How Writer Reflecting to Situation?


Explore the situation as a means of approaching any writing task.

The rhetorical situation — also known as the writing situation — refers to the considerations that all writers take into account as they write.

When writers think about their situation, they reflect on the following:

  • The primary purpose of their writing
  • Which audience(s) to address
  • The context in which they are writing
  • Which stance, or authorial tone, to take
  • Which genre and medium are most appropriate for the purpose, audience, and writing task

Martin Luther King Jr., for example, wrote “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” to achieve a specific purpose, persuading others to rethink their views about achieving racial justice in the South in the 1960s; for a specific audience, those who disagreed with his approach based on nonviolent civil disobedience; in a given genre, an open letter addressed to a specific group but intended for publication.

A student composing an essay evaluating a recent film for a newspaper has a different purpose, to provide a recommendation about whether the film is worth seeing; to a given audience, the readers of the newspaper; in the form of a review, another genre.

A writer’s context includes the means of communication, current events, and the environment in which the communication takes place.

The context for Martin Luther King Jr. was very different from the context for the student writer, of course.

All writing tasks are framed by a rhetorical situation. To manage a writing situation successfully, writers must consider their purpose, audience, and context, both before writing and as they compose.

By keeping their rhetorical situation in mind, writers find the writing process easier to manage, and the completed project will be stronger and more effective.

writing purpose

1. Understanding your purpose

You write to achieve many different purposes. Sometimes, as when you make a grocery list, your purpose may seem trivial: to be sure that you identify all the items you need so you have to make only one trip to the store.

At other times, you write for a more important purpose, such as when you compose a job application letter or send an e-mail or a text to let a family member know that you have arrived at your destination safely.

Regardless of whether your writing informs your readers by telling them what you know about a topic or issue, interprets and analyzes by exploring the meaning of your subject, argues or persuades by proving a point or supporting an opinion through logic and concrete evidence, or simply expresses your feelings, it is always designed to achieve a given purpose.

thinking about audience

2. Thinking about audience

A second, equally important aspect of the writing situation is the audience, the readers you are writing to and for.

Thinking of your potential readers can help you shape your writing.

An exercise program, for example, would look very different if you were to write it as a journal entry for a health class, post it on Facebook, or craft it as a press release for a business enterprise or community organization.

If you were writing about possible changes to Social Security, the examples you would select might vary depending on whether your audience included mostly senior citizens, who are the main beneficiaries of the program now, or people in their twenties, most of whom will not benefit from it for many years.

Thinking about the needs of your audience can help you decide what to include in your writing project as you compose — and what you might leave out.

writer context

3. Considering your context

Context, or the larger circumstances surrounding a text, exerts a major influence on the rhetorical situation.

Consider how the meaning of a single word can change, depending on the context. For example, a chair can be a piece of furniture or someone who leads a committee or department.

Likewise, because the contexts differ, writers discussing immigration patterns in an academic context know that their readers expect a balanced and informed discussion of this controversial issue, whereas writers in the context of a political discussion group on the Web may address the same issue in a more personal and impassioned way.

Although it is impossible to know the full context of any situation, it is important to identify what you do know and keep that information in mind as you write.


4. Choosing an appropriate stance

A rhetorical stance is the attitude a writer takes in relation to a topic and is expressed in part by the tone used in addressing the audience.

A dignitary giving a commencement address tries to inspire the audience, for example, while a friend consoles another friend on a loss.

When you are exploring an issue that could divide your audience, you might take the stance of someone who inquires rather than someone who argues.

When creating a résumé, most people take the stance of a competent future employee. Considering your stance carefully is an important part of writing well.

multimedia elements and genres

5. Making effective use of multimedia elements and genres

Writers today have access to digital technologies that widen the possibilities for composing and sharing texts. Through the use of electronic media, people are communicating more than ever before.

On Web sites or blogs (continuously updated, often topical Web sites), writers combine their texts with photos, videos, and audio files — using all of these options to achieve a variety of purposes.

Social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube facilitate connections across time and space.

As you plan to compose for a specific writing situation, consider two possibilities for presenting, and sharing, your text:

  1. Whether your text will include multimedia elements (for example, graphs, hyperlinks, video or audio clips)
  2. Which genre best suits your purpose

Incorporating multimedia elements

Digital technology allows you to include sound files, hyperlinks, and other multimedia elements in digital projects to convey ideas more efficiently and powerfully.

You can create these elements yourself or import them from other sources.

Use multimedia to serve your overall purpose, placing a photo, sound file, or link strategically and always citing the source of any item you import into your work.

Posting your text online enables you to include an even greater variety of media. You could help your reader hear the music you analyzed by providing a link to an audio file.

You could supplement a project about political speeches with a link to a video clip of a politician giving a speech.

Presentation software such as PowerPoint allows you to integrate audio and visual features into your oral presentations or stand-alone presentations posted online on a site like SlideShare.

Effects such as animation can enliven your presentation, but avoid using multimedia elements in a merely decorative manner.

Choosing the best genre

When you know your rhetorical situation, you can select a genre that best fits that situation. Quite simply, genre means kind of writing.

Poems, stories, and plays are genres of literature, and audiences have different expectations for each.

Most of the writing you will be asked to produce in college will be non-fiction, that is, writing about real events, people, and things for the purpose of argument, information, or interpretation.

Within non-fiction, however, there are many additional genres of writing such as letters, brochures, case studies, lab reports, and literary analyses.

Some types of writing, like the case study, are common in a particular field such as sociology.

Here are some typical genres for the three purposes you will be using most commonly in academic writing:

  1. Informative: research report, newsletter, lab report, design study, medical record
  2. Interpretive: literary analysis, case study, data analysis, feasibility study, film/music/restaurant review
  3. Argument: editorial, letter to the editor, proposal, research project
writing medium

6. Deciding on the best medium

When you have identified your composition’s rhetorical situation, you can select an appropriate medium to support your purpose and communicate with your audience.

A medium is a means of communication—you can communicate with your audience via print, screen, or network.

Print can take various forms: a letter to the editor of a newspaper can be a word-processed text, whereas a poster for a science presentation will probably be a large printed document with images as well as text.

A screen composition might consist of a set of PowerPoint slides detailing election results, or it might be a digital photo essay.

A composition posted on a computer network could be a blog on athletes’ salaries or a Web site on the issue of abandoned children.

Increasingly, all disciplines require that students write in each of these three media.

In some cases, the medium will be determined by the rhetorical situation: a neighborhood improvement campaign would probably call for print posters and flyers. In other cases, you have a choice.

These questions can help you decide which medium to select:

  1. Does the rhetorical situation provide guidance for which medium to use? What will the audience expect?
  2. Does your composition require or make use of other electronic sources such as an animated graphic or streaming video? Consider a digital or networked medium such as a Web site.
  3. What kind of distribution will your composition require? If you plan to send it to a small group, consider print. For a larger distribution, consider a networked medium such as a Web page or social network site such as Facebook.
  4. How large is your audience, and where is it located? You can reach a small, local audience with a print text such as a flyer. If your audience is large and diversified, consider a networked medium such as a blog.
persuasive power of images

7. Becoming aware of the persuasive power of images

For many rhetorical situations, carefully chosen images — photographs, diagrams, graphs, maps, or other visuals — can help to convey information or persuade an audience.

If you are reviewing the causes of World War I, you may find it useful to include a map of contested territory.

If you are showing how the number of ocean pirates has increased in the past ten years, you could demonstrate that growth with a diagram.

When you are defining your rhetorical task, consider whether images would be helpful.

A photo, diagram, or chart can provide evidence, illustrate a point, add details, or clarify relationships.

A graph can effectively portray important trends for a history assignment.

A time line, can help your readers grasp the relationships among important events. To use images effectively, though, writers must analyze them with care.

We live in a world of images — in advertising, in politics, in books, and in classrooms.

Increasingly, images function together with words, and often without words, to persuade as well as to instruct.

Images, like words, require careful, critical analysis.

A misleading graph or an altered photograph can easily distort the way readers and viewers perceive a subject.

The ability to understand visual information and to evaluate its credibility is an essential tool for learning and writing.

writing advantages

8. Taking advantage of online and other electronic tools for writing and for learning

Digital technology makes it possible to transcend the constraints of the clock, the calendar, and the car and to engage in educational activities 24/7: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Different electronic tools work best for different purposes:


Today, e-mail is one of the most frequently used forms of written communication.

In most classes, you can use e-mail to communicate with your professor and other students; you may also be able to e-mail a consultant in your school’s writing center.

Instant messaging

You can use instant messaging (IM) to further your learning in much the same way as e-mail.

Some instructors may encourage you to contact them in this way, but otherwise use IM to save time, not to distract you from the work at hand.

Text messages

Texting is especially useful for very short, timely messages.

Its abbreviations can also make note taking faster. Abbreviations and emoticons — combinations of characters that look like images, such as :-)—should not be used in more formal writing situations.

Course Web sites

Most courses have accompanying Web sites. Course Web sites often include abundant information: the class syllabus, class assignments, and readings.

In addition, you can check for late - breaking announcements, discussion board chats, and course - related links as well as other Web resources.

Networked classrooms and virtual classrooms

Many colleges and instructors use networked classrooms in which each student works at one of a network of linked computers.

Instructors can post daily assignments and discussion topics, and students might be assigned to work collaboratively on a writing project.

Computers and the Internet also make it possible for students to engage in distance learning — from almost anywhere in the world — in classes conducted entirely online in virtual classrooms.

In virtual classrooms where you interact in writing rather than in spoken discussion, you can more easily save ideas and comments and use them in the first draft of a text.


A blog is a continually updated site that features dated entries with commentary on a variety of topics, links to Web sites the author(s) find interesting, and (sometimes) a space for readers to add comments.

These readers, as well as the blog’s author, may or may not be experts on the topics.


Instructors may record their lectures as downloadable audio or video podcasts, making them available to the class for repeated listening or viewing on a computer or an MP3 player.

Popular radio and television shows, as well as newspapers, frequently include podcasts; the New York Times, for example, has a print book review section and a podcast of reviews.

Reputable podcasts such as these are important sources for research projects.


Outside school and in some college classes, many students and instructors create short videos, which they may post on video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

Although writing projects often address a specific intended audience, many Web sites are open to anyone surfing the Web.

Creating your own videos will prepare you to analyze informative and persuasive videos in your life outside school, as well as for course assignments.

Social networking sites

Sometimes students use collective social networking sites (like Facebook) to discuss writing projects, conduct surveys, and locate experts.

Postings may be private, from person to person; or public, from one person to many.

As is the case with other social networking sites (like your own blog), be aware that what you post on these sites is potentially public, is visible to colleagues, family, and prospective employers, and may follow you forever.


A wiki comprises interlinking Web pages created collaboratively, which form databases of information.

Because multiple people create and edit pages on a wiki site, college students and instructors often use wikis to create collaborative projects.

The popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia can be accurate but is not always so because many people can create or edit its content; therefore, instructors tend to discourage its use as a source.

The content of some other wikis is created and monitored by experts in the field and therefore may be more credible.

In college, as in life, you must learn enough about a wiki to assess its credibility.

Virtual environments

Some college students and instructors use virtual spaces for tutoring or group projects.

These spaces include graphic virtual worlds such as Second Life, as well as older word-based technologies such as MUDs (multiuser dimensions) and MOOs (object-oriented multiuser dimensions).


Another social networking practice is tweeting: composing messages limited to 140 characters that are posted to a person’s Twitter page and often to other pages as well (Facebook, for example).

Like text messages, tweets are condensed messages that can be timely.

Some instructors may ask you to use them for academic purposes, for example to raise questions about a reading that you will be discussing in class.

cms web based course software

9. Using Web-based course software

Many colleges offer some kind of course management system (CMS) like Blackboard, Desire to Learn, and Sakai.

Although these sites vary, they typically include common features that students can access at any time via a password-protected course Web page.

“Distribution” features allow instructors to present the course syllabus, assignments, and readings.

“Contribution” features promote class participation and communication.

These features may include e-mail systems, bulletin boards and chat rooms for class discussions, and folders where students can post their work to be read and commented upon by classmates and the instructor.

Chat rooms are online spaces that permit real-time communication. All participants in a chat see the text of the others as they type. Often the CMS will save a transcript of the chat for future reference.

Some CMS platforms include tools for peer review, in which students comment on one another’s writing at specific stages in the writing process.

Specialized software, like the e-book that accompanies this text, makes peer review an efficient, helpful, and accessible writing tool.

If your course has such a home page, take time at the beginning of the semester to become familiar with its features — as well as with any related course requirements.