West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ An Overview of the Rhetorical Situation ~~
Some generic steps that individual writers can adopt to their own style:
You also need to consider the overall purpose of the writing that you do.
the Eagles game one Sunday, I was surprised to hear one of the
commentators mention "rhetoric." Apparently one of the players had
earned a degree in Rhetoric, and John Madden, in his trademark goofy
way, couldn't figure out what that was. He made fun of it for a minute
or two. (I guess the game was pretty slow.) "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." Sometimes it's defined as "writing persuasively." 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. By the same token, rhetoric isn't just writing, it's writing well.
And that's what we're about in this class. Practicing writing, but also, becoming aware of strategies for writing well, writing effectively. "Rhetorical strategies" are strategies to help you write well, strategies for developing your ideas so that they fully communicate to readers. Learning these strategies gives you options in terms of direction; they provide an entrance and in the end they drive your message home. To try to write essays without them would be like trying to drive to the shore without knowing where the roads are. You know you have to go east, but how?
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: Writer, Audience, and Purpose
WRITING WITH AN EXPRESSIVE PURPOSE
If you were to write about "freedom" with an expressive purpose, you might write something like:
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:
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 hypothetical "freedom" assignment, you might have arrived at a topic like one of these:
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:
Or you may want to inform:
Or you may want to interpret:
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:
WRITING WITH A PERSUASIVE PURPOSE
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:
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. To persuade only through emotional appeals is more akin to salesmanship and propaganda, less akin to rational argument.
Questions? Contact me.
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