The Writing Center

Argument Techniques from Classical Rhetoric

We can still use many techniques from Classical Rhetoric when we argue in writing.  The two presented here are Status and Appeals.  The first helps you clarify your issue and the second shows you how to argue through organizing and addressing readers’ values.

Isolating Your Issue

Status in Latin means “a stand.”  Many students in high school write book reports, but these writing exercises don’t prepare them to take a stand.  Classical rhetoricians like Cicero and Aristotle posed the following 4 questions to work through before writing:

  • Conjecture:  Is there an act to be considered?
  • Definition:  How can the act be defined?
  • Quality:  How serious is the act?
  • Procedure:  Should this act be submitted to some formal procedure?

Will you get your paper written just with these questions?  No, but if you begin here, you will clarify what you are going to argue, and that leads to a high quality paper.

Rational Appeals

In ancient Greece and Rome, orators spent a great amount of time on status and on figuring out which of the appeals below best fit the subject.  They are classified by the type of organization they provide.  This list is taken from Four Worlds of Writing (2nd ed.) by Janice M. Lauer et al.

Descriptive Techniques

  • compelling descriptive example
  • specific applications or illustrations of a principle you hold or advocate
  • set up or refer to a model for action or behavior you propose
  • set up an ideal for an action or behavior you propose

Narrative Techniques

  • show one event is the cause or the effect of another
  • show that an act or event causes favorable or unfavorable consequences
  • show that one thing is the means and the other the end
  • argue waste would occur if some action already begun is abandoned or if some talent or presence is lost
  • show the direction of any stage in a long process
  • show the connection between persons and their actions or the lack of connection between them
  • use the authority of a person, based on his or her creditable actions or experience
  • use a narrative example to support your focus

Classification Techniques

  • use an analogy (a way far out comparison), showing how a relationship in one sphere that resembles a relationship in another sphere that supports your focus
  • classify someone in a group and show the implications of membership in that group
  • use a comparison or contrast to support your focus


Persuasive writing is the most challenging type of writing because you have to answer arguments sometimes (called rebuttals).  If you want to argue something commonly held, you can use the above rational appeals, and you can, if you have quotes, fully quote the opposition before you argue it.  Allow yourself to point out at least one valid claim the opposition has before you argue it.  Arguing without doing so makes your argument unbalanced and your thinking ungenerous.

Affective Appeals

Imagine your reader after he or she has read your paper:  what do you want to have happen (e.g. an A on your paper, agreement with your position, some type of action taken that you’ve proposed)?  What do you have to do in your writing to evoke that response? 

If your audience is a college professor seeking to enhance your upper-division writing skills in a WAC course, I imagine that that professor will want the following things:

  • clear, reasoned appeals based on reasonable evidence
  • excellent critical thinking skills
  • demonstration that you are willing to learn more about advanced thinking and writing in this course
  • appropriate style and vocabulary (no contractions, no clichés, a variety of sentence patterns, correct grammar, correct spelling, appropriate format, diction more formal than informal, the appearance of the paper professional—dark print, no stains)

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