Wouldn’t it be interesting to eavesdrop on what a bunch of writers say about their writing philosophies? I asked the writers in my UCSB Academic Writing Class for PhD students in Computer Science to think about their writing philosophies by composing their own definitions of rhetorical writing. See what you think.
(By the way, I recommend that you develop your own personal writing philosophy — Like a writing credo you can rely on when you are composing a story, when you are editing your work, when you are collaborating with co-authors.)
1. Rhetorical writing could be compared to Tao, an Eastern concept and philosophy that is understood to mean “the way”.
Rhetorical writing is tricky to define. Despite learning about it for an entire class, there is not even one single rule that I could say is necessary for effective writing. If you had a single, inflexible rule, it would completely miss the principle of rhetoric.
As far as I can tell, rhetoric is about effective communication using the familiar anchors of language, culture, and known concepts. That’s about it. And, if you wish to do it well, so much depends upon circumstances and an ambiguous medium called language. Who are you communicating to? Why are you communicating to them? Do they interpret language the same way you do? What culture does this audience have in common?
Culture is important because it suggests the type of concepts and language patterns your audience might be familiar with. If you know the concepts that already exist in someone’s head, you can exploit these as anchors to communicate more effectively. A few simple and seemingly vague words could form a very powerful image in the right person’s mind. (Patrick Baxter)
2. Rhetorical writing is the process of writing for a defined audience with a defined purpose. Every other element of rhetorical writing can be logically deduced from this definition. When the writer is writing for a defined purpose she is telling a story that concludes with her predefined purpose. Generally, the writer wants the audience to reach her conclusion by themselves. Therefore, as a general rule, anything that distracts the audience from reaching her desired conclusion should be removed and anything that can help the audience to reach the desired conclusion should be included. For example, inconsistency is generally distracting. Therefore, every element of the writing should consistently serve the writer’s conclusion: the register, tone, and word choice should be compatible with the conclusion; data and visuals, when not serving the story, are distracting and should be removed. (Ali Zand)
3. Rhetorical writing is the Art of War in writing. Taking different tactics and strategies in your writing yield completely different results. You can get more support from your readers than you expect, or make them turn their backs on you and even get slammed by them. (Jay Byungkyu Kang)
4. Rhetorical Writing is about all the conscious choices we make to deliver our story to a specific discourse community. Choices such as genre, style, structure, length, tone, or even the actual audience. However, Rhetorical Writing isn’t a recipe for successful writing. It is more of a framework – a set of tools – we have available to craft an idea into text. Text that other people will understand and enjoy reading. Text that other people will prefer and choose to read from an ocean of available readings. Because at the end of the day, Rhetorical Writing is all about making your written ideas and stories stand out. (Theodore Georgiou)
5. Rhetorical writing is a methodological process of crafting a text that efficiently achieves its intended purpose with the chosen audience given a fixed set of constraints. The author carefully chooses genre, register, rhythm, style, and tone and tweaks these variables and iteratively improves the structure of the text. (Alex Pucher)
6. Rhetorical writing is a method of writing that helps writers make more conscious choices of delivering ideas to achieve a specific communicative purpose. It includes elements that guide writers in this process. Specifically, depending on which audience the writer targets, she will be more informed of the approach and word selection to make the audience understand the story she wants to communicate. This, in turn, will also affect the number of words she needs to deliver her idea, the formality of words, and the tone of her writing. (Dong-Anh Van Nguyen)
7. The search for perfectionism in each sentence kills the flow of thoughts, kills the moment that writing can capture. I feel that this class gave me back my old self, the need to express myself first and then fix my text. The text ends up dry if I continuously revise.
When it comes to editing I have changed my attitude completely. Now I think about what is best for the reader and how I should adjust my phrases in a way that the reader will understand what I want to say. My overall message from this class is: “Be courageous and put your thoughts on paper as this might surprise you how well structured and meaningful they are. Then organize them to present them to the reader in a beautiful way like the essays you were writing as a child.” (Ana Nika)
8. Word choice, sentence structure, tone, and register. These requirements have become the soul that guides my writing every time I want to represent something in words. Personally, I learned two important issues about writing that I consider in all of my writing. First, write a document as a whole, smooth, well-connected story which can lead the writer to read it easily. Second, remember that there is always a gap between the writer and the reader — what you want to represent in the sentence may differ a lot from what the reader interprets. (Lin Zhou)
9. Rhetorical writing is about choices. Rhetorical writing is about choice of purpose, audience, message, genre, length, structure, rhythm, tone, register, sentences, words. These choices are all highly correlated, and a complex product emerges from simple fundamental rules of sentence structure. Through the simple combination of letters into words, into sentences, into claims, into arguments, choices interact with each other to lead to complex, emergent behaviour. Simply, as we have been told, “Rhetorical writing is about writing to tell a story, to an audience you choose, to achieve a communicative purpose, within a word limit.” (Michael Gaultois, Materials)
10. This class opened my eyes on how dull my writing had become. In high school, I wrote fictional stories populated with characters loosely inspired by my classmates. The stories were funny and witty, and helped my classmates kill time during the insipid classes that were so frequent at my high school.
[In graduate school] I realized that I got accustomed to thinking that there was only one way to write papers, since everybody in my community writes in the same way – that is, the successful ones. It made me realize that there is still room for letting one’s personality come through a written academic text. I learned that, although I cannot usually choose my audience, I can adjust register, tone, and word choice to achieve my purpose. I learned that playing with words is a possibility. Most importantly, I learned that a well-written academic text does not necessarily have to be dull or monotone.
A potential problem that I fear is that many reviewers are not good writers. They were trained to “parse” papers, rather than to read them – much like a computer would do. My fear is that a good, unfamiliar way of writing — which diverges from the agreed style of the community – might confuse them, and that they may not be able to understand the underlying message of the paper.
Although I may be writing great text, my audience is still who I am writing for. I need to come up with a way of making my voice and personality come through, but also be accessible. Balance is the key. (Gianluca Stringhini)
11. Writing is like composing. The same notes can generate masterpieces or c***. To write a beautiful text, every bit of it should be considered carefully, from logic flow to sentence structure, from tone to word choice. This is Rhetorical Writing. It is about how to use the language as a tool to express what is in the writer’s mind, clearly and precisely. A well-written paragraph should not look like a forest, where trees grow randomly. It should be a garden, where every plant and rock is placed intentionally and carefully to construct a self-contained, aesthetic entity. When such a text is presented to a reader, the intention and the idea should be understood without extra effort. This is why we write. This is why we write rhetorically. I hope I achieved some of it in this paragraph. (Bolun Wang)