Technical Writing


Adapted from:
Professional Writing Online.
James Porter, Patricia Sullivan, Johndan Johnson-Eilola
© 2001 by Longman Publishers
A division of Pearson Education

Rhetoric: Starting with Purpose and Audience

Professional Writing Online is based primarily on a rhetorical view of professional writing and communication. Which means what? Fundamentally, a rhetorical view focuses on purpose, audience, and situation. If as a writer you take a rhetorical view, you begin with the question "Why am I writing?" (or, just as likely, "Why are we writing?") and follow that closely with the question "To whom am I writing?"

The purpose of writing always relates to some audience, either internal or external to the company. Let's say that you are writing a piece of computer documentation in order to help users (your audience) learn a new piece of software for doing web authoring (your purpose). If this documentation truly helps users so that they feel good about the software product they have purchased, then you are also helping the software company you work for.

Another scenario: you are writing a form business letter in order to encourage customers (your audience) to send in their late insurance payments (your purpose). You want to treat the customer fairly, give the customer the benefit of the doubt, and be courteous. You also want to keep the customer's business and keep them happy. At the same time, you want them to pay their insurance premium now. You want to encourage the customer to send in their payment, without threatening or annoying the customer.

Yet another scenario: The company you work for needs to control the toxic effluent that is being dumped in a local river. You are part of a team of engineers writing a proposal suggesting that you test a new procedure to reduce the toxicity of the effluent. Even though your team is writing an internal proposal (that is, for readers within the company), you still have to convince management that the procedure is worth the time and effort involved in testing it. Some of the people we need to convince are engineers, but others are not.

Here's another scenario: you are an undergraduate student majoring in technical communication at a major state university, about to graduate. You need to find a job fast—you have student loans to pay off. You develop a packet of materials: a job application letter, a print resume, a web resume, and a portfolio of your best writing. You are interested primarily in jobs writing for the computer industry and in medical or scientific editing. Since these are two very different areas of technical communication, you prepare two different application letters and two resumes, each set stressing a different aspect of your education and work experience.

Each of these scenarios involves activities of the professional writer. Each scenario identifies a writing situation, and each situation has a purpose or goal as well as an intended audience or reader. Identifying this scenario—establishing purpose and audience—is the first task of the professional writer. Everything else about the writing process—the type of document you choose to write, matters of organization and style, the kind of research you do, whether you deliver the document electronically or in print, even the font you choose—follows from your purpose and audience.


Note on "Rhetoric"

What is rhetoric? In the popular media, the term "rhetoric" refers to lying, distortions, misrepresentations—usually by the other political party. To refer to somebody's position as "rhetoric" is to denounce it—and the term "mere" usually is attached to it. Your position is "mere rhetoric," mine is "truth."

But rhetoric has a different meaning, a far older and more respectable meaning. In Aristotle's treatise Rhetoric, rhetoric was the art of communication, the art of discovering what arguments would persuade an audience, the art of constructing a speech in order to win a political debate or a court decision, the art of using language effectively. With some modifications, our sense of "rhetoric" derives from the classical notion of the term. We see rhetoric as the art of determining, in a given case, the most effective means of persuading or informing an audience. An important feature of rhetoric is the phrase "in a given case": rhetoric is case-specific. It refers to specific situations, specific moments, specific audiences who are assembled (in some sense) in a communication situation.


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