Persuasive Prompts in Essay Writing

Argumentation (persuasion) and exposition are the most common modes of writing asked for in timed writing tests. In this essay, we’ll
explore the conventions of persuasion. Here is a sample persuasive prompt:

Recent funding cuts have been made to the school district. To cope with the problem, your school board has plans to eliminate all sports and music programs. Some members of the community have questioned the board’s controversial proposal. Write a letter to the editor arguing your point of view on the proposal. Be sure to support your position with reasons, examples, facts, and/or other evidence. Readers should feel convinced to take your position seriously.

Close examination of the language of this prompt reveals several key terms. Words like controversial, support, and convinced all suggest the need to make an argument, to persuade readers. You are left with the choice of whether to support or oppose the proposal, but regardless of your choice, you will need to provide support for your claims, as the directive to provide “reasons, examples, facts, and/or other evidence” suggests.

After you have worked through the PAQs, brainstormed some possible approaches to a prompt, and written a draft, you’ll have a new strategy for taking ownership of prompts by transforming them into topics you can write about. One of the challenges of writing in response to any prompt is figuring out how to transform it into something you can write about, or how to “own” it.

Taking ownership of an assignment, whether one given in class or included in a writing test, is an essential skill for writers. In the process of making an assignment your own, you also choose a focus for the essay, identify an audience, and take a step toward establishing tone. Exercises like the ones we’ve given you should help demystify prompts and help you see them as opportunities to take ownership of your writing.

A Longer Persuasive Prompt

We’ve dealt with a persuasive prompt that gave you little information; now let’s look at one that includes much more information. The challenge here is to use the instructions in a productive way, without getting bogged down in reading the prompt.

Change is generally considered either an improvement or a change for the worse. Most people resist changes because they feel the old ways are working, so changes are not necessary.

Write a persuasive paper presenting one change you feel is needed. Discuss a change that relates to your school, your community, the state, or the world. Include examples and evidence to support why the change is needed. You should:

  1. Take a few minutes to plan your paper by making notes.
  2. Choose one change you think is needed.
  3. Give specific reasons that explain why this change is needed.
  4. Organize your ideas carefully.
  5. Check that you have correct sentences, punctuation, and spelling.

Before turning to the PAQs, let’s look at what’s different about this prompt and what we can learn from it. This prompt suggests the importance of prewriting in test situations, and we agree that taking time for planning your essay, even under tight time constraints, is important.

Directions two through five can be read in two ways: as an outline of the approach you should take in responding to this prompt and as an outline for a reader’s assessment of your response. That is, the grader is probably looking for one change, specific reasons for the change, and clear and careful organization. Number five, with its explicit reference to sentences, punctuation, and spelling, suggests the need to pay close attention to the conventions of written English. It also suggests the importance of sentence structure.

Now, here is how we might answer the PAQs for the above prompt:

  1. What is the central claim/topic called for?
    One is a key word in the prompt. I should make a claim for only one change and not introduce several. Because I can write about my school, community, state, or world, I have many choices for a topic, and it may be difficult to figure out where to focus.
  2. Who is the intended audience?
    Although no audience is specified, I think it makes sense to address an audience related to the area where I focus my topic—the principal of the school, the mayor of the community, the governor of the state, and so on.
  3. What is the purpose/mode for this writing task?
    Because my purpose is to argue for one change, I’ll be making an argument, but I would probably use narrative or description to lay out the situation I want to change.
  4. What strategies will be most effective?
    Comparison and contrast might be useful if I try to explain the difference my change will make. Of course, I’ll need examples, and definition may also be necessary.
  5. What is my role in achieving the purpose?
    Because I’ll be proposing a change and people don’t always like change, I’ll need to take on the role of expert, and a persuasive one at that.