Web Rhetorics for a Digital Age: The Medium AND the Message

By Jason Snart, College of Dupage

"Rhetorical" and "writing" situations

So what do we mean by the term "rhetorical" and what is a "writing" situation?


The term "rhetoric" has a number of definitions. And maybe you've heard somebody ask a "rhetorical question"—or a question that doesn't really need an answer. (Are you really going to wear that today?)

For our purposes, though, we'll use the term "rhetoric"—and the related term "rhetorical"—to identify a particular "style" of language use. A "rhetoric" is more than just a vocabulary or a set of word choices. Rhetoric also includes the traits that define how a certain vocabulary might be used.

So an owner's manual for a new television has a certain kind of "rhetoric." There's a "style" we recognize: usually "user friendly" and as straightforward as possible. You just bought a new TV after all and you want to use it right away!

Notice that the rhetorical style is straightforward. There are few, if any, long or complicated sentences.

And rarely do we find large "chunks" of text. Most sections are kept to just a few, simple sentences. In fact, page layout and design are as important in something like an owner's manual as the words themselves. Design elements are sometimes referred to as the "visual rhetoric" of a document or Web page.

Notice, for example, how simple formatting elements such as numbered lists and bullet points, along with bolded section headers, are used to keep the page as "clean" and as simple as possible.

Notice also how the text is complemented with an abundance of graphical information, including small icons within the text itself and screenshots of what your new TV will actually look like as you proceed through the setup instructions.

This overall style "makes sense" to us, because we expect an owner's manual to help us use our TV quickly and easily.

But there is nothing that is necessarily "natural" about the style and layout. In other words, it doesn't have to be this way. Each element in the owner's manual is the result of a set of choices made by technical writers and graphic design experts.

It is important to keep this idea of "choices" in mind, because something like "style," which can otherwise be a vague term and one that is often difficult to define precisely, is really just the result of a set of choices that any writer, or group of writers, makes. Were we to pick up a novel and find numbered lists, bullet points, simple sentences, and very short paragraphs, we might wonder why the writer has made these choices in a rhetorical situation that usually calls for a very different style.

Writing Situation

A writing situation, which is sometimes called a "rhetorical situation," describes any context in which you need to communicate via the written word. So an essay assignment for an English class is a "writing situation." An e-mail or text message to a friend is also a "writing situation," though usually a much less formal one than the college essay.

The television owner's manual above was, for its creators, a writing situation.

For any given writing situation, you as the writer need to determine the appropriate rhetorical tone and style to adopt. In other words, you need to evaluate the writing situation and make informed choices. We often think of this as adopting the appropriate "style."

And it seems like common sense that the formal college essay—one kind of writing situation—is very different from a chatty e-mail to a friend—an entirely different writing situation,—but it's amazing how often people fail to think about writing situations carefully and thus fail to make good rhetorical, or stylistic, choices.

One of the most common "writing situation" errors these days involves e-mail. For some reason, many people assume that e-mail is by default a fast, informal, and conversational writing situation, no matter who the recipient is. Notice in the following example how chatty and informal this e-mail is:

Subject: hey
hey, hows it going

see you at 8 tonight ok and is everybody coming to the game



There's nothing wrong with the choices that the writer has made in this rhetorical situation: an e-mail to a close friend.

We wouldn't even call this "bad writing," though it is full of unconventional spelling, punctuation, and formatting, because we recognize that the writer has made rhetorical choices appropriate to the writing situation.

But what about an e-mail to a prospective employer? Has the writer made good "writing situation" choices in the following example?

Subject: hi

hi - im Jason I got your name from the job board at school

i am VERY interested in the job u posted : )

sounds like a great company pls call me to set up a meeting

We recognize right away that where the situation calls for much more formal prose and more conventional formatting, the writer has instead adopted the conversational style of an e-mail to a friend.

So what's missing in this example?

Well, there's no proper address or introduction. There is no conventional capitalization, proper sentence structure, or punctuation. There is no proper sign-off.

In fact, the tone, style, vocabulary, formatting and just about everything reflects poor rhetorical choices on the part of the writer.

The next time you check your e-mail, consider the different rhetorical choices that have been made by people who have sent you something. Look at your junk e-mail and spam, too.

Did each sender make what you would consider "good" rhetorical choices given the writing situation?