Rarely say never: Essentialist rhetorical choices in college students' perceptions of persuasive writing


  • Lauren K. Salig
  • L. Kimberly Epting
  • Lizabeth A. Rand




essentialism, dualistic language, persuasive writing, college writing


Research on persuasive writing has investigated writing quality but has not fully considered students’ perceptions of writing and of the language used in persuasive writing. Essentialist language – including words like “always,” “every,” and “prove” – insists on one explanation, ruling out other possibilities and making for poorer-quality, one-sided arguments. In Study 1, undergraduates provided characteristics they believed were important to writing and listed rhetorical indicators of those characteristics. Analysis revealed students identified essentialist-related characteristics (e.g., one-sidedness, inclusion of other viewpoints) as related to writing persuasiveness. Study 2 investigated students’ actual reactions to essentialist language. Participants read pairs of writing samples (one with essentialist language, one non-essentialist), indicated which was better and why, and rated each sample’s persuasiveness. Results revealed no difference in how often students chose essentialist samples or non-essentialist samples as better, although different reasons were associated with essentialist and non-essentialist choices. Students who preferred non-essentialist writing rated it as more persuasive, but students with essentialist or no preference rated the persuasiveness of essentialist and non-essentialist samples similarly. These results support the notion that many undergraduates fail to consistently adjust their judgments of essentialist writing to align with a reported awareness of the essentialism-persuasiveness relationship.



How to Cite

Salig, L. K., Epting, L. K., & Rand, L. A. (2018). Rarely say never: Essentialist rhetorical choices in college students’ perceptions of persuasive writing. Journal of Writing Research, 9(3), 301–333. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2018.09.03.03




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