Rhetoric: “purpose, subject matter, audience, and context”

“[Style is] a series of both conscious and unconscious choices that writers make about everything from the words we use (diction) and their arrangement in sentences (syntax) to the tone with which we express our point of view (e.g. ironic, formal, or colloquial) and the way we achieve emphasis in a sentence (e.g., by placing the most important information at the end). …Style is connected to a writer’s purpose, subject matter, audience, and context.” -Richard Butler, rhetorician and composition theorist

Richard Butler defines style in a clear way that accurately includes all the elements of rhetoric—syntax, expression, and tone. He includes how our personal style is affected, which is the purpose of the piece, the subject matter, the audience, and the context of the piece. Every writer considers these factors and takes time into developing the tone, expression, and syntax based on these five factors. Butler intended to define style in a way that considered both the personal style of the writer and the outside influences, and, through this definition, hoped that writers could better develop their style as they considered each element of writing itself and the factors that affect it.

In my personal writing experience, I sometimes forget to look at the big picture and how my writing fits into it. I liked this quotation so much because it does an excellent job summarizing what my job is as a writer—to communicate clearly and effectively to my audience. And, like Butler said, that includes considering why I am writing the piece in the first place, how I arrange my words to communicate that purpose, and the audience of my work. Each time I pick up my pen to write, I should be considering all these things as I arrange my words and develop my argument or story. Sometimes writers consider style as a singularly personal trait of the writing experience, and while the end result is a writer’s personal writing style, the development of a writing style for a specific piece is not only affected by what a writer prefers. On the contrary, it is developed based on who will read the piece, what kind of writing it is (prose, poetry, newspaper article, academic essay), and its purpose in relation to what else is going on.

This quote will help me remember to consider more than just how I like words to be arranged on a page. While writing is a personal experience, my intended audience deserves to be considered from the first step of the process to the last. My work will only be successful if someone other than myself likes it. My work need to be relevant, clear, and composed in a manner that considers more than my personal thoughts and ideas.

This quote inspires me to create a list of questions to which I can constantly refer as I write:

Why am I writing this?
Who am I writing this for?
What is the message I want to convey?
How can I write this so that my audience can understand and respond?
How can I develop my argument and ideas to communicate as effectively as possible?
How can I put this in context?
What is my tone (and why is it that tone)?


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