Centrality of Rhetoric | Department of English | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Liberal Arts

Centrality of Rhetoric

At SIU Carbondale, our writing courses emphasize writing as a rhetorical (or persuasive) act that depends on effective analysis of the rhetorical situation. Elements of the rhetorical situation include the writer’s role in the communicative act, the reader or audience, the topic of the discourse, the genre or document type, and the author’s purpose for composing.  Though they influence each other in significant ways, generally speaking, these various elements can be characterized separately as follows:

Topic: Obviously, your topic derives from the subject matter you’ve chosen to address or have been asked to address by a professor or employer.  Acts of writing typically progress most smoothly when writers are passionate about their topics, but, at times during college and in the context of your career, you will be asked to write about topics assigned by others. 

When this is the case and the topic is not of particular interest to you, you are well advised to find an angle on the topic that will inspire your engagement. In fact, many topics that you are assigned (and even some that you identify for yourself) will ultimately reveal themselves to be too broad for the confines of the task at hand, and, consequently, they cannot be effectively developed.  Therefore, your skills at focusing subject matter or narrowing your topic will be crucial to success in your writing courses and courses across the university curriculum.       

AudienceWhen we think of audience, we typically think of the reader(s) we are attempting to reach through our discourse and/or who will likely be interested in what we have to say. Sometimes we write for individuals, sometimes for groups of individuals. Certain groups of individuals we write for will be highly diverse. Others that we write for will have much in common, including values, beliefs, specialized knowledge, expectations regarding features of the composition, etc.

In the university or workplace, you will often be writing for the latter—referred to as discourse communities—whose commonalities prepare them to communicate according to accepted rules and conventions. These rules and conventions in turn shape the form that writing takes. For example, writers in different disciplines use differing citation practices as well as differing formatting techniques based upon what is considered common practice by others in the discipline.

In each writing situation, it is essential to understand who your audience is. It is also important to seek specific information about your audience, such as how much they already know about your topic, what their political leanings are, etc.

Purpose: Simply put, this is your aim or reason for writing.For example, past writing courses may have invited you to compose informative and argumentative essays. To state the obvious, the purpose of the informative essay is to inform, and the purpose of the argumentative essay is to argue. Of course, your purposes are not limited to these larger aims of document type.

Often, you will identify sub-purposes for writing that are highly specific and even quite personal: to complain about a faulty product with the intention of returning it for a refund; to present your credentials and experiences in such a manner that you will be hired for a certain job; to move people toward action with the intention of righting some wrong in your community; to convince your parents that you need larger cash advances to sustain your life as a college student, and so on.

Genre: Differing genres can be conceived as differing “types” of essaysIn most of your composition courses, you will be asked to tackle at least a few different genres. In English 101, for example, students are asked to write a literacy narrative for an audience of their peers. While the subject matter indicates that students are to focus on a certain event that illustrates development of a given literacy, the genre dictates that this event will be portrayed in narrative form (i.e., it will read like a story) and that the event will subtly portray some sort of revelation or lesson.

Students in English 101 will also be asked to write an analysis of an advertisement for a fictitious employer. This analysis will be contained in a business memo, a genre that dictates a specific organization and format driven by a need for communicative expediency. In short, whether you are writing as a student, citizen, or employee, understanding the features of various document types and the composing situations for which they are appropriate will support your ability to communicate effectively.

RoleThis is the stance the writer assumes in presenting particular information to a particular reader. This stance often arises from the writer’s relationship with the intended audience, his/her reason for writing, and his/her values regarding the issues at hand.

For example, when writing to your parents about your first few weeks as a college student, you might assume a different role than you would in writing about those first few weeks to your best friend from high school. In writing to your parents, you would likely emphasize the role of serious student, focusing on your classes, your professors, resources you’ve discovered to support your studies, etc. In writing to your best friend from high school, however, you might emphasize the social, fun-loving side of yourself, focusing on new friends you’ve made, extracurricular activities, organizations that you might consider joining.

In both situations, you might reveal excitement about this new stage of your life, but, given the different expectations of your readers and your reasons for contacting those readers, you highlight different matters and, perhaps, adopt different tones.

All the writing courses you take in SIU Carbondale’s composition curriculum will ask you to engage assignments from an explicitly rhetorical perspective. Elements of the rhetorical situation listed above provide a framework for analyzing writing tasks that will help you garner the most appropriate strategies for successful communication in a given context.

At times, your instructors will ask you to determine elements of the rhetorical situation for yourself; at other times, your instructors will determine elements of the rhetorical situation as a means of compelling you to “stretch your rhetorical muscles” and expand your collection of composing techniques. As a result of these varied writing activities, analyzing elements of the rhetorical situation will become “second nature,” a valued skill that is highly applicable and that you can carry with you to subsequent course work and to the workplace.