The persuasive essay and the argumentative essay are often mentioned in conjunction because they share a similar goal: to bring a reader around to a particular point of view. However, a persuasive essay differs slightly from an argumentative essay both in tone and intention. An argumentative essay will often--but not always--try to convince a reader that one of two or more opposing views is best. The emphasis, as a result, often falls on opposition. Although a persuasive essay writer also attempts to bring readers around to a point of view, she or he is much more likely to do so by presenting a case than by arguing against another case. When considering how to approach a persuasive essay, consider whether you would rather live with a partner who offers opposing arguments all the time or one who is willing to persuasively present a point of view without judging or dismissing your point of view.
In many ways, the persuasive essay offers more flexibility than an argumentative essay, and for this reason most academic writing may be described as persuasive rather than argumentative in nature. Most good academic and professional writing, in other words, seeks to persuade readers of a particular point of view rather than arguing against opposing points of view. By contrast, much bad, shallow, and didactic academic writing results from arguing against an opponent, who the audience usually knows is nothing but a straw man. The argumentative essay provides writers with a chance to examine and question others' points of view. The persuasive essay gives readers a chance to become open to a point of view about which they may have no pre-existing opinion whatsoever, and about which there may not exist an exact opposing point of view at all.
It may be a good idea to think of a persuasive essay as a cross between an argumentative essay and an expository essay. Persuasive essay writers seek to expose or reveal the answer to a question, such as "What is the good?" or "How do molecules behave in a linear accelerator?" Writers of persuasive essays do seek to correct what they see as a pre-existing error in another point of view, an insufficient definition of "the good," for example, or the necessity for taking into account overlooked variables. In seeking to correct a previous error, however, a persuasive essay should do little more than briefly mention this error before simply and humbly offering evidence that complicates or corrects previous or opposing claims. In a well-written persuasive essay, the emphasis is on persuading the reader that one's point of view is valid, true, or worth considering and ultimately adopting. A persuasive essay writer should not, therefore, focus on others' logical failures. Such an argumentative focus can prejudice readers against your essay and thus undermine the rhetorical goal of gentle persuasion.