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Writing in Particular

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

In last week's post, I talked about audience. I said that you should write for yourself first (be passionate) and, secondly, for your readers (be clear). Today, we're going to build on that by looking at the situation surrounding your text.

 

In English 101 at the University of Tennessee, we talk a lot about the "rhetorical situation" of a text. Rhetorical situation? My students' eyes glaze over at the term. What is that?

Truthfully, mine did, too, my first year of grad school. I was familiar with the concept, of course, but I never studied rhetoric as an undergrad. What exactly was a "rhetorical situation" and how was it different from any other situation?

According to Purdue University, a rhetorical situation includes five basic elements:

  1. A text

  2. An author

  3. An audience

  4. A purpose (or exigence)

  5. A setting (i.e., the time, place, medium, and environment of the communication)




So, basically, a rhetorical situation is the situation surrounding a text.

Ahh . . . That's not so bad. My students relax a little in their seats. This class is going to be a piece of cake.

But then I ask them to think deeper: Why is the rhetorical situation of a text important, and how does it affect the way you write in different settings? (I.e. Do you write the same way in your classes that you do when you text your friends? Will you write the same things in the workplace that you do now in your classes? How does your tone and style vary depending on the context of your writing? Why?)

Aww, crap. You had to make things difficult, Miss Jess.

Yep. I did.

You see, we often approach writing with the idea that if we can just learn all the rules — grammar, punctuation, formatting, and so on — then we can master writing in all settings. That's what general education English classes are for . . . Right?

Wrong.

The thing is, due to its very nature and existence within a rhetorical situation, the act of writing cannot be "in general." Elizabeth Wardle explains it this way in her essay from Bad Ideas About Writing:

Go to your desk right now and attempt to write something in general. Do not write for any specific audience, purpose, or context. Do not use any conventions that you've learned in school, work, creative writing, and so on. Just write in general.

You can't do it, because it can't be done. There is no such thing as writing in general. Writing is always in particular . . . [E]very new situation, audience, and purpose requires writers to learn to do and understand new possibilities and constraints for their writing. (31)

"There is no writing in general, and thus no single class or workshop or experience can teach people to write, once and for all." — Elizabeth Wardle

Wardle goes onto say that the idea that we can learn to write in general is not just a harmless myth, it's a dangerous idea because it hurts students and frustrates teachers and employers. A student who has mastered the five-paragraph essay will be sorely disappointed if he thinks that same format will work for his lab report in biology. So too will a journalist who attempts to use the inverted pyramid when she starts her first novel.

But, wait. What about all the tips and tricks I've been sharing on this blog — things like removing clutter and avoiding adverbs, etc.? Isn't that "writing in general"?

Well, yes. It is. Those techniques are applicable to any rhetorical situation. But they aren't enough (on their own) to make you a master of every rhetorical situation. Rather, they are tools that can help you take what you've learned from one writing situation and transfer it to another.

Take this blog post, for example. If I were to rewrite it as an email to a friend, or attempt to turn it into a TikTok video (or a few), the same rules about clear writing would apply, but my finished products would obviously look quite different.

Make sense?

In the upcoming weeks, I'm going to dig a little deeper into each of the elements of a rhetorical situation. We've already talked a lot about author (you), and we've touched on purpose (sharing something you care about), but there's still a lot more to cover, particularly in terms of target audience and context.

In the meantime, what has been your experience — good or bad — with writing transfer throughout your lifetime? If you have any stories, please share!





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