2 – Rhetorical Situation

Using Rhetorical Principles to Produce Reader-Centered Writing

Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

The need to understand the rhetorical situation clearly applies to reading texts, but how do you apply your understanding of audience, context, purpose, and genre to writing texts? Writing can be conceptualized as writer-centered or reader-centered. Texts such as diaries and journals are primarily writer-centered: they are written for the benefit of the writer. Technical and professional communications require that you shift this mindset and write for the benefit of your reader or user. This mindset should be informed by an understanding of your audience. Consider the following questions:

Who is your target audience? Are they internal or external readers? Upstream, downstream, or lateral in relation to you? Are there multiple readers?

What is your goal or purpose in writing to these readers? What do you want your audience to do as a result of reading this document or hearing your presentation? How does the content and organization meet the audience’s needs?

What is your reader’s goal? Why does this audience want or need to read this document? What are they expecting to do with the document? Getting a clear understanding of your audience is important in communicating effectively. It also enables you to imagine your audience as you write and revise.

What form/genre will the audience expect? What are the qualities and expectations related to this particular genre or form? How can the layout be designed to make it as easy as possible for the reader to use and follow the content?

What does the audience already know or accept about the topic? Appealing to your readers means presenting content in a way that it is accessible for their level of knowledge. You can also use this information to determine what sources will be most convincing and understandable.

What external contexts will influence how your text is understood? Are there any major national or global events, such as a pandemic, occurring? Were there any recent major changes to the organization? What is the status of your audience relative to other layers in their organization or in the professional world? How will your text be presented and read? Will it be in hard copies that can only be read at the office? In a PDF file?

Adapting your Writing to Meet Your Audience’s Needs

Once you have analyzed your audience, how do you plan to use this information? How do you keep from writing something that may potentially still be incomprehensible or useless to your readers? The lists below are some of the ways you can adapt your writing to your audience’s needs.

The following suggestions deal with making technical information more understandable for non-specialist audiences, and they refer to information you will refine as you begin to put your final document together.

Provide the Right Information

Add information that readers need in order to understand your document. Check to see whether certain key information is missing—for example, a critical series of steps from a set of instructions; important background information that helps beginners understand the main discussion; definition of key terms.

Omit information your readers do not need. Unnecessary information can also confuse and frustrate readers. After all, if something is present there, readers feel obligated to read it. For example, you can probably remove complex theoretical discussion from basic instructions.

Change the level of the information you currently have. You may have the right information, but it may be “pitched” at too high or too low a technical level. Alternatively, the information may be targeted at the wrong kind of audience, such as at an expert audience rather than a technician audience. This issue happens most often when product-design notes are passed off as instructions.

Add examples. Examples are one of the most powerful ways to connect with audiences, particularly in instructions. Even in a non-instructional text, for instance, when you are trying to explain a technical concept, examples (analogies, in particular) are a major source of help.

Change the level of your examples. You may be using examples, but the technical content or level may not be appropriate to your readers. Personal anecdotes or stories may not be useful to experts; highly technical examples may totally miss your non-specialist readers.

Guide Your Reader Through Your Writing

Write strong, to-the-point introductions. Audiences have more confidence in a writer and their document when they have the “big picture” view of what’s coming and how it relates to what they’ve just read or heard. Therefore, write a strong introduction to the entire document that clearly identifies the topic and purpose, and foregrounds the contents of the document. In each major section within your document, use mini-introductions that indicate at least the topic of the section and give an overview of the subtopics to be covered in that section.

Re-organize your information. Sometimes, you can have all the right information but arrange it in the wrong way. For instance, there can be too much background information up front (or too little), causing certain readers to get lost. Sometimes, background information needs to be consolidated into the main information rather than in an introduction or separate section. In instructions, for example, it is sometimes more effective to insert chunks of background at the points where they are immediately needed.

Create topic sentences for paragraphs and paragraph groups. A sentence identifying the main focus of a paragraph or section is immensely helpful for orienting readers. Typically, a “topic sentence” is the first sentence of the paragraph. In it, readers should be able to identify what the focus of the following paragraph is and the paragraph’s relationship to a preceding paragraph or section.

Strengthen transitions. It may be difficult for readers, particularly non-specialists, to see the connections between the main sections of your report, between individual paragraphs, and sometimes even between individual sentences. To help readers with these connections, use —words or phrases that indicate the relationship between ideas, sentences, and paragraphs. Words such as “therefore,” “for example,” and “however” are transition words; they indicate the logic connecting the previous thought to the upcoming thought. You can also strengthen transitions by thoughtfully echoing the same keywords. A report describing new software for architects might use the word “software” several times on the same page or even in the same paragraph. In technical prose, it is preferable to use the same terminology throughout the document rather than to insert less-precise synonyms.

Professional Tone

“Tone” refers to the attitude that a document conveys toward the topic and/or the reader. You have likely read texts that sounded angry, humorous, cynical, or enthusiastic. These words characterize the tone. Technical communication tends to avoid displaying an obvious emotion and instead strives for a neutral tone.

Tone is created through (word choice), (word order), sentence construction, and viewpoint. Consider a piece of academic writing that you have read. It creates a formal tone through its use of specialized terminology, sophisticated vocabulary, complex sentence structures, and third person voice. This style suits the genre because it is directed at experts and scholars in the field, and seeks to convey complex information densely and objectively, with an emphasis on reason, logic, and evidence.

Now consider a piece of business writing that you have read. The tone may be slightly less formal but not colloquial. The language is direct and plain, and the sentences are shorter and more straightforward. It may make use of the second person (“you”). This style suits business writing because it is directed at colleagues, management, or clients who are seeking information clearly and quickly and who may need to take action on it.

Writing Constructively

Striking the appropriate tone involves understanding your purpose, context, and audience. It also involves an understanding that workplaces are often hierarchical, and that cooperation and teamwork are required. Therefore, it is important to consider how you want your reader to feel and what may make your reader feel that way. Your goal is to write constructively, which means to use positive phrasing to convey your message to your reader. Table 2.3 illustrates the differences between constructive/positive and  destructive/negative feelings the reader may experience as a result of the tone used in a document.

Table 2.3. Constructive/positive language vs destructive/negative language.

Constructive/Positive Destructive/Negative
Understood Misunderstood
Conciliatory Outraged
Pleased Disgusted
Capable Guilty
Empowered Belittled
Respected Patronized
Proud Defensive
Valued Chastised
Honored Humiliated
Included Excluded
Contentment Resentment

Considering how your reader may feel after reading your document is an important part of revision. Did your tone come across like you hoped it would? Could it be misconstrued? Often this is where peer reviewing can be helpful. Asking a colleague to review your document before sending it off to its intended audience is a common professional practice.

Sometimes, you will need to communicate unpleasant information, such as bad news or a rejection. Communicating constructively is possible—and arguably even more important—in these situations. Regardless of the message, how can you ensure you are communicating constructively?

Adopt an adult-to-adult approach. That is to say, avoid talking down to your reader in a patronizing tone, and likewise avoid sounding petulant or unwilling to take responsibility. Aim to communicate respectfully, responsibly, confidently, and cooperatively as one responsible adult to another.

Be courteous. Focus on the reader as much as possible. Use “you” unless it results in blaming (one effective use of passive verbs is to avoid assigning blame: “mistakes were made”). Use traditionally accepted forms of courtesy and politeness. Use gender-neutral phrasing and plural forms, unless you are referring to a specific person and you know their gender. Table 2.4 offers some examples of first-person, writer-centered sentences and second-person, reader-centered sentences.

Table 2.4. Writer- and reader-centered perspectives.

Writer-Centered (I, We) Reader-Centered (You)
If I can answer any questions, I'll be happy to do so. If you have any questions, please ask.
We shipped the order this morning. Your order was shipped this morning.
I am happy to report that... You'll be glad to know that...

Focus on the positive. Emphasize what you can do rather than what you can’t. Try to avoid negative wording and phrasing (no, not, never, none, isn’t, can’t, don’t, etc.). Focus on what can be improved. Table 2.5 offers examples of negative phrasing and how you might reframe those sentences more constructively.

Table 2.5. Negative and constructive phrasing.

Negative Phrasing Constructive Phrasing
We cannot process your claim because the necessary forms have not been completed. Your claim will be processed as soon as we receive the necessary forms.
We do not take phone calls after 3:00pm on Fridays. We are available by phone Monday through Thursday from 8:00 am–5:00 pm, and on Fridays from 8:00 am–3:00 pm.
We closed your case because we never received the information requested in our letter from April… Regrettably, we did not receive the additional information requested last April. In order to review and potentially reopen your claim, please call or email our claims specialist for closed cases, John Doe: 1-800-SCL-AIMS or jdoe@doe.com.

Ultimately, when communicating negative or unfavorable news, be genuine. Apologize if you have made a mistake. Take responsibility and promise to do better.

This text was derived from

Gross, Allison, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva. Technical Writing. Open Oregon Educational Materials, n.d. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Last, Suzan, with contributors Candice Neveu and Monika Smith. Technical Writing Essentials: Introduction to Professional Communications in Technical Fields. Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 2019. https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Suzan Last; David McMurrey; Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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