In part one of this “how-to” mini-series I discussed some of the broader aspects of the initial stages of the writing process. In that essay I covered genre, audience and purpose: something every writer needs to think about as they write. In part two of this series, the current essay, I show writers how to best say what they want. This essay covers the more technical aspects of writing known as “rhetorical modes”.
The simplest way to understand the various modes is to think of them as methods of organizing and relating information. There are different tools for different purposes. This is true in many other aspects of life. A person may find it difficult fishing in the open ocean for sailfish using a fly rod and line; a golfer wouldn’t dream of putting with a wedge; and a carpenter wouldn’t choose a screwdriver to pound in a nail. In writing, the same principle holds true: you need to utilize the right tool for the right job—or would that be “write” job?
What follows are the various rhetorical modes and how to use and understand them. It may be helpful for developing, and even experienced, writers to keep in mind that these modes never stand alone, and frequently work hand in hand: narrating a story often involves lots of description, and comparing and contrasting will frequently use a system of classification or definition. Not only is it important for writers to always be conscious of what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, but also to be aware that at any given moment they may need to shift gears to one or another mode of relaying information to their readers. I also want to stress that while this mini-series is primarily aimed at writers of non-fiction, these tools are utilized by every writer in every genre including fiction, biology, chemistry, journalism and academic research in literature and other fields. These are all the modes that exist, and every writer uses them to one degree or another. Great writers know when to use which.
Purpose: to tell a story or relate an event. Often in chronological order; but not always. Other ways to organize a narrative are from general to specific or specific to general. A writer may also choose to organize material by importance or relevance: should one begin with the least relevant material and proceed to the most relevant, or the other way around? A writer has to make this choice; one way is not more proper or correct than the other; it will matter what effect the writer aims for. The personal essay most closely aligns itself with this method of writing, but virtually every type of writing at some point or other will utilize narrative. More likely than not, the best history books you’ve read used narrative to help make their case. Story-telling is a powerful tool and is the way we humans come to understand the world and our place in it.
Pretty self-explanatory, right? Lots of detail focusing heavily on the five senses. What does something look or smell like? How does something feel? What does it sound like? Metaphors and similes rely heavily on description. That one thing is like another or talking about one thing as if it were something else gives the reader a sense of an idea that might otherwise be difficult to grasp. Writing that something smells like “hot garbage” makes readers cringe and puts that image in their head. That’s the point. If a teacher or editor has ever said to you, “I need you to show me, not tell me what happened”, they’re suggesting that you need to use better description. Here’s a quick example: “The football game was exciting. We had a really great time”. Okay? What was so exciting? How was it fun? Or, you could say something like this: “When the quarterback threw that winning touchdown pass, 65,000 people came to their feet as one and the stadium shook. A sea of red towels waved in the air; everyone around us were high-fiving and cheering; people whistled and hooted; the players ran wild on the field and fireworks exploded overhead.” There is a world of difference in those two ways of narrating excitement. When describing something, use the senses to convey a sense of “being there”.
We’ve all read process essays at some point. In fact, this essay utilizes process. This essay tells my readers, “Hey, if you want to write and write well, this is the way to do it.” Some processes are more technical or strict than others. For instance, anyone who has ever cooked or baked anything must follow a strict process of first, second, third, and so on to achieve the best results. Using process successfully requires an author to have a fair understanding of their subject. There is a process for changing the breaks on a car just as there is a process for packing for a long trip, just as there is a writing process—which I will address in a future article. In changing the brakes it’s going to be important to take a few safety precautions and jack the car up first before loosening any lugs. However, in packing for that trip it’s probably not going to matter too much whether the toothpaste gets packed before the deodorant, so long as, at some point, everything needed finds its way into the luggage. Knowing the subject well and understanding whether a step might be skipped, repeated, or performed at any point during the process will depend on the writer’s topic and how important that step is. A writer must make that decision.
Compare and Contrast
This is perhaps the most commonly assigned task to students as well as the most misunderstood and poorly taught mode of writing. Many developing writers assume, or worse, are taught, that the purpose of compare and contrast essays is to highlight similarities and differences of two objects, items, ideas, etc. However, that is not the case. Compare and contrast may help readers to understand two items on a deeper level because of those similarities and differences, but elucidating those is not the point of this tool. Many times, comparing and contrasting shows that although two items may seem quite different, they are in fact very similar; or despite the fact that two things are very similar, they are very different. Bruce Catton wrote a fantastic example using Generals Lee and Grant during the Civil War, and George Carlin utilizes compare and contrast in his bit on baseball and football that I talked about last time, to comic effect. Aspiring writers ought to note that both Catton and Carlin, while pointing out similarities and differences, have also created categories. Carlin talks about where players play, the fields; he talks about uniforms; he talks about rules; he talks about the purpose of the games. Meanwhile, Catton compares the two generals’ respective educations, upbringing and battle field tactics. In both cases, the function of the “essays” goes beyond highlighting similarities and differences. In both cases, the point is to show the reader or audience something that they may not have previously seen or known before.
A simpler example may be something such as comparing two vehicles a consumer may be thinking about purchasing. No one would compare safety or performance features simply to show differences; but someone might do so to decide on which vehicle to purchase. If you have children, safety features will be important and the consumer will want to compare which auto manufacturers have the highest rated or number of safety features; if you have a boat, livestock or motorhome in need of hauling, then towing capacity, torque, four-wheel drive and horsepower will matter more. There is always some greater purpose lying behind a good compare and contrast. Writers must be conscious of their purpose throughout all parts of the essay and throughout the writing process: it’s easy to get lost.
Cause and Effect
If narration relays the events that happen as a whole, cause and effect may help to uncover the significance of that sequence. Writers may choose to focus either on the cause or the effect depending on their purpose. Often, when a writer chooses to focus on causes, they are hoping to uncover why something happened. When a writer chooses to focus on effects, they are often hoping to probe what may happen in the future. The important thing for this mode is that writers become hyper aware of the way in which things happened to understand why they happened or where they are going. Writers may choose to analyze the effects (or effect) of a single cause, or the many causes of a singular effect and so on.
Sometimes called Classification and Division, this type of writing breaks down complex items or concepts into more manageable categories. We see classification in our daily lives constantly and everywhere. Most people probably don’t keep socks and dress pants together at home in the same drawer: super markets have fruits and vegetables in one section, dairy in another, meats in another. The classification may be as broad or as narrow as a writer needs. Supermarkets certainly separate oranges from apples, but they also divide and classify the types of apples and oranges: Jazz with Jazz, and Navel with Navel, and so on. It’s the same with writing. Writers must create or identify categories and then define those categories using examples, descriptions and definitions. The Tour de France enters stage sixteen on Tuesday. Using that as an example, a writer may choose to relate to his audience the types of riders viewers may see or hear about when watching the Tour: there are sprinters, climbers, and domestiques. Each of these types of rider perform certain duties for their team and the writer’s goal here might be to outline what those duties are for an audience who might not be aware of those facts. Or the writer may choose to classify the different jerseys they wear: the maillout jaune, the polka dot jersey, or the green or white jerseys. If this sounds similar to compare and contrast, it’s because it is. However, classification essays generally deal with three or more items, while the compare and contrast deals with two. A classification can have as many items as the writer feels they need. There is really no limit. Although, an essay that classifies thirty or forty items in a single push may prove boring or monotonous to readers. Judgment must reign here.
Definition frequently goes hand in hand with classification and comparing and contrasting, but it can just as well stand on its own. In this case, I am not referring to a text book or dictionary definition. Instead, writers have to be creative and use a good deal of the tools in their box. For instance, if a writer chooses to tackle a topic such as bravery, honor, truth or justice, they might need to go beyond a simple one or two sentence definition, and use personal narrative, descriptions, examples from society or history, and any number of other options to help make the case. For instance, an essay that attempts to define what it means to be a good parent or friend. Chances are that M-W.com is just not going to cover this in detail. Sometimes, authors may create or stipulate their own criteria to help them make the case. For instance, in order that one might be considered a “good” friend, are there circumstances in which lying might be considered okay? Or should the truth always be told about something? And what do we mean by good? How does the writer want the audience to understand the concept? An essay dealing with that aspect of friendship requires more than a couple of gratuitous sentences on the subject. Therefore, the writer must define, using a vast number of resources available to her, the concepts she is dealing with in her essay.
By argument, I don’t mean a fight. In rhetoric and composition, this simply means to make a case based on the best evidence a writer can create or discover. In many ways, everything is an argument. Even a personal narrative implies that, “I’m writing this because I think others might find this interesting or helpful”. That is an argument. If a writer describes something a particular manner they are suggesting that it’s helpful to think of that item in this way rather than another way. But if one writes with the specific aim of changing or swaying minds, then that is an argument, strictly speaking. It might be that the city should build that parking garage, or not build that casino; or how we all know the dress is really blue and black, not gold and white. Whatever the case may be, in argument one takes a clear stance on a subject, but is not necessarily argumentative. Often, the best arguments take other positions into consideration before suggesting an alternative view.
Those are the rhetorical modes, pretty much in their entirety. Some textbooks may also suggest Example, Statistics, or Dialogue as a mode or tool, but the truth is that even when an author is quoting someone, that someone is already going to be narrating, describing, arguing, etc. The same is true for example and statistical data. I would argue here that those tools are not modes in themselves, but tools in the service of other modes. Dialogue may be descriptive, argumentative, or may classify or compare. Examples are often narratives helping the author to make a subsequent or previous point; and statistical data is often descriptive.
While it may be true that an essay might be labeled an “argument”, a “compare and contrast”, or a “process” essay as a whole, any one of these essays may work with some or even all of the rhetorical modes to help the writer make his point. Writers ought to have a general idea for the framework of an essay as they begin to write. That’s true: as in, is my purpose in writing this piece best served by comparing two items, by arguing a point, by classifying several ideas, or by discussing process? The more clearly a writer knows his purpose and sees the answer to those questions, the more readily he may choose the mode (or modes) of relaying that purpose to his audience, and the more successful he will be in doing so. But the write must also grasp the fact that at any given moment in his essay, describing something may better serve and support the main point than cause and effect will. He should thus let that mode, in that moment, serve the purpose of supporting the main goal of the essay, whatever he has decided that is. Recall from part one of this series that the author must choose his purpose.
The last essay in this series will discuss the importance of editing, revising, and discuss the writing process. It may sound somewhat counter-intuitive to put off process until the end, but I have good reason for this.
Do you have unanswered questions about how and when to use these modes? The essay is purposefully broad in terms of the “how to” aspect, but I will gladly answer any questions writers may have as well as freely share my experiences in writing and the teaching of writing over the last ten years in higher education. Let me know in the comments. And remember, get out there.