Persuasive passages test a reader’s ability to spot an author’s opinion and the writing tactics the author used to sway the reader's thoughts and actions. These passages include editorials, essays, letters, reviews and blogs. Sometimes, authors adhere to logical arguments to make their case. Other times, authors resort to deceptive trickery. Readers need tools for spotting the author’s purpose and evaluating the argument in the piece.
Identify the Text's Persuasive Components
Most persuasive texts have similar components that the reader needs to identify. Somewhere in the piece -- usually near the opening -- the author either states or implies a thesis, which reveals his opinion or position on the topic. The body of the passage is built around supporting reasons, evidence and examples. The reader needs to recognize all the supporting details in the piece. The author may anticipate counterarguments and present a preemptive rebuttal. Generally, the piece ends by reiterating the author’s purpose and calling for the reader to take action or change his thinking. Listing or outlining these components makes it easier for the reader to explore the writer’s argument in depth.
Ask Questions About the Text
Readers need to ask themselves questions as they explore an opinion piece, says professor Kathryn Walbert of the University of North Carolina. First, she wants readers to ask what they know about the author and topic, which can provide insight into the opinion and argument. Readers also need to identify the intended audience for the piece, Walbert says. She also encourages readers to identify the types of evidence the writer uses, including facts, quotes, statistics and historical examples. Finally, Walbert believes readers should ask, “What other opinions or arguments could be made for against the topic in this piece?”
Spot Flaws in Logic
The thoughtful reader should try to pick out fallacies, or flaws in logic, in the author’s argument. For example, you should look for places where the author makes broad generalizations. Words like "all" or "every" often signal flaws in logic. Saying “all teenagers are irresponsible,” for instance, is an over generalization. No one could prove that every teen in the world is irresponsible. Authors may also attempt to blur the lines between popular opinion and truth. You should look for phrases like, "Most people agree..." or "The majority of American's think..." Such statements may sound convincing, but they don't necessarily equate with the truth. Think of it this way: at one time, the majority of people thought the world was flat, but that didn't make it true.
Persuasive writing doesn’t require the author to uses facts accurately or completely, says literacy expert Douglas Fisher. In other words, writers may misrepresent the truth or leave out key information. For this reason, he believes in teaching readers to examine facts skeptically. Once the reader determines that the author has a bias, the next step is to examine the truth in the evidence. Political commentaries on editorial pages or blogs, for example, may include very different accounts of the same situation. The reader must consider if individuals quoted in articles are misquoted or if the quotes were taken out of context and examine if the supporting evidence of a persuasive piece is factual.
- Writers at Work: The Essay; Dorothy Zemach and Lynn Strafford-Yilmaz
- Learn NC: Reading Newspapers: Editorial and Opinion Pieces
- University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Writing Center: Fallacies
- Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives; Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
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