When you start teaching The Lost Tools of Writing, you notice early that almost all of level one is devoted to teaching the persuasive essay. You might think this rather odd—even boring. After all, aren’t students much more interested in writing stories and exploring their own ideas than they are in writing about irrelevant things, like whether the Roman Senate should have assassinated Julius Caesar, or whether Scout should have crawled under her neighbor’s fence?
Well, maybe. But writing isn’t that simple. When you teach a child to write, you aren’t trying to get him excited; you are trying to help him write well. Excitement follows. Writing is a skill, and a stunningly complex skill at that. Nobody has yet plumbed the depths of what makes a person a good writer or even a good teacher of writing. Many students are intimidated by writing.
What’s Your Point?
But we have discovered one thing over the centuries: many students are intimidated by writing, and those that aren’t should be. Both groups, the fearful and the fearless, need to learn something fundamental about writing: when you write, what matters first is the point you are trying to make, not how you or your audience feel about it.
In fact, the ultimate point of writing is the same as the first: when you write, what matters first and last is the idea you are trying to reveal.
In the Christian, classical tradition, we call this idea the logos, which is Greek for “word,” “idea,” or “message.” Thus we read in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Logos,” and in Revelation 1:17, we read, “I am the first and the last.”
When you write, you, the Image of God the Creator, have a logos to reveal. When you write more sophisticated things (like a poem or a novel), you drop hints about your logos, so the reader has to search it out. This creates the adventure of reading novels and poems.
Writing a Persuasive Essay Takes Skill
But when you begin to learn how to write, more basic skills need your attention. First of all, you need to learn how to identify and express your logos clearly and vividly. In a persuasive essay, it sits on the page, so to speak, dressed in the black and white garments of a simple proposition. You call it the thesis statement. Then, and only then, does your student move on to organize supporting thoughts around that thesis, and then to choose the words and turns of phrase that will make that thesis persuasive, memorable, and beautiful. It begins, however, with the logos.
Thus, by writing the persuasive essay, not only will your student practice writing the basic document that he will need to succeed in college or to make his point at work; not only will he develop habits that will help him make decisions, read books, and communicate with friends and foes; not only will he learn skills that transfer to debate, public speaking, law, medicine, or ministry.
More primary than all of these (and laying the foundation for them), he develops the habit of identifying clearly what his point is.
Imagine what that could do for dinner table conversations!
This post was originally written by Andrew Kern, founder and president of the CiRCE Institute, a non-profit organization that supports classical education and provides The Lost Tools of Writing materials.