Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
by Benjamin Solomon
You could argue that all good writing is persuasive.
To tell a good story, you have to persuade your audience to pay attention using strong details, vivid characters, and an engaging plot. To write an effective report, you need to persuade people that you’re a credible source for facts and that you can interpret them accurately. To write a successful class reflection for your ePortfolio, you need to persuade your teacher that you can think critically about the skills and ideas of the course.
In other words, if you’re going to write effectively—that is, you’re writing to achieve specific, intentional effects with your audience—you’ll need to be persuasive.
Kenneth Burke, a scholar who thought a lot about how writing works, argued that persuasion is really all about “identification.” To persuade me with language, you need to first get me to “identify” with you and your experience of the situation. The more I can see things from your point of view, the more I’m able to connect my own experiences to yours. Persuasion, in this sense, involves a meeting in the middle, a search for common ground, and a deliberate attempt to create a space where your identity and my identity can connect. And while it’s up to you, the writer, to establish that common ground, it’s also up to me, your audience, to meet you there. Approached in this way, persuasion becomes far more of a sharing, give-and-take process than it may appear to be on the surface. We tend to think of persuasion as one-directional, a process in which person A uses their powers to influence the thoughts, behaviors, or actions of person B, but it turns out the process is less about manipulation and more about cooperation and collaboration.
All good writing is persuasive, but certain types of writing overtly foreground an author’s goal of swaying and influencing an audience.
When writers use language to deliberately craft a sense of identification with others—to share how they see the world in compelling ways so that others can see and experience it that way too—they’re using the persuasion effect.
This kind of writing involves an attempt to subtly or overtly convince an audience that specific points of view and/or actions are worth considering. By giving others a vivid picture of our point of view, we work to sway, influence, or otherwise move our audiences—not necessarily to convert them, or make them change their minds completely about an issue, but to invite them to fully consider the merits of another way of seeing things, a new course of action, or the possibility of meaningful change.
Examples of writing that dials up or amplifies the persuasion effect are all over the place. Scholarly writing, both in the humanities and the sciences, tends to favor argument—a form of persuasion in which authors make specific, well-defined claims and then support those claims with reasoning and research. Advertising—on television, the internet, in print—is a fundamental form of persuasion most of us encounter daily. It’s no coincidence that advertising is intensely concerned with identity. The more an advertiser can get you to associate their product with your identity, the more likely you are to buy it. In journalism, the persuasion effect is supposed to be muted entirely in straight news pieces and then, by contrast, turned way up in opinion editorials, commentaries, letters to the editor, and political cartoons. And in professional settings, writers use the persuasion effect in proposals and white papers, and at key moments in reports, evaluations, and memos, not to mention more casual e-mails or text messages.
Like every effect we create in our writing, persuasion often works best when used in concert with other effects. Writers might foreground persuasion but rely on the information, evaluation, and reflection effects to help make their case. Storytelling, or the narration effect, can be deeply effective in helping others identify with a situation and grow sympathetic to a writer’s point of view. In fact, researchers recently found data suggesting that reading literary fiction increases our capacity for empathy, or the ability to understand what others think and feel. Persuasive writers often use the narration effect to generate empathy and help readers identify with them early in a piece of writing, then pivot to a specifically connected argument or claim later on.
What effects are most likely to connect with your audience at the beginning, middle, and end of your piece? What effects should be left out entirely? How can you blend the different effects to make your writing as persuasive as possible for the audience you want to reach?
Check out this overview of all five five effects for more ideas.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1969.