Wayne C. Booth
So many times, the worst papers we write are because we don’t consider the rhetorical situation. These papers become dull and listless, confused, even arrogant. But once we understand not only what we are writing but who we are writing it to and why we would write it to them in the first place, the pieces start to fall into place – creating not just an interesting text, but one that speaks to, and even persuades, an audience. When we look at the great rhetors in history, they all are clearly speaking to someone. They are trying to get their point across to a particular person or group of persons and so they consider how to approach that individual or group. However, they do not try to be all style and no substance – there is something concrete behind what they are saying, something that they care about. These rhetors are not merely trying to sell, nor are they trying to entertain. If they accomplish both, that is fine, but it must work together to achieve the maximum balance between the speaker, the audience and the topic at hand.
The great rhetors can accomplish it, but how can our students, many of whom have never even heard the word rhetoric before? It doesn’t come easily to some; it might never really come to anyone. But it is important to stress, because it helps them to become the best writer they can be. If they are not writing strictly to the teacher, telling them something that neither end cares about, their work will never be as fulfilling as if they cared and as if they really tried. Teach the student to say something and encourage them to find the best audience for that thought or opinion. Teach them that they don’t always have to sell themselves, and in doing so, give up their identity and personal attachment to the piece. And teach them that they don’t always have to find a way to present it that suits all audiences, because by doing that, they may stray from the originality of it all. Teach them to take care to persuade.