Whether you are a salesperson writing an email to a prospective client, a scientist writing a grant request to a government official, or an intellectually young marketing student writing an essay for admission into a PhD program, the ability to write persuasively can move mountains for you. When I say “intellectually persuasive,” I am referring to writing for a particular kind of audience. I’m not talking about writing for mass audiences, for which you can rely on slick copy and glossy images to get your point across. If your audience is smart and discerning, if your readers will be examining your writing with critical eyes, you must have the capacity to develop sound arguments. You must be able to look at your finished work and answer the question “Would this convince me?” with a resounding, “Yes!”
Yesterday, I took my GRE, completing the final step toward applying to a PhD program I plan to pursue. The test measures mathematical reasoning, reading comprehension, and–finally–written communication. To prepare for the latter, I created a blog called GRE Writing Analysis. On this blog, I wrote practice essays for both portions of the GRE written test (analysis of an argument and analysis of an issue) and created an email list to get feedback on my writing. In a little over a month, I wrote 9 practice essays and received a ton of recommendations on how to improve my writing. Here, I share what I think are the top ten…
- Summarize your main points in the introduction. Let your readers know upfront what will be coming in the rest of the piece. Numbering your points in the introduction will allow your readers to more easily digest them throughout the essay and will make them more memorable after it has been read.
- Avoid lengthy introductions setting up an argument; get to the point. Don’t try too hard to build up to an explosive thesis in your introduction. Don’t wax poetic about the history and philosophy of your concept. Your readers can tell fluff from substance. Get to the real point as quickly as possible.
- Don’t spend too much time defining terms; assume common usage. Unless you’re petitioning for the inclusion of a certain term in a dictionary, you don’t need to give your readers a lesson on etymology. Don’t condition every argument you make on a certain definition of a term. Don’t go on and on about the different ways that words can be defined. Use simple words and assume that readers understand them for their common usage.
- Minimize the use of rhetorical questions. There is little more condescending to a discerning reader than a rhetorical question. When you ask rhetorical questions such as “should we allow this malfeasance to continue?” or “is there no end to the ignorance?” it is an insult to the intelligence of your readers. They may feel as if you are forcing them to think a certain way. Do you not want to show respect for your readers? (See what I did there). Don’t use so many rhetorical questions.
- Avoid using weak analogies. If you’re trying to illustrate a point, one of the first things you will likely grope for is an analogy. Comparisons can be effective if your readers can easily see the resemblance between ideas. If, however, your analogy is a stretch, it may actually hurt your argument. If you use a weak analogy, your readers will get the impression that there actually is little resemblance between the two ideas you are trying to connect. Use good analogies or don’t use any at all.
- Cite studies and verifiable facts to support claims. Don’t simply use phrases like “it has been said” or “studies show” to support your arguments. Reference who exactly it was that said it. Name the journal or magazine in which the study was published. Be specific in citing quotes, studies, and historical facts. If your proofs can be substantiated by outside material, it will make your overall argument more difficult to deny.
- Avoid making absolute claims about how things can be measured or problems can be solved. Don’t posit your solution as the be-all and end-all answer to the problem at hand. Don’t declare that your methodology is the only one that works. Be willing to admit the possible deficiencies in your argument and approach. If you are too arrogant and present your argument as completely bullet-proof, one tiny hole in your reasoning can cause your readers to disregard everything you say.
- Respond to obvious objections. The surest sign that you don’t really have a good argument is that you will completely disregard obvious objections. When you write, pretend that your readers will be writing back. What will they say to your arguments? What is the big objection you have not handled? Find the elephant in the room, and dance with it.
- Create a strong, well-defined conclusion that leaves no lingering questions. A weak conclusion can leave a bad taste in the mouths of your readers. Finish strong. If your goal is to persuade, don’t write about the possibilities of future research, alternate explanations, or different directions. Stick to your guns and drive the point home. You’ve spent the body of your work positing arguments. Repeat those arguments and reinforce the fact that they are more than enough to convince your readers of your view.
- Leave time to fix grammar and structural problems. You’re writing on complex issues for intelligent people. You aren’t sending a text or posting an update to Facebook. Sloppy grammar and sentence structure will make you appear as an amateur, regardless of how compelling your arguments are. Pretend that what you are writing will be published and sold on the best-seller display at your local bookstore. Cross your “t”s; dot your “i”s. Be professional.
If you have time, I highly recommend doing what I did with the blog. You don’t actually have to start a blog. You can simply email your writing to a list of trusted friends, colleagues, or advisers. Your ultimate readers should never be the first people to read what you’ve written. It almost always takes a second set of eyes to see the truth. Whatever you do, get as much feedback as you can. Listen to the advice, find what makes sense for you and your writing style, and make it better. In the end, it could mean the difference between your reader signing the document on the dotted line and sending it through the shredder.
Featured image courtesy of Eduardo, licensed via Creative Commons.