Invention and Rhetorical Purpose

Novice writers often lack an awareness of rhetorical purpose.  Study the assignment.  Analyze and understand the assignment.  Figure out and narrow down the writing topic.  Don’t worry so much about figuring out WHAT you want to say.  Until you’ve written stuff down, you cannot possibly know what to say.  You discover what you’re thinking by writing.  Write a bunch of stuff down.  This is the crucial importance of INVENTION.  Play around with your words and language.  Then later you will need to figure out how to structure and make sense of your ideas.

Outlines ask you to rein in your ideas.  Rather than beginning  with an outline, try a freewrite instead.  Or brainstorm.  Or cluster.  Draft a bunch of times.  Then outline and revise your writing… you’ll want to create an opportunity to rein in your ideas before submitting a final draft.

Peter Elbow discusses this in his “Growing” chapter in Writing Without TeachersThe traditional model of writing that asks us to figure out meaning first then put it into language is backwards.  How many times have we heard this from teachers?  Outline first, then get clear on what you want to say before you say it.  This is a tremendous source of anxiety.  Rather, as Elbow recommends, work the other way around: play with words and language, let them “grow” organically, then figure out what you mean by them.  Reverse the process.  Play with words, then structure your ideas.  While playing, don’t listen to the inner critic.

Elbow’s metaphors of writing as “growing” and “cooking” are helpful…

What is your purpose?  What’s the assignment asking you to do?  Then get into INVENTION.

Please look at these very helpful links…

Purdue’s OWL entry on rhetorical purpose

These links on the rhetorical triangle and rhetorical appeals:  A and B

Wayne C.  Booth on the rhetorical stance

Hopefully, you’ll study these links carefully.  Be mindful of certain rhetorical terminology, such as ‘explain,’ ‘inform,’ ‘persuade,’ ‘convince,’ ‘argue,’ ‘describe,’ or ‘compare / contrast.’   If an assignment asks for you to “convince a reader,” then ultimately you are being asked to provide an argument.  You muster up evidence, reasons, testimony, examples, stories or anecdotes, etc to persuade the reader to believe or think a specific idea.

Eventually, after you’ve written down plenty of stuff, you need to think about the reader’s needs and expectations.  What does the reader want?  Ask yourself again, what is the assignment asking for?  In most cases, your writing will always involve a bit of persuasion, because your writing must provide the reader with reasons to continue reading your work.  Please keep this in mind.  The reader is not obligated to stick with your writing.  You must give the reader reason to read your stuff from beginning to end.  If you don’t, then the reader’s attention will operate like a television remote control–it is liable to change stations if and when your writing is not interesting or clear.  And the reader will most certainly “turn off” if you don’t fulfill the expected rhetorical purpose.


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