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?
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."
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 writerÂs 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.
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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