Whenever we write, whether it's email to a friend or
a toast for a wedding, an English essay or a résumé,
we face some kind of rhetorical situation. We have a
PURPOSE, a certain AUDIENCE, a particular STANCE, a GENRE,
and a MEDIUM to consider—and often as not a DESIGN. All
are important elements that we need to think about
carefully. The following chapters offer brief discussions
of those elements of the rhetorical situation, along with
questions that can help you make the choices you need
to as you write. See also the fifteen GENRES chapters for
guidelines for considering your rhetorical situation in
specific kinds of writing.
All writing has a purpose. We write to explore our thoughts and emotions,
to express ourselves, to entertain; we write to record words and events,
to communicate with others, to try to persuade others to believe as we do
or to behave in certain ways. In fact, we often have several purposes at
the same time. We may write an essay in which we try to persuade an
audience of something, but as we write, we may also be exploring our
thoughts on the subject. Look, for example, at this passage from a 2002
New York Times Magazine essay about the compensation of chief executive
officers by economist and editorial columnist Paul Krugman:
Is it news that C.E.O.'s of large American corporations make a lot of
money? Actually, it is. They were always well paid compared with the
average worker, but there is simply no comparison between what executives
got a generation ago and what they are paid today.
Krugman is reporting information here, outlining how top business executives'
pay has increased over the last thirty years. He is also making an
argument, that their pay is far greater than it was not too long ago and
that this difference in income resembles the disparity that characterized
the United States right before the Great Depression. (Krugman, writing for
a magazine, is also using a style—dashes, contractions, rhetorical questions
that he then answers—that strives to be entertaining while it
informs and argues.)
Over the past 30 years most people have seen only modest salary
increases: the average annual salary in America, expressed in 1998 dollars
(that is, adjusted for inflation), rose from $32,522 in 1970 to $35,864
in 1999. That's about a 10 percent increase over 29 years—progress, but
not much. Over the same period, however, according to Fortune magazine,
the average real annual compensation of the top 100 C.E.O.'s went
from $1.3 million—39 times the pay of an average worker—to $37.5
million, more than 1,000 times the pay of ordinary workers.
The explosion in C.E.O. pay over the past 30 years is an amazing story
in its own right, and an important one. But it is only the most spectacular
indicator of a broader story, the reconcentration of income and wealth
in the U.S. The rich have always been different from you and me, but
they are far more different now than they were not long ago—indeed,
they are as different now as they were when F. Scott Fitzgerald made his
—Paul Krugman, "For Richer"
Even though our purposes may be many, knowing our primary reason
for writing can help us shape that writing and understand how to proceed
with it. Our purpose can determine the genre we choose, our
audience, even the way we design what we write.
Identify your purpose. While writing often has many purposes, we usually
focus on one. When you get an assignment or see a need to write, ask
yourself what the primary purpose of the writing task is: to entertain? to
inform? to persuade? to demonstrate your knowledge or your writing ability?
What are your own goals? What are your audience's expectations, and
do they affect the way you define your purpose?
Thinking about Purpose
- What do you want your audience to do, think, or feel? How will they use
what you tell them?
- What does this writing task call on you to do? Do you need to show that
you have mastered certain content or skills? Do you have an assignment
that specifies a particular STRATEGY or GENRE—to compare two
things, perhaps, or to argue a position?
- What are the best ways to achieve your purpose? What kind of STANCE should you take? Should you write in a particular genre? Do you have
a choice of MEDIUM, and does your text require any special DESIGN
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Who will read (or hear) what you are writing? A seemingly obvious but crucially
important question. Your audience affects your writing in various ways.
Consider a piece of writing as simple as a note left on the kitchen table:
On the surface, this brief note is a straightforward reminder to do three
things. But in fact it is a complex message filled with compressed information
for a specific audience. The writer (Mom) counts on the reader (her
son) to know a lot that can be left unsaid. She expects that Jon knows that
the chicken is in the freezer and needs to thaw in time to be cooked for
dinner; she knows that he knows who Annye is (a pet?), what he or she
is fed, and how much; she assumes that Jon knows who (and where) Dr.
Wong is. She doesn't need to spell any of that out because she knows what
Jon knows and what he needs to know—and in her note she can be brief.
She understands her audience. Think how different such a reminder would
be were it written to another audience—a babysitter, perhaps, or a friend
helping out while Mom is out of town.
Please take the chicken out to thaw,
and don't forget to feed Annye.
Remember: Dr. Wong at 4.
What you write, how much you write, how you phrase it, even your
choice of genre (memo, essay, email, note, speech)—all are influenced by
the audience you envision. And your audience will interpret your writing
according to their expectations and experiences.
When you are a student, your teachers are most often your audience,
so you need to be aware of their expectations and know the conventions
(rules, often unstated) for writing in specific academic fields. You may
make statements that seem obvious to you, not realizing that your instructors
may consider them assertions that must be proved with evidence
of one sort or another. Or you may write more or less formally than teachers
expect. Understanding your audience's expectations—by asking outright,
by reading materials in a related field, by trial and error—is important to
your success as a writer.
This point is worth dwelling on. You are probably reading this text
for a writing course. As a student, you will be expected to produce essays
with few or no errors. If you have a job in an office or correspond using
email, you may question such standards; after all, much of the email you
get at work or from friends is not grammatically perfect. But in a writing
class, the instructor needs to see your best work. Whatever the rhetorical
situation, your writing must meet the expectations of your audience.
Identify your audience. Audiences may be defined as known, multiple,
or unknown. Known audiences can include people with whom you're familiar
as well as people you don't know personally but whose needs and
expectations you do know. You yourself are a known, familiar audience,
and you write to and for yourself often. Class notes, to-do lists, reminders,
and journals are all written primarily for an audience of one: you. For that
reason, they are often in shorthand, full of references and code that you
alone understand. Other known, familiar audiences include anyone you
actually know—friends, relatives, teachers, classmates—and whose
needs and expectations you understand. You can also know what certain
readers want and need, even if you've never met them personally, if you
write for them within a specific shared context. Such a known audience
might include computer gamers who read instructions for beating a game
that you have posted on the Internet; you don't know those people, but
you know roughly what they know about the game and what they need to
know, and you know how to write about it in ways they will understand.
You often have to write for multiple audiences. Business memos or
reports may be written initially for a supervisor, but he or she may pass
them along to others. Grant proposals are a good example: the National
Cancer Institute Web site advises scientists applying for grants to bear in
mind that the application may have six levels of readers—each, of course,
with its own expectations and perspectives. Even writing for a class might
involve multiple audiences: your instructor and your classmates.
Unknown audiences can be the most difficult to address since you can't
be sure what they know, what they need to know, how they'll react. Such
an audience could be your downstairs neighbor, whom you say hello to
but with whom you've never had a real conversation; how will she respond
to your letter asking her to sponsor you in an upcoming charity walk?
Another unknown audience—perhaps surprisingly—might be many of
your instructors, who want—and expect!—you to write in ways that are
new to you. While you can benefit from analyzing any audience, you need
to think most carefully about those you don't know.
Thinking about Audience
- Whom do you want to reach? To whom are you writing (or speaking)?
- What is your audience's background—their education and life experiences? It may be important for you to know, for example, whether your readers
attended college, fought in a war, or have young children.
- What are their interests? What do they like? What motivates them?
What do they care about?
- Is there any demographic information that you should keep in mind? Consider
whether race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, occupations,
religious beliefs, economic status, and so on, should affect what or how
you write. For example, writers for Men's Health, InStyle, and Out must
consider the particular interests of each magazine's readers.
- What political circumstances may affect their reading? What attitudes—opinions, special interests, biases—may affect the way your audience
reads your piece? Are your readers conservative, liberal, or middle of
the road? Politics may take many other forms as well—retirees on a
fixed income may object to increased school taxes, so a letter arguing
for such an increase would need to appeal to them differently
than would a similar letter sent to parents of young children.
- What does your audience already know—or believe—about your topic?
What do you need to tell them? What is the best way to do so? Those
retirees who oppose school taxes already know that taxes are a burden
for them; they may need to know why schools are justified in
asking for more money every few years when other government
organizations do not. A good way to explain this may be with a bar
graph showing how good schools with adequate funding benefit property
values. Consider which STRATEGIES will be effective—narrative,
comparison, something else?
- What's your relationship with your audience, and how does it affect your
language and tone? Do you know them, or not? Are they friends? colleagues?
mentors? adversaries? completely unknown to you? Will
they likely share your STANCE? In general, you need to write more
formally when you're addressing readers you don't know, and you
may address friends and colleagues more informally than you would
- What does your audience need and expect from you? Your history professor,
for example, may need to know how well you can discuss the
economy of the late Middle Ages in order to assess your learning; that
same professor may expect you to write a carefully reasoned argument,
drawing conclusions from various sources, with a readily identifiable
thesis in the first paragraph. Your boss, on the other hand,
may need an informal email that briefly lists your sales contacts for
the day; she may expect that you list the contacts in the order in
which you saw them, that you clearly identify each one, and that you
give a few words about how well each contact went. What GENRE is
- What kind of response do you want? Do you want to persuade readers
to do or believe something? to accept your information on a topic? to
understand why an experience you once had matters to you?
- How can you best appeal to your audience? Is there a particular MEDIUM
that will best reach them? Are there any DESIGN requirements? (Elderly
readers may need larger type, for instance.)
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Genres are kinds of writing. Letters, profiles, reports, position papers,
poems, Web pages, instructions, parodies—even jokes—are genres. Genres
have particular conventions for presenting information that help writers
write and readers read. For example, here is the beginning of a profile
of a mechanic who repairs a specific kind of automobile:
Her business card reads Shirley Barnes, M.D., and she's a doctor, all
right—a Metropolitan Doctor. Her passion is the Nash Metropolitan,
the little car produced by Austin of England for American Motors
between 1954 and 1962. Barnes is a legend among southern California
Met lovers—an icon, a beacon, and a font of useful knowledge
and freely offered opinions.
A profile offers a written portrait of someone or something that informs and
sometimes entertains, often examining its subject from a particular angle—in
this case, as a female mechanic who fixes Nash Metropolitans. While the
language in this example is informal and lively ("she's a doctor, all right"),
the focus is on the subject, Shirley Barnes, "M.D." If this same excerpt were
presented as a poem, however, the new genre would change our reading:
Her business card reads
The content and words haven't changed, but the presentation invites us
to read not only to learn about Shirley Barnes but also to explore the significance
of the words and phrases on each line, to read for deeper meaning
and greater appreciation of language. The genre thus determines how
we read and how we interpret what we read.
Shirley Barnes, M.D.,
and she's a doctor, all right
—a Metropolitan Doctor.
Her passion is the Nash Metropolitan,
the little car produced by Austin of England
for American Motors between 1954 and 1962.
Barnes is a legend
among southern California Met lovers
and a font of useful knowledge and
freely offered opinions.
Genres help us write by defining features for conveying certain kinds
of information. They give readers clues about what sort of information
they're likely to find and so help them figure out how to read ("Ah! A letter
from Brit!" or "Thank goodness! I found the instructions for programming
this DVD player"). At the same time, writers sometimes challenge
genre conventions, reshaping them as communicative needs and technologies
change. For example, computers have enabled us to add visuals
to texts that we never before thought to illustrate.
Identify your genre. Does your writing situation call for a certain GENRE?
A memo? A report? A proposal? A letter? Academic assignments generally
specify the genre ("take a position," "analyze the text"), but if the genre
isn't clear, ask your instructor.
Thinking about Genre
- What is your genre, and does it affect what content you can or should
include? Objective information? Researched source material? Your
own opinions? Personal experience?
- Does your genre call for any specific STRATEGIES? Profiles, for example,
usually include some narration; lab reports often explain a process.
- Does your genre require a certain organization? Most proposals, for
instance, first identify a problem and then offer a solution. Some genres
leave room for choice. Business letters delivering good news might
be organized differently than those making sales pitches.
- Does your genre affect your tone? An abstract of a scholarly paper calls
for a different tone than a memoir. Should your words sound serious
and scholarly? brisk and to the point? objective? opinionated? Sometimes
your genre affects the way you communicate your STANCE.
- Does the genre require formal (or informal) language? A letter to the
mother of a friend asking for a summer job in her bookstore calls for
more formal language than does an email to the friend thanking him
for the lead.
- Do you have a choice of medium? Some genres call for print; others for
an electronic medium. Sometimes you have a choice: a résumé, for
instance, can be mailed (in which case it must be printed), or it may
be emailed. Some teachers want reports turned in on paper; others
prefer that they be emailed or posted to a class Web site. If you're not
sure what MEDIUM you can use, ask.
- Does your genre have any design requirements? Some genres call for
paragraphs; others require lists. Some require certain kinds of typefaces—you wouldn't use Impact
for a personal narrative, nor would you
likely use DrSeuss for an invitation to Grandma's sixty-fifth birthday
party. Different genres call for different DESIGN elements.
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Whenever you write, you have a certain stance, an attitude toward your
topic. The way you express that stance affects the way you come across
as a writer and a person. This email from a college student to his father,
for example, shows a thoughtful, reasonable stance for a carefully
While such a stance can't guarantee that Dad will give permission, it's
more likely to produce results than this version:
I'll get right to the point: I'd like to buy a car. I saved over $2500 from
working this summer, and I've found three different cars that I can get
for under $2000. That'll leave me $400 to cover the insurance. I can
park in Lot J, over behind Monte Hall, for $75 for both semesters. And
I can earn gas and repair money by upping my hours at the cafeteria.
It won't cost you any more, and if I have a car, you won't have to come
and pick me up when I want to come home.
The writer of the first email respects his reader and offers reasoned
arguments and evidence of research to convince him that buying a car is
an action that will benefit them both. The writer of the second, by contrast,
seems impulsive, ready to buy the first car that comes along, and
defiant—he's picking a fight. Each email reflects a certain stance that
shows the writer as a certain kind of person dealing with a situation in a
certain way and establishing a certain relationship with his audience.
I'm buying a car. A guy in my Western Civ course has a cool Chevy he
wants to get rid of. I've got $2500 saved from working this summer,
it's mine, and I'm going to use it to get some wheels. Mom said you'd
blow your top if I did, but I want this car.
Identify your stance. What is your attitude about your topic? Critical?
Curious? Opinionated? Objective? Passionate? Indifferent? You convey
your attitude about your topic (and your audience) in the tone your writing
takes. And your tone may be affected by your relationship to your audience.
How do you want them to see you? As a colleague sharing
information? As a good student showing what you can do? As an advocate
for a position? Often your stance is affected by your GENRE: for example,
lab reports require an objective, unemotional stance that emphasizes
the content and minimizes the writer's own attitudes. Memoir, by comparison,
allows you to reveal your feelings about your topic. As a writer,
you communicate your stance through your tone, in the words you choose.
Just as you likely alter what you say depending on whether you're
speaking to a boss, an instructor, a parent, or a good friend, so you need
to make similar adjustments as a writer. It's a question of appropriateness:
we behave in certain ways in various social situations, and writing
is a social situation. You might sign email to a friend with an x and an o,
but in an email to your supervisor you'll likely sign off with a "Many
thanks" or "Regards." To write well, you need to write with integrity, to
say what you wish to say, yet you also must understand that in writing,
as in speaking, your voice needs to suit your purpose, your relationship
to your audience, the way in which you wish your audience to perceive
you, and your medium. In writing as in other aspects of life, the Golden
Rule applies: "Do unto audiences as you would have them do unto you."
Address readers respectfully if you want them to respond to your words
Thinking about Stance
- What is your stance, and how can you present it best to achieve your purpose? If you're writing about something you take very seriously, be sure that your language and even your typeface reflect that seriousness.
Make sure your stance is appropriate to your PURPOSE.
- What tone will best convey your stance? Do you want to be seen as reasonable?
angry? thoughtful? gentle? funny? ironic? What aspects of your
personality do you want to project? Check your writing for words that
reflect that tone—and for ones that do not (and revise as necessary).
- How is your stance likely to be received by your audience? Your tone and
especially your attitude toward your AUDIENCE will affect how willing
they are to take your argument seriously.
- Should you openly reveal your stance? Do you want or need to announce
your own perspective on your topic? Will doing so help you reach your
audience, or would it be better to make your argument without saying
directly where you're coming from?
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MEDIA / DESIGN
In its broadest sense, a medium is a go-between: a way for information to
be conveyed from one person to another. We communicate through many
media, verbal and nonverbal: our bodies (we catch someone's eye, wave,
nod), our voices (we whisper, talk, shout, groan), and various technologies,
including handwriting, print, telephone, radio, CD, film, and computer.
Each medium has unique characteristics that influence both what and
how we communicate. As an example, consider this message: "I haven't
told you this before, but I love you." Most of the time, we communicate
messages like that one in person, using the medium of voice (with, presumably,
help from eye contact and touch). A phone call will do, though
most of us would think it a poor second choice, and a handwritten letter
or note would be acceptable, if necessary. Few of us would break such
news on a Web site or during a radio call-in program.
By contrast, imagine whispering the following sentence in a darkened
room: "By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the territorial expansion
of the United States had left almost all Indians confined to reservations."
That sentence starts a chapter in a history textbook, and it would be
strange indeed to whisper it into someone's ear. It is available in the medium
of print, in the textbook, but it may also be read on a Web site, in promotional
material for the book, or on a PowerPoint slide accompanying an oral
presentation. Each medium has different uses and takes different forms,
and each has distinctive characteristics. As you can see, we can choose various
media depending on our purpose and audience. The Norton Field Guide focuses mostly on three media: print, spoken, and electronic.
Because we now do most of our writing on computers, we are increasingly
expected to pay close attention to the look of the material we write.
No matter the medium, a text's design affects the way it is received and
understood. A typed letter on official letterhead sends a different message
than the same letter handwritten on pastel stationery, whatever the words
on the page. Classic type sends a different message than flowery italics. Some
genres and media (and audiences) demand photos, diagrams, color. Some
information is easier to explain—and read—in the form of a pie chart or a
bar graph than in the form of a paragraph. Some reports and documents are
so long and complex that they need to be divided into sections, which are
then best labeled with headings. Those are some of the elements to consider
when you are thinking about how to design what you write.
Identify your media and design needs. Does your writing situation call
for a certain medium and design? A printed essay? An oral report with
visual aids? A Web site? Academic assignments often assume a particular
medium and design, but if you're unsure about your options or the
degree of flexibility you have, check with your instructor.
Thinking about Media
- What medium are you using—print? spoken? electronic?—and how does
it affect the way you will write your text? A printed résumé is usually no
more than one page long; a scannable résumé sent via email has no
length limits. An oral presentation should contain detailed information;
accompanying PowerPoint slides should provide only an outline.
- Does your medium affect your organization and STRATEGIES? Long paragraphs
are fine on paper but don't work well on the Web. On PowerPoint slides, phrases or key words work better than sentences. In print,
you need to define unfamiliar terms; on the Web, you can sometimes
just add a link to a definition found elsewhere.
- How does your medium affect your language? Some print documents
require a more formal voice than spoken media; email often invites
- Should you use a combination of media? Should you include audio or
video in Web text? Do you need PowerPoint slides, handouts, or other
visuals to accompany an oral presentation?
Thinking about Design
- What's the appropriate look for your RHETORICAL SITUATION? Should your
text look serious? whimsical? personal? something else? What design
elements will suit your audience, purpose, genre, and medium?
- Does your text have any elements that need to be designed? Is there any
information you would like to highlight by putting it in a box? Are
there any key terms that should be bold?
- What typeface(s) are appropriate to your audience, purpose, genre, and
- Are you including any illustrations? Should you? Is there any information
in your text that would be easier to understand as a chart or
graph? Will your AUDIENCE expect or need any?
- Should you include headings? Would they help you organize your materials
and help readers follow the text? Does your GENRE require them?
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