it may be helpful to show that your line of thought has considered alternative opinions and viewpoints. To do otherwise insults the intelligence and background of your teacher by doing nothing to allay their likely questions and concerns. More importantly, relating your idea to other ideas demonstrates that you have a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. In the same vein as being cooperative, avoiding logical fallacies and disingenuous arguments also demonstrates the fair-mindedness of the student.

As one moves in either direction between school and work, keep in mind that the rules for communicating persuasively are largely the same, but the environment and audience differ.

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