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Drafting and the Rhetorical Situation

Drafting and the Rhetorical Situation

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches how to use the rhetorical situation in drafting your essay.

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Welcome to English Composition. I've Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be taking an in-depth look at how the rhetorical situation can be used to help writers, not just readers. We'll look at how an awareness of the rhetorical situation can and should impact the drafting process. And then we'll talk about how meta-awareness-- awareness of your own thought process-- can lead to a deeper, more critical understanding of yourself and your writing when put in practice.

First, let's review the rhetorical situation. It's a term that writers, especially writers in the composition field, use all the time to encapsulate several things-- the author's purpose, presumed audience, personal background, and cultural-historical context, as well as how that context factors into the author's writing choices. We use the rhetorical situation to deepen our understanding of texts by using empirical evidence, reasoning, and plain old-fashioned guesswork to consider the writer's purposes, presumed audience, and everything else, which helps us engage with the text and makes us more critically aware readers. However, we can also use the rhetorical situation to prepare and evaluate our own writing projects and to become more self-aware.

It's important to remember that the writing process, while sometimes appearing overly structured and formulaic, is really a process that you, the writer, have complete control over. And as that's the case, you owe it to yourself to be self-reflective about this process and to do what you can to understand the choices you make during it. What we're talking about here is self-awareness. And we've got a fancy word for that-- meta.

Meta is the act of thinking about your own thinking. In the context writing, "meta" means self-reflectively thinking about your writing and your writing process. This is a key component of effective brainstorming and prewriting. And whenever writers think about the rhetorical situation of their work, it's a meta act. After all, what's writing but a writer's thoughts made concrete?

In order to perform this kind of meta self-analysis, writers should focus on their text-- or text-to-be-- and ask questions of it. What are my biases? How am I avoiding, embracing, or explaining them? If I'm not, should I be? Are my biases leading me to any possible faulty reasoning?

What are my assumptions about this topic? And for that matter, who's my intended audience? What language, approach, and style will best work to persuade them?

Conversely, am I deliberately alienating my audience? What is the value of doing this? And a side note here-- this can actually be a good strategy, as alienating an audience can have the effect of making people uncomfortable or galvanizing them, both of which can be useful reactions depending on your purpose and your text.

Another question to ask of your writing is what the purpose is and what do you want your audience to know or do after reading it? Is there anything in your background that draws you to this topic or motivates your thesis? Is anything happening in your city, state, country, world, family, personal life, et cetera, that motivates your interest and thoughts about this topic? If yes, how can you use this information in your essay? If no, how can you show the relevance of your topic?

Now let's take a look at a text and practice performing a meta analysis of it. I took this paragraph from a draft of an essay I'm working on about food choices and corporate culture. It comes, at the moment, from somewhere in the middle of the essay. So obviously, there's a lot you won't know yet. But as I read, read along with me and try to guess at the rhetorical situation in which this was and still is being written.

"I've done a lot of traveling, and one thing that I've learned is that it's best to avoid businesses that cater exclusively to non-locals. In places like the Turnpike Travel Plaza, it's clear that those in charge of planning were perfectly aware of the captive nature of their customers. And it's also clear that they weren't particularly interested in developing lasting relationships with those customers. If they were, they'd have built more options into the services and products they offer. But since everyone involved understands that there aren't any other options, they don't, and most of us don't complain."

One thing I'm still struggling with this essay is managing my biases. I'm not too crazy a foodie, but I don't eat fast food as a rule. And I have a tendency to get preachy about mass-produced food. Make sure you know where the things you eat came from, et cetera. I've tried to keep this out of this essay, but given the subject matter and the fact that the introduction opens with me and my fiance making omelettes in a Burger King parking lot while people walk by staring at us, it's been kind of hard to avoid.

And the thing is, the reason I'm trying to avoid preaching too much is that I don't want to alienate readers. My intended audience isn't just people who already pay the same kind of attention to their food as I do. I'd like to be able to reach out to everyone, even the people who are probably rightly tired of being preached at about food choices. And as far as how my background and cultural contexts are influencing this essay-- both in terms of topic choice and how I'm actually going about writing it-- I know that since I grew up in a very rural area, one where home-cooked food was the only food option, I know that I have a very different relationship with fast food and any other kind of corporate restaurant, for that matter, like the one I'm talking about in this travel plaza. So I know that I have to be careful.

For example, I don't want to badmouth an establishment that a reader might have happy childhood memories about, as that wouldn't help my cause. And I also know that since I didn't grow up with fast food and my parents, as farmers, always made it a priority to know where their food comes from since they were part of the production of some of it, this colors any discussion of food I might try to make. Since I'm aware of how uncommon my background is, I feel like I have to bring it up in order to be honest, which I do in a different part of this essay. But I worry that doing so is just going to make it sound like I'm showing off how cool I am and have always been-- or something like that.

So for the most part, as I do in this section, I try to keep most of the attention of my readers on what I'm saying about food choices and the corporate environment in which almost all of those choices are made. But it's a constant balancing act and one I haven't quite figured out yet, at least not for this essay. And that's kind of the point. That's kind of the reason I chose to model this text in progress.

Meta awareness is an ongoing process, one you'll never just get. And like many things related to writing, it's much easier to describe than to do. But once you start, you only get better at it.

What did we learn today? We learned about the rhetorical situation and how it impacts the writer's drafting process. Then we talked about meta awareness and how it can help expand our understanding of our own writing and our own rhetorical situations. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

  • Meta

    The act of thinking about your own thinking