How to Create “Energy” in Persuasive Writing

How to Create “Energy” in Persuasive Writing

Overview: This interactive activity encourages students to re-think their strategies for organizing their essays.

Author: Erik Ellis

Activity name: How to Create “Energy” in Persuasive Writing

Description: Guide students through an interactive handout that distills into 8 pages the wisdom of Peter Elbow’s 46-page CCC essay “The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing” (57:4/June 2006). The handout features several writing exercises, and it presents opportunities for the class to sing and to watch relevant musical video clips.

Course: PWR 1/PWR 2

Schedule: This activity can work well when students are almost ready to write a draft of their essay. It can help them think of alternative structures, so that they don’t fall back on old formulas. Of course, you may want them to fall back on old formulas. Check out the handout—and ideally Elbow’s essay itself—and see what you think. It takes an entire class period to go through the handout, including exercises and video clips.

Goals: To help students think more rhetorically and creatively about how to organize their writing. To invite them to consider Elbow’s argument that “[c]onventional kinds of organization prevent the kind of energy-based organization that gives readers any reason for actually wanting to keep on reading.”

Activity details: See handouts: How to Create Energy in Prose & Elbow's Music of Form.

Additional notes:  For the “Organization in Music” section on page 2 of the handout, it’s fun to have students actually sing “Happy Birthday” but leave off the last phrase. That way they can feel the “itch”—that moment of expectation. I tend to leave a long pause, then finish the song so they can feel the satisfactory “scratch.” Elbow argues, “Successful writers lead us on a journey to satisfaction by way of expectations, frustrations, half satisfactions, and temporary satisfactions: a well-planned sequence of yearnings and reliefs, itches and scratches.”

There are 16 sections on the handout. Consider reading the overview yourself, then going around and having each student read a section. Ask students to put some energy into their reading as well.

Page 4 of the handout asks students to read the first two pages of three scholarly journal articles—deliberately chosen to match my theme and show a variety of styles—and to rank the amount of “energy” in each one. It’s fun to have students transfer their responses to the board and ask them to explain their reasoning. Good discussion typically ensues, especially if you ask students to focus on details.

The screenshot of “Mozart” on p.7 can serve as a reminder to show a clip from Amadeus that goes nicely with Elbow’s point about how writers can maintain readers’ interest by starting a with an oversimplification and then gradually complicating it. Search YouTube for “Mozart vs. Salieri,” and you’ll find the short clip that shows Mozart dramatically embellishing Salieri’s simple melody. Another fun video that makes this point is the one where a professional violinist, when interrupted by a Nokia ringtone, proceeds to do a brilliant riff off of it.

This activity was originally published as an Activity of the Week in spring 2014.