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Using weak sources that are out-of-date or filled with author bias is like a knight going into a joust with a sword made of aluminum foil.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.
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