Let’s begin by being real with each other: you’re probably in this class because you have to be. It fulfills a gen ed writing requirement you need to graduate, and you wouldn’t be here otherwise. And there is a good chance you’re not absolutely thrilled about it.
That’s OK. I think I understand, but let me take a stab at some of your potential reactions to finding yourself in this writing class this term:
- You’re in kinesiology, business, psychology, dentistry, nursing, and so on, and you’re absolutely positive you won’t be doing any writing in your future professional life. This class is just one more hoop to jump through in your undergrad career, one more time the university takes your money through no choice of yours, slowing your progress through your major and toward that sweet j-o-b waiting at the end of it.
- And/or maybe you feel you’ve already taken a gazillion writing classes since you started school, which has only ever meant writing boring essays about Romeo and Juliet or Animal Farm or, even worse, poetry. The only thing you actually learned about writing in those classes was that your job as a student was to figure out a particular writing teacher’s Secret Writing Formula and give it back to them, and you’ve done that plenty. So why do you have to do it again now, when you should be spending every class and dollar on your major that will lead to that j-o-b? Or worse still, those writing teachers’ Secret Writing Formulas never seemed accessible to you, and you long ago threw up your hands in despair.
- Or you truly enjoyed your writing and literature courses—you may even possibly enjoy the act of writing (imagine!)—and, not for nothing, you feel like your writing is pretty darn good already, so you can’t help but resent finding yourself in this required course among all these nonwriters because you already know all this stuff and more.
If any of these overlap with your feelings about being in this course, I get it. I also readily acknowledge that you might not fit neatly into any of these categories—one of the best things about Oregon State University is that our students come from all different cultures and stages of life and scholastic and socioeconomic backgrounds. So instead of trying to identify all of your individual circumstances, let me state two things everyone reading this shares:
- You’ve all made it this far somehow, jumping through hoop after writing-requirement hoop, and
- Your schooling is much closer to its end than its beginning.
Which means, in your immediate future, there will be no more teachers to please or impress and no more Secret Writing Formulas to decipher and reproduce. For most of you, this class represents your last—and in a tragedy for another day, possibly your first and only—course devoted solely to writing in your undergraduate career. You are spiraling at full tilt toward the moment when you will never again receive any help or advice or instruction on anything you’ve written, and you obviously won’t get a grade on it, either.
You may silently or openly cheer as you read those sentences. Good riddance to writing and the teachers who teach it! But consider that no matter your major or your career, the one thing you’ll still have to do from time to time in your done-with-school life is try to convince someone to do a thing you want them to do. And I’m sorry to add that sometimes you’ll have to do it in writing.
You will, in other words, petition gatekeepers to open their gates for you. And as you may already know, these moments tend to be rather high-stakes in our lives.
So there you are: you really need another person to do something for you, to give you something, to let you into something, or to stop doing something, but if you can’t apply the elements of strong, clear, and moving argument-making to your writing in those high-stakes moments, this person or organization won’t just give you a C− and invite you to revise for a better grade.
They’ll simply say no.
No, we’re not giving you that raise. No, the city council rejects your proposal for a new business, thanks but no thanks for working on it for the last two years. No, we’re not bringing you in for an interview for your dream job. Nope, you’ve failed to convince us that our grad school program is the right fit for you. No, you haven’t convinced your uncle on social media to reconsider his stance on that far-out conspiracy theory, and the next family gathering is going to be a nightmare as a result. No, we’re sorry to inform you that at this time, we are unable to fund your project; we received 374 more compelling and persuasive applications, and we have limited funds available. And no, I’d prefer not to marry you; I’m going to marry this other person who has proven far better at persuading me they will be a better roommate, partner, and coparent.
Skillful Persuasion Is Hard
So maybe take a pause on blindly celebrating that in ten short weeks, you’ll be done with your life’s writing instruction, and instead consider how little time you’ve spent in your schooling thinking about how to use your writing to get what you want, to get what you need.
Because when your cap and gown are in the rearview and you find yourself faced with a high-stakes writing task demanding that you move some powerful gatekeeper from a no to a crucial yes—your future, your happiness, your whole life plan depend on getting them to yes—you’ll beg, borrow, and steal any concrete strategies that might work to persuade that powerful entity to open their specific gate to you.
Will you sometimes find yourself in situations that are more subtle and decidedly less “me versus them”? Absolutely and of course. But I find it refreshing and helpful at the outset to set aside academese and focus on stripped-down persuasion in its most basic form, simply getting that important person from no to yes.
The problem? Getting someone, anyone, from no to yes is, well, hard. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, please, it can’t be that hard. I’ve written five-page papers in two hours with my eyes closed countless times and still gotten As. I’ll be just fine out there.” But alas, your past successes at reproducing a teacher’s Secret Writing Formula or BSing your way to an A in eleventh grade won’t actually help as much as you might think. Believe it or not, real-life human beings can actually see right through that stuff pretty quickly. (And newsflash: your writing teachers saw through it too. They just kept it to themselves in the name of higher-order concerns.)
In fact, I bet you’ll find that getting an acceptable grade on an essay is far easier than changing another person’s mind in the real world. Why? Human beings don’t like changing their minds. We like to think we know what we want and don’t want, we believe what we believe, we are quite sure we know what’s best for our company, our medical school, our city, our lives, and we don’t much listen to folks who want to convince us of something to the contrary.
If you’re still viewing this class as just one more course disconnected from the important work you’ll be doing once you land that sweet j-o-b, let me be more direct: there is no job, and no life situation, that won’t involve persuading folks in all sorts of ways all the time. This course is going to teach you how to perceive and address the needs of those people so that you can have a shot to persuade them successfully.
Catch ’Em in the Act
To persuade is, technically, to move your audience to action. And to do it well, it pays to notice how you yourself are moved to actions by external forces. Because despite how set we humans are in our ways, we’re nonetheless constantly succumbing to the quietly effective arguments that come at us all day every day and implicitly move us to action, most of the time without our awareness.
So in this course and with this text, we’ll pay attention. How has this social media platform gotten me back on the app fifteen minutes after I closed it, vowing I wouldn’t open it again until morning? Why am I drinking this neon-blue beverage no human should rightly consider drinkable or watching thirty-one women fight for one man to marry in a period of weeks on my TV? Why am I voting for this person instead of that one or not voting at all? Why do I believe this should happen with guns and that should happen with vaccines? Did I just decide about these things of my own free will? (No.) Or did something quietly or not so quietly persuade me to do or think them? (Yes.)
If you enjoy being manipulated into believing and doing things you might not otherwise believe or do, things that are very often not in your best interest, then OK, great—you do you. Someone has to fall for Ponzi schemes and keep the cable news networks on air. But if you want to start spotting the subtle and insidious persuasion tactics bombarding you constantly and shaping your actions and reactions before you catch them in the act (if you ever do), then pay attention, because once again, you’ve come to the right place.
Learning how to persuade entails understanding how you are persuaded. That means understanding how these implicit forces work, how they necessarily play on your deeply held cultural values, often by merely reinforcing the unexamined assumptions you already hold. We must understand how those latent beliefs work, in ourselves and in the audiences we’re trying to convince, if we want to learn the art of persuasion.
Which is a fancy way of saying that in this writing class, we’re not just trying to recognize those savvy persuasion tactics; we’re looking to steal them. Well, at least the ethical and sound tactics. Our goal will always be to identify, isolate, and snatch the tools being used to persuade us and turn them back around to persuade them.
So the questions you should be asking yourself now, while there’s still time to practice, are these: When I am out there in the world trying to get a real person to shift their thinking subtly or simply to say yes instead of no, what works? What doesn’t? What is vital? What is a deal breaker? What will kill my request before it’s even made? And what brings it home?
I’m so glad you asked, because that’s precisely where our writing class comes in: a nice little class focused solely on teaching you to do that very thing and nothing else.
No eight-page analysis of chapter 14 of The Catcher in the Rye, no two-thousand-word explication of a single sonnet, just, can you move that gatekeeper to the action you want to move them toward or not? Can you build an ethical, well-supported argument that evokes the necessary emotion at just the right time with just the right tone and style and support and logic to make the thing happen, or will you stay in that dead-end job until you die?
Writing Is Hard
I hope I’ve at least opened the possibility that
- You are in fact going to have to write things in your postcollege future,
- The things you’ll very often have to write will be attempts to persuade people to change their thinking and do a thing for you, and
- Persuasion is difficult, and we need all the practice we can get before we fly from our undergraduate nest.
You know what else is very difficult? Writing. Even harder? Writing well. And definitely writing well in support of getting that thing you want and need.
For proof that writing is hard, consider that there are few activities we procrastinate more than writing. Most people will use a toothbrush to clean the bathroom they share with six roommates sooner than tackle a high-stakes writing project; they will get two root canals and do their back taxes before they’ll sit down to write a persuasive argument.
And that’s for good reason. Our brains rebel from the blank page; the higher the stakes, the more our brains rebel. After all, the writing task demands all parts of the brain to kick into overdrive at once. You need logic; you need to consider the audience and the situation; you need to organize your thinking and translate that thinking to black symbols on a white page; you need to attend to the order and sequence of those black symbols in every way, from grammar to the active voice to transitions to openers and closers; you need research and citations and formatting and more. And at the exact same time, you need to activate the creative part of your brain; to write anything, no matter how boring, is truly an act of creation, because the thing (an essay, a cover letter, a please-take-me-back-I’m-so-sorry email) literally doesn’t exist until you create it. It’s just you and that blank page and your cursor taunting you with every blink. And because none of us are born writers, you have to work at it. You have to practice.
And here again, like magic, you find yourself in a class equally devoted to that challenging enterprise. So while our thematic focus in this writing class is persuasion and argumentation, we’re also, of course, focused on your writing itself—voice, tone, style, concision, precision, all of it.
What follows in this text on your screen is about half-and-half: half devoted to analyzing our own and others’ persuasion techniques and half to writing strategies—and all about their constant and necessary overlap. We are going to infuse you with tools to take on that blank page with laser-focused, tried-and-true strategies and, crucially, with an added dose of confidence: “I know I have the necessary tools in my bag to move through this prewriting anxiety phase and produce something that will be, after revision, not just well written but also highly persuasive.”
We’ve curated this text for this class at Oregon State specifically. And not for nothing, your instructor has devoted their professional life to helping people write well. If you want to get your money’s worth this term or if you just want to stick it to the powers that be as you jump through this particular hoop, why not take full advantage of these two resources at your disposal while you still can?
The Real Rip-Off
So to return to the top and your objections to having to take this writing class, consider that the real rip-off is not that you are forced to take this one ten-week course but rather that this is the only course you get to develop these crucial skills you’ll need for the rest of your life—at least if you want to get what you want and have a real shot at being happy.
So I invite you to tune in to this text with care and diligence while you can. Because while after this term you will never again have to write an argument of definition (or write about weird things like discourse communities or develop revisionist profiles or write a discussion board about catching rhetorical moves in the wild), you will without question encounter in your future personal and professional life multiple high-stakes writing tasks in which a very big chunk of your potential happiness or misery will depend keenly on your ability to move a crucial audience to action. And in those moments, you’ll have to transfer everything you learn in this class to a task that is well outside your comfort zone. When that moment comes (repeatedly and sooner than you think), knowing how to read the rhetorical situation, determining exactly when to inject your plea with a dose of pathos and when to lean hard on logos, and figuring out just exactly how to address that daunting counterargument you can’t necessarily defeat—either these skills will be there, in your pocket, ready to roll, or they won’t.
And whether you have them at the ready will absolutely mean the difference between a no and the yes you need.
So read up. Listen well. Heed all the wisdom that comes out of your instructor’s mouth, and maybe even a classmate or two. Practice. Ask questions. Stretch your brain and consider new approaches to drafting and researching. Revisit your good and bad writing habits, become mindful of the ways you procrastinate, make major and minor adjustments to your researching and argument-growing—in short, roll up your sleeves one more time, and soak up every drop of advice you can get.
Your future depends on it.
- What rhetorical strategies does the delusional author of this chapter use to persuade you that this class matters? Why do you think the author made these choices? Are they effective?
- What have been your experiences with writing classes leading into this class? Do you resonate with this chapter’s discussion of the Secret Writing Formula? How much effort have you had to put into getting a good grade in writing classes in the past?
- Do you find persuasion difficult? How so? How do you get past those moments of writing stress or writer’s block?
- What are some ways that persuasion has worked on you, either explicitly or implicitly? What was the last time you found yourself doing something without exactly knowing why?