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Concepts in Rhetoric

Like any craft, rhetorical practice requires skill across a range of activities and concepts. And while we have discussed in detail elements of the rhetorical situation above, we want to share some more concepts related to rhetoric, each of which we will work with more carefully as the semester moves along. The following overview of rhetorical terms intends to provide students with a working vocabulary for rhetorical practice and critical inquiry.

Invention: This common word takes on a whole new meaning in the context of rhetorical practice. You might imagine a scientist working in a lab or engineers working to develop the latest and greatest technological innovation. Rhetoricians, those who study and teach rhetoric, use the word to mean discovery, the search for the best and most effective means of communicating. Invention includes generating topics for writing, studying and learning about those topics, planning arguments and gathering evidence, experimenting with genre, and thinking carefully about audience. Invention in short, is the engine of all rhetorical practice.  

The invention process of the hypothetical student writer in our earlier example includes coming up with a research question, looking into background materials about the issue at hand, researching for more specialized information, reading and evaluating the sources she or he finds, reformulating (if needed) his or her own position with regard to each of these sources, planning what sources to incorporate into his or her own work, and deciding the most effective means of presenting his or her conclusions convincingly.

Given what we have said here, you would be right to conclude that rhetorical invention is a process of critical thinking and of learning.

Argument: Though often used as a synonym for reasoning or logic, argument is a much broader term. Though definitions abound, we use the term to name anything people do to convince or persuade other people can be considered an argument, and that ranges from complex and formal writing or speech to nonverbal acts, such as facial expressions or the clothes we put on each day. What do your fashion choices argue? What about the song or video you posted on your Facebook page? The food you serve your friends or family? How you vote in an election? The point is: anything might be presented as an argument in the right context.

The word argument has a lot of cultural baggage. We have arguments friends and family when we are angry. We argue with coworkers or neighbors over some disagreement. Often we use the term argument to mean an angry exchange of words, yelling, hurling insults, etc. Most people don’t enjoy the negative emotions involved in this kind of thing. Another way to think about argument is as a collaborative process for arriving at the best ideas. Arguments allow people to exchange perspectives, and if all parties are open to it, to modify one another’s thinking. Rather than thinking in terms of winners and losers, what happens if we think of argument as a process co-creating knowledge and solving problems?

Claim: A claim is an assertion of truth, a statement writers want an audience to accept. Some are simple, and some are complex. When writers use reasoning and evidence, they usually do so to support main claims, what high school and university students are often taught to approach as thesis statements. Some claims will be readily accepted, for example, the claim that a university education increases graduates’ chances of future success. Others, however, will not be as readily accepted. For example, it will be difficult to convince an audience of classical music enthusiasts that Parliament Funkadelic is the greatest musical group of all times. Like all other elements of rhetorical practice, claims—strategies for making them and their likely success—are fundamentally tied to audience.  

Some claims are implied rather than stated explicitly. For example, many claims are implied in the advice not to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The assertion that impaired driving is dangerous is so strongly implied that it need not be stated outright. Can you think of other implied claims?

Counterargument: As the term itself implies, a counterargument is a response or refutation of an argument. For example, politicians and citizens arguing to return refugees to their countries of origin would likely claim that aid for the refugees would amount to an unreasonable economic burden. The same politicians would likely also argue that refugee populations might include criminals and thus present a threat. Those in favor of aid for refugees would no doubt examine such arguments to see if any evidence exists to support them, thus preparing their own counterarguments, for example: doctors have found no incidents of serious communicable disease among recently arrived refugees.

So then, audiences make counterarguments, but thinking in terms of counterarguments is also a powerful strategy for writers. The writer we imagine in this refugee-controversy scenario would likely anticipate the economic and security concerns of politicians and look for ways to respond. Or to use another example, a student researching causality between violence in the media and gun crime would do well to carefully examine the many arguments and counterarguments circulating in the public sphere and among researchers in fields of study including sociology, criminology, psychology, media studies, and cultural studies.

Evidence: Any information that supports the claims we make might be used as evidence. Expert testimony, statistical information, and first-hand observations are among the most common forms of evidence. Consider again the scenario of a student researching the connection between violence in the media and violence in society. What kinds of evidence might be available? Studies by sociologists? Criminology reports on the media habits of those who have perpetrated crimes with guns? Psychological profiles of shooters? As with any decision a writer has to make, choices about what kinds of evidence to use should be made with the expectations of an audience in mind.

Here are some common forms of evidence and an example for each in the context of an argument for providing greater resources for refugees who reach the United States from other nations:

First-hand account A personal story told by a refugee or by an aid worker at an international border.
First-hand account The public statement of a faith-leader asserting a moral responsibility to assist people in need.
Expert testimony The report of a United Nations investigator attesting to the dangerous conditions in the home countries of refugees.
Expert testimony An article written by an economist questioning the widespread claims about the economic burden refugees put on the federal budget of the United States.
Case Study An article written by sociologists that documents the difficult and dangerous experience of refugees leading up to their departure from their country of origin.
Statistical Information Data including the successful transition into United States society of refugees who have received medical attention.
Statistical Information U.S. State Department data on the increase of refugee emigration from areas of natural disaster or political conflict.

Genre:  Genres are the familiar forms in which writing is organized. A letter is a genre, as is a poem, a personal essay, a proposal, a novel or short story, a memorandum, an editorial, etc. Any form that is recognizable as a distinct and common way of organizing writing can be considered a genre. Genres have more or less predictable conventions, that is, rules or patterns of structure and style. Perhaps the most important point to make is that writers need to carefully consider their choice of genre. Particular genres are suited for particular occasions. You wouldn’t write a poem, most likely, when announcing a new policy or procedure in your workplace. Likewise, our hypothetical student writer has been directed to work in a very common academic genre, that is, the research essay. Given common access to the proper technology, and email or text message can be the best genre for informal communication among friends.

What Are You Making? Genre, Format, Structure, etc.

People often learn about “genre,” a term for specific, identifiable forms of writing, as part of the vocabulary of literary study. In junior high school or before, we learn that poems, novels, plays, and short stories are all literary genres. Our use of the term must be much broader. We need to open up the notion of genre to include non-literary forms, such as essays, news articles, resumes, blogs, and posters. This list of possible genres is almost unending. Though it may not be high art, a public service announcement (PSA) has as clear a claim on generic status as the epic poem. Both have a history of formal conventions (that is, rules that are more or less traditionally accepted), and writers keep changing and challenging those rule systems as time goes on.

Also, let’s expand the traditional definition of genre beyond printed language. Students are now asked to work in genres of electronic or digital communication, to create spoken-word texts or visual texts, or to compose combinations of the graphic and the linguistic. You might write an essay, but you might also write a newspaper article, a script, a blog, organize a letter writing campaign, choreograph a dance, design a website, compose a piece of visual art, music, or performance, make a flier, write a book, etc., etc., etc… We’ll assume the broadest possible scope for thinking about genre. Consider this short list of projects undertaken by New College Writing Program students in the last year:

  • A short video dramatizing the dangers of binge drinking.
  • A letter writing campaign lobbying the United States Congress to push human rights reform in China (specifically, the “One-Child” Policy).
  • An anime comic exploring the emotional impact of social isolation.
  • A PowerPoint presentation on the Common Core Standards currently being implemented in primary and secondary schools across the country.
  • An informational booklet about alternative cancer treatment.
  • A blog addressing issues of gun violence.
  • A sermon addressing a local congregation on the importance of youth leadership.
  • An anti-human trafficking Facebook page.
  • An essay, posted at a personal website, recounting the experience of overcoming addiction.

Thinking about genre allows us to think about the set of conventions that make up any text. Texts are not simply products of imagination, creativity, and intellect; they are things we make. We find the language of making to be useful. First, to emphasize writing or composing as a kind of making reaffirms a commitment to craft. Like any craft, writing is something you can learn, practice, and something at which you can improve. 

Second, thinking about your writing in terms of making highlights the materiality of your work. Thinking about genre reminds us that writing is a tangible common ground and a site of connectivity between writers and the audience or audiences they address. Even if you work in the virtual media of digital and electronic text and image, your project will have a life of its own as an object in world.

We’ve provided references to some landmark scholarly work on genre, and we encourage you to read it to deepen your critical thinking about genre. For the moment, we want to underscore some key points about genre these scholars have made.

Genres form over time as effective strategies for communicating in particular situations.

Every genre has a history, even if we don’t think about it when we take up that genre as our own. For example, at some point in time in the ancient world, perhaps in present day Iraq, Syria, or Turkey, people began writing letters. The first letters may have been personal in nature, or they may have transferred information about governance or trade. Perhaps they were military in nature. As new modes of communication are often first monopolized by those in power, it may well be that the first letters were sent from one king to another. Whatever the case, as formal writing systems came into existence, the benefits of communicating remotely, across distance, gave rise to the first letters. The situation of this emergence of genre thus included a particular social situation (a war or alliance between kingdoms, perhaps), a pressing need for communication (a declaration of war, for example, or the affirmation of an alliance), the languages used within that situation (ancient Sumerian, sticking with our example), and the materials necessary to produce the text (early paper and ink, the method for its making having been learned from Chinese sources).

Despite all the uproar over letter writing becoming a “lost art,” when we send an email or a tweet, we might consider our connection to an ancient practice of letter writing. Electronic circuitry has taken the place of fleet-footed messengers, but can acknowledge what remains the same. Certainly the directness of an email in terms of address carries on tradition of letter writing, as does the possibility of broadening audience, or perhaps narrowing down to a single recipient. Of course we know electronic messaging, living on server systems long after they are sent, might be read by others beyond our control.

The overall rhetorical situation largely determines how much choice writers have in terms of genre.

Though times are changing, academics are often bound to the genre of the scholarly article or book. Journalists or activists reporting on events might write articles that circulate by print or electronically, or they might circulate photographs. If you want to communicate with co-workers, there may be company rules about what can be communicated by email (and who can send those emails). Memoranda might also be an option. When you write about issues that have broad relevance and your audience is dispersed, electronic genres would seem to be necessary.

As we have suggested elsewhere, your genre options will depend on your intention, your audience, your topic, and the resources at your disposal. Because you will not always be able to choose the genre in which you will write, getting comfortable working in multiple genres will be to your benefit.

Genres are not divided in a neat and tidy fashion, but rather tend to be mixed.

Genres change over time for a variety of reasons, but certainly one reason is that individual writers test the limits of genre conventions in order to bend a genre according to their own intentions. The author of an academic essay might include personal information that breaks with any strict rule about objectivity in scholarly writing. Conversely, a personal essay might include research findings more commonly found within academic writing. A writer might include a story or poem in a letter. Blogs often become the site for a range of genre writing, memoirs, editorials, proposals, etc. Multimedia texts in particular mix genres we have come to think of as distinct. Remember, you need not necessarily be bound by too strict a sense of genre form. Experiment with bending the rules for maximum rhetorical effect.

Genres impact the ways readers read.

Readers of websites expect certain conventions: reasonably short segments of written text; images and other graphics to compliment text and guide the eye around the page; a list of links; a menu or map of the site's pages; a mission statement, overview, or general description located either at the home page or at its own link. All genres cue readers to expect certain features. Ignoring or purposefully breaking those rules as a writer will either confuse your audience, or perhaps, pleasantly surprise them.  

Works Consulted

Barwashi, Anis S. and Mary Jo Reiff. Genre: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010.

Miller, Carolyn. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech.”  Carolyn Miller, Anis

Podany, Amanda H. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. Oxford University Press. London, 2014.

Qualification: To qualify a claim means to set some limits or boundaries on it. If someone tells us “it is always sunny in Phoenix,” we might ask that person to qualify the claim, restating it like this: “it is most often sunny in Phoenix,” or “sunny days far outnumber cloudy days in Phoenix.” Qualifying claims is important because we want to be precise in the claims we make, so that we can support them well and avoid misleading our audience.

Think again of our hypothetical student writer researching the impact of media violence on gun crime in the United States. She might claim that “representations of violence in the media increase actual violence.” However, she might want to qualify her claim carefully. For instance, she may claim that “Media violence may play a part in national gun crime,” or “There is evidence to suggest that violence in the media is a factor in gun crime.”  She might even qualify further, specifying, “First-person-shooter games may be a factor in gun crime in the United States.”

Notice how each version narrows the scope of the initial, sweepingly broad claim. Audiences are more likely to accept well qualified claims that don’t overreach or generalize.

Reasoning / Logic: Reason is a word we used in everyday conversation to mean thinking or arguing carefully. When we say something “is reasonable,” or, “stands to reason,” we mean it is rationale and makes sense. Whenever we think consciously about our reasons for doing things, we use logic. As simple as it is, a pro-con list can help us organize our reasoning very effectively.

These familiar ways of talking about reasoning are actually closely connected to the way the term is used by rhetoricians, that is, teachers and students of rhetoric. Often referred to by the Greek term logos, logic or informal reasoning is at the core of much communication. In this sense, reasoning refers to the linking of statements that lead to a conclusion. What assertions or “premises” will particular audiences most likely accept as valid? How much and what kind of support will assertions need?

Consider this line of reasoning (or, chain of premises) commonly used by writing teachers when talking to their students:

Premise: Completing the first draft of an assigned essay early leaves time for careful revision.

Premise: Students learn the most and do their best writing when they revise carefully.

Premise: Learning and doing the best possible work increase students’ chances of academic success and of gaining knowledge and skills that will benefit them in the future.

Premise: Academic success and future benefit are worthy goals.

Conclusion: Completing an early first draft is worth the effort.

The hypothetical teacher might not actually explicitly state each of these premises. The assertion, for example, that doing well in school and learning a lot are good for students hardly needs to be emphasized. Spelling each out clearly lets us see how when we reason with an audience, we try to get our readers or listeners to accept a premise that leads to another, which in turn leads to another until eventually we reach an acceptable conclusion. Audiences must consciously or unconsciously accept each premise to follow in agreement with the writer or speaker’s reasoning.

Reasoning charted out in this way may seem like a backwards version of how you have been taught to construct an academic argument. Students typically learn to write papers that “support a thesis.” A thesis, however, even if you position it at the beginning of an essay, is actually a conclusion, a point at which audiences can only truly arrive through a well-reasoned path of statements. Simply put, the thesis statement at the beginning of a traditional academic essay can be thought of as a signpost announcing the place to which you’d like to bring your readers. The reasoning you build in your argument—sentence by sentence and statement by statement—is the road that can actually take them there.

Values: It might seem odd to include values as a rhetorical concept, but in fact, thinking about the values your audience holds and that are at play in a particular rhetorical situation is crucial for a strong writing practice. When we write for audiences, we appeal to the values that they hold dear, and in so doing, we increase the chances that they will be convinced by our reasoning and accept our claims. You might not think that a student writing a research paper needs to be concerned with societal values, but that might be misguided. In the university, we value the pursuit and sharing of knowledge as socially beneficial. More obvious values like honesty and hard work are also hallmarks celebrated in academic communities.   

This simple graphic offers an example of how values come into play within a rhetorical situation.

 

 Rhetorical Values image

Writer making an argument in a blog post about wealth inequality in the United States. Values that people attachto work, money, equality, and national identity. Readers of the blog, each considering the argument from the perspective of his or her value system.

As suggested even in this simple graphic, values offer a point of connection (or disconnection) between writers and readers. Putting serious thoughts into the “value structure” people use to evaluate situations and ideas will allow you to think critically about how to approach the writing task at hand.

Appealing to values is far from an exact science. What values we hold dear will likely be determined by a range of factors, for example personal experience, family history, cultural background, traditions of faith and secular codes of ethics, and current historical events, which tend to test our value systems. Even if we feel we may share values with others, for instance, those people in our audience, do we think about these values in the same terms? We can name values: loyalty; compassion; success; strength; honesty; patriotism; intelligence;diligence; faith; and so on. Still, after naming them, how do we define each of these values?

Voice: Voice is a metaphor when applied to writing, one that takes spoken language as its point of reference. The term voice is often used to describe the degree to which writers create a particular tone or evoke the sense of a person “behind” the writing; In this way we might talk about a voice in writing that is passionate, humorous, sarcastic, learned, or less complimentarily, a voice that is condescending, defensive, or whiny.

Voice can also be used to describe the level of formality in a piece of writing, ranging from conversational or colloquial to very formal. How would you describe the appropriate voice for the research-paper about violence in the media written by our hypothetical student in the example above? Formal? Informal? What kinds of choices will help to achieve the desired voice effects? Should the student use slang? Crack jokes? Should the student create a voice that communicates her or his passion for the topic at hand? How would a student do that?

In the end, we realize our review of rhetoric is far too quick, and though we have separated these concepts for the sake of discussion, in practice they are very much connected, as perhaps you have already begun to realize.  However, we’re going to do more than simply assume that you are making these realizations. It is now time for your first official writing assignment. To locate that assignment, please click on the Assignment Tab at the bottom of The Rhetorical Situation Homepage.

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