What is Rhetoric, and How Can It Help You As a Writer
A writing process presentation brought to you by the Excelsior University Online Writing Lab
Have you seen the term “rhetoric” used like this?
“It’s going to take more than new rhetoric to put Americans back to work.”
-Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, 2012
“There’s been plenty of fear mongering, plenty of over-heated rhetoric…”
-President Barack Obama, 2012
What do these two politicians mean when they use the word “rhetoric”? Is it empty, political talk, or is there something more to it?
Many people define rhetoric negatively. But, if rhetoric is so bad, just empty words, why are writing teachers always talking about it?
Rhetoric Is More Than Empty Words
This presentation will show you how rhetoric can give you power as a writer, no matter the field, no matter the situation – and power is good, right?
The negative definitions of rhetoric as “empty talk” or “meaningless words” are far too limiting.
Rhetoric is the language of communication, and our focus will be on writing.
A Better Definition of Rhetoric
Rhetoric gives you tools to change the way you think about your writing and the way you write. Essentially, rhetoric is about figuring out what you need to do to be effective when you write.
Why do you need rhetoric to do that? You need rhetoric because your professors and bosses will all have different ideas about what is “right,” and rhetoric will help you determine what “right” means.
[Displayed on screen: Rhetoric – The art or study of using language effectively and persuasively.]
Still not sure about what rhetoric is?
Rhetoric is a study of all the things that are a part of effective writing such as, purpose, audience, voice, as well as concepts like credibility and how we can be persuasive and convincing to our audience.
Rhetoric is like…
Just as mathematics is a study of numbers, equations, and relationships, rhetoric is a study of words, phrases, their relationships, and their impact on people.
Because all fields use writing, learning about rhetoric can help you become a more effective writer regardless of which career path you plan to take.
But rhetoric is old. Why do I need to study it?
Rhetoric is really old. But, since rhetoric is really about people’s perception of writing, it seems to always be relevant. Consider the following…
- Surveys of faculty members across the disciplines indicate that “rhetorical appropriateness,” or writing that is appropriate for a particular genre (type of writing) or assignment, is one of the biggest problems they see in student writing.
- National research indicates students typically are not flexible writers, which leads to problems in college and in the workforce.
And consider this from a report from the National Commission on Writing (2011)… “When education was a private good, available only to a small elite in the United States, grammar, rhetoric, and logic were considered to be the foundation on which real learning and self-knowledge were built… [T]hese three elements should still be pillars of learning.”
The National Commission on Writing has called for more instructions in rhetoric because it works to improve student writing!
The Rhetoric of Your Writing Assignments: What does it mean to think or write rhetorically?
Whether your professors say it or not, they have some specific rhetorical expectations in mind when they give you a writing assignment. Your job is to stop and think when you get an assignment. If you think “rhetorically,” you are more likely to be effective throughout each step of the writing process.
Thinking about your purpose, audience, and voice or style each time you approach a writing task will help you think and write rhetorically – and effectively.
Each writing assignment is its own “rhetorical situation” (a situation with unique and specific expectations related to communication). Your task as a writer is to figure out how to be most effective in that situation.
The Rhetorical Tools You Need
Because each writing assignment is unique, using some basic rhetorical tools will help you be successful when you write. It is important to remember that even teachers within the same field will disagree about what is “right” when you write. So you have to learn to be flexible. With flexibility comes power as a writer.
“The Rhetorical Square is simply a mnemonic device (a memory tool) to remind us that, both as readers and writers, we need to be conscious of the art of writing… Using the Rhetorical Square can help prompt critical questions as we read and as we write…” (California State University, Sacramento OWL, 2013).
[Displayed on screen – A square with one word on each side, starting at the top and going clockwise: Purpose, Audience, Message, and Voice]
When you receive your assignment from your professor, you should stop and think about purpose. When you think about this, you should ask yourself, “What is the point of this assignment?”
Within the assignment requirements, you will then need to think about what you want to say. You should ask yourself, “What do I want to say about this topic?”
Sometimes, professors will tell you the purpose of the assignment; other times, they will not. If you are not sure, be sure to ask questions. Before you can decide on your own purpose, you need to understand the purpose of the assignment.
You will also need to consider your audience. If your professor specifies a particular audience, then you have a great start. If your professor does not provide a specific audience, it is best to assume an academic audience of your professors and peers.
Try to keep your audience in mind as you think about your assignment and as you begin your writing process. A good writer has good audience awareness!
If your professor specifies a particular audience, such as colleagues in a specific field, then you have to try to imagine what that audience might know or think about your topic. If you are working with a general, academic audience, you will want to remember the diversity in an academic setting.
Once you have considered your purpose and audience, you should consider the voice or the style you will use in your writing. Your voice is how you “sound” to your audience. For example, a formal voice would sound professional, and an informal voice would sound more casual. You want to be sure you are using a voice that is appropriate for your particular writing situation.
All fields in college and the workplace have specific expectations about voice, depending upon the genre (type of writing) you are working with. If these expectations are not clear to you, you should investigate. Doing your “rhetorical homework” by asking questions and looking for examples can help a lot.
Many genres have specific style requirements that may be spoken or unspoken within a field or profession. When you get a writing assignment, ask your professor if she or he has an example of that genre of writing. It is easier to establish an appropriate voice when you have examples to model.
How does all this affect your message?
The first step is knowing that there are rhetorical expectations for everything you write.
Once you use the rhetorical tools listed in this presentation, you can apply your decisions to your writing.
All writing is rhetorical! To be successful, as a student, you will have to continually make adjustments to your purpose, audience, and voice. Approaching each writing assignment with this understanding will help you develop the flexibility you need to become a successful writer.
A rhetorical approach to your writing process will help you whether you are writing a literary analysis, a Nursing Care Plan, a memo for your business class, or the cover letter of a professional portfolio.
Rhetoric is the key to flexibility when you write. Sometimes students, especially students taking classes in different fields, feel frustrated by the many different requirements and expectations. Adjusting to these situations increases your flexibility as a writer, which is key to being successful in college and at work!
Making Rhetoric Work for You
Remember, rhetoric is not just an empty term. It embodies the concepts of understanding purpose, knowing your audience, and choosing an appropriate voice. Too many times, we do not stop and think about things like purpose, audience, and voice before we write or while we are writing. Rhetoric gives us the tools to help us become better thinkers about our writing, which makes us better writers.