CSULA Department of English | Resources for Teaching Writing

The rhetorical turn in writing instruction
has placed renewed emphasis on rhetoric and the rhetorical
situation or context of writing. This turn to rhetoric is
hardly innovative, and it is not surprising that much
scholarship has focused on re-invigorating classical and later
rhetorical theories for modern students.

In its simplest
form, this turn to rhetoric shifts attention away from student
writing as an artifact and towards student writing as an
activity, and in this way mirrors the paradigm shift from the
current-traditional model to the process model. When students
write, they participate in a community of readers and writers
engaged in thinking, reading, discussing and writing about
shared issues, ideas, and concepts. To be effective in this
community, the writer must learn to be aware of the rhetorical
situation. What do I want to accomplish with my writing? To
whom am I appealing and what are their needs? What
expectations of the audience must I satisfy or risk going
unheard? 

 

Introduction

Focusing on
Audience, Purpose and Genre

Balancing Low
Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

Designing Effective
Assignments

Responding to
Student Writing

Dealing with
Grammar

Emphasizing Style

Using Grading
Rubrics

 
These basic questions point to the three key terms
writers must consider: purpose, audience, and genre. Virtually
every decision a writer makes is governed by these three concepts. 

Purpose

The
purpose of any piece of writing can be determined by the writer asking
the simple question: "What am I trying to accomplish with
this piece of writing?" For many kinds of professional
writing the purpose is clear. A social worker
writes an observation report to record certain facts, impressions, and
opinions related to a case or to a specific meeting with a
client. An engineer writes a functional specification to
detail fabrication specification to be used to create
prototypes.  

But not all professional writing has such an obvious
purpose. What exactly is the purpose behind a blog posting
made by a dentist explaining the pain management techniques
used following oral surgery? One purpose might be to help a
lay audience understand a complicated procedure. Another
purpose might be to alleviate fear about such procedures.
Another purpose might be to impress the audience with his or
her knowledge. Another purpose might be to attack a colleague
who has expressed a contrary opinion. Another purpose might be
to advertise his or her services. Of course, we (as the
audience in this imagined scenario) cannot state unequivocally
the purpose of the writer. For the writing to be effective, however,
the writer would need to understand his or her own purpose. It
obviously matters whether your purpose is to inform, comfort,
impress, attack, advertise, or some complicated combination of
some or all of these purposes.

It is often difficult for students to think about their
"purpose" in writing when the writing appears to be
merely the fulfillment of a course requirement. The writer,
however, must think
beyond the mechanical particulars of the writing assignment. For example,
some mechanical answers would be "I want
to get an A in the class," or "The professor made me
write this." Instead, the writer should begin by
considering the purpose of the assignment itself. What is the
instructor's purpose in making the assignment? What does the
instructor want us to learn? What kind of knowledge does the
instructor want us to demonstrate? Using answers to these
questions will help the writer focus on what he or she wants the writing to
accomplish, such as "I want my readers to see the racism
in Heart
of Darkness
," "I want to persuade
someone to give up smoking," or "I want to explain to
non-technical people how open source software encourages
innovation." 

Audience

As with purpose, the audience of a piece of writing is sometimes very specific, and this
is especially true of "real-world" writing.
A business plan is written to convince a bank to give
the writer (or the writer's company) money,
a financial plan is written to convince a client to
make certain investments, a legal brief is written to convince
a judge of some fact or course of action, and so on. In these scenarios, both purpose and
audience are relatively easy to identify. 

But is it enough to know that a client will read your
financial plan? Doesn't it matter who the client is? Of course
it does and so even in these seemingly straightforward
examples, we can see some of the difficulties involved in
identifying one's audience. A quick thought experiment makes
obvious the importance of audience. Imagine you are going to
send an email describing your activities over the last twelve
months to six recipients: your best friend, your brother, your
mother, your eighty-five year old English aunt, the chair of
your department, and the director of a prestigious grant
foundation. Would you send the same message to each recipient?
Would you include the same activities? Would you describe them
in the same way? Would you use the same language and style in
each? 

Our conception of audience when writing personal emails is
virtually automatic. For most public writing such as writing
in college classes, we must imagine our audience. Students
often however make the simple error of assuming that the
audience for their writing is the instructor. Instead,
the writer should begin by attempting to identify the audience
for his or her writing. One place to begin is to assume that the audience is
everyone in the class, some of whom will share the writer’s
beliefs and ideas, and some of whom will not; some of whom
will be as familiar with the text or with certain ideas, and
some of whom will not. 

Some assignments might specify hypothetical readers that students are supposed to
address, in addition to the "real" reader--the
teacher. Who are these hypothetical readers? What do they know about the topic? What
do they need to know? What are they likely to believe about
this topic? Are they likely to agree or disagree with you?
Thinking about questions such as these will help a writer
identify his or her audience.

Genre

As with purpose and audience, the genre of a piece of writing is sometimes very specific, and this
is especially true in certain disciplines. A lab report in
engineering must adhere to a very specific set of format and
content rules, as must one in biology, though to a slightly
different set of rules. Some documents might require the use
of subheadings, some might require subheadings with outline
numbering, and some might not allow any subheadings at all. To
speak of the "genre" of a piece of writing is to
identify a set of conventions that should be followed. While
some genres are defined by very specific set of conventions,
such as the IMRAD format required of lab reports, others, such
as reflective writing common to some English classes and the
blogosphere, are defined almost as much by the vagueness of
their conventions. 

Knowing the genre of the writing, and so knowing the
associated conventions of the form, can greatly simplify the
writer's task. In introductory writing classes and in other
lower division courses, genre is not usually seen as an
important issue. Most instructors are probably not even aware
that their assignments call for knowledge or even mastery of a
genre: the college essay, which is itself a genre. The college
essay is usually an argument supported by certain permissible
kinds of evidence with an introduction articulating a thesis,
body paragraphs developing and supporting that thesis, and a
conclusion summarizing the argument and/or suggesting the next
step in the process. Most instructors are probably also not
aware that some "common rules" about writing are
conventions of specific genres and not universal. For example,
most writers are taught to avoid the passive voice, but this convention
is mostly associated
with genres like the college essay. Scientific procedural writing, for example, requires the use of the
passive voice. For these and other reasons, it is important to
emphasize at all levels of instruction the idea of genre and
its associated conventions. 

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Balancing Low Stakes and High Stakes Assignments

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