Structuring persuasive paragraphs

Structuring persuasive paragraphs

In a previous blog, I wrote about the need to study persuasive techniques, not just spot them. It’s something I have been revisiting lately from a writing perspective because I am still encountering work which is peppered with persuasive techniques which don’t do anything except stop the writing mid-flow. On one hand, I like the fact that students are using techniques, but using them isn’t enough. One way to shift the approach to persuasive techniques is by focusing on how they can be used to structure paragraphs and build ideas.

Let’s start with something that appears in 90% of persuasive writing: statistics. Students can’t pronounce ‘statistics’ properly, but that doesn’t stop the proliferation of percentages. Instead of just using statistics, we can try to think about how figures can be used to structure ideas, like in this example from AIDS activist Mary Fisher to the Republican National Convention:

I would never have asked to be HIV positive, but I believe that in all things there is a purpose; and I stand before you and before the nation gladly. The reality of AIDS is brutally clear. Two hundred thousand Americans are dead or dying. A million more are infected. Worldwide, forty million, sixty million, or a hundred million infections will be counted in the coming few years. But despite science and research, White House meetings, and congressional hearings, despite good intentions and bold initiatives, campaign slogans, and hopeful promises, it is — despite it all — the epidemic which is winning tonight.

The number starts small, then grows. It is a structure also used by Malala Yousafzai in her speech to the United Nations:

There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.

This technique, which I am going to call ‘statistic stacking’ works well enough on its own, but in each instance above there is a response to the numbers. In the former, the weight of numbers is used to show that the disease is winning, whereas the numbers in the latter are used to emphasise that Malala is just one person in many- and there is a nice use of anaphora to end the paragraphs too. The points are stronger after the statistics.

Now let’s focus on another staple of persuasive writing:  the rhetorical question. On their own, they can be clumsy and stop good writing in its tracks. But combined with something else, a rhetorical question becomes something quite special and functionally very useful. Look at this section of J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address, and what follows the question:

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

Another question is asked in Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

In both examples, the question is asked at the beginning of the paragraph and the rest of the paragraph serves as the answer. The question is the foundation that the rest of the paragraph is built on. In J.K Rowling’s speech, the question is answered with a series of lists. In King’s, it is answered with anaphora. Question>anaphora is a structure of paragraph that works particularly well and which students can learn. The main idea is to ensure that the question is dealt with in some way. The question may not be the start of the paragraph- it could even come at the end, perhaps as a response to a list or anaphora.

Edit: Thanks to @JamesTheo for the feedback. The first example is hypophora, where a speaker asks then answers their own question. The second is procatalepsis, where the speaker states the opposing case and then offers a rebuttal.

The last idea I will explore on structuring a paragraph is the extended metaphor. Unlike the previous examples, metaphors are an underused element of persuasive writing, seemingly because imagery is more readily associated with narrative or description. But metaphor and analogy can work well in persuasion, such as in the extended metaphors in Barack Obama’s victory speech:

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. But above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

Here’s another one from an article on Brexit:

At this stage, most people contemplating divorce are motivated by two things. First, they see only their spouse’s defects. Secondly, they fantasize about an idealized alternative future. Often, though not always, this involves a magically perfect new partner. But the most important motivation is the dream of freedom. No more nagging! No more unwelcome guests! All that money saved!

The metaphor carries the weight of the argument. With practice, students could get quite skilful in building these kind of paragraphs, or even whole texts. Schools are prisons. Smoking is poison. Fast food is an executioner. Find the common ground and build a paragraph around it.

So, instead of teaching some of these techniques in isolation, look to see how they can be the focal point or the foundation of a paragraph, how they can work in combinations with other techniques, and how they can punctuate an argument.

Paragraph pairs

Paragraph pairs

Writing isn’t just a series of paragraphs, one after another. Well, it is, but these paragraphs are not just tacked on to each other. They follow on, they build, they look back, they contrast, they develop ideas. By focussing on the relationships between paragraphs, not only can we improve students’ understanding of structure for the reading paper, but also improve their writing. One way to do this is by looking at two paragraphs together- paragraph pairs.

Here is a paragraph pair from a speech from Barack Obama on gun control:

I was there with Gabby when she was still in the hospital, and we didn’t think necessarily at that point that she was going to survive. And that visit right before a memorial — about an hour later Gabby first opened her eyes. And I remember talking to mom about that. But I know the pain that she and her family have endured these past five years, and the rehabilitation and the work and the effort to recover from shattering injuries.

And then I think of all the Americans who aren’t as fortunate. Every single year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns — 30,000. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost brothers and sisters, or buried their own children. Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or learned to live without the love of their life.

The first paragraph on its own is tragic, but needs the second paragraph to show that it is not isolated or simply personal; the second makes clear the wider point, but is made more effective because a concrete example has preceded it.

We all know students who include every single persuasive technique that their mnemonic tells them to, but whose writing is stilted and clunky. In moving from thinking ‘I must include an anecdote’ to ‘I must include an anecdote so I can then look at the wider point’, we should see an improvement in the structure of writing. We might even label this technique something like anecdote-wider point or specific-general.

Here is another paragraph pair, this time from Treasure Island:

The next morning he and I set out on foot for the Admiral Benbow, and there I found my mother in good health and spirits. The captain, who had so long been a cause of so much discomfort, was gone where the wicked cease from troubling. The squire had had everything repaired, and the public rooms and the sign repainted, and had added some furniture—above all a beautiful armchair for mother in the bar. He had found her a boy as an apprentice also so that she should not want help while I was gone.

It was on seeing that boy that I understood, for the first time, my situation. I had thought up to that moment of the adventures before me, not at all of the home that I was leaving; and now, at sight of this clumsy stranger, who was to stay here in my place beside my mother, I had my first attack of tears. I am afraid I led that boy a dog’s life, for as he was new to the work, I had a hundred opportunities of setting him right and putting him down, and I was not slow to profit by them.

In some ways, these paragraphs work like the Obama example. We have specific details about the mother, the inn, the boy before a wider realisation: “It was on seeing that boy that I…”. On the other hand, the reaction is personal. What can students take from this? In narrative writing, instead of simply describing setting and chronicling action and dialogue, they could describe something and then have the narrator react. This helps them to structure writing of course, but it also elevates the writing. We could label this focus-reaction or external-internal

It isn’t just consecutive paragraphs that can work in pairs. Some of the most satisfying pieces of writing have openings and endings that somehow link. This could be a sentence, word or phrase repeated, like from The Man in the Brown Coat:

Opening: I am writing a history of the things men do. I have written three such histories and I am but a young man. Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words.

Ending: Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words. Are there no words that lead into life? Some day I shall speak to myself. Some day I shall make a testament unto myself.

When writing descriptions, I often tell students that the ending paragraph can just be the opening paragraph but with changes. A change in the weather, in the time, in the mood or atmosphere. In other types of a writing it could be a question asked in the opening (literally or not) that is answered in the end. Obviously it helps if this is planned in advance, but it is a strategy for those who struggle to end their writing- they can just refer back to the opening. I have written a little more about endings here, but this is one of my favourite examples of a linked opening and ending, taken from A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Once you start examining texts closely, there are so many possibilities for paragraph pairs:

  • Setting-reaction to setting
  • Description of character 1-contrasting description of character 2
  • Action-consequence
  • Setting-flashback to first memory of setting
  • Paragraph arguing the consequences of doing something-paragraph arguing the consequences for not doing something.

Other than this, pick up a book, an article, a report and look at some paragraph pairs. Better still, ask the students because they’ll find lots of interesting ideas too.

Further reading: John Tomsett’s post on structuring essays contains the fantastic idea of Janus-faced sentences.

Persuasive techniques: studying not spotting

Persuasive writing is often broken down into lists of techniques. These lists can be memorised quite quickly without a sense of their utility. This leads in some cases to students who use a wide range of persuasive techniques but a) they don’t really persuade and b) they give an air of falseness to writing. They can name the techniques but don’t have a sense of the real impact of them. These techniques do have a place however, certainly as a bridge to more complex aspects of rhetoric, but I think how they are taught has a massive influence over how they are then used.

To explore persuasive techniques, I think it’s much more interesting to look at them in context, exploring the nuances of different techniques. Students need to spend longer exploring each one, how they work differently in a range of contexts and how they only make sense as part of a design by the writer. Then, when they move to using them in their own writing, students are better prepared. To illustrate how we might do this, I’m going to look at Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and place it alongside Malcolm X’s ‘The bullet or the ballot’ speech. Seeing the techniques used in different contexts should help students to understand the subtleties.

Tone before techniques

As Chris Curtis discusses in his legendary sexy sprouts blogs, tone is crucial, and students need to see that any techniques they may spot have everything to do with creating a tone and building an argument. On a simple level, we can read King’s speech as hopeful and optimistic and Malcolm X’s as threatening. However, there is much much more at play than these simple short cuts. (They will be referred to as MLK and MX henceforth)

Opening lines set the tone:

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” MLK

“Mr. Moderator, Brother Lomax, brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: I just can’t believe everyone in here is a friend, and I don’t want to leave anybody out.” MX

MLK’s language is grand and sets this up as a momentous occasion. Depending on your interpretation, MX goes for either self-deprecating humour or sets up the tone of division that he wants to create.

From here, both speeches go on to highlight the awfulness of the situation: MLK speaks of “the dark and desolate valley of segregation” and MX talks about how “All of us have suffered here, in this country”.

At this point, the tones diverge. MLK is clear that the solution is “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy” whereas with MX “it points toward either the ballot or the bullet”. If students can track this crucial distinction in tone they can first of all unpick how the language does the hard work. MLK: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have true freedom and democracy. MX: the situation is terrible, therefore we must have democracy- or revolution. MLK’s evangelical tone builds and builds, sermon-like towards rallying calls. MX, having presented the ‘bullet’ alternative, calls for Lyndon B. Johnson to take action. Despite the angry and threatening tone of the speech, MX’s tone shifts at the end and he proposes a sensible, peaceful set of actions. (MX is reported to have said: “If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.”)

With a clear understanding of the shifting tone of each speech, any language analysis becomes much more straightforward and rooted in a clear purpose. Instead of generic ‘it is used for effect’, even simple responses will be specific about the intended effect.

Rhetorical question

For some reason, this is the technique students always remember and they always use it. Often badly. (“Do you want capital punishment?”) Exploring it in depth and looking at the technique in context shows just how effective it can be. In MLK: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” This question is used for one simple purpose: to set up the rest of the paragraph; to list all the conditions which must be met. MLK poses a question. He then answers it in depth.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Similarly, MX uses “So, where do we go from here?” to fulfil an almost identical purpose. It is used to structure the argument.

So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies. The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle — from the inside as well as from the outside…

The following section from MX shows how questions can be used to structure a paragraph. Note how the last question is only effective because of the examples which precede it.

How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress. And I love my Brother Lomax, the way he pointed out we’re right back where we were in 1954. We’re not even as far up as we were in 1954. We’re behind where we were in 1954. There’s more segregation now than there was in 1954. There’s more racial animosity, more racial hatred, more racial violence today in 1964, than there was in 1954. Where is the progress?

For students, not only do they help to add these uses of rhetorical questions to their toolkits but they see that a rhetorical question is not something they add in somewhere to get more marks- it forms part of a structured, deliberate piece of writing. They can see that questions play different roles at different stages.

Repetition

Much like rhetorical questions, it is very easy to spot repetition and students do, but they can often say things like “it makes it stand out”. Once again, repetition is used for different purposes depending on the intention of the writer. I would recommend first of all that students are aware of a couple of specific types of repetition: anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word or phrase at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

Anaphora is a mainstay of both speeches. We have established that MX takes a confrontational tone at times and his frequent use of “I’m not here to…” reinforces this (In fact, MX begins many sentences throughout his speech with variations on “I’m not…”).

Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist.

There’s an interesting point in the speech where this shifts from “I’m not” to “they’re not”:

And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing ”We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical flourish and prepares the listener for the alternative. Because once MX has presented this picture, his final paragraph (which uses anaphora also: “let him”) is directed not really at the present audience but at Lyndon B. Johnson: “Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party.” The use of anaphora has fully supported the tone that we commented on earlier and certainly supports the bullet or ballot argument. After all the ‘not’ (bullet), it feels conciliatory for MX to use the positive-sounding “let him”(ballot).

MLK uses “I have a dream today” as punctuation, an exclamation, a rallying cry. He begins sentences with “I have a dream” to contextualise his hopes for the future. MLK doesn’t spend too much time on the nitty gritty of how this will happen but in many ways he does not need to. The speech is designed to build towards a crescendo and it is the sense of occasion, of emotion which is most important here. The anaphora shifts from “I have a dream” to “let freedom ring” and, much like MX changed the anaphora to change the tone, so does MLK. Still an abstract idea, “let freedom ring” suggests action rather than merely wishful thinking. (Interestingly, King only decided to use “I have a dream” on the spur of the moment. It was something he had used many times before and was memorised- he knew the power it had.)

Working through lists of persuasive techniques, you can provide example after example from these pieces that shows how something is used.

Forget spotting a personal pronoun, explore how ‘we’ is used for opposite purposes in “With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” and We died on every battlefield the white man had”.

Don’t just find emotive language, contrast the proud patriotism of “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today,” with “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country.”

Forget simply metaphor-spotting, what about how King goes from “flames of withering injustice” to “a great beacon of light and hope” and “joyous daybreak”? Then see how X moves from “catching hell” to “the most explosive year”.

I wouldn’t stop teaching these ‘A FOREST’ type lists. But like any aspect of English, we need to give time to explore things in depth for a fuller understanding.

Further reading:

Sam LeithYou Talking to Me? by Sam Leith is a wonderful book which has transformed my entire approach to teaching persuasive writing.

Joe Kirby’s blog on Reclaiming Rhetoric is a useful introduction to the subject.

Writing endings

Students struggle with endings for a number of reasons. For many, it’s that they run out of time, and write things like ‘NOT FINISHED! SORRY SIR!’, others have no idea how to end something and a fair few have no plan whatsoever so an ending is a happy accident if it occurs. I find that some of the best writing from students can be ruined-or the impact lessened- if the ending is poor or nonexistent so in this post I’m looking at strategies to make endings much more satisfying. The ideas can be thought of in two ways: 1) strategies to allow for sophisticated, controlled endings and 2) quick wins for students struggling with endings. I’m focusing on fiction here, although it will hopefully be useful for other types of writing.

Start with the end…

Before starting to write, students should at least think about the end. Even better, they should write it. That way, everything builds towards that. Not every novel builds to a satisfying sentence or paragraph but for me the ones which do linger longer in the memory. In some cases, such as Stoner by John Williams, the ending can even elevate the whole text.

One simple way for students to think of story planning is in terms of conflict and resolution. If students have a clear idea of the resolution then they are essentially building their story towards this. This won’t always help them with specific ways to end writing but it will ensure that there is an end! I’d always recommend simplicity in narrative writing: one main story(conflict), a couple of characters, one setting and a small period of time in which everything occurs. This will help students to have focused endings too.

…end with the start

Look at how Charles Dickens does this in A Tale of Two Cities:

Opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Ending: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

It is satisfying the way that the language of the ending echoes the language of the opening. There is a link with the development of best into better. Also, the balance of the sentences is repeated and anaphora is used in both. And because the last line is describing his death in positive terms, it is the best and worse of times! To what extent these connections are always noticeable in a novel, I don’t know, but it would be very clear in a short story written by a student.

For students who are the master of their craft, this is a lovely way to structure writing. It can be designed right from the start. For students who are struggling, it’s a simple way to round off their work. If they struggle with an ending you can just say ‘link it to your opening’.

Another interesting way to end might be to use the title in the ending. This can even be reverse engineered by students struggling at the end who can use something from their ending as the title, offering that satisfying resolution and a sense of control.

Simply repeating the opening sentence would work or repeating a variation of the opening sentence e.g. asking a question in the opening that is answered in the ending.

Students can illustrate some sort of change from opening to ending. For example, if they started by describing the rain pelting against windows then they can end with the sun appearing from behind the clouds.

Techniques

I don’t think this only applies to endings, but deliberately using some complex rhetorical techniques gives a satisfying, structured ending which feels controlled. I have spent whole lessons on antithesis (the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or sentences), anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses) and epistrophe (the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences).

For example, after studying  epistrophe, one of my students wrote this, although they eventually reworked it as an opening:

I’d asked my mum, almost my whole childhood,”Where’s daddy gone?” and everytime, my mum would say the same things: “He’s gone away but he’s not coming back”; “He loves you but he’s not coming back.”; “He’s a bad man, and he’s not coming back.” But that was before it all started. That fateful day, when he came back.

I like the way that the epistrophe highlights the phrase ‘he’s not coming back’ before the twist at the end. This ending from another student ties together all sorts of ideas and feels deeply satisfying:

As the snow began to fall into the trenches, it became unbearable. As the rain began to plummet into the trenches, it became hate. As the sun began to shine into the trenches it became heaven.

End on a thought

The end of a piece of writing can be conceived as a final thought which can be described in a word and then expanded into a sentence. If you can get students to encapsulate the ideas of their writing in one sentence then that can become the ending sentence of their writing. Look at the end of Frankenstein:

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

The one sentence fully encapsulates the bleakness of that story. It is hugely satisfying for the reader too. It’s exactly the sort of sentence that students can read, play around with, construct their own. They could rewrite it, changing the tone:

He was soon whisked away by the waves and lost in shouts of joy.

It was soon hidden away by time and lost in memory and imagination.

Share and discuss examples

I use mentor mats which start with a complete mentor text and then include example openings and endings. Like anything, the more high quality examples students see, the better they will become. For instance, here is an interesting document with one list of the  ‘100 best last lines from novels‘. I’m not sure all of them work out of context, mind you, but they are useful for discussion. It doesn’t take much extra effort to draw attention to the endings of texts studied in class either. Of Mice and Men is great to discuss, ending as it does with, “Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?” which is often met with ‘eh?’ in my classroom! I’d even recommend looking at the last stanzas and lines from poems to get a real sense of well-crafted endings where every word counts.

Impose length restrictions

Some students will write and write, often creating a whole novel if you let them. If you impose a limit then they have to plan things carefully and have time to craft consciously. Exam boards do this and in the WJEC English exam they have an hour to write two pieces so learning to be concise but effective is essential.

Hopefully, those ideas will help improve students’ endings – there’s nothing worse than

(SORRY NOT FINISHED!)