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Dr. Mark Jordan ~ ENGL 1301: Composition & Rhetoric

The Process of Writing:

Basic Rhetorical Principles

In general, the essays I assign are intended to teach critical thinking, or what might be called analytical thinking or problem solving. As a first step in polishing critical thinking skills, especially as relating to the craft of writing, it is helpful to understand various elements of classical rhetoric. These are concepts which date back millennia to the ancient Greek culture and which are virtually universal in their application to thinking and communication, whether it is accomplished by the fairly traditional use of sentences and paragraphs, or by the use of non-alphabetic signs such as graphic images such as websites commonly use. The following can serve as an introduction to these principles.

Three Basic Purposes of Writing

One rhetorical principle has to do with the three basic purposes or aims of any document (including a website):

  • To inform your audience (sharing data, explaining processes)
  • To express your thoughts and opinions (a diary is the purest form)
  • To persuade others to share your opinions (to some degree and in some way, everything anyone writes is persuasive)

Your writing for this class will touch on all three aims, although your formal essays will usually emphasize some combination of the informative and the persuasive aims. However, please realize that these purposes are not stages; even though one document may combine several purposes, it is a mistake to think that each document proceeds through all three purposes in stages.  This is not how the purposes work.

Instead, each piece of writing will normally emphasize one single purpose, though one or both of the other purposes may be touched on.  Which purpose is most widespread, most crucial?  Opinions vary.  It is my own view that all writing has a persuasive element to it. For example, even in the purest technical document which seeks to pass on information, the writer must persuade the reader that his version of this information is accurate and useful. And even in a diary or personal journal which is unread by anyone other than the author, that author often "thinks on paper," writing down thoughts and feelings in order not only to remember them, but to clarify them. In this purpose of clarification, there is often an element of self-persuasion in that in order to clarify my feelings, I must engage in an inner debate. With debate comes the attempt to persuade, even if the two parties debating are parts of my self.

Another important point to remember about the purpose of persuasion is that one must usually offer lengthier explanation in order to persuade an audience, as opposed to a document seeking primarily only to inform. You should consider that all your writings in this course will (or should) have a strong persuasive element. This may mean that you will need to develop your writing more than you are accustomed to doing--making it longer, but using effective strategies, rather than "filler" or rambling. In fact, many of my student writers do indeed show a strong early tendency to write less than a typical reader needs, and to generalize rather than write using concrete details. Both these tendencies are commonplace and should be guarded against. Compelling persuasion cannot happen from writing that is really just a brief summary.

Three Types of Audiences

Any experienced writer tries to keep his or her audience and its characteristics in mind while writing; a "one-size-fits-all" approach to defining your audience does not work well. The ultimate goal is to be sensitive to the needs and expectations of your audience in regards to all aspects of your writing, but a good way to begin developing this sort of sensitivity to audience is to think of your audience in terms of its receptivity to what you are writing. With this in mind, audiences can be divided into three basic categories:

  • An approving audience (one which already agrees with you). This is the easiest audience to write for, obviously. Yet you should never think of yourself as writing for such an audience. Keeping in mind that your writing will almost always need to persuade its audience in regards to something--even if only as to your competence in delivering accurate information--as a writer, you should never assume your audience is already in agreement with you. Even if in fact your readers are already granting you their approval, you lose nothing by refusing to assume they will do this. But if you do fall into the trap of assuming prior approval of your ideas, this assumption of "automatic" approval leads to what I call "cheerleading." This is the too-common type of writing which takes every opportunity to make fun of the opposing viewpoint and those who hold it, often going so far as to misrepresent that viewpoint or to deliberately omit data which might support it. Any fair-minded, perceptive reader takes a dim view of such writing. In reality, your audience is probably not mostly already in agreement with you, and so by using sarcastic or manipulative language and strategies, you will certainly alienate many people. Also, in regards to primarily informative writing, you should never assume your audience already understands the information you are delivering. Probably, many readers do not. It needs explanation.
  • A hostile audience is at the other end of the spectrum. Just as you should avoid thinking of your readers as already approving or understanding your writing, you should likewise avoid writing for a hostile audience, at least for the purposes of your writing in this course. True, in various contexts writers sometimes must write for such an audience, and so must be sensitive to this possibility. But the reason that less experienced writers should avoid thinking of their readers in this way is simply because persuading such an audience of anything at all is very, very difficult, frequently not even possible. For a writer who is perhaps already not too confident of his or her writing ability, this can be very intimidating, even disabling.
  • A neutral audience is the ideal audience you should imagine, unless you know for certain it is one of the other two types. This audience is prepared to grant approval if you present your position effectively, and it will not willfully misconstrue your ideas or explanations.  Such a conception of audience can elicit the best efforts of the writer without provoking feelings in the writer that all efforts are useless. However, even with such an audience, there can be shades or types of neutrality. A reader can be neutral but interested. Such a reader is in most ways the ideal audience, because while the reader's neutrality tends to discourage "cheerleading" in the writing, the already established interest makes the writer's task a relatively simple one. This is the audience which less experienced writers, especially, should imagine themselves as writing for.  On the other hand, a reader can be neutral but indifferent. Unfortunately, this describes many readers, so this possible audience must be considered. Such readers are not careful readers, so they need clear, thorough explanation. Such readers also tend not to read very far into a document unless the writer "hooks" them early on with something of interest, perhaps an appropriate anecdote from personal experience. It is good advice for any writer to keep these two audience needs in mind at all times.

The Classic Appeals: Ways to Persuade an Audience

In your writing for this course (both formal documents and email), either consciously or unconsciously you will also draw on a third ancient rhetorical principle, that of the three appeals:

  • The logical appeal (logos), which you use any time you use logic to argue a point. In general, logical argumentation follows a certain pattern, sometimes called the "if/then/because" pattern. You begin with some point which you figure your audience will mostly agree to. Next you try to build on that accepted starting point by pointing out some logical conclusion that may be drawn from it: "If you accept point A, then it follows logically that you also should accept point B, because B follows from A." For example, you might argue that if you agree that redheads sunburn easily, then it makes sense for redheads to be extra careful to use sunscreen. Usually, you will need to explain at some length why B follows from A; in my example, because without sunscreen redheads will burn badly. That reasoning is so obvious in this brief example that it could be omitted, but mostly that is not the case. Besides logical argumentation, logos is also used when you argue using data such as facts or statistics.
  • The emotional appeal (pathos), when you appeal to the audience's feelings rather than to their intellect. This is often misused so as to conceal logical weaknesses in an argument; in fact, this practice is so commonplace that you may not be aware that there is any other way to argue a point. However, an excellent and honest use of pathos is when you as a writer may tell a detailed story of an incident, something which actually happened to some individual. The more detailed the better, because that is the quality which generates the emotional power that draws your reader into your story, and so lets your story illustrate your argument. The emotional appeal used in this way works by encouraging the reader to relive the emotions of the person or persons in the story. Both the logical and emotional appeals work best when used with each other. Ways to use them together in your writing are discussed in detail in the Three-Part Format link, especially in the part which explains the four main parts of a typical body paragraph.
  • The ethical appeal (ethos), when you cite some other source or better-known authority for support in making your point stick (and not to be confused with the usual meaning of the word "ethics"). Any quotation is an example of this appeal. You may well find yourself using the ethical appeal, even quoting from other students' email or citing opinions found in websites. Especially in that latter case, it is wise to remember that absolutely anyone can post a website, so be careful not to automatically assume that whatever you might find on the Web is reliable. This is of course true for any publication, but on the Web there are no barriers between the individual and publication like there are in the world of print. The good news about this is that it encourages a wealth of fresh ideas; the bad news is that there are fewer checks and balances to weed out unsubstantiated misinformation that is presented as truth. As for citing this kind of information gained from published or Website sources, ENGL 1302 is the course which teaches formal citing of secondary sources such as these. For this course, unless we have time to cover proper ways to formally cite information or ideas you have found in some specific source, you should use the following method of informal citation: Just mention the crucial information about the source in your sentence itself. Here is an example: According to the December 11th issue of Time magazine, the U. S. government feels "there is little hope of any Mideast peace settlement anytime soon."

The Modes: Patterns of Problem-Solving

Lastly, the formal documents you create will also be written according to another rhetorical principle, using one or more of what are called modes, actually various mental approaches or patterns of thinking about any topic. The modes may also be thought of as different approaches to problem solving.  A word of caution:   Just as students sometimes think of the purposes of writing as though they are stages, similarly, students sometimes mistake the modes for stages of writing.  They are not stages.

Here are some of the more common modes:

  • Narrative (telling a story to make a point)
  • Cause/Effect (analyzing the causes and/or effects of something)
  • Comparison/Contrast (examining the similarities and/or differences of two things, often to judge which is better)
  • Classification (breaking something--even people or the things people do--into different parts, usually in order to understand more about the topic)
  • Definition (often used to examine a frequently misunderstood term or concept, or to present a new, different, perhaps personal meaning for it)
  • And others.

The modes are only given brief attention here because much more detailed discussions of them can be found at my Three-Part Format link. You will study these modes carefully as we progress through the course.


Stages of the Process of Writing:

Writing Process, Writing Product

While your writing process should consciously consider the above rhetorical principles, attention also needs to be given here to the actual hands-on procedure an experienced writer uses in going about writing. Obviously, there is a connection between the process of writing and the product of writing: the way you end up with a product (an essay, for instance) is that you go through a certain writing process. That process has several stages common to most experienced writers. On the other hand, each writer needs to individualize these common stages to suit his or her personality, working conditions, and so forth. Unless you become familiar with these common stages, however, you have no starting point from which to begin individualizing your own best writing process. What this section does is to give a brief overview of these common stages, which are frequently summed up like this:

  • Brainstorming (sometimes called "prewriting")
  • Outlining
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Proofing

These five stages are roughly sequential, with the brainstorming stage, in one form or another, coming first. However, when writing something even as complex as a three-page essay (let alone anything longer), you will almost certainly find that you will often need to back up to a previous stage. This is normal. In fact, rather than calling the writing process a sequential process, it is more accurate to call it a recursive process, meaning that as part of the process, the writer will usually need to loop back through previous stages in order to move forward--sort of like a dance step: two steps forward, one step back; two forward, one back; and so forth. What follows are discussions of each stage, as listed above.

To go to any stage of the writing process, just click on the selected stage below:

Overview ~ Brainstorming ~ Outlining ~ Drafting ~ Revising ~ Proofing

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