Definitions, Dilemmas, Decisions: Making Choices in Writing
When you sit down to write, you need to think deeply about why you are writing (exigence), who you are trying to reach (audience), what you want them to know or do (purpose) and how you can reach them (genre and medium). All of these elements will be heavily influenced by your content, the topic or issue you want to write about.
It may be helpful to review what all these terms mean. You can look here for a review of the “The Rhetorical Situation.” And here for some definitions of genre: “On Genre” and “Genre in the Wild.”
Whether you know what it means or not, you start with exigence. What is exigence? I love Lloyd Bitzer’s definition, “a thing which is other than it should be.” Often in our lives we are confronted by things that are other than they should be, situations, issues, problems that we want to change. That is exigence! As students, your exigence often arrives in the form of an assignment: your teacher tells you to write something, so you do.
In real life, we often write in response to situations that exist in our professional lives or in the world around us. A quick glance at a news website or any form of social media demonstrates the many variations of things other than they should be. A politician says something, and people respond in writing. A law is passed, or not, and citizens respond.
In some assignments, you may be asked to look for a reason, for exigence, in the world around you. Sometimes, often in real life, you find your exigence, or it finds you.
That’s the first step: the why. But once you have a reason to write, then what? Next, you need to find the what and the who.
The what, it turns out, is genre. What kind of text are you going to produce?
My working definition of genre is pretty basic—it’s a type or kind of text. When we think of genre, we may think of film or novels. We know what an action movie is and how it’s different from a romantic comedy: those are different genres. We know that fantasy novels are different from mysteries: different genres. It may help to remember that different genres have different rules and audiences’ expectations differ based on the genres they are reading.
In writing, genre is a bit more broad. It means the kind of text you are going to produce: it could be a letter, or it could be a short video. It might be a poster or a social media campaign. All of these are examples of different kinds of genres.
While it may be tempting to think that you can run down a list of elements, make your choice, and be done with it, writing doesn’t work that way. With most writing assignments, the different aspects of the rhetorical situation intermingle; you can’t think about one without thinking about another. If you are trying to choose a genre, you will also need to think and rethink your audience, your purpose, and your content. Writing is a recursive practice [see “Writing Is Recursive”]; that is, when writing, we often think through problems or ideas and then revisit them again and again throughout our process. Writing is not a straight line. If I had to choose an image to represent writing, I’d choose a spiral.
The image of a Chambered Nautilus provides a striking visual representation of the process of forward momentum along a cyclical path. A Nautilus begins life inhabiting a small chamber, but then creates new, larger chambers to accommodate its growth. As it grows, the Nautilus seals off the old chambers, but continues to use them for buoyancy. The beautiful image we see when we cut a Nautilus shell in half can help us to think about the recursive nature of writing.
When we write, we start out in one place. But as we write, we return to the problems, ideas, or questions that inspired us to write in the first place. When we come back, we’re not the same person we were when we first chose a topic, and we’re not in exactly the same place. We’ve grown. We know more, we have new questions, and we are closer to completing a draft, but we recognize that we need to rethink some of our ideas or assumptions. So we’re further along in the process, but we haven’t moved in a straight line; it’s more of a cycle that we go through over and over until we’re done. Thinking, rethinking, seeing, revising, changing. All of these stages are predictable parts of writing.
When we have a writing project, whether it is an assignment or a self-motivated activity, we are faced with a series of dilemmas. I like to represent these dilemmas as a series of questions. As we answer each question, we learn more about more about the elements of our specific rhetorical situation.
Any writing project starts with exigence. What situation is other than it should be? What do you want to change? How can you do that?
In thinking about a situation you want to change, you need to think about context. What’s going on right now? Who is already thinking and talking about this issue? What have they said? This is where your research starts. You need to understand the big picture before you can begin to write.
In thinking about the big picture, or context, you will begin to understand who cares about your issue, and who can do something about it. That will help you narrow down your audience.
As you think about audience, you need to consider who can change the situation you care about, and also who else might help you enact change. With many issues, there are primary and secondary audiences.
As you think about who you want to reach, you will also begin considering what you want them to do. That’s your purpose. You may want to persuade, but you also might want to inform. Understanding your purpose, or purposes, will help you figure out how to reach your audiences.
That brings us to genre. In considering different genres, you should look at this piece: “Rhetoric & Genre: You’ve Got This (Even If You Don’t Think You Do …)”
Choosing a genre means holding many different ideas and questions in mind all at the same time. It’s difficult, but writers think about context, audience, and purpose as they consider which genre will be the most effective in helping them achieve their goals.
So how does a writer decide?
All these questions might feel overwhelming. So let’s think through a specific example:
Dylan receives an assignment from their professor: choose an issue and audience, then produce a document that serves the writer’s purpose.
How can Dylan make choices about this assignment?
First Dylan needs to decide what inspires them to act. When they look around the world, what situation do they think needs changing? It can be something individual, such as an issue that affects a family member or friend, like a medical condition. The issue might be something happening in their community, such as a local issue like air pollution. Or maybe Dylan belongs to a specific group, which could be a specific heritage, a regional affiliation, or a more loosely defined group, such as people who play a certain sport, share a hobby, or practice the same art form. The issue doesn’t have to be political; it just has to be something that Dylan cares deeply about, deeply enough that they are willing to spend weeks reading and writing about that same issue. So Dylan finds an issue or topic that is compelling.
Let’s say Dylan lives in a large city, and has volunteered with a variety of organizations, such as the community garden and the food pantry. Dylan has taken a film-making class and also is interested in science. They’re not sure yet what they want to write about, but those are their interests.
So Dylan does some research, by doing a simple search, talking to friends, looking at a library database. They discover many conversations about food and poverty: the relationships between community gardens and food banks, community gardens at elementary schools, and the prevalence of childhood hunger in their city. The research provides many options.
Then what? Dylan needs to think about the audience and purpose. If Dylan believes more money should be devoted to community gardens or childhood hunger, they may want to target government or large corporations. If Dylan decides to focus on hunger in their city, they may want to write to local nonprofit organizations or local citizens. There are many decisions to make!
Each of these options would have different purposes, which would lead to different audiences, and therefore most likely different genres.
Let’s say Dylan decides to focus on childhood hunger in their community. But what can Dylan do about this problem? In an ideal world, Dylan knows, there would be no hungry children. But Dylan is just one college student.
In talking to classmates, Dylan discovers most of them don’t know that much about childhood hunger. They also don’t know much about the food pantry or community gardens.
Dylan decides that one purpose could be simply to inform others in the community about this problem. Another purpose could be to persuade the government to devote more money to this problem.
For the first purpose, Dylan might target college students or others in their community. For the government, Dylan wants state senators and representatives as their audience because they have some input on the state budget.
In thinking about how to contact legislators, Dylan knows that often constituents write letters or emails about bills or issues. In thinking about genre, a letter might be effective for this audience. But if Dylan also wants to reach college students or other voters in his community, a letter wouldn’t be as good. They might think about writing an opinion column to be published in the college or local newspaper. But Dylan also might think about using social media to reach a wider audience, or even a short video.
No matter what genre they choose, Dylan needs to have a clear purpose in mind, and to convey that purpose clearly. Each genre has its benefits and drawbacks. Letters are direct, they can be sent to one person and convey a very clear point. But legislators are busy, they won’t read a very long letter, so the letter has to be short and can contain limited information. An opinion column can be longer and contain more research, but the audience can be unclear. Dylan won’t know who read the column. A social-media campaign is also limited, in terms of word count, but a campaign can continue for several weeks, allowing Dylan to include short bits of information, along with compelling images, and links to local organizations.
Ultimately, Dylan decides to write a letter to state legislators asking for more money to be devoted to childhood hunger. Dylan also begins a social media campaign, informing followers about the number of hungry children in their community. Dylan encourages followers to volunteer with local organizations and also to write their own letters to state legislators. While Dylan can’t solve childhood hunger with letters and social media posts, Dylan can achieve their purpose of informing others and getting them involved, having a ripple effect in the community.
Now that you’re more familiar with the definitions and dilemmas of the writing process, it’s time to think through your own rhetorical situation and make decisions about your writing project. Use the following checklist to determine your exigence, context, purpose, audience, and genre.
Checklist for Making Decisions about the Rhetorical Situation
What is my EXIGENCE?
- What situation in my community is “other than it should be” or is in a state that I would like to change?
- What issue or problem do I want to address?
- In an ideal world, what is the way this situation should be?
What is the CONTEXT?
- What is going on, right now, with this issue or topic?
- What is the conversation?
- Who is involved?
- Who cares about this issue?
- Who has already added their voices to the conversation?
What is my PURPOSE?
- What do I want to have happen?
- Thinking back to exigence, what is the ideal outcome for my project? (It’s okay to dream big; the ideal might not be achievable with one class project, but it will help you think about a short-term outcome that is realistic.)
Who is my AUDIENCE?
- Who can have an effect on this situation?
- Who can bring about change?
- Who are some secondary audiences who may be able to help bring about this change?
What is the best GENRE?
- How can I reach my audience and move them closer to my purpose?
- What are some genres that have been used to reach these audiences?
- For what purposes are these genres best suited?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of each genre?
- What content do I need to include? (Think about the ways text and visuals can work together in different genres. Some genres require images, or more attention paid to graphic design.)