Rhetorical Situations


All writing has a purpose. We write to explore our thoughts, express ourselves, and entertain; to record words and events; to communicate with others; to persuade others to think or behave in certain ways. In fact, we often have several purposes at the same time. For example, while we try to persuade an audience of something, we may also entertain the audience and explore our own thoughts on the subject.

Identify your purpose

While writing often has many purposes, we usually focus on one. Before you start to write, ask yourself what the primary purpose of the writing task is: to entertain? to inform? to persuade? to demonstrate your knowledge? How do your audience's expectations affect your purpose?

Thinking about Purpose

  • What do you want your audience to do, think, or feel?
  • What does this writing task call on you to do?
  • What are the best ways to achieve your purpose?

Back to Top


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.

As a student writing for an instructor, you will be expected to produce essays with few or no errors, which is a higher standard than writing an email for friends. 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 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 often have to write for multiple audiences. In these instances, the initial recipient may pass your memo, report, or essay along to others. Unknown audiences are difficult to address since you can't be sure what they know, what they need to know, how they'll react.

Thinking about Audience

  • Whom do you want to reach?
  • What is your audience's background—their education and life experiences?
  • What are their interests?
  • Is there any demographic information that you should keep in mind?
  • What political circumstances may affect their reading?
  • 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?
  • What's your relationship with your audience, and how does it affect your language and tone?
  • What does your audience need and expect from you?
  • What kind of response do you want?
  • How can you best appeal to your audience?

Back to Top


Genres are kinds of writing that have particular conventions. Letters, profiles, reports, position papers, poems, Web pages, instructions, parodies—even jokes—are genres.

Genres help us write by establishing features for conveying certain kinds of information. They also give readers clues about what sort of information they're likely to find.

Identify your genre

Does your writing situation call for a certain GENRE? Academic assignments generally specify the genre, 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?
  • Does your genre call for any specific STRATEGIES?
  • Does your genre require a certain organization?
  • Does your genre affect your tone?
  • Does the genre require formal (or informal) language?
  • Do you have a choice of medium?
  • Does your genre have any design requirements?

Back to Top


Whenever you write, you have a certain stance, an attitude toward your topic. The way you express that stance—your tone—affects the way you come across as a writer and a person.

Identify your stance

What is your attitude about your topic? Objective? Critical? Curious? Opinionated? Passionate? Indifferent? Your stance may be affected by your relationship to your AUDIENCE, by your GENRE, and by your PURPOSE.

Tone is created through the words you use and the way you approach your subject and audience. 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.

Thinking about Stance

  • What is your stance, and how can you best present it to achieve your purpose?
  • What tone will best convey your stance?
  • How is your stance likely to be received by your audience?
  • Should you openly reveal your stance?

Back to Top

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, our voices, and various technologies.

Each medium has different uses, and each has distinctive characteristics. Because we now do most of our writing on computers, we need 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.

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 website? If you're unsure about the degree of flexibility you have in a particular assignment, 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?
  • Does your medium affect your organization and STRATEGIES?
  • How does your medium affect your language?
  • Should you use a combination of media?

Thinking about Design

  • What's the appropriate look for your RHETORICAL SITUATION?
  • Does your text have any elements that need to be designed?
  • What typeface(s) are appropriate?
  • Are you including any illustrations?
  • Should you include headings?

Back to Top