Audience and Purpose: The Heart of Every Piece of Writing

Regardless of what you write, be it for business or pleasure, you need to write with audience and purpose in mind. The more clear you are about what you are writing while you are writing it, and who you are writing for, the more successful your finished product will be.

Advertisements

After a five-year hiatus from the college classroom, I’m teaching a business writing and communication class at the local university. I’m really enjoying it, and I’m learning just as much as I’m teaching. Or rather, re-learning.

Business writing consists of what is known in rhetorical terms as a reader-based text. Whatever you write, be it an email, memo, evaluation, proposal, ad, marketing plan, analysis, blog post, and so on, you need a clear idea of who your audience is, be it one reader or many. You also need a clear purpose of why you are writing this particular document, letter, etc., and how your writing strategy will achieve that purpose.

My job in the classroom is to get students thinking about their audience and purpose. It’s not easy for them, and believe me, I get it. Because sometimes it’s not easy for me. Sometimes, with this blog, I wonder who my reader is, and what I am trying to achieve not only with a particular blog post, but with the blog overall. I even sometimes struggle with my novel readers and genre, as well as my author website. After ten books, when someone asks me on the spot: “Who are your readers and what do you write?” I still stumble and stammer with my answer.

That’s not where I want to be, neither with this blog nor with my novel readers. But I’m getting better. Because as I teach this stuff, I practice it.

When it comes to a fiction writer’s audience and purpose, there’s a little wrinkle. The most common advice I give to writers is to write the book you want to read. In other words, you, the writer, are the most important reader, even the intended reader. Surely this is how I approach every book I write, especially when I am in the drafting stage. My thinking is this: If I saw this book on a table and opened it to the first page, what would keep me turning the pages? What would keep me drawn in, unable to put the book down?

It isn’t until I get to the revision stage that I think about readers other than me. What will keep them turning these pages? And who is/are my intended reader(s)? Sometimes the answer to that question depends on the book I’m writing. When I wrote my memoir, I thought about my fellow Duranies. Sometimes I even mentioned the actual members of Duran Duran reading it. When I wrote my novel Adulation, my intended readers were a group of friends I’d bonded with on Facebook, many of whom I had yet to meet in person. My husband was the intended reader for The Second First Time.

I wonder: When do we separate ourselves as the intended reader and someone else as the intended reader? Should we separate ourselves? Is that even possible?

In a Facebook group I belong to consisting mostly of bloggers, a woman shared that she made up a profile of her intended reader—she gave this imagined, fabricated reader (a female) a name, an age, a hometown and residence, a family, a profession, favorite foods and books and movies and TV shows and music, where she likes to shop, and even favorite clothes, I think. Hence, whenever this woman sits down to write a blog post, she writes for this reader as if she were a real person (in the woman’s mind, she is). And guess what? This writer has attracted a sizable audience to her blog, and they more or less match the profile of the imaginary reader.

I think that’s pretty cool. And I kind of want to try it myself.

Regardless of what you write, be it for business or pleasure, you need to write with audience and purpose in mind. The more clear you are about what you are writing while you are writing it, and who you are writing for, the more successful your finished product will be.

 

blog post audiecne and purpose 2

 

Here are three things you can do to practice mastering audience and purpose:

1. Make up a profile of your intended reader

Follow the blogger’s lead and imagine everything about your intended reader. This person could be real or imagined. S/he might even be a clone of yourself. The point is to play a little bit, but also to get as specific as possible. And restrict it to one reader. It has been said: “If you try to write for everyone, you will wind up writing for no one.”

2. Know your “why.”

This seems to be almost at buzzphrase lately, and it kind of annoys me. But I have to say, it really is important. Essentially, this is the purpose part of the rhetorical situation.

Why do you write the books you write? Why are you attracted to a particular genre or style? What kinds of characters do you like?

The answer to this question could be both extrinsic and intrinsic.

  • Extrinsic: I write romantic comedy because I like finding humor in the baggage we bring to our love relationships.
  • Intrinsic: I write romantic comedy because I want to bring a smile to someone’s face and give them something to escape to.

I’m currently reading a book on business writing for the purpose writing a review. In it the author asks: Who are you when you are writing this particular text or document? I don’t think that’s something I’ve considered in a long time, and I think knowing the answer is connected to knowing both your audience and your purpose.

3. Think in terms of problem-solving

Maybe the problem is that your intended reader is simply looking for a good book to read. Maybe they want to completely escape their world and move into one that is completely magical and different. Maybe they want to live vicariously through the protagonist. Maybe they want to solve mysteries, find buried treasure, travel the world, or live in their dream home. If you know your reader, you can make any or all of those things happen for her.

As I write this, I am imagining my reader as someone who writes novels but is having trouble identifying who their ideal reader for their stories is. Maybe she writes mysteries, but needs to be more specific. Maybe her ideal reader wants a hunky, Jim Rockford-type detective, and the books set in the 1970s. Maybe her ideal reader prefers mysteries that have nothing to do with murders or violence.

Thus, the problem I’m attempting to solve (and my purpose for writing this blog post) is how to get my intended reader to think about her intended reader and her purpose for writing what she writes.

If you write non-fiction, the problem-solving may be even more clear cut. Maybe your reader needs to lose weight. Quit smoking. Learn how to write in a business setting. Sell more books. Live in their dream home. When you know the problem and know the reader, you can more easily provide the solution.

 

Regardless of what you write, audience and purpose are at the heart of everything you write. Master them first, and the rest of your rhetorical situation (stance, style, genre) begins to fall into place.

And mastery takes practice. Fortunately, as writers, we get lots of practice. And we like to practice.

What Does it Mean to Be “Well Read”?

I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality?

When I was teaching college writing, I used to assign my students a literacy narrative in which they write about their history with reading and writing. I had written several as a grad student, and when my peers read their narratives out loud, I used to feel self-conscious because I didn’t believe myself to be as well read as they were.

It didn’t stop there. Often times I’d hear colleagues use “well read” as a marker of character. “I wouldn’t put much stock into what he says; he’s not very well read.” Or: “You’d like her. She’s well read.”

My students also had an expectation of me to be well read. To them, “well read” was not only having read all the classic literature in the world, but also having memorized it. Especially Shakespeare. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many of my students were shocked that not only had I not memorized Shakespeare, but I could remember the few plays and/or sonnets of his I had read. In fact, some students had decided me a substandard instructor the moment I told them my bachelor’s degree was not English, but rather psychology, which, trust me, has served me way more and better than an English degree ever would.

For most of my life, I too believed “well read” meant one who had read—and absorbed—a lot of classic literature. Willingly and aptly. When NPR or Publisher’s Weekly or some other bookish media site releases a list called The 100 Books You Should Read in Your Lifetime or something like that, and my Facebook friends proudly boast their numbers: “I’ve read 60 of them!” “72!” “85!” I keep silent because I don’t come close.

So what, and how much, have I read?

It’s a question I’m asked as an author, and I’m always afraid to answer it for fear of being judged. But I’ll try to go out of my comfort zone here.

For starters, I have always been a creature of habit. If I fall in love with a writer (not literally, with the exception of my husband), I’ll read just about everything in his/her canon. As a child, I loved Dr. Seuss. Then Judy Blume. I didn’t only read each of their books once, but repeatedly. Like listening to an album and then letting it play over and over.

As a teenager, I can’t remember reading much of anything, especially whatever was assigned in school (with the exception of The Outsiders; my older sister loved it so much she read it to my twin brother and me, and I was totally stoked when we were finally assigned it in school.). I especially can’t remember liking any reading that was assigned. I was a teenager and a Duranie, so naturally I devoured every magazine that featured the Fab Five: “Simon Tells All!” “A Day in the Life of Jaunty JT!” and so on. I didn’t only look at the pictures (although, come on—it was all about the pictures). I read the articles (probably few of them true), and during this time I wrote Duran Duran fan fiction, not knowing there was a genre by that name. I read a few novels here and there, but none that stick out in my memory.

In my late teens and early 20s, I had lost my way. I was in a rather toxic relationship with someone who abhorred reading, couldn’t be bothered with it, found it lame and unsexy (how wrong he was). As I started to break free from his clutches, it was books that helped me escape—some were of the self-help variety (I recently wrote a post about the most influential one), some nonfiction like All the President’s Men and Barbarians at the Gate because I’d liked the movie adaptations, and eventually I found my way back to novels.

Then, in 1995, I went back to college.

At UMass Dartmouth, I was immersed in academic reading, including novels for classes such as “Comedy and Satire” and “Literature and Society,” essays for “Writing About Popular Culture,” and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for a psychology paper on existentialism. (Also a book that has left a lasting impression on me.) The reading intensified in grad school—by then I was immersed in Aristotle, rhetorical scholars like Kenneth Burke and David Bartholomae, and a little Noam Chomsky here and there.

At some point I found myself craving “pleasure reading,” and sought more humorous work, including Douglas Adams, Nora Ephron, and David Sedaris. I’d wanted to write more humorous essays, and found them influential.

Reading Stephen King’s On Writing was the game-changer, however; King’s classic advice of “read a lot and write a lot” sunk in. I was astounded when he said he read sixty to seventy books a year. My graduate work prevented me from coming anywhere near that total, but I definitely upped my game. I listened to audiobooks (including the Harry Potter series) in my car, read a little bit before bed, and tried to get through two or three books per summer. I still don’t come close to the sixty-to-seventy total.

So what do I read now?

Anything from books on how to improve productivity or boost your Kindle book sales to a memoir about Cary Grant or Dick Van Dyke to my friends/ fellow authors’ novels to novels that have come highly recommended in Facebook book groups to books on writing craft. I’m not loyal to any one genre, especially not my own. I also read the occasional blog post, political article (although I’ve cut back on those because they anger me too much), or Top Ten list.

And I’m still a creature of habit. I named 2017 A Year of Nora Ephron and (re)read just about everything of hers that I could get my hands on. I enjoy Marian Keyes’ and Jennifer Weiner’s and Sarah Pekkanen’s books. I read screenplays written by Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman. And all of Craig Lancaster’s books, of course. The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter is my favorite, having read it three times, including before it was released. I have standalone favorites: Richard Russo’s Straight Man. Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s memoir, In the Pleasure Groove. And more.

And yes, I’ve read a few of the classics. They’re not in a league of their own, as far as I’m concerned. Some I liked and some I didn’t, like anything else I’ve ever read.

As a writer, it’s hard to read anything these days and not be looking at it with a critical eye. All part of the profession. But I love when I read something and think, “God, I wish I’d thought of that.” I also like reading something, putting it down, and thinking, “Well geez, I could do way better than that.” Both instances motivate me need to step up my game. And I don’t ever want to sit back and think I never have to be better than I already am.

So am I well read? I’m sure some will tell me I’m far from. Others will tell me they wish they were as well read as I am. I guess what it all comes down to is this—is being well read about quantity or quality? If it’s the latter, then who is the gatekeeper of that quality?

If you know the answer, tell me later. I’m in the middle of a really good book.

 

Craig's books

 

Nothing to Lose: 3 Steps to Beat the Writer’s Biggest Fear

Being an author isn’t just about writing and publishing and selling books. It’s about mindset. It’s about desire. And it’s about conquering the fear of losing everything you worked so hard for. The fear of losing the joy.

A good friend wrote her first novel around the same time I wrote my first. She’d had a lot of fun writing it, and when she was finished and found that it was good, she’d decided to self-publish it. Fortunately, she came in during that golden age when self-publishing was shedding its stigmas and the Kindle was turning e-books into a cool commodity. Like me, she soon won the attention of a publisher, who offered her a contract and re-issued her novel. It continued to do well.

However, she has yet to publish a second.

The most common misconception people have about authors and publishing is that everyone has a Stephen King or EL James level of success. They think we become instant millionaires, quit our jobs after we sign the contract, and live free and clear.

The truth is that the majority of authors sell fewer than 10,000 units per year. We keep our day jobs. We raise families and struggle to make ends meet while we also carve out time to write the next novel, and the next. Even with four or five books under our belt.

I was one of the lucky ones. For the first five years since resigning from my teaching position, I’ve been able to make a living. But I confess: were it not for my husband, I would have been pounding the pavement for additional employment this year. And that’s with 10 books and seven translations. My husband tells a similar story: “I used to say I was an author who occasionally worked a pipeline job. Now I’m a pipeline worker who occasionally writes novels.”

I thought it would get easier. It seems to be getting harder. And I had to come to terms with that this year.

As for my friend, I totally get where she is coming from. And I think many authors, in one form or another, have been where she is. Like her, writing my first book was fun. I spent more time writing it than any other novel to date—not only because I was teaching a full course-load, but also because I was under no pressure to publish. Thus, I could revise it, share it with critique groups, and revise it again. Faking It had already been two years old when I started querying literary agents. It was four years old when I first self-published it. Five years old when it hit the big time. And six years old when it was reissued and hit yet again.

When I’d first self-published it in paperback, I’d sold less than fifty copies in six months, and thought that was a terrific start. When I uploaded it to Kindle and sold 73 copies in the first month, I was ecstatic. (I sold only 12 the second month.) Every sale was a celebration. Day by day, I continued to promote and sell it, all while writing the second novel, and starting the third. And still enjoying the process.

In short, I had nothing to lose. Neither did my friend with her first novel. Or my husband with his first. Which made their successes that much more exhilarating.

But after the success—after that first contract, when now you’re tracking more than sales and rankings, your outlook changes.

Because now, there’s a demand for a second novel. And a third and a fourth. A demand for better numbers. And more followers. And you need to get it done and published as quickly as possible to keep up the momentum and not to lose your followers.

And there’s the magic word again: lose. Because this time, you have a lot to lose. And if you did quit your job, then you have even more to lose.

Suddenly, 72 sales per month is nothing to celebrate. It’s something to lament, to worry about, to lose sleep over.

Suddenly, you’re in the business of writing and publishing. And for some, that’s when it stops being fun.

Being an author isn’t just about writing and publishing and selling books. It’s about mindset. It’s about desire. And it’s about conquering the fear of losing everything you worked so hard for. The fear of losing the joy.

So how do you maintain the joy and relieve the fear?

By knowing what you want.

It’s OK to keep writing books as a hobby. It’s OK to publish them on your own time and schedule and appreciate every sale you get.

It’s OK to stop at one book and appreciate the ride it took you on.

It’s OK to want more success, and to set goals and make a plan to achieve them.

It’s OK to want to maintain the momentum.

As long as that’s what you want.

And as long as you also remember why you started writing in the first place.

You started writing because you enjoyed it. Because you loved the process. Because you loved the escape. Because you loved the story you were telling, and the characters that came into your life, and the conversations they had. You started writing because you couldn’t not do it.

Because you had nothing to lose.

And the mindset to maintain, difficult as it may be, is to act as if you still have nothing to lose, even if you have everything to lose.

So how do you do that?

 

  1. Gratitude

Give thanks for every book sold—even if you’ve only sold one per month. Give thanks for the reader who took the time to post a review, even if it was unfavorable. Give thanks for the reader who took the time to write you a personal note of thanks, telling you how much they loved your book. Give thanks for the fun you had when you wrote it, for all those who helped you birth it—editors, beta readers, distributors, friends who told their friends to buy it.

Gratitude is the reminder of why you keep doing what you do. What’s more, gratitude keeps the worrying at bay, because gratitude also keeps you in the present moment. You don’t judge how well or poorly it’s doing, whether it’s better or worse than your last book, whether it’s better or worse than someone else’s book that is selling more. You simply appreciate what it is, where it is, how it is, and that it is.

 

  1. Positive Aspects

 When I fear loss, I begin listing all the positive aspects of my current situation, such as:

I’m not at the place where I need to look for additional employment. Even if I was, I know I will be OK because I can keep writing if I want to.

I’ve already had the kind of success many writers dream of and beyond what I imagined.

I am paying my bills each month, and I have a beautiful home in a lovely neighborhood in a majestic part of the country. But I also know how to live in a two-bedroom apartment if need be.

I remember that the most important thing is to live joyfully, regardless of which form that takes.

Positive aspects pivot you away from worry to better feeling thoughts, including gratitude, and help you see your situation in a different, better perspective. As Wayne Dyer says, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

 

  1. Affirmations

Affirmations keep you aligned with your desires. I always structure mine in the present tense:

I am making a sustainable living as a full-time novelist.

I am a thriving author who publishes and sells books.

I give thanks for every sale and every reader.

It’s fun to be a writer and an author.

I bring joy to everything I do.

In fact, one of my repeated affirmations is Jerry Greenfield’s (of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame):

if it's not fun graphic

You’ll be surprised as the pressures begin to melt away, or, if not disappear altogether, diminish greatly, freeing you from the fear that is stopping you of writing your next book, or moving forward in a way that is in alignment with what you want. It’s all about breaking free of that fear. It’s all about the mindset.

6 Screenwriter Storytelling Tactics that Made Me a Better Novelist

People are often surprised when I tell them that some of the best lessons I’ve ever applied to my novel writing craft came from television writers and screenwriters. That’s because television and screenwriters’ chief aim is to tell a good story.

I assure you that if you apply each of these tactics to your novels, regardless of genre, you will see a marked improvement. Or perhaps you’ve been applying these instinctively. If so, good for you!

Here they are, in no particular order of importance, but as I list them here, they do follow a somewhat logical sequence:

 

  1. Intention and obstacle

Emmy and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men, The West Wing, and The Social Network, preaches intention and obstacle as the backbone of everything he writes. “Someone wants something, and someone or something is in the way of them getting it.”

Without intention and obstacle, your story lacks conflict, and your characters lack an opportunity for development. More detrimental, the reader doesn’t have a purpose for being there. It’s one thing for a protagonist to want her dream job that’s just come on the market. It’s something completely different when her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is going after the same job. (And it just so happens her ex-husband is her ex-husband because he slept with her arch nemesis.)

Intention and obstacle is the stimulus for your characters to make choices and take action. It’s even better when this next tip happens…

  1. Always put your characters somewhere they don’t want to be.

Larry Gelbart, co-creator of the television series M*A*S*H and writer of movies such as Oh, God! and Barbarians at the Gate, dispensed this advice. It especially applies to comedies, but I find it works in every good story. Either take your characters out of their comfort zone, or put them where they’ll need to react rather than respond. For example, our protagonist (I’ve decided to name her Ruthie) sits in front of the hiring committee and the air conditioning has gone out, so they move the interview to a room without windows, and Ruthie is claustrophobic. Plus she’s allergic to a committee member’s perfume. And Mr. Ex is looking especially handsome, the rat-bastard.

 Notice that a little story is unfolding here? This leads me to…

 

  1. “But/Therefore”

As I had mentioned in my previous blog post, South Park creators and writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s advice is so crucial to storytelling that I devoted the previous blog post to it. Connecting scenes with “and” or “and then” will make your story drag and offer few consequences for your characters’ actions and behaviors. Connect them with “but” and “therefore,” and your story lights up with conflict and consequences.

Ruthie’s dream job is hiring, but her ex-husband is on the hiring committee, and her arch nemesis is also after it. Therefore, Ruthie needs to ally herself with someone else on the committee. But the arch nemesis has already beat her to it, therefore Ruthie needs to discredit the arch nemesis. But during the interview, the A/C goes on the fritz, therefore they need to move to a room with no windows. But Ruthie is claustrophobic and allergic to someone’s perfume, therefore she needs to get through the interview without having a panic attack or wheezing…

Connect the same scenes with “and,” and watch the story turn into an insomnia remedy rather than a page turner.

 

  1. “The antagonist always thinks s/he is the protagonist.”

This advice came to me courtesy of instructor Will Chandler at the Stony Brook Southampton Summer Screenwriting Conference on Eastern Long Island, and I still remember how hearing it was like an epiphany.

Think about some of your favorite antagonists: Annie Wilkes from Misery. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men. Heck, even Voldemort. Each one of them is a compelling antagonist because they believe themselves to be the good guy. Wronged. Misunderstood. Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be villains. But they do need to be… well, antagonizing.

How might Ruthie’s arch nemesis make her case for protagonist status? Maybe she thinks she’s worked twice as hard as Ruthie and thus deserves that job. Maybe deep down she’s twice as insecure as Ruthie, or felt threatened by Ruthie, and that’s why she went after Ruthie’s husband and now her job. Maybe, when they were kids, Ruthie somehow wronged her. Whatever it may be, we don’t just have a mean girl anymore. We have someone who is formidable and challenges us as much as she does Ruthie.

 

  1. Story Structure

During that same screenwriting conference, I learned two different story structures. One was the traditional Three-Act structure (which I’d discovered I’d been instinctively applying to my novels). The other was a character arc based on Nine Key Scenes (also taught by Will Chandler). I detail both of them The Writer’s Habit. I also know of many novelists who use Blake Synder’s beat sheet from Save the Cat.

And finally…

 

  1. Words with a k in it are funny.

Walter Matthau as Willie Clark tells his nephew Ben this in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. But I suspect it’s Mr. Simon’s assertion. And dammit if it isn’t true. Cookie. Chicken. Ketchup. (I’m not sure what my using all food words says about me, other than I’m writing this before dinner.) Think about it.

 

Activity/Discussion: Of these six storytelling tactics, which is your favorite? Why? How do/would you apply any/all of them in your novel?

 

tell a good story graphic

What South Park Taught Me About Storytelling

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages. Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome.

A couple of years ago, a video circulated around Facebook of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, co-creators and writers of the animated series South Park, in which they discussed a technique they used to constantly raise the stakes on both the plot and characters of every South Park episode. As the story progressed, rather than connect scenes with “and” and/or “and then”, they connected them with “but” and “therefore”. The latter not only raises the stakes and ratchets up the conflict (and the humor), but it also keeps a story from dragging.

This simple tactic changed my approach to novel writing. Whereas I might have done this instinctively, I now do it consciously. What’s more, when I read a problematic draft-in-progress (my own or someone else’s), the diagnosis is usually that the writer either hasn’t raised the stakes enough or has strung scenes together in an “and” or “and then” rather than the “but/therefore” manner. I’ve diagnosed the same problem in finished, published novels as well.

Here’s a description of my novel, Pasta Wars using “and then”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. And then Katie flies to Italy to convince Gianluca to collaborate because he is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. And then a stubborn Gianluca insists Katie learn how to make pasta from scratch, and then the equally stubborn Katie stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, and she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Here’s the same sequence using “but” and therefore”:

Katie Cravens’s frozen food-pasta company is in trouble. Therefore, her team proposes she partner with renowned pasta chefs Gianluca and Luciana Caramelli to manufacture a new pasta product line. But Gianluca is vehemently opposed to the idea, as well as to Katie and her company. Therefore, Katie travels to Italy to personally convince him. But Gianluca is stubborn and insists she learn to make pasta from scratch, therefore Katie, who is just as stubborn stays in Italy and goes head to head with Gianluca, but she is having a hard time fighting her attraction to him…

 

Which story would you rather read? Why?

If your scenes are connected by “and” and/or “and then,” your story becomes more passive and drags on. Using “but” and “therefore” leads to more plot twists, surprises, and the need for problem-solving. The result is that readers will keep turning the pages.

You can even try this if you outline your scenes by inserting “but” and/or “therefore” between each note card, bullet-point, or however you outline.

Remember, when you raise the stakes on your characters, you’ll also raise your readers’ (or viewers’) investment in the outcome. Take it from Matt Stone and Trey Parker!

 

Activity/Discussion: Either draft a series of scenes or select a series of scenes from a work in progress and apply the but/therefore approach. How does it affect your characters and/or story?

(If you liked this post, wait ’til you see the next one!)

 

raise the stakes

When You Write, Keep These 5 Things in Mind

Writing is always a series of choices.

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:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Text

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:

  • Style
  • Stance

 

rhetorical situation graphic

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.

  1. Purpose

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.)

 

2. Audience

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.

 

3. Text

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.

 

4. Style

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.

 

5. Stance

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!