- Define the the basic rhetorical approaches of tone, language, and appeal.
- Describe how to adapt tone, language, and appeal to engage the target audience.
- Describe the importance of context to the writing process.
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You can approach your audience’s needs and build common ground using three basic rhetorical approaches: tone, language, and appeal.
What’s the difference between a formal tone and a conversational tone? What about the difference between writing that’s conversational and writing that’s very rigid? Of the three approaches we cover here, tone may be the most important one: if you choose the wrong tone, you may turn off your audience completely.
Take a look at this example from a student’s proposal to create an infographic for senior citizens:
REAL STUDENT’S WRITING
Based on this senior citizen audience, simplicity and authenticity must be key characteristics of the infographic. Its message, presented mainly through visuals, must not only be clear and easy to understand, but it must also be genuine in nature. Caution must be taken to avoid seeming judgmental towards the audience members’ digital skills and tendencies.
This student wants to make sure the tone of her document builds good will with her audience. If your audience is made up of senior citizens, you would want to make sure that you aren’t patronizing or belittling them about their technical expertise.
Can you think of a situation where your tone didn’t match the audience’s expectations? As you write an essay, you have to consider the audience’s potential reception of your tone. Even if the audience is hypothetical, the only way to ensure that you aren’t “tone deaf” is to pay attention to your tone.
Language is closely related to tone. In fact, if you misjudge the appropriate language for your audience, your tone will suffer, too. If you are writing an article for a scientific journal, obviously you would want to make sure to use the technical language appropriate to your subject.
Language has a lot to do with discourse communities. Imagine that you work in a car assembly plant. You know your job and enough about the process of car assembly in general to talk to anybody else in the plant about their jobs, as well. You probably have a specialized vocabulary that describes your work process. Now, imagine that you walk into an airplane manufacturing plant. Would you be able to do the same thing? Sure, many of the processes are the same, and you might be able to talk to the workers about the things you have in common. But the vocabulary is different. Workers in the airplane factory talk about different things and have different common knowledge than you do. Each factory is a discourse community. When you write, you are participating in a discourse community, and you should use language that matches the expectations of the audience.
Can you think of a situation where your language didn’t match the audience’s expectations? If you are an audiologist, for example, you would use different language to explain how a cochlear implant works to the parents of a deaf child than you would to discuss advances in cochlear implant technology with other audiologists.
What do these appeals have to do with finding common ground with an audience? Well, the way you balance ethos, pathos, and logos can vary depending on who your audience is. Think about the scenario below:
An audience of scientists is primarily interested in your credibility (ethos) and your facts (logos). They want to know more about your methods, how your data was collected, and the accuracy of your study. When you are presenting to this group, you should minimize appeals to emotion, as they could turn off your audience.
An audience of kindergarteners is primarily interested in big, fluffy polar bears. Thus, you would want to emphasize the appeal to emotion (pathos). Your ethos, or credibility, is important, but in a different way than it is with the scientists. You must express yourself in a way that makes the children feel comfortable with you and makes them trust what you say. Facts are important in every situation, but the kindergarteners aren’t going to scrutinize your methods.
An audience of climate change denialist politicians would generally be very hostile to what you have to say. Playing up your credibility (ethos) may not be very helpful because they already reject the field in which your credibility is rooted. You have to rely heavily on facts (logos) with this audience and demonstrate that your facts are impossible to deny. You also have to rely on emotion (pathos) but in a different way than you do with the kindergarteners. This hostile audience is already reacting to you with emotion, so it’s important for you to receive that emotional energy and make the best of it.
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Writers must have a clear sense of to whom they are writing (the audience) and what the audience’s values and/or opinions related to the topic are.
Imagine a history professor who opens her lecture on the Victorian era by asking her undergraduate students, “Did you see the Victorian-era furniture on Antiques Roadshow last night?” Can you imagine how many in the class would raise his/her hand? Can you hear the confused silence?
Most of the students in the audience are under the age of thirty, with the majority falling between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. They do not own property and probably have little interest in antiques. The target audience of Antiques Roadshow, though, reflects middle-aged and older middle class folks who, most likely, own property and, perhaps, antiques of their own. How effective of an opener was this professor’s question given her audience? Not very.
To communicate effectively and persuasively
Writers must have a clear sense of to whom they are writing (the audience) and what the audience’s values and/or opinions related to the topic are. When in conversation, we often shift our tone and/or language to adapt to our audience.
Consider how you talk differently to young children than you do to your professors. When communicating with a child, you may use simple language and a playful or enthusiastic tone. With your professors, however, you may try out academic language, using bigger words and more complex sentences. Your tone may be more professional than casual and more critical than entertaining.
For example . . .
Imagine that you need money. When you craft an email to your parents asking for money, your approach might be different than if you were to ask your roommate for money. Your tone, language, and means of appeal will adapt to who your audience is.
- The tone of your email is casual, conversational, and upbeat (“School is great!”).
- The language that you use is simple, easy to read. Sentences are short and rely mostly on action verbs.
- You appeal to your parent first by recalling positive memories of home, as though you know your mom is missing you (“reminds me of home”). This is a tug at the heartstrings (or pathos appeal). By offering specific details about the cost of your chemistry textbook, you make a logos appeal (to her sense of logic). You also highlight your responsible nature, which develops an ethos appeal: “I study nearly all the time,” “I try to sleep,” and “books [more than] I budgeted.” Telling your mom that books were more expensive than you imagined links your request for additional cash to your pursuit of an education, something that makes her happy and that adds to your credibility.
For more information about ethos, pathos, and logos, see “Rhetorical Appeals.”
- When asking your roommate for cash, the tone may remain casual though it will appear less conversational. I mean, after all, you talk to this person every day. Also, noting “I’m totally okay with” buying two rounds of groceries creates a feeling of generosity rather than resentment.
- The language gets even simpler. Notice how much shorter the sentences are and how quickly the writer gets to the point; there is less need for “window dressing” your appeal. Colloquial language appears here—“could you spot me some cash”—rather than the more formal request the writer made to his mother, “I’m out of funds for groceries and gas. Can you help?”
- Reminding the roommate that you bought the last two rounds of groceries functions as an appeal in two ways: first, it establishes your credibility as a good friend; and second, it appeals to the roommate’s sense of logic (of course you need some extra money; you’ve got a free loader kind of roommate!).
A writing assignment . . .
Your professor asks you to write an academic argument paper on a topic of your choice. Academic writing is usually directed to an educated audience interested in critical, analytical thinking.
Let’s imagine you choose to write about adoption rights within the LGBT community. More specifically, you’ll argue that stable LGBT couples deserve the opportunity to adopt children just as stable heterosexual couples are allowed to do.
You’ll adapt tone, language, and appeals to suit the writing project’s
Brainstorming and planning
When you write to all readers, you, in fact, write to no one at all.
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Identifying the primary reason for writing provides you with the focus you need to write an effective document in less time.
Like an onion that is peeled, revealing multiple layers, a writing document may have multiple purposes. A persuasive essay, for example, may have paragraphs that inform, paragraphs that persuade, paragraphs that threaten, and paragraphs that request information. However, on a more global level, each document must have one primary purpose.
Until you know your primary purpose for writing, you cannot know what information to leave in or leave out or even how to best organize a document. Of course, some academic documents have multiple purposes.
People write documents for countless reasons:
- Record: Keep a record of events or information.
- Reflect/Explore: Write in a journal, attempt to make sense of something or to shape a new idea.
- Inform: Objectively report an event.
- Demonstrate Knowledge: Prove, in school, that you’ve learned course content.
- Summarize: Report someone else’s words, theories, and research in your own words.
- Explain: Help readers understand a difficult concept, theory, or event.
- Analyze: Break down a problem into parts.
- Persuade: Change minds, invoke action.
- Theorize: Speculate on possible causes and effects.
- Entertain: Bring joy, amazement, and thrills.
Textbooks, English instructors, and writers occasionally call the purpose statement the thesis sentence. In school contexts, some instructors require students to place the thesis statement in the introductory paragraphs. Likewise, writers of essays appearing in newspapers, magazines, and books present their thesis up front. The advantage of this deductive approach is that readers immediately know what the topic is and the writer’s stance toward the subject. In contexts where the subject isn’t likely to result in an emotional reaction from readers, explicit statements of purpose make sense.
When Should You Consider Your Purpose?
Because of the generative nature of the writing process, your sense of the primary purpose for a document will often become clearer once you have written a few drafts. Yet because the effectiveness of a document is chiefly determined by how well you focus on addressing a primary purpose, you can save time by identifying your purpose as early as possible.
- What is your primary purpose for writing? For instance, are you attempting to analyze a subject, to explain a cause-and-effect relationship, or to persuade an audience about your position?
- Do you have competing or conflicting purposes for writing this document? If so, should the document be separated into two papers?
- What crucial information should you emphasize to affect your audience? You may want to shock, educate, or persuade your readers, for instance.
- How can you organize the document to emphasize key information that suits your purpose?
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Identify the circumstances surrounding the writing project. What is going on in the world at large that relates to how you develop and present your project?
Context refers to the occasion, or situation, that informs the reader about why a document was written and how it was written. The way writers shape their texts is dramatically influenced by their context. Writers decide how to shape their sentences by considering their contexts.
For example, the 9/11 terrorist attack on America changed the context for discussions on terrorism. When Americans talk about terrorism post-9/11, they understand the borders of America are threatened, that terrorism can occur in our homes.
Contexts are sometimes described as formal, semi-formal, or informal. Alternatively, contexts for written documents can be described as school-based projects or work-based projects.
Why Is Context Important?
The context for each document strongly affects how you research your topic, how you organize your context, and what media you employ to deliver your message.
What does your reader know about the topic? Will original research be necessary? Will traditional research suffice? Will your audience be persuaded by personal knowledge? Will they require facts and figures?
For example, if you were writing a report on the possibility that Iraq is amassing weapons of mass destruction and your audience were members of the United Nations, you would want to firmly ground your argument in research.
Should the work be published online or transmitted as a printed report? What colors or pictures are appropriate?
Grammar, Mechanics, Usage
The way you structure your sentences is influenced by how formal or informal your context is. Email, for example, tends to be informal. Lots of emoticons and abbreviated expressions can be used. In contrast, an end-of-the-semester research report may require formal diction.
Context Analysis Questions
- What is going on in the world of the readers that will influence the readers’ thoughts and feelings about the document?
- Does the intellectual content of the document rest on the shoulders of other authors? Will your readers expect you to mention particular scholars or researchers who did the original, ground-breaking work on the subject you are exploring?
- What background information can you assume your reader is already familiar with?
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Learn how to be more creative about the effective use of media.
Media can refer to how meaning is conveyed. For example, people speak of TV and radio as a kind of media–the mass media. They refer to printed documents distributed by newspapers, magazines, and books as print media. Texts such as databases or multimedia published on the Internet are called online media. The term media is broadly defined, yet two definitions are particularly popular:
- Print Media: Paper essays and reports, magazines, books, hypertext
- Mass Media: Radio, TV, magazines, newspapers
- Digital Media: Works produced and distributed via the Internet
- Spoken Media: Talk, speeches
- Visual Media: Paintings, clip art, animations, interactive media
- Databases, response forums
- Artistic Media: Paintings, sculpture, music, movies
- Video Conferencing Media: NetMeeting, SeeUSeeMe
New technologies are creating new ways of conveying meaning and blurring distinctions across media. The computer is slowly becoming the printing press, the TV, the game console, and the music.
Media Analysis Questions
- Does the text employ multiple media? What is the ratio of visuals to words?
- Would an alternative medium be more appropriate for the text’s purpose and audience?
- What additional media could be used to enhance the message?
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Consider the Document Planner to be a living document. It’s a snapshot of a fluid process. As you write, your ideas about audience, purpose, media, context, voice, tone, and persona will change, becoming clarified.
1 . Context
Beyond fulfilling a course requirement, what motivates you to explore this project? What are the unique elements of this writing situation? Is your context formal, semiformal, informal? Is this a class assignment; a Web site; a workplace document; an online communication; a text for a community, service, or special interest group; an essay for a magazine, newspaper, or journal; a letter to family and friends? How does the context influence what you need to do next?
2 . Purpose
What is the specific outcome your writing seeks to achieve–to entertain, inform, evaluate, persuade? Clearly define your purpose in as narrow terms as possible. What is your argument/story?
3 . Audience
What do you know about your audience? How can you find out more about them? What do you want your reader to do, understand, or feel? What counterarguments or questions should you anticipate? How interested in the subject or emotionally involved is the reader?
4 . Media
What media should you employ–academic writing, an oral presentation, a Web site, email, Instant Messenger, a magazine column, a video documentary? Why?
5 . Voice, Tone, or Persona
What voice, tone, and persona should you project as a consequence of your communication situation? For example, should you attempt to appear objective and detached, passionate and angry, or clever and satirical?
6 . Research
Can past research inform your writing project? What important texts have been written about the topic, if any? How can past research inform how you narrow your topic? What new ideas can you contribute?
7 . Length, Format, and Design
How long should your project be? How can visual language underscore your message? What figures and tables or other formatting techniques are commonly used? What form of documentation is required?
8 . Schedule
Complete the following set of due dates.
grammar, mechanics, usage
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Composing Ourselves and Our World, Provided by: the authors. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
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This chapter contains an excerpt of What to Think about When Writing for a Particular Audience: by Amanda Wray. Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.
This chapter contains an excerpt of Consider Your Purpose: by Joe Moxley. Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.
This chapter contains an excerpt of Consider Your Context: by Joe Moxley. Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.
This chapter contains an excerpt of Consider Your Media: by Joe Moxley. Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.
This chapter contains an excerpt of Document Planner: by Joe Moxley. Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.
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