Rhetorical Situations
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.

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 famous remark.

—Paul Krugman, "For Richer"
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.)

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 elements?

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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:

Please take the chicken out to thaw,
and don't forget to feed Annye.
Remember: Dr. Wong at 4.
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.

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 a boss.
  • 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 most appropriate?
  • 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
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.
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.

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 researched argument:

Hi Dad,
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.
While such a stance can't guarantee that Dad will give permission, it's more likely to produce results than this version:

Hi Dad,
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.
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.

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 with respect.

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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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 greater informality.
  • 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 medium?
  • 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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