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.

Working with Mentor Texts

“A mentor text is any text that can teach a writer about any aspect of a writer’s craft, from sentence structure to quotation marks to show don’t tell.” Jeff Anderson.

In my post on Routines for Excellent Writing, I discussed the usefulness of mentor texts. You can read more about the what and why of mentor texts there. As a follow up to that, and in response to my #tmeng presentation, I am looking in detail at a specific mentor text in this post.

I have chosen this review of Rock of Ages. (original review online here) I chose it for the things I could pick out and look at with students. I’m looking at the unabridged text but I’d recommend cutting bits out, replacing, isolating paragraphs or whatever you need. Using a real text has its benefits but I would also suggest creating one from scratch if you wanted to demonstrate a specific idea rather than searching and searching.

Vocabulary

I’m a bit obsessed with vocabulary. If I wanted a vocabulary focus I might look at the following in the text:

  • Naïve/ lugubrious/ narcissistic – complex words which will probably need explanation.
  • Satirizing/ screenplay/ production values – media terminology
  • Intensity/ frantically/ meander – words which I want to transfer into students’ working vocabulary. A word like ‘meander’ is so nuanced and precise that I’d love to see it in my students’ work.

Sometimes you need not spend too much time on vocabulary. Those last three words will probably inch closer to being used by students just because of the further exposure to them. On the other hand, texts could be chosen or created precisely to build vocabulary. For example, if you knew students were writing about fate, say, in Of Mice and Men, you could read this article: Is a US attack on Syria now inevitable? and the word ‘inevitable’ would (inevitably) find itself in students’ vocabulary. Furthermore, the paragraph below from the same text would help ‘caution’ and ‘reluctance’ shift ever closer to usage too, words which would come in handy writing about the text.

I have been stressing President Obama’s caution and reluctance to take action. But now it does seems difficult for him to back down without losing face. Unless something changes.

Punctuation

I find it much easier to study punctuation in context. For example, our mentor text has a number of brackets used in different ways:

  • Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise)
  • …a couple of grim bodyguards (Kevin Nash, of all people, and Jeff Chase, a giant 6’7″ bodybuilder).
  • (spoiler!)

The last example is certainly worth drawing attention to. I’d discuss it with students, ask them if it is ‘correct’, ask them if that matters, ask them to write their own. I feel that this approach is much more successful than trying to explain how to use brackets and should complement any explicit teaching of punctuation.

Openings

I’m often greeted with variations of ‘I know what I want to write but I just can’t get started.’ Good mentor texts can show many different ways to get started. When I ask students to write a letter, they can all get started. (I am writing to…) This is obviously not the greatest opening but they have been exposed to letters and letter writing in class so many times over the years that it is encoded. The opening to this review is not ground-breaking…

“Rock of Ages,” a rags-to-riches rock ‘n’ roll musical set mostly in a music club on Sunset Strip, wins no prizes for originality.

…but is still a useful opening to steal: “Gravity,” a stunning adventure story set in open space, wins first prize for visual effects.‘ From there, students can build. We can introduce other review openings and ask students to compare which ones are more effective and why:

  • Combine (1) a mysterious threat that attacks a town, and (2) a group of townspeople who take refuge together, and you have a formula apparently able to generate any number of horror movies, from “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) to “30 Days of Night.”
  • Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery.
  • After opening with one of the most terrifying flying scenes I’ve witnessed, in which an airplane is saved by being flown upside down, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” segues into a brave and tortured performance by Denzel Washington — one of his very best.

Sentences

A sentence is a mentor text. We can use them on their own to highlight aspects of the writer’s craft or we can identify sentences of note in larger texts. In our mentor text, I noticed the following:

  • If you’re tracking those names, you’re perhaps impressed.
  • If you are of a certain age, you may remember them.
  • If you’re making the kind of movie where everybody in the audience knows for sure what’s going to happen, it’s best not to linger on the recycled bits.

Students can be asked to create their own. They can keep bits of the sentences or lose it all. They might play with the order. We could look at who ‘you’ is and the effect of that. Is ‘you’ the same in all sentences?

I’d also play around with a sentence like, ‘In a movie where all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves, Tom Cruise is the most merciless on himself.’

  • In a movie where all the__________________, x is the most__________________.
  • In a scene where none of the__________________, x is the least__________________.
  • In a world where__________________, x__________________.

Paragraphs

Of course they also fall in love. Of course they have heartfelt conversations while standing behind the “Hollywood” sign. Of course they break up because of a tragic misunderstanding. Of course their mistake is repaired and (spoiler!) they’re back together at the end. Has ever a romance in a musical been otherwise?

This paragraph is perfect for a review and perfect to steal. It could fit into any review which touches upon typical genre conventions. It could be used in isolation as an introduction to anaphora. It could be used in a Media Studies lesson to explore genre. The idea of constructing a paragraph can be difficult to grasp and examples like this are priceless in helping to show what is possible.

For more on mentor texts, I’d recommend reading anything by Kelly Gallagher.