Rhetoric and Your Writing: An Introduction

Crystal Sands, PhD.

Crystal Sands, PhD., is the former Director of the Excelsior College OWL. Dr. Sands has worked in higher education for nearly twenty years – as an award-winning writing teacher, and as writing program director and instructor at several institutions.

Have you ever heard the phrase “empty rhetoric?” This phrase certainly carries negative connotation; however, rhetoric is anything but empty. But what exactly does rhetoric mean? And how can it help you? Rhetoric is actually all about effective communication, and it can help you by making you a more flexible writer, which, after all, is really what you need to be in order to be successful as a student in college with many papers to write and as a member of your profession with e-mails, memos, letters, and articles to write and presentations to create.

In this short introduction to rhetoric, I will focus on providing a basic understanding of what rhetoric really is and how your knowledge of rhetorical concepts can help to make you a better writer. We’ll start with some history and explore the definition of rhetoric and dig into more specific rhetorical concepts in later blogs. For now, let’s talk about what rhetoric is and why it’s important to your writing.

History

Much of our understanding of what rhetoric is goes back over 2,500 years to the Sophists. The Sophists were important teachers in classical Greece. They taught many subjects, but their main focus was rhetoric. The Sophists taught that knowledge was relative to human perception; essentially, there is no “right” or “truth,” only what people perceived as “right” or “truth.” They taught their students that what would be convincing for an audience would depend on the audience and the situation. In other words, what would seem “true” to one audience and in one situation would not seem “true” to a different audience or in a different situation.

These teachings, though powerful, were very controversial, so much so that Plato, the Greek teacher and philosopher, worked to discredit the Sophists’ teachings. For Plato, there was a universal truth; and, therefore, at least at the beginning of his teaching career, he did not see much value in rhetoric, except that it should be used to arrive at the “truth,” a universal truth, he argued for. Fortunately, for us today, Aristotle, Plato’s student, saw great value in rhetoric and wrote down much of what he taught his students about rhetoric. Much of our modern understanding of rhetoric comes from the Sophists and Aristotle’s teachings.

Aristotle emphasized rhetoric as an important part of effective communication. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability of a speaker to observe in any given situation the available means of persuasion. It is this definition of rhetoric that guides writing instruction in colleges and universities across the United States. Much like the Greeks during Aristotle’s time, our culture today is one that emphasizes effective communication and rewards those who can speak and write well, and rhetoric is still the key to being a successful communicator.

Rhetoric Defined

Any negative definition of rhetoric fails to consider the true nature of rhetoric. Some would define rhetoric as language with “excessive ornamentation” or “empty talk,” but these definitions are too limited, uninformed, and do not address rhetoric for what it really is.

For our purposes, rhetoric is an ability to assess a situation and know what to do to communicate well within that particular situation. Although a thorough understanding of the complexity of effective oral, written, and visual communication can take years of study, the foundation of effective communication begins with rhetoric, and with this foundation, even if you are just starting out, you can become a more powerful, more flexible writer. Rhetoric is the key to being able to write effectively in a variety of situations, and you already have a pretty strong sense of rhetoric and may not even know it.

From infancy, we are learning to read our “audience,” usually our parents, to figure out what we need to do to be persuasive, and these skills carry with us and develop throughout our lives. For example, most of us have a pretty good idea about how to be persuasive when we are asking parents for money or persuading a boss that it is time for a raise. As a college student, you may know that, when your Introduction to Literature professor assigns a research paper on the novel you are reading, she or he is expecting an essay that is quite different from an website you have to create for your Business class. And an editorial on health care reform you have to write for your Health Sciences class is much different than both of these writing assignments.

However, without stopping and thinking rhetorically and honing our rhetorical skills, many of us struggle to be flexible writers and have a difficult time responding well in a variety of writing situations. The goal of a rhetoric-based writing instruction is to help you refine your rhetorical skills so that you can quickly and efficiently analyze any rhetorical situation and respond to it effectively.

One way to begin to understand the true nature of rhetoric is to understand that almost everything we say or write is persuasive to some degree, and this persuasion is pervasive in our culture. The narrative essay about why you choose your profession is persuasive in that you are trying to at least convince your audience that what you are writing is worth reading about. The television commercials that work to convince us we need products to be beautiful, thin, smart, and cool all use rhetorical principals to persuade us. The words that I (the author of this blog post) am communicating to you (my audience) right now are persuasive and rhetorical in nature because I am trying to convince you that rhetoric will help you improve your writing skills. Rhetoric is all around us. If we are willing to learn about rhetoric and how to use it, we will be better writers and better prepared to make informed decisions as communicators in a culture that greatly values the written word.

Are you convinced yet of the benefits of a rhetorical approach to writing? If so, I have been successful. If not, I have work to do, but there will be more posts on the value of rhetoric in the coming months.

In the meantime, the Excelsior College OWL offers more information on the value of rhetoric to your writing process and offers many activities to help you hone your rhetorical skills. Check them out, and let us know what you think.