Think Rhetorically

Read this article. What advantages can you see by approaching a decision with a rhetorical perspective?

Write more effective documents and save time by considering the audience, purpose, context, and media for a document. Adjust your voice, tone, and persona to accommodate your communication situation.

For every writing project, you can best determine what you want to say and how you want to say it by analyzing the components of your rhetorical situation (which is sometimes called your communication situation). Learning to think rhetorically is one of the most important benefits of an education. Successful leaders and decision makers are capable of making good decisions because they have learned to examine problems from a rhetorical perspective. Successful writers have learned they can write a more effective document in less time by thinking rhetorically.

Thinking rhetorically can refer to many mental activities, such as focusing on identifying the needs of a particular audience or context.


Consider Your Context

Identify the circumstances surrounding the writing project. What is going on in the world at large that relates to how you develop and present your project.

Context refers to the occasion, or situation, that informs the reader about why a document was written and how it was written. The way writers shape their texts is dramatically influenced by their context. Writers decide how to shape their sentences by considering their contexts.

For example, the 9/11 terrorist attack on America changed the context for discussions on terrorism. When Americans talk about terrorism post-9/11, they understand the borders of America are threatened, that terrorism can occur in our homes.

Contexts are sometimes described as formal, semi-formal, or informal. Alternatively, contexts for written documents can be described as school-based projects or work-based projects.


Why is Context Important?

The context for each document strongly affects how you research your topic, how you organize your context, and what media you employ to deliver your message.


Content and Research

What does your reader know about the topic? Will original research be necessary? Will traditional research suffice? Will your audience be persuaded by personal knowledge? Will they require facts and figures?

For example, if you were writing a report on the possibility that Iraq is amassing weapons of mass destruction and your audience were members of the United Nations, you would want to firmly ground your argument in research.


Media and Design

Should the work be published online or transmitted as a printed report? What colors or pictures are appropriate?


Grammar, Mechanics, Usage

The way you structure your sentences is influenced by how formal or informal your context is. Email, for example, tends to be informal. Lots of emoticons and abbreviated expressions can be used. In contrast, an end-of-the-semester research report may require formal diction.


Context Analysis Questions

  • What is going on in the world of the readers that will influence the readers' thoughts and feelings about the document?
  • Does the intellectual content of the document rest on the shoulders of other authors? Will your readers expect you to mention particular scholars or researchers who did the original, ground-breaking work on the subject you are exploring?
  • What background information can you assume your reader is already familiar with?


Consider Your Media

Learn how to be more creative about the effective use of media.

Media can refer to how meaning is conveyed. For example, people speak of TV and radio as a kind of media--the mass media. They refer to printed documents distributed by newspapers, magazines, and books as print media. Texts such as databases or multimedia published on the Internet are called online media.The term media is broadly defined, yet two definitions are particularly popular:

    • Print Media: Paper essays and reports, magazines, books, hypertext
    • Mass Media: Radio, TV, magazines, newspapers
    • Digital Media: Works produced and distributed via the Internet
    • Spoken Media: Talk, speeches
    • Visual Media: Paintings, clip art, animations, interactive media
    • Databases, response forums
    • Artistic Media: Paintings, sculpture, music, movies
    • Video Conferencing Media: NetMeeting, SeeUSeeMe
  1. New technologies are creating new ways of conveying meaning and blurring distinctions across media. The computer is slowly becoming the printing press, the TV, the game console, and the music.


Media Analysis Questions

  1. Does the text employ multiple media? What is the ratio of visuals to words?
  2. Would an alternative medium be more appropriate for the text's purpose and audience?
  3. What additional media could be used to enhance the message?


Consider Your Purpose

Identifying the primary reason for writing provides you with the focus you need to write an effective document in less time.

Like an onion that is peeled, revealing multiple layers, a writing document may have multiple purposes. A persuasive essay, for example, may have paragraphs that inform, paragraphs that persuade, paragraphs that threaten, and paragraphs that request information. However, on a more global level, each document must have one primary purpose.

Until you know your primary purpose for writing, you cannot know what information to leave in or leave out or even how to best organize a document. Of course, some academic documents have multiple purposes.

People write documents for countless reasons:

  1. Record: Keep a record of events or information.
  2. Reflect/Explore: Write in a journal, attempt to make sense of something or to shape a new idea.
  3. Inform: Objectively report an event.
  4. Demonstrate Knowledge: Prove, in school, that you've learned course content.
  5. Summarize: Report someone else's words, theories, and research in your own words.
  6. Explain: Help readers understand a difficult concept, theory, or event.
  7. Analyze: Break down a problem into parts.
  8. Persuade: Change minds, invoke action.
  9. Theorize: Speculate on possible causes and effects.
  10. Entertain: Bring joy, amazement, and thrills.

Textbooks, English instructors, and writers occasionally call the purpose statement the thesis sentence. In school contexts, some instructors require students to place the thesis statement in the introductory paragraphs. Likewise, writers of essays appearing in newspapers, magazines, and books present their thesis up front. The advantage of this deductive approach is that readers immediately know what the topic is and the writer's stance toward the subject. In contexts where the subject isn't likely to result in an emotional reaction from readers, explicit statements of purpose make sense.


When Should You Consider Your Purpose?

Because of the generative nature of the writing process, your sense of the primary purpose for a document will often become clearer once you have written a few drafts. Yet because the effectiveness of a document is chiefly determined by how well you focus on addressing a primary purpose, you can save time by identifying your purpose as early as possible.

  1. What is your primary purpose for writing? For instance, are you attempting to analyze a subject, to explain a cause-and-effect relationship, or to persuade an audience about your position?
  2. Do you have competing or conflicting purposes for writing this document? If so, should the document be separated into two papers?
  3. What crucial information should you emphasize to affect your audience? You may want to shock, educate, or persuade your readers, for instance.
  4. How can you organize the document to emphasize key information that suits your purpose?


Consider Your Voice, Tone, and Persona

Enhance the likelihood that readers will respond favorably to your document by projecting an effective voice, tone, and persona.

Voice, tone, and persona are slippery terms or concepts. In some instances, these terms can be used interchangeably, yet important differences do exist.



The term voice may be used to define a writer's stance toward his subject or readers. For example, a writer could say, "I'm using a satirical (or humorous, condescending, patronizing) voice in this editorial".

Alternatively, some writers and English instructors talk about a writer's voice as a representation of the trueness of a document. An accomplished writer is said to have found his or her voice while a beginning writer is said to be searching for his or her voice. When used in this way, voice refers to the trueness, or honesty, or authority, or power of a writer's message. Back in the 1960s, some writing instructors suggested inexperienced writers needed to find their true voice – that each of us has a specific voice that we need to find, that voice is a powerful, mystical force that helps us convey truth or the inner quality of a topic.



When writers and English instructors talk about tone, they are typically referring to the author's stance toward his or her readers and message. Specific documents or authors can be described as having a condescending, arrogant, pedantic, racist, confident, or satirical tone (or voice). In this way, tone is used interchangeably with voice, although tone does not refer to the "truth" of the writer's message, unlike voice.



The term persona refers to an author's use of a literary mask to hide his or her true opinion about a matter. For example, if you were writing about how you act while waiting in long lines, you might want to honestly inform your reader that you become a raging lunatic, that your heart rate doubles, and that you can keep calm only by doing sit-ups and push-ups. Yet if you are not proud of this type-A tendency, you might present the persona of a patient person who has mastered the ability to meditate calmly and think deeply about important issues when forced to wait in a seemingly endless line.

Different readers may make different assessments regarding a particular author's voice, tone, and persona. An author may describe his tone as reasoned, thoughtful, and intelligent whereas the reader might dismiss the author's text as biased, underdeveloped, or emotional.


Why Should You Consider Your Voice, Tone, and Persona?

Just as listeners make assumptions about your personality by observing how you dress and act and by listening to the tone of your voice, readers make judgments about your personality and feelings regarding a subject based on what and how you write. When you avoid use of the first person and personal references, readers make judgments about what kind of person you are and about your professional abilities. Readers make assumptions about how clever and fair a thinker you are by noting the quality of your reasoning, the words you choose, and the way you format your text. By noting an author's examples, organization, and word choices, we might say, for instance, that he or she displays an opinionated, logical, or emotional persona. Problems such as spelling and punctuation errors or pronoun agreement errors can turn readers against you, making them consider you to be careless or uneducated.

Consider these questions when revising a document:

  • What inferences about my personality do I want my readers to make?
  • Given my audience and purpose, is it appropriate to express my feelings about this subject?
  • Would it be more appropriate for me to project a strong, passionate tone, or should I try to appear more objective?
  • Based on what I have written, what sense about my personality or feelings about the subject will readers be likely to infer?
  • Have I used any words or examples that are emotionally charged and likely to alienate my readers?
  • What personal examples should I add or delete to help my readers better understand me and my message?


Why Read Your Work Out Loud?

The challenge of juggling apparently unrelated ideas can be so great that you may overlook your voice or tone. When attempting to explain complex ideas and processes, you may understandably focus your critical energies on being coherent and logical. Yet, you might also remember that readers are people too, and they are likely to be swayed as much by their sense of how credible you are as by the logic of your argument. One trick that writers use to gauge the voice in a document is to read a manuscript aloud or to speak it into a tape recorder and then listen to how they sound.


Create an Energetic Voice

The vitality of a writer's voice or persona often has a tremendous influence on readers' responses. Sometimes readers say they enjoy a text because an author seems straightforward and personable. In contrast, sometimes readers dislike a book because the author seems stuffy or cold-hearted. As an example of the latter, note the "computer tone" in the following letter, which I received after the birth of my first child:

Thank you for cooperating with the hospital stay verification component of your Health Insurance Policy. The company has been notified of the patient's emergency admission. The information submitted has been reviewed and a length of stay has been assigned. This emergency stay is certified for two days.

We remind you that the review of your hospital stay was limited to determining the appropriate length of stay for the emergency admitting diagnosis and did not question medical necessity. We further remind you that payment of benefits is still subject to the terms of your Health Insurance Policy.

Surely this is an impersonal, mechanical way to say that my newborn would be covered by my insurance policy--a fact that I already knew. Although the letter was signed by a person, it seems to have been written by a computer. If I had called this person on the phone, she probably would have said something like, "Congratulations on the birth of your baby. As you already know, your insurance covers expenses for two days of hospitalization. Enjoy that little one!" One message, two very different voices.

Trying to communicate your subject in a coherent way can be so overwhelming that you forget to consider the influence of your voice or persona on the reader.


Avoid a Pedantic, Passive Tone

Based on what you say, your readers will make judgments about whether you seem knowledgeable, educated, compassionate, angry, or confused. If you use excessive jargon, write extensively in the passive voice, fail to offer specific examples to illustrate your point, or do not elaborate on essential information, then some readers might consider you to be aloof or pompous, while others might assume that you are reluctant or unable to communicate.

Sometimes people believe they need to sound "academic" when they write; they don't think they can simply be themselves and write naturally. Rather than trying to simplify their prose, they reach for a thesaurus and select the least understood or most impressive-sounding word. Here's a sample of terribly technical language that a colleague of mine wrote to satirize the humorous elements of jargon-ridden prose:

Health is generally benefited by the voluntary ingestion of 4,000 to 5,000 ml of hydrogen hydroxide in each 24-hour period, distributed more or less equally across the time period in 250 to 500 ml units.

When you read this, it may at first seem sophisticated, enshrouded as it is in pseudoscientific garb. Yet, properly translated into readable English, it simply says, "Drink eight glasses of water a day".

Pretentious jargon and obscure language can at first be intimidating because the authors appear to be implying that we should understand the message. However, college-educated, critical readers are rarely impressed by vague, abstract language. For example, what do you think of the following prose, which is excerpted from a draft of a graduate student's essay on language development?

An oral language production system is the first one learned by children. The task of learning a written language production system occurs when children enter school. A noticeable difference between these two systems is the presence of a conversational partner. This difference is significant when you compare speaking and writing at the level of continuous discourse. Conversational partners provide constant cues, such as to elaborate, to clarify, to keep a goal in mind, to stay on the topic, etc. Evidence of children's dependence on conversational inputs when learning to write comes from observing effects of prompting children to continue, that is to take another conversational turn. Children are dependent to some extent on conversation interchange to develop a text. However, no conversational partner exists in written composition. Learning to write involves a transition from a language introduction system dependent on inputs from a conversational partner to a system capable of functioning autonomously. Without conversational supports, children have problems in thinking what to say, in making choices appropriate to a remote audience, in staying on the topic, and in producing an intelligible whole.

Clearly, this passage is weakened by jargon. A critical reader will wonder, for example, about the need for such terms as "oral language production system", "continuous discourse", or "conversational interchange". More insidious in this example, however, is the abundance of passive constructions and lack of people-oriented references. For example, who is doing the observing in the following sentence: "Evidence of children's dependence on conversational inputs when learning to write comes from observing effects of prompting children to continue, that is to take another conversational turn"?

Also, take a look at the emptiness of the third sentence: "A noticeable difference between these two systems is the presence of a conversational partner". Even with rereading, it is unclear whether the "oral language production system" or the "written language production system" has "the presence of a conversational partner". Of course, the author could argue that everyone knows that conversation usually involves a dialogue between speakers while writing usually lacks such an exchange. Naturally, clever readers will see through the fog with a discerning eye and recognize that the writer's ideas are in fact relatively simple:

Perhaps children do not learn to write until they enter school because writing demands more than speech. Whereas children can easily develop their ideas through dialogue – that is, by listening to queries and comments and suggestions from other speakers – they must conceptualize an audience when they write.

Ultimately, however, if you think about the gist of this writer's message long enough, it becomes so obvious that you wonder about the need to say it at all. Surprisingly, you will often find this to be the case: pedantic, long-winded speakers and writers are often hiding simple concepts behind verbal smoke screens. Thus, when you read, remember to be a critical reader.

Source: Joseph Moxley,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License.

Last modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2019, 5:31 PM