What Is the Difference between an Argumentative and Persuasive Essay?

Jo Dunaway

Argumentative and persuasive essays both aim to present a specific point of view, but they are different both in how they get their point across and why. The author of an argumentative essay will usually try to make his or her point through reason. This means identifying the opposing viewpoints andthen using facts, statistics, or other evidence to discredit them so that the reader ultimately concludes that the writer’s position is correct. The persuasive essay, on the other hand, more often uses passion and emotion in an attempt to sway the reader’s loyalties. Opposing views are often acknowledged here, but aren’t usually analyzed. As a result this sort of essay is often perceived to be essentially one-sided and is written based primarily on personal convictions. Argumentative papers are usually structured more like high-level analysis, with sections devoted to looking at key issues from multiple angles.

Persuasive essays attempt to coax readers into the author's point of view.
Persuasive essays attempt to coax readers into the author's point of view.

Argumentative Techniques

In most cases, the argumentative essay is one that objectively states an argument that it then backs up with facts, statistics, and expert evidence. Writers generally acknowledge counterclaims and opposing arguments from the very beginning, but make it their goal to discredit them by appealing to the reader’s reason. As such these sorts of papers often give an overview of all the main arguments or scholarship on a given topic, then build an argument about which is the best or the most correct.

An argumentative essay objectively states an argument that it backs up with facts.
An argumentative essay objectively states an argument that it backs up with facts.

There are a few different techniques writers of these sorts of papers can use, depending on their precise goal. Sometimes the point of the exposition is to demonstrate that the counterclaims are based on outdated information or incomplete research, or they might be discredited as factually inaccurate. The argumentative essay’s goal is to present a whole-cloth argument that will convince a reader because of its grounding in fact and logic.

The writer of this sort of paper knows that readers may not agree at the end of the argument, and in many cases convincing them isn’t really all that important. More essential is that the argument is logical and justifiable. Upon reading the reasons for the position, a reader should at the very least respect the writer’s position, even if he or she does not ultimately think the position is correct.

Passion and Persuasion

Persuasive essays, on the other hand, are usually designed to convince the reader, often by appealing to his or her emotions. Writers will often start out assuming that their readers are incorrect in their views and will then use the essay as a means of correcting or perfecting perceptions. In most cases it is an appeal that makes use of a traditional conceptions of right and wrong, and uses passion to draw the reader alongside the writer for what is more or less a shared walk.

This type of essay acknowledges opposing viewpoints, but doesn’t normally spend much time analyzing them. Instead, writers usually attempt to frame their own perspectives with more convincing language. Persuasive essays are often tailored to appeal to the personal interests, social convictions, and any known passions of the reader, and as such they’re often designed for a specific audience. This is in direct contrast to most argumentative essays, which tend to be written for almost anyone.

Writers of persuasive essays also rely more on human emotions than statistics when making their case. This type of writing focuses on empathetic and persuasive delivery and the writer might present anecdotal storytelling or share personal experience with which the reader can identify. The essay often presents the desired change of mind as a win-win rhetorical situation for both the writer and the reader.

Structural Differences

In most cases these essays are structured really differently, too. Writers with argumentative goals typically handle each issue or element in turn, analyzing it from all sides and then drawing a conclusion consistent with the paper’s thesis. Persuasive pieces, by contrast, more often raise and dismiss opposition at the outset, then spend the bulk of the body paragraphs emphasizing the writer’s position with different examples.

The ways in which the conclusions are presented often differ, too. An argumentative essay will usually end with a recap of all relevant facts and an assertion that the writer’s interpretation is the correct one. The persuasive writer will more often conclude by asking the reader to change his or her mind or “join the cause” presented in the paper.

Possible Places of Overlap

Argumentative and persuasive essays have a similar goal, which is to convince readers that the core assertion is correct or at least well-reasoned. The difference between proving a point and changing someone’s mind can be profound, but in certain aspects — identifying criticism, relating to the reader, and setting an authoritative tone, for instance — there can be similarities, too. A lot depends on the writer, the topic, and the intended audience.

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