Somewhere along the way I picked up a bias against using questions in my writing. Recently I've been reading more about persuasive writing and ideas, and came across a suggestion that asking questions creates drama which can be valuable too (in Made to Stick by Chip Heath).

For example, in a paper I'm editing they write:

"Can we really be satisfied with less than half of our students failing a national standard for such a core subject? The fact that the majority of students across the nation are falling behind must mean that something is wrong. Reading is a core skill essential to every child’s development in both person and professional spheres."

In the past I would've suggested they delete the question, but I see the value and increased drama in that call-response format.

What would be the correct way to do this, if there is one? I'm curious both about writing like the above, and less formal persuasive writing (like sending an email to a potential client or convincing your boss to give you a raise).

  • Some context would help here. Who is the intended audience of this paper you are editing?
    – CandiedOrange
    Dec 15, 2015 at 4:20
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    Anybody who cares about reading as an educational issue. I'm asking about the general case though -- not just this paper in particular.
    – Max Caldwell
    Dec 15, 2015 at 4:26
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    In my opinion, questions are a matter of style, and, when not overused, they can add value to an essay. I don't think there is a "correct way" or hard-and-fast rule to go by.
    – PlasmaStarfish
    Dec 15, 2015 at 5:06
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    Rhetorical questions (like the one you include in the block quotation) are a staple of arguments at all levels; and the reason they are so popular is that they are (or can be) effective as persuasive tools. If the point is to win the argument—rather than, say, to present a measured and logical argument that eschews ridicule, hyperbole, and cheap emotional appeals to the reader or listener—there is no reason to declare rhetorical questions off-limits.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 15, 2015 at 6:06

1 Answer 1


This is a rhetorical question and, used well, can enhance the essay. The key to using this device is to first raise a question, issue, or concern that the reader might reasonably have, and then to address it. You are, essentially, putting a question in the "mouth" of your reader so that you can go on to answer it.

Because you control both sides of the dialogue, you can "spin" the question. This is commonly done in persuasive writing. Your example is:

Can we really be satisfied with less than half of our students failing a national standard for such a core subject?

You could write that more neutrally as: "Are our students doing well enough?" But since you want to make the point that no, we shouldn't be satisfied with this state of affairs, you write it more provocatively. Be careful of going too far, though; if you cross into absurdity or something that reads as ad-hominem, you'll probably lose readers.

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