There are certain aspects of writing that, like driving a car, have become instinctive. You don’t need to think too much about what words to use when sending a text to a friend (if you even use words at all!), nor do you need to proofread a shopping list. Other kinds of writing, however, may need a great deal of care and consideration: a technical manual for how to build or use a piece of life-saving equipment. A science fiction novel or a murder mystery. A screenplay or television series pilot.
What all these kinds of writing have in common is that, whether consciously or not, the writer is applying the rhetorical situation, and some do it more successfully than others.
Here’s the definition of rhetoric I always supplied my English 101 students (and family members who were perplexed about what I was studying in graduate school):
The art and skill of using language to communicate and/or persuade.
Every rhetorical situation consists of these three elements:
We may talk about them as if they’re separate entities, but in the rhetorical situation they’re inextricably linked, each one playing off the other.
Two more elements determine the effectiveness of the first three:
I like to demonstrate the rhetorical situation by using something ubiquitous: a Facebook status update.
Here’s one I recently posted on my personal Facebook page:
Funny/not funny how when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.
The kitchen is a disaster. Which means some kick-ass blog posts are gonna happen.
So let’s examine the five elements by conducting a rhetorical analysis.
When we talk about purpose, we’re asking is my call to write, my reason for writing? What do I want to achieve by writing this?
- In the case of my status update, any/all of these defined my purpose:
- To communicate something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
- To express a truth.
- To express disinterest in cleaning.
- To communicate that disinterest in a humorous way.
- To inform readers.
- To make readers laugh.
Some of these were conscious, others less so. I definitely wanted to make my readers laugh. And writers especially know that when writing becomes difficult, the temptation to do something else becomes very strong. I also made an observation by noting that the temptation/distraction stimulus works in reverse.
I wasn’t consciously thinking about informing my readers, “Hey, I need to clean my house,” but Facebook is typically the vehicle for posting the mundane. Was this information, they absolutely needed to know? No. And thus, because of that, I had to find a way to make it appealing, and so I made it funny. (Or tried to.)
I am quite conscious of audience when I’m posting on Facebook. I think many are, and that’s what figures into what they will and will not post. My Facebook audience on my profile page consists mostly of family and good friends. It also consists of former students, and people I have yet to meet in person—namely, fellow authors and friends of other friends.
As a wordsmith myself, how do I want to reach these readers/viewers? For one thing, I want to convey humor and wit. I also, at times, want to convey the courage of my convictions. Sometimes I share snippets of dialogue between my husband and me. And sometimes I just want to share photos of my cat or my meals, like most people.
And, of course, I want them to read my books. Thus, rather than say, “Buy my book!” I’d much rather embody the qualities of my books in my status updates. Storytelling. Dialogue. Humor. Relationships. Love.
Do I do this every time? No. Sometimes I’m just being me, speaking directly to the people I most care about. However, no matter what I post I am aware, at all times, that my message has a reader.
When I say “text,” I mean the medium or genre that houses the writing—a text, tweet, status update, email, open letter, blog post, essay, term paper, dissertation, short story, screenplay, novel—all of these qualify as a “genre.”
Facebook status updates can sometimes run the length of a blog post or an article, or it could be as brief as a text or a tweet. In the case of the above example, I didn’t need to write something lengthy. It’s Facebook, after all. Not a novel. And my subject was mundane. Brevity was best.
I’ve taken and taught classes devoted entirely to writing style. When I’m talking style, I’m talking word choice. How am I going to put the words together in a way that not only communicates my message, but also identifies and represents me as the writer? What words to I use to establish credibility, to stir readers’ emotions, to persuade them to see my point of view or take action? If I want to make readers laugh, then what words do I use? How do I write in a way that readers know the status update is from me, Elisa, before they even see my name attached?
The word “kick-ass” (is it one word?) is a giveaway, for one thing. The colloquial “gonna” is another; its intention is to make the reader not only read the words but hear my New York accent, my voice. And the use of “antithesis”—putting opposites together: when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.
Stance refers to attitude or viewpoint in approach. If I were taking a position on a political issue, then my stance would be impassioned, but not angry. A desire to embrace readers as co-thinkers rather than shout them down or belittle them for having a different position. If I’m writing a comedic novel, then my character might be sarcastic or dry in his or her delivery.
When I’m writing novels, I don’t think consciously about stance; rather, I think the characters, story, and characteristics of the novel’s genre (mystery, chick lit, etc.) all play a role in determining stance.
In the case of my status update, my stance was to simply take a humorous approach rather than outright complain about how much I was dreading cleaning my kitchen.
Good writing is the result of good choices. Bad writing is the result of bad choices.
Good writing is also a well executed rhetorical situation. And the good news: regardless of what level you’re at in terms of craft—beginner or seasoned—you engage in rhetorical situation, and you can make it work if you take the time to make those choices. And if you are a beginner, remember what driving a car was like: at first, you need to think of everything at once. But the more you do it, and the better you get, the more those decisions and actions become second nature.
I did clean my kitchen, by the way. And my next status update?
Cleaning is a love letter to your home.
Activity/Discussion: Conduct a rhetorical analysis on the follow-up status update. What was the reader’s purpose? As a reader, how do you respond or react to it? How does the stance differ from its previous status update? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!