Writing Well: Tug the Heartstrings: Appeal to Emotion

Tug the Heartstrings: Appeal to Emotion

Writer's Block

Chief Joseph (1840?-1904), leader of the Nez Perce tribe originally from Oregon, was one of the finest Native American generals. After the government broke their treaties, the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, mounted a resistance that aroused even the respect of their enemies. The tribe was hopelessly outnumbered, however, and forced to retreat. On October 5, 1877, after being defeated in a battle in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana, Chief Joseph surrendered. The tribe moved first to a reservation in Oklahoma and then to Washington.

I Will Fight No More Forever

  • Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes and no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food: no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.
  • —Chief Joseph, 1877

Chief Joseph uses emotion to persuade his audience that he will never again fight a battle. The stately sentences, simple diction, and poignant details combine to create a tragic tone that convinces readers of his sincerity—and his heartbreak.

An effective essay can draw its strength from facts and reasoning, but logic can carry you just so far with certain readers. Depending on your audience and topic, you're going to want to pour on some feeling. You do this by appealing to your reader's needs:

  • Physical needs (food, water, sleep, air, protection from injury and harm)
  • Social needs (status, power, freedom, approval, belonging, fitting in)
  • Psychological needs (love, affection, security, self-esteem, respect)
Writer's Block

Don't use appeals to emotion in place of solid arguments or to stir up feelings that are dangerous or harmful.

Following is an example of a persuasive appeal that relies on emotion. It's from Thomas Paine's The Crisis. Paine's essay was so effective that it propelled the colonies into the Revolutionary War.

  • These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW deserves the love and thanks for man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; 'tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then there is no such thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God …
  • —Thomas Paine, The Crisis, Number I (1776)
Write Angles

When you're addressing an audience that doesn't agree with your argument, search for common ground, or areas of agreement. If you can get readers to agree with you on one point, they're more likely to be persuaded by your other points.

The Moment of Truth

Which persuasive strategy do you use? Use reason, emotion, and ethics (or some combination of these) based on the following considerations:

  • What kind of persuasion is most likely to sway your readers as you deal in an open and honest manner?
  • What objections, if any, are they likely to have to your argument?
  • How strong is your case? (Use more examples, facts, statistics, and other “hard” proof if your argument is weak.)
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.