Text: Rhetorical Modes

We’ve been focusing on broad categories of reading materials so far: literature, journalism, textbooks, and academic writing. Since most of the reading (and writing!) you’ll do throughout your college career falls into the “academic writing” category, this is a good point to slow down and examine the building blocks of academic writing more closely.

Rhetoric is the study of writing, so the basic types of academic writing are referred to as rhetorical modes. Let’s look at 10 of the most common types.

1. Narration

The purpose of narration is to tell a story or relate an event. Narration is an especially useful tool for sequencing or putting details and information into some kind of logical order, usually chronological.

Literature uses narration heavily, but it also can be useful in academic writing for strong impact.

An academic essay about the impact of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, for instance, might include a narrative section that tells the story of one particular family that’s been impacted. This will help illustrate the broader impacts on the community.

2. Description

The purpose of description is to re-create, invent, or visually present a person, place, event, or action so that the reader can picture that which is being described. It is heavily based on sensory details: what we experience through our five senses.

Description is very useful in writing of all types.

In our essay about lead in drinking water, sensory details such as the color of the lead-contaminated water coming out of the tap, or the taste of it when used for cooking, will be informative and help clarify the dangers to the community of Flint. 

3. Example

We’ve been looking at examples so far, with the lead in the water of Flint, Michigan. An exemplification essay extends this idea even further: it carries one or more examples into great detail, in order to show the details of a complex problem in a way that’s easy for readers to understand.

Writing in detail about the drinking water crisis in Flint might be used to exemplify the political situation where a state governor appoints an emergency manager over a city, taking authority away from a mayor or a town council. On the surface, it seems like these two ideas aren’t connected, so the extended example of the drinking water situation will help readers to understand the potential consequences of removing local leadership.

4. Definition

In the vocabulary section we talked about word definitions in great detail. A definition essay takes the concept of “definition” more broadly, moving beyond a dictionary definition to examine a word or concept as we actually use and understand it.

If we use the term “drinking water crisis” to apply to the situation in Flint, Michigan, what does that actually mean? At what point does the term “crisis” apply? A definition essay would examine the various factors that shape a public crisis, such as the level of lead contamination in water determined to be dangerous, the costs of drinking water to citizens, the difficulty in accessing water in other ways, and the damage lead exposure can have to children.

5. Process Analysis

Analyzing a process can also be thought of as a “how-to” essay. Technical writing includes a lot of process analysis, for instance. Academic writing can incorporate process analysis to show how an existing problem came to be, or how it might be solved, by following a clear series of steps.

Tracing the steps that led to the current drinking water problems in Flint would prove a useful exercise in a process analysis essay. Showing exactly what steps were taken, and in what order, would help illustrate for readers how similar situations could be avoided in other communities in the future.

6. Division/Classification

A classification essay takes one large concept, and divides it into individual pieces. A nice result from this type of writing is that it helps the reader to understand a complex topic by focusing on its smaller parts. This is particularly useful when an author has a unique way of dividing up the concepts, to provide new insight into the ways it might be viewed.

Part of the reason that the Flint drinking water issue has gotten so much attention, is that it’s such a thorny issue with so many potential long-term effects. A classification approach to this topic could divide the overall concept of “crisis” into individual threads: the political implications, the public health implications, the financial implications, and the educational implications.

7. Comparison/Contrast

Comparison focuses on similarities between things, and contrast focuses on their differences. We innately make comparisons all the time, and they appear in many kinds of writings. The goal of comparison and contrast in academic essays is generally to show that one item is superior to another, based on a set of evaluations included as part of the writing.

A path to deeper understanding of the Flint drinking water crisis would be to look at another community that has experienced something similar. Comparisons and contrasts might be made in how the situation arose in each location, how it was handled by public officials and private citizens, and how it was ultimately resolved.

8. Cause/Effect

If narration offers a sequence of events, cause/effect essays offer an explanation about why that sequence matters. Cause/effect writing is particularly powerful when the author can provide a cause/effect relationship that the reader wasn’t expecting, and as a result see the situation in a new light.

We recognize that lead contamination in drinking water is a problem, but many readers may not know exactly why that is. Drawing a cause/effect relationship between lead exposure in childhood, and later learning disabilities and physical problems once these children grow up, would be helpful for understanding the long-term impacts possible from the current situation in Flint.

9. Problem/Solution

This type of academic writing has two equally important tasks: clearly identifying a problem, and then providing a logical, practical solution for that problem. Establishing that a particular situation IS a problem can sometimes be a challenge–many readers might assume that a given situation is “just the way it is,” for instance.

If the fact that the drinking water supply in Flint contains lead is the problem, then an academic problem/solution essay will establish WHY it’s a problem. This might include noting the EPA guidelines for lead in the water supply, and what Flint’s water testing results reveal. Then, this essay would need to establish a solution for the situation that would be both practical and feasible. The temporary solution many residents are using currently is to buy bottled water to drink, cook, and bathe with. A problem/solution essay on this subject will need to offer a more manageable long-term solution for these residents.

10. Argument & Persuasion

The purpose of argumentation (also called persuasive writing) is to prove the validity of a point of view, by presenting sound reasoning to thoroughly convince the reader. These assume that the reader is initially uninformed about the topic, or holds a viewpoint that differs from the author’s. The author’s goal is to bring the reader around to his or her way of thinking on the matter.

Many different people, organizations, and political groups have been blamed along the way for the water crisis in Flint. A persuasive paper looking at who’s ultimately responsible would offer a definitive answer for which group or person deserves the bulk of the blame. It would also effectively address why this matters to the reader–why a reader should care about making sure that the guilty party is ultimately held responsible for their actions.

As the examples of the Flint, Michigan drinking water situation show, there is a lot of overlap between the different rhetorical modes. Many academic essays combine two or more different rhetorical modes in one finished product. This leads to a rich reading experience.