Professional Writing 101: Responsibility of Rhetoric
The Professional Writing 101 series aims to educate readers on the professional writing best practices that are applied to various industries that utilize professional writers. This series will dive into several aspects of writing such as professional writing pedagogies, defining and analyzing the audience, and document and readability design.
The Professional Writing 101 series will be divided into 6 main chapters:
Professional Writing 101: Responsibility of Rhetoric
Professional Writing 101: Readability Design
Professional Writing 101: Collecting and Utilizing Audience Data
Professional Writing 101: Digital Tools for Better Writing
While the previous article of the Professional Writing 101 series underscored the importance of the voice of written text and how it conveys messages to audiences, this article will next highlight the guiding principle of rhetoric that dictates all methods of communication. Rhetoric and the voice in which writers write their documents simultaneously influence one another, but it is essential to recognize the difference between them. To begin, the second edition of the "Oxford English Dictionary" (1989) defines rhetoric as "the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in order that he may express himself with eloquence" (Oxford University Press). Following this definition, the art of rhetoric cannot be properly studied without an introduction to Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), known as the father of rhetoric. In her article guiding researchers on how to implement rhetoric in their scientific findings, Dr. Lara Varpio (2018), a Professor of Medicine and Associate Director of Research for the Health Professions Education, writes, “He [Aristotle] studied rhetoric analytically, investigating all the means of persuasion available in a given situation" (Introduction section, para. 6). Equally, speakers and writers study the basic theory of rhetoric, and they learn the basic ideas of rhetorically analyzing speech, writing, and artwork. The foundational study equips everyone with the ability to engage in direct and indirect communication. Therefore, most writers must consider the rhetorical situation. Keith Grant-Davie (1997), a professor in the English Department at Utah State University, describes the crucial understanding of the rhetorical context,
Teaching our writing students to examine rhetorical situations as sets of interacting influences from which rhetoric arises, and which rhetoric in turn influences, is, therefore, one of the most important things we can do (p. 264).
This is a foundational practice every writer studies early on. To establish a relationship, maintain attention, and be deemed a legitimate authority in writing, a writer must project a unique voice. Alternatively, the rhetorical situation will inform a writer on how they should construct that message. This knowledge highlights how writers analyze a rhetorical situation and frame their writing, as well as the consequences of misreading the rhetorical situation and implementing inappropriate rhetoric.
Firstly, writers should ask themselves their purpose (also known as telos) for writing a piece. Linda Flower (1988), a composition theorist serving as a rhetoric professor for Carnegie Melon University, discusses the limited discourse regarding the definition of purpose:
Purposes behind any rhetorical or any human act are so multifold, so entangled, and even contradictory (p. 528)
and then continues this idea by stating, “even though goals and content are naturally linked, a writer’s network of purposes can not be simply equated with (or recovered from) the text” (p. 531). In fact, even navigating how to approach writing content for a highly technical or scientific field cannot escape the complexities of human motivations and how they impact and drive communication.
For instance, in reading a journalist's article about a story covering a paramount event or scandal, readers could make the reasonable assumption that the writer’s telos is to bring attention to a story that deserves coverage. However, more is at play that readers may not even have immediate awareness of. The writer’s purpose consists of multi-faceted motivations in addition to persuading an audience to feel a certain way about that story. These other purposes could be exposing certain behaviors to society, drawing readers to their newspaper and widening their audience base, or meeting a given deadline designated by their superior to maintain their job position and career as a successful journalist. Sometimes, professionals in the writing industry are simply instructed to work on a particular story and in addition to the constraints of a target audience, the abovementioned implicit and explicit purposes could influence rhetoric and composition in a specific way.
As a basic principle, those in the Liberal Arts discipline will likely see a mandatory course on rhetoric as part of their core curriculum. Every Liberal Arts practitioner must gain some proficiency in the art of rhetoric as a STEM practitioner should obtain basic mathematics. The backbone of Communication Studies relies on fundamental rhetorical analyses and applications. T. R. Johnson (2011), a Professor of English at Tulane University, illustrates this point when observing his students:
The discourse of the analyst ensues whenever we ask the students to develop a paper that looks and discusses a particular text through the lens of some other texts. This explicitly interpretive way of writing proceeds as an act of ‘listening’—that is, the framing of the topic in a certain way (p. 556).
In academia, there are countless examples in literature or visual media courses in which a writer will take a piece and apply a particular lens to it to make captivating arguments. In a professional writing context outside of academia, the analysis depends on the audience that an organization or company serves internally - like employees, managers, etc. - and externally, - like customers, stakeholders, suppliers, investors, etc. These contingencies require different frameworks for understanding how writers compose their messages.
As an example of the process illustrated above, the most common internal communication medium is the frequent emails between workers, otherwise known as business writing etiquette. Marc R. Summerfield, M.S, an experienced business writer in the pharmaceutical industry, and Agnes Ann Feemster, PharmD (2015), an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Pharmacy, introduce the overlooked importance of e-mail writing, "e-mails have created or destroyed businesses, reputations, or relationships. They have been submitted as evidence in courts" (Background section, para. 4). This statement makes it evident that this type of internal communication carries massive influence beyond the scope of invoking more effective information in the workplace. Summerfield and Feemster (2015) also divided appropriate e-mail etiquette practices into three main 'approaches'. In their research, they "focus on the purpose of business writing, that is, strive for clarity [opposed to creative writing], master the basics of punctuation and grammar, [and] master the elements of style – the way ideas are expressed – that contribute to clarity" (Purpose of E-mail section, para. 7, 8, 10). Therefore, business writing etiquette is the rhetorical context to frame a particular document, and many are the aspects that a writer has to carefully take into account. With this premise, understanding the rhetorical context and adjusting the writing format as such will avoid potentially detrimental miscommunication and unprofessionalism, as well as sitting at the desk for hours and hours.
The purpose or telos behind even a simple email is more than just communicating streamlined information. Furthermore, a writer’s purpose could also involve a projected, professional reputation that colleagues will respect. Persuasion exists in contexts more ambiguously than some may realize. From a journalist publishing an article to a simple email written by non-career writers, the purpose aids in fueling rhetoric determined by the rhetorical context. To exemplify that, if the purpose of driving is to go somewhere by vehicle because the destination is too far on foot, then, the pre-determined final destination (rhetorical context) determines how the driver should approach the drive. Do drivers need a GPS? Should they fill up on gas now, or can they wait halfway? Which interstate will be most convenient? Thus, they approach the act of driving accordingly. T. R. Johnson (2011) summarizes rhetoric perfectly by explaining,
[Rhetoric is] a set of tools for generating, arranging, and embellishing language to maximize its impact on an audience […] to build and continuously revise and extend alliances that reverse mastery (p. 568).
Johnson’s statement underlines the significance of how rhetoric exists as neutral. Tools, even before use, are neutral resources until the rhetorician decides how to use them. The employment of pathos (emotion), logos (facts), and ethos (ethics) and how each is focused on more than others, are dictated thoroughly by the writer.
After recognizing the role of rhetoric and its theoretical application to communication, in addition to telos, writers employ the classic rhetoric appeals, namely: pathos, logos, ethos, and kairos (timing). When writers compose a text, they should enforce each component at once. The better a writer can strike a balance, the more persuasive and effective the content will be. Richard E. Petty et al. (1981), all Ph.D. holders in Psychology, conducted an analysis of a receiver's cognitive responses to rhetoric, reporting that "people were viewed as active contributors to the persuasive messages that they received rather than mere passive recipients" (p. 432). As evidence from these behavioral findings, writers should assume the dynamism their writing will spark in the reader. A reader's attention is a finite resource, and an appropriate application of ethos, pathos, and logos will increase the likelihood of the reader agreeing with a presented message.
Yet, ethos, pathos, and logos focus on the varying areas of the brain used to determine trust by the receiver. Kairos - or timing -, a somewhat overlooked element of rhetoric basics, also plays a substantial role in content. Timothy Peeples, Paula Rosinski, and Michael Strickland (2007), writing program administrators at Elon University, drafted a document illustrating more on the qualities of kairos, by underlying,
the qualities that define kairos are opportunity, appropriateness, significance, and advantage […] distinguished as a point a window, or a moment (p. 59).
Timing also influences when a product or service will advertise to the public. Sonja Radas and Steven M. Shugan (1998),the former a PhD in business administration and marketing and the latter a PhD in marketing models and economics, write how seasonality aids in dictating the advertisement of certain products by stating, "Holidays create extreme seasonality in greeting cards...government actions cause financial planning books" (p. 296). Not every seasonality is this predictable, but nonetheless, seasonality practices kairos by seizing a certain window of time. It also elicits a sense of urgency in the audience with a 'limited-time' tone. While the urgency, to some, may seem manufactured by the copywriter to generate sales and interest, the urgency may very well hold legitimacy to a specific audience.
Journalists use kairos to write a story before a specific news publication and when the information is still fresh. Grant-writers utilize kairos to apply for funding according to a grant institution or trust guidelines and the project milestones. Each case has slightly different variables, but all necessitate a strategy in timing and carry urgency for their pieces to draw attention and fulfill a call to action. If a writer fails to identify the rhetorical context in which they write, that message is either ineffective or tone-deaf.
In addition to misreading a rhetorical context, another problem that may arise concern rhetorical fallacies. Also known as logical fallacies, no matter whether they are unintentional, will damage the relationship with the readers and deem the writer unreliable and they can affect legal and political writing as well as other genres. These fallacies do not just apply to the fallacy of logic but also to ethical and emotional appeals. For example, in the metanalysis research of appealing to fear by Melanie B. Tannenbaum et al. (2015), a professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois writes "a message high in depicted susceptibility emphasizes the message recipient’s personal risk for negative consequences (e.g., 'One of fourteen women is destined to develop breast cancer during her life. So every woman may get breast cancer. You also run that risk!')"(Depicted susceptibility and severity section, para. 1). Even if not caught immediately by a general audience, fallacies such as these will eventually grab the attention of a very critical reader and deem that writing as misleading at best. Copywriters now generally pivot away from fear-mongering wording for the reason explained above. That is why, as a result, writers must exercise caution when crafting a message. Fallacies in rhetoric may bring harmful consequences to the writer’s reputation because of unsavory audience opinion.
In summary, writers leverage rhetorical practices and engage in preliminary analysis of the rhetorical context before they begin constructing a message. That message must clearly project the branding and identity of who they write for. Cynthia Sharp (2016), a veteran attorney and CEO of the firm 'The Sharper Lawyer' writes advice that professional writers of any field should follow. Even as a practitioner in law, Sharp recognizes how other professional writing practices are critical even in the juridical sector, "special attention should be given early on to taking control of your message. [...] Keep in mind that professional copywriters are schooled in intricacies of client psychology and thus trained to choose words and tone designed to make you memorable in the minds of your target audience" (p. 20). And this is because, in the end, every act of communication aims to achieve some goal or level of persuasion. When writers harness the perfect balance of rhetoric, timing, and audience awareness, their writing will receive much more credibility and therefore have a higher chance of persuading the reader to believe in their message.
Sharp, C. (2016). Branding essentials for solos and small firms. GPSolo, 33(6), 18–21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44736982
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Peeples, T., Rosinski, P., & Strickland, M. (2007). “Chronos” and “kairos”, strategies and tactics: the case of constructing Elon University’s professional writing and rhetoric concentration. Composition Studies, 35(1), 57–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43501679
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