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West Chester University

Fall 2002

West Chester University

Spring 2002

Fall 2001





Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assignments
  LIT 165 Announcements
  Lit 165 Assignments


Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join an Online Forum
  WRT 120 Composition Forum
  LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum

~~ An Overview of the Rhetorical Situation ~~

Soon we'll discuss the writing process, because I want you to begin to see the writing you do for school that way—as something refined that takes shape over the course of time and through many steps, some of which involve hard work. In addition, it makes sense to talk about process at the beginning, because it's something you can apply to each essay you write, whether for this or any class, no matter the content or the purpose.

Some generic steps that individual writers can adopt to their own style:

1. GENERATING IDEAS (brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, using questions, outlining)
2. WRITING A ROUGH DRAFT. (keep it rough, bang it out, let the creative juices flow)
3. REVISE (improve effectiveness by sharpening the focus, adding development, adjusting organization, improving structure and style)
4. EDITING (fixing grammar, punctuation, spelling, conventions, typos)
5. PROOFREAD (catch your typos, make sure your corrections are made)

You also need to consider the overall purpose of the writing that you do.

Watching the Eagles game one Sunday, I was surprised to hear the commentators mention "rhetoric." One of the players from UCAL-Berkeley had a degree in rhetoric, and John Madden couldn't figure out what that was. Ha, ha. They made fun of it for some minutes. ("Isn't rhetoric just what we do all the time? Isn't it just 'talking'? )

Well, in a way, it is. He wasn't far from it. Actually, rhetoric, defined by the dictionary last time I looked, is the "art of speaking or writing effectively." So rhetoric isn't just talking, it's talking well. As in, making a speech and getting people to listen to you and agree with you. Or getting them to vote for you. Or getting them on your side. Or getting them to donate money to your cause. And by the same token, rhetoric isn't just writing, it's writing well.

And that's what we're about in this class. Figuring out strategies for writing well. And we'll use things (I've already mentioned them) like rhetorical strategies. There's that word again. It makes sense now. They simply mean strategies for writing effectively—in this case, strategies for developing your ideas so that they fully communicate to readers.

Most writing textbooks advise students who want to write effectively to become aware of the "rhetorical situation" (that word again). The rhetorical situation is, simply, those factors present at the time of writing which effect communication and therefore those factors which writers must be aware of if they're to write well. The rhetorical situation involves three key players: the WRITER, the AUDIENCE, and the PURPOSE of the writing.

The Rhetorical Situation

Who are you? What persona you want to project in your writing? Do you want your readers to see you as someone who's serious, someone who's laid back, someone who has a cause, someone who has a beef, someone who is intensely involved, someone who maintains objective distance? Who are you in this paper? If you're not there at all, pick something else to write about, until you have a topic you want be involved with. How will you project this person to the reader, since we only have the words on the page to help us know you? What kind of "voice" do you want to use? Will it be intimate and personal, warm and funny, clever and ironic, glib, self-deprecating? Will you use formal language, casual language, street language, slang, professional jargon? It may be decided for you by the assignment at hand. If so, you want to maintain the appropriate voice in your writing, and the first step is figuring out who the voice will be in your paper. It's usually the voice of a piece of writing that makes the biggest impression on the reader. It's what gives us the impression there's a human being behind those typeset letters. We connect with the human being, not the million dollar words or the correct grammar, although it's nice when those are there, too.

Another important piece of the puzzle, the rhetorical situation, is figuring out who will be reading your paper. Who is your target audience? This can make a huge difference when it comes to both the style and the content of your paper. If I'm writing a piece about the Richard Thompson concert I saw last week (I wish), then what I write is partly determined by who my audience is. If I'm writing for a young audience, I might focus on reviewing not only the musical aspect of the concert but the general atmosphere, describing the "scene." My style would probably be casual and I might use a lingo or references familiar to a younger crowd. But if I'm writing for the Wall St. Journal, I might go for more of a business angle. What kind of profit has the tour produced? How are Thompson's records selling? And my style would be more objective, certainly no slang. On the other hand, if I'm writing for Acoustic Guitar (a monthly magazine), I might focus on the instruments Thompson is currently playing-the types of guitars, their unique sound-or I might focus on his playing style, or his style through the years. If I'm writing for the ASCAP (a songwriter's union) Newsletter, I might discuss Thompson's new record label (supposing he had one) or his recording contract, his publishing rights or royalties, whether he's been a successful, profitable act.

Any time you sit down to produce a piece of writing, you have to ask, (1) who am I in this piece, and (2) who am I writing to, BUT you also have to ask: what am I trying to accomplish? What is my purpose? There are several ways to describe a writer's purpose. I've come to use these three because I find them sensible, useful. When I try to define my purpose, I'm asking myself whether, specifically, I am trying to be expressive, objective (expository), or persuasive.

If you have an expressive purpose you want to reveal or share something about yourself. You are inviting the reader into your heart and/or mind and share your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc. If you chose to do an expressive essay, for instance, on the topic of freedom, you may have wanted to describe something specific like an event, a person, or a feeling you remember. And you may have needed to explain a few things along the way, but your overriding purpose was get yourself onto that paper. You were baring your soul, more or less. And though you may wonder if in the end it will be interesting to readers, you do it anyway, in the hope that your reader will in some way relate to those feelings, those thoughts, those experiences. You hope that reading about your experiences will be beneficial to your readers in some way. Maybe there's a lesson you've learned, an insight you've had, a unique way of looking at the world you want to share, a quirky but engaging perspective this experience has given you. Maybe you have a desire to influence others in some way by relating your experience, but you don't want to argue or persuade.

If you had an expressive purpose for the "freedom" assignment, You may have written something like:

  • Freedom came like a whirlwind that year when I met Jim.
  • Nance seemed to be pretty disappointed that I wasn't just like her. Even though we were roommates, I could tell we'd never be friends. More than ever, I realized I needed the freedom to live in my own space.
  • Learning to ride a bike was probably my first taste of the joyous kind of freedom that comes when we break through long standing boundaries.

All of these topics invite personal, expressive stories that come from the writer's recent or remembered experience. These topics are ready to be recalled and related into vivid, descriptive, engaging prose that readers can consume with interest because they are human, too. You may write something they can relate to, and that they appreciate hearing from another person. You may be the one to give voice to a feeling someone previously had trouble articulating.

The rhetorical strategies you use to develop expressive essays tend to be description and narration. The style that's usually appropriate is 1st person (I, me, my, myself, etc.) because you want the reader to focus on you. The first person point of view helps you achieve that.

While we're on the subject of "point of view," consider the difference between these two statements:

[1] I thought his speech was horrible.

[2] His speech was horrible.

In the first statement, the 1st person point of view, the "subjective style," places the emphasis on what the writer thinks, and no justification is really necessary; the reader is probably willing to extend the benefit of the doubt because everyone's entitled to an opinion, and expressive essays are all about sharing opinions, thoughts, feelings, experiences, etc. However, in the slightly different second statement, the third person, or "objective style" places the emphasis is on the speech, and if the writer doesn't provide justification, the reader is bound to lose patience with the writer who just likes to mouth off opinions that sound objective without backing them up. So the writer has to EXPLAIN--the speech was horrible BECAUSE it went on too long, was composed of cliché after tired cliché, was full of empty, undeliverable promises, and seemed targeted at people who aren't intelligent enough to ask simple, critical questions, like, "If you are pro-education, why have you consistently voted to lower the budget for educational programs that might help bring experienced teachers to inner-city schools?" So this 3rd person point of view, this "objective style," which EXPLAINS, is more appropriate for an objective purpose.


When you write with an objective purpose, you are usually trying to explain, analyze, inform, or objectively interpret something (you can subjectively, or expressively, interpret things, as well).

If you had an expressive purpose for the "freedom" assignment, you might have arrive at a topic like one of these:

  • Conformity is a prison; freedom is the frontier.
  • Freedom is the natural state of humanity, and any government which constrains this natural freedom is dehumanizing and unjust.

These topics invite the reader to follow along as the writer explains what he/she means by the idea expressed. The paper will likely stay focused on the ideas discussed, and rarely, if ever, get personal.

Other objective kinds of topics might be:

  • What does moral freedom mean?
  • What is the value of freedom to a slave?

Or you may want to inform:

  • The existentialists believe that external value systems (organized religion, secular ethics, etc.) are inherently meaningless and that the only way to cope with the terrifying prospect of complete moral freedom is for individuals to assume responsibility.

Or you may want to interpret:

  • Freedom, like the song says, is "just another word for nothin' left to lose." To be free is to be free of all constraint, including moral constraint.

In each case, you are maintaining some objective distance from your topic, and the purpose of your writing has shifted from expressive to expository--from writing that's focused on you, the writer, to writing that's focused on ideas, subject matter. Notice the absence of 1st person references in these examples. They are all written in the 3rd person to keep attention on the subject matter and not on the writer.

Several strategies in addition to narration and description can help you develop objective, expository writing:

  • Illustration--use examples
  • Comparison/Contrast--discuss similarities and/or differences
  • Classification--break down your topic into categories, kinds, or types
  • Definition--discuss the meaning of a term (usually abstract ones that are open to individual interpretation)
  • Cause and Effect Analysis--discuss causes or reasons and consequences or results
  • Process Analysis--discuss the steps involved in reaching a goal
  • Analogy--create an extended comparison (i.e. "Freedom is a frontier--it's exciting, boundless, full of surprises, and challenging. It'll rough you up sometimes, but it's all worth it.)


When you write with a persuasive purpose you're trying to convince your readers to change their minds about something. You may even be trying to get them to act in a way they wouldn't have before. Sometimes it's not enough to simply express or explain your point of view--you want to change somebody's mind or their behavior. Both of these goals may be very difficult to reach. Just try to think of the last time you convinced someone that you were right in a disagreement. Wasn't it hard? Parents fight this good fight all the time, trying to convince their children to listen to them! Unless you're comfortable being a tyrant, you struggle with it, trying to convince through logic and reasoning. Of course it never works with kids! But it's supposed to...

Persuasion is a powerful life skill. And when you think about it, you're bombarded with persuasive messages every day in the form of advertisements. Politicians advertise themselves. Buy me, vote for me. It's an endless mantra in America. What are the ads that break through? Which ones are actually persuasive in some way? The ones that least annoy you? The ones that make you feel represented? The ones that entertain your libido? Chances are that your reasons for being persuaded by an advertisement have very little to do with logical reasoning or evidence, as they might in an ethical, above board argument. Because that's not what an ad tries to do. Ads persuade people by making them feel a certain way. Ad makers hope their audiences will check their brains at the front of the set while viewing ads. The whole process is degrading, irrational, and manipulative. But we have to live it every day, because advertising is what drives our whole economic system, which is fast becoming a global economic system. Hello capitalism. Hello world capitalism.

But as Americans we also live in a free (supposedly), democratic (supposedly) society in which issues can be and are debated, and rational arguments are put forth by responsible people who have the public interest in mind. And it's the citizen's duty to consider these arguments and decide which is the more rational and sane, which has the stronger logical stance, and the most compelling evidence. The citizen has the last say.

If you can understand an argument, if you can recognize when you ought to be persuaded and when you ought not be persuaded, then you can construct one as well. Or perhaps it's the learning to construct a sound argument that best teaches you how to recognize one.

In either case, when you write persuasively, you are attempting to blend the expository mode (explaining, informing, analyzing, interpreting) with an argumentative strategy--stating your claim, defending it with logical reasoning and various kinds of evidence, anticipating counterarguments and refuting them. You are always focused on readers who disagree with you, trying to find convincing evidence that will persuade them to change their minds, trying to ease them down a new road with a logical line of reasoning.

An argumentative topic based on the "freedom" assignment may have sounded something like this:

  • Freedom is every living person's birthright.
  • American citizens today are too quick to trade in their liberties in the name of law and order, seeking a sense of security that can't be legislated.

These topics are each debatable in some way. The writer tries to win the debate through logical reasoning and evidence, resorting to emotional appeals only as a supplement to sound reasoning, never as the main show.







Questions? Contact me.

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