After reading this chapter, you should be able to
If you look over the learning outcomes for this chapter, do any of those terms and ideas sound familiar to you? Do they bring back memories of your first-year college writing class? Or maybe of high school English classes?
What do you remember learning in your first-year writing course? (Or, if you didn't have a first-year writing course, think about the last writing course you can remember.) What concepts stood out, what practices did you adopt as a result of this course?
One of the most important choices we make as writers is related to the evidence we use to support our claims and how we connect that evidence. Many of the texts we read and write try to inform or persuade an audience and the kind of evidence we use is critical to that purpose. Strong writers rely on sound thinking, logically connected claims and reasons, and clearly articulated assumptions that support this thinking. (Some of you may have had teachers in the past use the term logos to talk about this kind of reasoning, which is a Greek word. We'll stick with the English terms in this book.)
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Note how much more direct the second sentence is, and note the choices that are made to bring about that clarity (such as the choice in the second example to focus on the reader's action through using the pronoun "you"). Clear, concise writing can be more appealing to audiences and can strengthen their opinion of you as a writer.
Good writers will assess these elements before they commit themselves to written or spoken words. If you think back to other writing courses you've taken, you may have talked about something like this, even if you didn't use the same triangle metaphor. (If you took first-year writing here at BYU, you might remember using the acronym GRAPE to learn about these concepts.) The triangle we use in this text implies that these elements are interconnected and inform each other. We'll take each one in turn in the sections that follow and consider how they're connected through some examples.
If you look at our triangle, you'll note that purpose sits squarely in the middle, surrounded by writer, audience, and message. Why do you think we situated it in the center like this? My idea is that placing purpose in the center suggests its central role in crafting the message; purpose is at the heart of the decisions we make as writers. Lots of students assume that we study writing in order to change people’s minds, and that’s certainly one of our purposes in communicating with each other. But we might also want to inform an audience, or even get them to simply feel something–although even in these cases, there’s often an implied sense that we want to change our readers’ views or feelings about something.
Your purpose is going to shape the choices you make as a writer. If you want to report on the results of a project, you might choose to organize details in a chronological pattern since that will best convey the progress made during the project. But if you’re looking to convince investors to give you some money to develop a new mobile app, you’ll probably want to begin by talking about a common problem you see that your app can fix.
Sometimes we begin writing without really knowing what our purpose is, beyond wanting to finish the piece of writing and/or satisfy someone’s demands. That’s okay, really, and you shouldn’t always let an unclear purpose stop you from writing. Have you ever gotten two or three (or more!) pages into an assignment and there, in the last paragraph, you realize that you’ve finally discovered what you want to say? That happens to all of us, and writing is actually a powerful way for us to discover what it is we have to say about something. It’s okay if your sense of what you have to say shifts as you compose, but take advantage of opportunities to revise your work and have others read it before submitting so that you make sure your finished work has a strong sense of purpose woven throughout the piece.
Every message has an author behind it. When you’re interpreting or analyzing a message you receive from someone else, it’s a no-brainer to think carefully about who the author is. The author’s values and views on the world can influence the message in important ways that we want to be aware of.
But as a student in this writing class, you’re often going to be the writer, and it may seem silly to spend any time thinking about yourself in relation to your message. Nevertheless, as we’ll cover throughout this book, it’s important to consider things like your relationship to an audience and to the topic you're writing about.
Analyzing this relationship might lead you to uncover shared values or experiences that you can tap into as part of an argument. How does your audience perceive you? Considering this question can help you make choices to build your credibility with an audience so they trust what you’re communicating. Do you have implicit or unexamined biases towards the topic you're writing on? Examining these can help you approach an audience more effectively as you recognize those and acknowledge the ways they color your thinking.
Sometimes you’re going to be writing to an audience you’re unfamiliar with, and this will require you to do some imagining or some research. In the situation you’re addressing with your writing, what will your audience care about the most? What do they value that you can tap into to help change their minds? Rather than take guesses at this, many writers will try to get to know an unfamiliar audience better by speaking to them or reading things they write. Even rudimentary research can give you valuable insights into those you want to communicate with and help you select the appropriate tools and approaches in your writing.
In today’s world, it’s also true that we have to consider unintended audiences for our messages, especially when those messages are going out on a public platform like Twitter. In 2015, a woman employed in public relations sent what she thought was a humorous tweet to her 170 followers right before she boarded an international flight to Africa. While in flight, her tweet was picked up by a writer for a popular tech blog who retweeted it and posted about it on the blog; by the time this woman landed, she had received tens of thousands of tweets condemning her for what was widely perceived as a racist joke. In addition to the public humiliation she and her family faced, she was fired from her job.
Whether the public shaming this woman experienced was deserved or not, this is an important lesson in carefully considering audience–intended and unintended. The fact that our words can be shared and transmitted to other audiences suggests we need to be careful in our communications when we’re the writer, and perhaps also just a bit more humble and open-minded as listeners.
And we may have to consider computers–or at least the algorithms written for them–as part of our audience. For example, let's say you've got a message that you want to promote on a platform like YouTube or Facebook and you want it to reach a wide audience. To do so, you'll have to consider how to leverage the algorithms that promote content: How can you get your company's press release to be at the head of users' Facebook newsfeeds? Can you get your video to the front page of YouTube? Figuring this out requires understanding how those platforms make decisions about what's going to be foremost in users' feeds.
For our purposes here, the message is the actual writing that we produce, whatever form it takes. One element of this message we'll pay attention to is its content. We make choices about content based on our purpose and our audience–will a personal story best move my audience or would statistics do a better job? What about a combination of the two? We might also consider the words and sentence structures that will be most appropriate–can we avoid using technical jargon, for instance, or will our audience expect that?
In addition to thinking about content, we also need to pay attention to the form our message takes. As a student, you've probably become familiar with a set of forms (or genres, which is the word we'll use more): the essay, the research report, the short essay response on an exam, etc. But in the larger world, there are a multitude of genres we could use, ranging from the opinion editorial to the press release or the political campaign speech. And new technologies are consistently bringing us new genres: Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, text messages, and so on.
However, features that we come to expect in a genre aren’t always fixed. For instance, the tweet’s origins as a text message limited content to 140 characters, which might be enough for brief status updates (the original goal of tweets) to a group of friends, but isn't really suitable for conveying more complex ideas. But as Twitter became more widely used by corporations and governments, some of them started circumventing the 140-character limit by attaching screenshots of typed press releases. Or you may have also seen some Twitter users use bracketed numbers at the end of each tweet in a series to let you know how many individual tweets make up the larger message. The needs of people using Twitter have shaped the way it’s used and have forced the genre itself to adapt; most users can now use 280 characters in their tweets (which still isn’t a lot).
Not all forms are appropriate for every message and every situation, and a good writer will make careful choices about which genre to use in any given situation based on what each genre allows for. I’ve heard friends complain about Instagram posts with lengthy captions; these complaints suggest that most people see this platform as a way of sharing images, and they open up Instagram to see things, not to read stuff. Similarly, we don’t read obituaries expecting to learn about the deceased person’s weaknesses or failings in life; the expectations of this genre are that we extol a person’s virtues and accomplishments, even though we know that nobody’s perfect and the obituary’s subject certainly had flaws. An obituary that was brutally honest about its subject would really throw readers for a loop.
But even in these cases where writers may have subverted the expectations, they’re showing an awareness of the genre and how it is typically used. One obituary that went viral recently was written by siblings whose mother had abandoned them. The beginning of this obituary followed the expected conventions, but it soon takes an unexpected turn with statements like “She will not be missed by [her children]"–ouch! You might question the appropriateness of these choices (and many have, including the editors who published it), but it’s hard to deny the powerful effect of authors who understand the way a genre is supposed to work and who grab our attention by subverting it.
The more you understand about genres (the form a message takes) and how they can be used, the more skilled you’ll be at communicating effectively. It’s important, too, to recognize that each discipline often privileges certain genres for the communication that takes place in that field. To become an expert in a field is to understand those genres and how to use them to share knowledge with other members of the field.