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Part 3 From Reading to Writing

11.2 Rhetorical Situations

Throughout this text, you will be challenged to respond to different rhetorical situations through the act of writing. In other words, you will try to learn more about what “good writing” says and does in different contexts: What makes for a good story? An insightful analysis? A convincing argument? Why does it matter that we write where and when we do? What do different readers want out of a piece of writing?

By exploring and writing within different situations, you will learn skills for specific rhetorical modes, sharpen your critical literacy, and—most importantly—learn to adapt to a variety of writing circumstances that you will encounter both in and out of school. In other words, practice in different rhetorical situations will make you a more critical consumer and producer of rhetoric.

But let’s back up a second. What’s rhetoric?

(These next paragraphs and tables are based on: Empoword: A Student-centered Anthology & Handbook for College Writers by Shane Abrams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Other sections of this text also refer to this source.)

You may have heard of a rhetorical question before—a question that someone asks you without expecting an answer. What’s the point of asking a question with no answer? To somehow impact the person who hears it, maybe by making them think about an issue in a different way.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, rhetoric is “The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end.”8

Rhetorical Example Rhetorical Product
An essay on capital punishment tries Convince a reader to form a particular opinion on the issue.
A t-shirt with a Boston Sox logo tires To rally team spirit and sell t-shirts.
Levi’s advertisement in a magazine tires To sell you Levi’s and build a brand image.
Website for Lansing Community College tires To provide marketing, resources students, faculty, and staff.
A romantic comedy tires To appeal to romantic, idealized ideas about love so as to sell tickets

Very generally speaking, rhetoric refers to a set of strategies that authors use to connect to their readers. More often in this book, though, I use “rhetoric” to refer to any text that makes an appeal to the reader, viewer, or listener with end goal being an action of some kind. Consider some examples that require such a vague definition:

Rhetorical Example Rhetorical Product
An episode of The Simpsons tries To entertain, to tell a story, or to make social commentary.
The aforementioned rhetorical question tires To stimulate reflection.
Speech to the U.N. on the Syrian Civil War tires To garner support and humanitarian aid.

Each of these texts is rhetorical. Texts can be written or spoken; they can be images; they can be video; they can be digital or printed; they can exist for only a moment or for eons. What they try to accomplish can vary widely, from killing time to killing people.

A pattern might be emerging to you: you are perpetually surrounded by rhetoric, but you are not always aware of how it’s acting on you—no one can be. But by developing your rhetorical awareness, you can perceive and interpret texts more diligently, in turn developing skills to think more independently. For that reason, this book encouragesyoutobebothacriticalconsumerandalsoacriticalproducerofrhetoric, specifically in the written form.

In this book, you will explore and work within three rhetorical situations. (The beauty of the rhetorical situation, of course, is that no two writers using this book will have the exact same constraints; nevertheless, you will share similar experiences.) Because many college composition programs value the nonfiction essay form, this textbook focuses on three different kinds of essays: a personal narrative, a textual analysis, and a persuasive research essay. The al of writing these essays, though, is not to become master of any of them. Instead, the goal is to practice interrogating the rhetorical situations and exploring your work to be more effective within them. Because the writing you will do throughout your life take drastically different forms, you should learn ask the right questions about the writing you need to do.

Instead of learning rules for writing (rules which will invariably change), it is more valuable to learn the questions you should ask of your future writing situations and produce texts that are tailored to those situations. Whenever you create a new piece of writing, you should ask, What will make my writing most effective based on my rhetorical situation?

Every text comes into being within a specific rhetorical situation and reflects the characteristics and values of that situation. Although there are many ways to break down a rhetorical situation, I use the acronym SOAP for subject, occasion, audience, and purpose9. These are distinct elements, but they often overlap and inform one another. Let’s take a closer look:

Subject: The subject, put simply, is what
you are writing about. It’s the topic, the
argument, the main concern of the
rhetoric you are producing or consuming.
Every text has at least one subject;
sometimes, a text will have both an implicit
and explicit subject.

Occasion: Every piece of rhetoric is
located in time and space. The term
occasion refers to the socio-historical
circumstances that prompt the
production of a piece of rhetoric. What
is it that makes you write? How does
your moment in culture, geography, and
history influence your writing?
Every text has an occasion; sometimes, that
occasion is clearly stated, and other times
we have to infer.

Audience: The target audience for a
piece of rhetoric is the person or group
of people for whom you’re writing.
Although many people will encounter
certain texts, every piece of rhetoric is
designed with a certain audience in mind.
Every text has at least one audience;
sometimes that audience is directly
addressed, and other times we have to infer

Purpose: As I mentioned above, every
piece of rhetoric tries to accomplish
something. We can state this purpose
using an infinitive verb phrase, like “to
entertain,” “to persuade,” “to explain.”
Every text has at least one purpose;
sometimes that purpose is obvious, and
sometimes it is insidious.

Identifying these elements is only step one. What matters more are the implications that each of these elements carries. For each text you create, you should ask What is my subject? What is my occasion? Who is my audience? What is my purpose? But you should also ask How do each of those answers influence the way I will write?

For instance, the subject of the story of your weekend might change when you’re telling your grandma instead of your friends. Your language will change as your audience changes: if you’re writing a story about giraffes for a classroom of third graders, you’d better use different word choice than if you’re writing a meta-analysis of giraffe population metrics for the Executive Board of the Oregon Zoo.10 Similarly, you can imagine that writing a blog about standardized testing would be different in 2003 from the same writing in 2017.

Throughout this following chapters, I encourage you to think critically about these rhetorical situations because there is no one version of “good writing.” There is only rhetoric that is effective in its situation. Any such rhetoric is crafted through process.


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Expression and Inquiry by Christopher Manning; Sally Pierce; and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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