15 Argumentation in the Professional World

Susan Willis

by Rob Drummond and adapted by Susan Willis

Writing Beyond the Classroom

Let’s begin by being real with each other: you’re probably in this class because you have to be. It fulfills a Gen Ed writing requirement you need to graduate, and you wouldn’t be here otherwise. And there is a good chance you’re not absolutely thrilled about it.

That’s OK. I think I understand, but let me take a stab at some of your potential reactions to finding yourself in this writing class this term:

  • You’re in kinesiology, business, psychology, dentistry, nursing, and so on, and you’re absolutely positive you won’t be doing any writing in your future professional life. This class is just one more hoop to jump through in your undergrad career, one more time the university takes your money through no choice of yours, slowing your progress through your major and toward that sweet j-o-b waiting at the end of it.
  • And/or maybe you feel you’ve already taken a gazillion writing classes since you started school, which has only ever meant writing boring essays about Romeo and Juliet or Animal Farm or, even worse, poetry. The only thing you actually learned about writing in those classes was that your job as a student was to figure out a particular writing teacher’s Secret Writing Formula and give it back to them, and you’ve done that plenty. So why do you have to do it again now, when you should be spending every class and dollar on your major that will lead to that j-o-b? Or worse still, those writing teachers’ Secret Writing Formulas never seemed accessible to you, and you long ago threw up your hands in despair.
  • Or you truly enjoyed your writing and literature courses—you may even possibly enjoy the act of writing (imagine!)—and, not for nothing, you feel like your writing is pretty darn good already, so you can’t help but resent finding yourself in this required course among all these non-writers because you already know all this stuff and more.

If any of these overlap with your feelings about being in this course, I get it. I also readily acknowledge that you might not fit neatly into any of these categories—one of the best things about Lewis-Clark State College is that our students come from all different cultures and stages of life and scholastic and socioeconomic backgrounds. So instead of trying to identify all of your individual circumstances, let me state two things everyone reading this shares:

  1. You’ve all made it this far somehow, jumping through hoop after writing-requirement hoop, and
  2. Your schooling is much closer to its end than its beginning.

Which means, in your immediate future, there will be no more teachers to please or impress and no more Secret Writing Formulas to decipher and reproduce. For most of you, this class represents your last—and in a tragedy for another day, possibly your first and only—course devoted solely to writing in your undergraduate career. You are spiraling at full tilt toward the moment when you will never again receive any help or advice or instruction on anything you’ve written, and you obviously won’t get a grade on it, either.

You may silently or openly cheer as you read those sentences. Good riddance to writing and the teachers who teach it! But consider that no matter your major or your career, the one thing you’ll still have to do from time to time in your done-with-school life is try to convince someone to do a thing you want them to do. And I’m sorry to add that sometimes you’ll have to do it in writing.

You will, in other words, petition gatekeepers to open their gates for you. And as you may already know, these moments tend to be rather high-stakes in our lives.

So there you are: you really need another person to do something for you, to give you something, to let you into something, or to stop doing something, but if you can’t apply the elements of strong, clear, and moving argument-making to your writing in those high-stakes moments, this person or organization won’t just give you a C− and invite you to revise for a better grade.

They’ll simply say no.

No, we’re not giving you that raise. No, the city council rejects your proposal for a new business, thanks but no thanks for working on it for the last two years. No, we’re not bringing you in for an interview for your dream job. Nope, you’ve failed to convince us that our grad school program is the right fit for you. No, you haven’t convinced your uncle on social media to reconsider his stance on that far-out conspiracy theory, and the next family gathering is going to be a nightmare as a result. No, we’re sorry to inform you that at this time, we are unable to fund your project; we received 374 more compelling and persuasive applications, and we have limited funds available. And no, I’d prefer not to marry you; I’m going to marry this other person who has proven far better at persuading me they will be a better roommate, partner, and coparent.


So maybe take a pause on blindly celebrating that in ten short weeks, you’ll be done with your life’s writing instruction, and instead consider how little time you’ve spent in your schooling thinking about how to use your writing to get what you want, to get what you need.

Because when your cap and gown are in the rearview and you find yourself faced with a high-stakes writing task demanding that you move some powerful gatekeeper from a no to a crucial yes—your future, your happiness, your whole life plan depend on getting them to yes—you’ll beg, borrow, and steal any concrete strategies that might work to persuade that powerful entity to open their specific gate to you.

Will you sometimes find yourself in situations that are more subtle and decidedly less “me versus them”? Absolutely and of course. But I find it refreshing and helpful at the outset to set aside academese and focus on stripped-down persuasion in its most basic form, simply getting that important person from no to yes.

The problem? Getting someone, anyone, from no to yes is, well, hard. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, please, it can’t be that hard. I’ve written five-page papers in two hours with my eyes closed countless times and still gotten As. I’ll be just fine out there.” But alas, your past successes at reproducing a teacher’s Secret Writing Formula or BSing your way to an A in eleventh grade won’t actually help as much as you might think. Believe it or not, real-life human beings can actually see right through that stuff pretty quickly. (And newsflash: your writing teachers saw through it too. They just kept it to themselves in the name of higher-order concerns.)

In fact, I bet you’ll find that getting an acceptable grade on an essay is far easier than changing another person’s mind in the real world. Why? Human beings don’t like changing their minds. We like to think we know what we want and don’t want, we believe what we believe, we are quite sure we know what’s best for our company, our medical school, our city, our lives, and we don’t much listen to folks who want to convince us of something to the contrary.

If you’re still viewing this class as just one more course disconnected from the important work you’ll be doing once you land that sweet j-o-b, let me be more direct: there is no job, and no life situation, that won’t involve persuading folks in all sorts of ways all the time. This course is going to teach you how to perceive and address the needs of those people so that you can have a shot to persuade them successfully.

Examples of Persuasion

Besides academic writing, there are a multitude of situations for which argument writing or elements of argument are integrated. Let’s take a look at some of those situations beyond the classroom when you initiate or may be asked to write a persuasive piece. Turn the pages to learn about common situations that require your powers of persuasion, grit and determination, and spirit of inquiry.

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Music in Your Words Copyright © 2023 by Susan Willis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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