Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

A Rhetorical Writer

Fang Da and Chris Hidey

Fang Da and Chris Hidey

Here I present the ideas of Computer Science Ph.D. student Fang Da and his personal understanding of what it means to be a rhetorical writer.

“Rhetorical writing refers to the practice of leading the reader into willingly recognizing a fact, accepting an opinion, or agreeing with an argument, through the art of writing. This definition emphasizes the objective of the writing, because the achievement of this objective should be the sole metric for measuring the quality of the writing.

The objective may vary according to the genre and the circumstances of the writing. For example, an experiment report may be deemed successful if the reader can easily understand the data results after reading it, even though the discussion section may fail to propose interesting directions for future investigation.

On the other hand, a research proposal that clearly presents the preliminary data would still be a failure if it does not convince the reader of the value of the proposed research.

Of special interest is the word “willingly” in the definition, which states that it is the writer’s responsibility to make it as easy and pleasant as possible to read the written work. The reading may happen under a variety of circumstances, and the reading of certain genres is associated with a decision-making process that is inherently subjective. For example, a request for a personal favor may very well be ignored simply because of an ungrateful tone.

Even in more professional situations where decisions are supposed to be made objectively, well-written works are still more likely to gain an edge, because subjectivity is in human nature. For example, there are countless occurrences in science and engineering history where an elegant and powerful technique stays unnoticed for decades because the technical paper describing it is confusing. Instead of digging deep and reading the obscure text over and over again like they are supposed to, many researchers turn to more mature and better-understood techniques even though they do not perform as well.

In order to achieve the objective, the writer must fine-tune the written work on factors like the word choice, sentence length and structure, paragraph length, formatting, register, tone, and so on.

Academic Writing -Columbia CS 2014

Academic Writing -Columbia CS 2014

For example, the writer must adjust the vocabulary to find the sweet spot between being technically precise and being friendly to the target audience, because confusing the reader by not being technical enough and exhausting the reader by being too technical can both hurt the chance of conveying the point to the reader. Sentences that are unnecessarily long or complex in structure may consume too much processing power of the reader’s brain so that he or she has less energy to digest the meaning of them. Although bad formatting does not change the content of the writing, it creates a barrier in the reading process and thus reduces the chance of success.

Only when all of these factors are properly treated will a written work effectively achieve its intended objective.”

Thank you Fang!


Communicative Purpose



A pivotal element of the composing process is when the writer determines the communicative purpose of her text. This decision not only provides the inspiration for the story. This decision unifies all of the rhetorical features the writer will exercise to present her meaning to her readers. With this guiding direction, the author has a firm scaffolding for her composition.

The writer must know the answer to the question “What is my purpose for writing this text?”

  • Is my intent to teach my reader something new and complex?
  • Am I making an important request for funding?
  • Do I want to persuade my reader to see my point of view?
  • Am I focused on positioning myself as a worthy member of a discourse community?
  • Am I writing to entertain my reader?
  • Do I really want this job?

This is a straightforward and singularly important step in the positioning of any piece of writing.

In my view, you must know your communicative purpose and keep it in your sights as you compose and edit. And you must work hard on your story, tone, register, word choice, using every aspect of excellent writing in your toolkit to bring your personal and specific purpose into focus for your reader.

Feedback from a Great Presentations Student

A year and a half after completing my Great Presentations class at UCSB, Claire Phillips sent me this email with her thoughts about the class’s teaching/learning dynamic. I appreciate hearing what she has to say — especially now that she has had a chance to apply a few Great Presentations ideas in her work. ~ By the way, Claire is an environmental scientist and writer. ~ Thank you for your insights, Claire!

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Hi Janet,

I was just reading this article on Brainpickings about a book called Focus (by Daniel Goleman), which debunks the 10,000 hours-to-master-a-skill myth. He argues that the quality of the time spent mastering a skill is far more valuable than the quantity of time, and quality times includes mentors that provide meaningful feedback.

“Goleman identifies a second necessary element: a feedback loop that allows you to spot errors as they occur and correct them, much like ballet dancers use mirrors during practice. He writes:

‘Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks. The feedback matters and the concentration does, too — not just the hours.'”

This article really identified the genius in your teaching method for me, especially for the presentations class. I think one of the big reasons we were all jumping ahead so quickly in our presentation skills was because we analyze and provide feedback multiple times every class (as well as receiving feedback, of course). And the process of identifying what worked and what didn’t in live time helped those lessons sink in so much more profoundly.

I also think that verbalizing and discussing the critiques imbues a lot of confidence in everyone. At my new job I have had complete confidence (and gained my colleagues’ confidence) in my analysis of presentations because I have both a full understanding of the elements and am comfortable with the language to communicate those elements.

Anyway, I was just struck by that while I was reading the article and I thought I would pass it along!


More on Poetry — and Medicine


Poetry. And medicine.

“The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine is an annual international award for an unpublished poem on a medical subject.” Please read about this wonderful joining of poetry, medicine, and health here — Hippocrates Society for Poetry and Medicine.


Walk, Stand, Breathe, Speak

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Erica Cooper and Bingyi Cao, Columbia University

You are at a group meeting, or a conference, or an investor meeting — anyplace where you will be presenting your ideas to an audience. Perhaps you are standing at the side of the room waiting to move to the front. Maybe you are sitting at the meeting table and need to make it to the front of the room near your visuals. And it is your turn to speak.

These next few moments may seem obvious and simple. How do you get to your spot and start speaking? And how do you do it gracefully in full view of your audience? Let’s break things down into four steps:

  1. Walk

If you are already standing, walk in a relaxed manner to the place you choose to be for the beginning of your talk. If you are sitting, stand up, walk behind your chair and push it in calmly, and walk to your spot. Look at where you are going — don’t look at the ground while you are walking. If you are feeling extra confident, look at the group and smile.

You create an impression through the way you move and get yourself settled. Your audience will be looking at you the moment you start to move, even before you say a word.

  1. Stand

When you arrive at your spot, turn, face the audience, and stand in what I call neutral position.

  • Place your feet solidly under your hips. Don’t put your feet too far apart; if close together is comfortable, that’s okay.
  • Try to point your feet straight forward, not in a “V” shape.
  • Stand tall with your sternum up and arms relaxed at your side.
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Sea Pong and Alex Scarlett, UCSB Senior Capstone 2013


  1. Breathe

Looking at your audience with a relaxed expression, breathe. Take a nice deep breath, not a shallow tentative breath. Inhale. . .

  1. Speak

. . . and speak on the exhale.


Alex Sarraf, UCSB Senior Capston 2014

As you practice Walk-Stand-Breathe-Speak, think of each step as an independent unit, and execute each step completely before moving to the next step. For example, don’t walk and speak at the same time. Walk, establish your standing posture, breathe, and then speak. And about speaking? Remember — don’t speak without first taking a good inhale and sending some beneficial oxygen to your brain.

Then when each step feels solid within the sequence, let everything flow into a smooth pattern, and move fluidly into the beginning of your talk.


What I Learned in the Great Presentations Class


Yipeng Huang, PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University

“As a PhD student, I feel a lot of pressure to sound smart. When I present, usually in the setting of group meetings, but also in formal presentations such as those we practiced in Great Presentations, I feel a lot of pressure to come off as a productive researcher. This is evident in the tons of stuff I try to fit in my talks. While I have had no talks that went overtime, the truth is I had always prepared more content than I delivered. My urge to tell more—wanting to give more background on robots, wanting to show every visual to convey the complexity of my chip design—stems from the uncertainty that my output passes muster for the field I’m entering.

“I’ve put in so much work! Surely everything I did is worth telling about,” I think to myself when planning my talks, “If I made any of this seem simpler than it is, my audience may confuse my work for an easy project.” Leaving out any detail and every bug I encountered would be such disservice to the hours poured into making progress.

The pressure to give dense talks is also due to an impression I get from being an audience in other presentations, those given by professors and more senior students. As a PhD student still learning the arcane language of my field, I often find it hard to understand talks by more established researchers, and when I do understand, the efforts that went into the research always seem herculean.

As a result of these pressures, I feel I aim to impress (and possibly to beg approval) rather than to communicate when I am on the stage. When I am pressed for time to hit all the points I planned, my mind becomes singularly focused on powering through the content; my story gets muddled, I forget to breathe, and “um”s, “so”s, “I think”s break out. Being rushed is also bad for my body language: I break connection with the audience, I cease to interact with my visuals, and I stare at my own visuals.

Committing to giving a good presentation, especially one that communicates rather than merely dazzles the audience with myriad details, and in particular one that fits in the talk’s time limits, requires courage. Crafting such a presentation requires omitting the details in the research that were often the hardest parts to overcome. The presenter has to be confident the research is sound even when parts have to be left out.

Having a well-timed presentation gives the audience the chance to absorb the story, and it gives the presenter valuable time and a clear head to be aware of the talk’s delivery. Among all the feedback I got from the Great Presentations class, this advice to exercise restraint while planning talks is the most important, since it affects so many other aspects of presenting.

The other major finding I had in Great Presentations is about practicing and improvising.

Now that I frequently speak about my own research, I’ve come to understand presentations as assemblages of many smaller talks. Oftentimes, presentations are ad-hoc: I may be describing my research as part of a conversation, or I may be put on the spot at a meeting. In every setting, the time allocation and level to which my audience is up to speed varies, so I change the way I assemble my mini talks accordingly. However, while the overall speeches are tailored, the mini talks are often well practiced and get carried over between presentations.

The hazard of endlessly repeating segments of old talks is a failure to consider whether the mini talks are up to date. As my research progresses, my mini talks should obviously change as well. Furthermore, while giving a familiar talk is comforting for me, I may have failed to consider better ways to describe my research.

Question-answer interactions during talks help break the cycle of repeating old ideas. Audience questions taught me as the presenter what ideas are not getting across. I noticed I often resort to rehearsed answers: I start back at the beginning in attempt to tell the full story. Instead, I should aim for depth in my answers. If the question asker didn’t nail the question, guide her to ask the deeper question. Answers to good questions are the best chance to fill in the details that had been left out, and they are the precursors to mini talks to include in the future presentations.

Giving great presentations takes time, certainly more time than simply throwing together PowerPoint slides and winging through the talk on stage. But expending time to prepare great presentations is worthwhile.

We admire researchers who adeptly communicate their work. Deciding what details to include and what to leave out—to attempt presenting new ideas in untried talk segments, or to resort to familiar spiels—these decisions are the heart of the art of giving great presentations.”

From Yipeng’s blog    

Best Poster Awards at UCSB Senior Capstone 2014


This year’s Weihan David Wang Computer Engineering/Computer Science/Electrical Engineering Capstone Poster Prize was shared by two of the total fifteen project teams — NP-Compete and String Cheese. The co-winners were teams of students in our CS 189 class.

I present these two beautiful posters so that you can study and appreciate how the project stories and the complexities of the technical details were realized in a poster format. Imagine walking up to these posters in the event courtyard and taking a few minutes to learn about the 6-month long project that was conceived and realized by the student group. See if you can capture the essence of each project.

P2P Cast Poster by the NP-Compete Team

NP-Compete Poster

NP-Compete Poster

Eye in the Sky Poster by the String Cheese Team

String Cheese Poster

String Cheese Poster

Congratulations to groups NP-Compete and String Cheese!

NP-Compete is Daniel Vicory (lead), Nicole Theokari, Omar Masri, Jerry Medina, Justin Liang. String Cheese is Alexander Huitric (lead), EJ Fernandes,  Drew Hascall, Jasen Worden.

UCSB Computer Science Senior Capstone 2014

It’s UCSB Senior Capstone time again!

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On June 5, eight teams of Computer Science and Computer Engineering students presented their industry-sponsored projects to the public in an all-day event centering on 22-minute team presentations and a poster event/lunch session.

I am an integral part of the two-quarter Capstone class. Working alongside CS Professor Tim Sherwood and Teaching Assistant Geoff Douglas, my role is to coach the groups for their public presentations. Before any coaching from me, I was coached by the students! I had to work hard to understand the stories behind the project problems and technologies so I could provide honest and instructive feedback.


So let’s break things down a bit. What were the important things about a Capstone presentation that we talked about and practiced?

1. The core message. I urged the groups to think about a few key questions:

What is the real world, concrete problem that you are addressing? What did you develop/create/build to solve your problem? What are the complexities of your solution? What were the technical challenges you faced and how did you resolve them? What specific things are interesting and unique about your solution? If you had more time and support, how would you continue to develop your project?

2. The presentation plan. Organizing a collaborative project effort into a 22-minute talk that tells a complete story and that all group members can agree on is a challenge. This is especially true when you have been working with 3 or 4 other classmates for 6 months; you have other classes and work obligations; and you are a graduating senior and are thinking of new jobs and new graduate school experiences.


We talked first about backward buildup and parsing the talk into its essential components, and then the best order for sequencing the components of the talk. We talked about how each group wanted to introduce itself to the audience and how much preliminary material should be included with these personal introductions.

Since it is a course requirement for each team member to give a portion of the talk, the group had to decide who said what.

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And what about the live demo — when in the talk should that happen, and who should be in charge?


3. Visuals. How do you embed visuals into the presentation story and use them in the most excellent way during your talk? How many visuals should there be anyway? What is the best way to transition from the visual you are talking about to the next visual and keep your story moving forward?

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4. Delivery. Practice, practice, practice — Introductions, timing, volume, facing, remembering the story, projecting excellence and enthusiasm, the demo, breathing. And preparing for the question and answer session following each talk.

The Capstone students were coached through all of these things.


And more. In addition to creating amazing products and preparing for their presentations and demos, the groups produced beautiful and informative posters for audience participants to look at during the courtyard lunch celebration.

RingBase poster

Capstone Presentation Day 2014 was amazing. Congratulations to all of the UCSB Computer Science Capstone students and their industry mentors!

Writing Philosophies in CS594 – Winter 2014

The writers of CS594 - Winter 2014

The writers of CS594 – Winter 2014

Wouldn’t it be interesting to eavesdrop on what a bunch of writers say about their writing philosophies? I asked the writers in my UCSB Academic Writing Class for PhD students in Computer Science to think about their writing philosophies by composing their own definitions of rhetorical writing. See what you think.

(By the way, I recommend that you develop your own personal writing philosophy — Like a writing credo you can rely on when you are composing a story, when you are editing your work, when you are collaborating with co-authors.)


1. Rhetorical writing could be compared to Tao, an Eastern concept and philosophy that is understood to mean “the way”.

Rhetorical writing is tricky to define. Despite learning about it for an entire class, there is not even one single rule that I could say is necessary for effective writing. If you had a single, inflexible rule, it would completely miss the principle of rhetoric.

As far as I can tell, rhetoric is about effective communication using the familiar anchors of language, culture, and known concepts. That’s about it. And, if you wish to do it well, so much depends upon circumstances and an ambiguous medium called language. Who are you communicating to? Why are you communicating to them? Do they interpret language the same way you do? What culture does this audience have in common?

Culture is important because it suggests the type of concepts and language patterns your audience might be familiar with. If you know the concepts that already exist in someone’s head, you can exploit these as anchors to communicate more effectively. A few simple and seemingly vague words could form a very powerful image in the right person’s mind. (Patrick Baxter)

2. Rhetorical writing is the process of writing for a defined audience with a defined purpose. Every other element of rhetorical writing can be logically deduced from this definition. When the writer is writing for a defined purpose she is telling a story that concludes with her predefined purpose. Generally, the writer wants the audience to reach her conclusion by themselves. Therefore, as a general rule, anything that distracts the audience from reaching her desired conclusion should be removed and anything that can help the audience to reach the desired conclusion should be included. For example, inconsistency is generally distracting. Therefore, every element of the writing should consistently serve the writer’s conclusion: the register, tone, and word choice should be compatible with the conclusion; data and visuals, when not serving the story, are distracting and should be removed. (Ali Zand)

3. Rhetorical writing is the Art of War in writing. Taking different tactics and strategies in your writing yield completely different results. You can get more support from your readers than you expect, or make them turn their backs on you and even get slammed by them. (Jay Byungkyu Kang)

4. Rhetorical Writing is about all the conscious choices we make to deliver our story to a specific discourse community. Choices such as genre, style, structure, length, tone, or even the actual audience. However, Rhetorical Writing isn’t a recipe for successful writing. It is more of a framework – a set of tools – we have available to craft an idea into text. Text that other people will understand and enjoy reading. Text that other people will prefer and choose to read from an ocean of available readings. Because at the end of the day, Rhetorical Writing is all about making your written ideas and stories stand out. (Theodore Georgiou)

5. Rhetorical writing is a methodological process of crafting a text that efficiently achieves its intended purpose with the chosen audience given a fixed set of constraints. The author carefully chooses genre, register, rhythm, style, and tone and tweaks these variables and iteratively improves the structure of the text. (Alex Pucher)

6. Rhetorical writing is a method of writing that helps writers make more conscious choices of delivering ideas to achieve a specific communicative purpose. It includes elements that guide writers in this process. Specifically, depending on which audience the writer targets, she will be more informed of the approach and word selection to make the audience understand the story she wants to communicate. This, in turn, will also affect the number of words she needs to deliver her idea, the formality of words, and the tone of her writing. (Dong-Anh Van Nguyen)

7. The search for perfectionism in each sentence kills the flow of thoughts, kills the moment that writing can capture. I feel that this class gave me back my old self, the need to express myself first and then fix my text. The text ends up dry if I continuously revise.

When it comes to editing I have changed my attitude completely. Now I think about what is best for the reader and how I should adjust my phrases in a way that the reader will understand what I want to say. My overall message from this class is: “Be courageous and put your thoughts on paper as this might surprise you how well structured and meaningful they are. Then organize them to present them to the reader in a beautiful way like the essays you were writing as a child.” (Ana Nika)

8. Word choice, sentence structure, tone, and register. These requirements have become the soul that guides my writing every time I want to represent something in words. Personally, I learned two important issues about writing that I consider in all of my writing. First, write a document as a whole, smooth, well-connected story which can lead the writer to read it easily. Second, remember that there is always a gap between the writer and the reader — what you want to represent in the sentence may differ a lot from what the reader interprets. (Lin Zhou)

9. Rhetorical writing is about choices. Rhetorical writing is about choice of purpose, audience, message, genre, length, structure, rhythm, tone, register, sentences, words. These choices are all highly correlated, and a complex product emerges from simple fundamental rules of sentence structure. Through the simple combination of letters into words, into sentences, into claims, into arguments, choices interact with each other to lead to complex, emergent behaviour. Simply, as we have been told, “Rhetorical writing is about writing to tell a story, to an audience you choose, to achieve a communicative purpose, within a word limit.” (Michael Gaultois, Materials)

10. This class opened my eyes on how dull my writing had become. In high school, I wrote fictional stories populated with characters loosely inspired by my classmates. The stories were funny and witty, and helped my classmates kill time during the insipid classes that were so frequent at my high school.

[In graduate school] I realized that I got accustomed to thinking that there was only one way to write papers, since everybody in my community writes in the same way – that is, the successful ones. It made me realize that there is still room for letting one’s personality come through a written academic text. I learned that, although I cannot usually choose my audience, I can adjust register, tone, and word choice to achieve my purpose. I learned that playing with words is a possibility. Most importantly, I learned that a well-written academic text does not necessarily have to be dull or monotone.

A potential problem that I fear is that many reviewers are not good writers. They were trained to “parse” papers, rather than to read them – much like a computer would do. My fear is that a good, unfamiliar way of writing — which diverges from the agreed style of the community – might confuse them, and that they may not be able to understand the underlying message of the paper.

Although I may be writing great text, my audience is still who I am writing for. I need to come up with a way of making my voice and personality come through, but also be accessible. Balance is the key. (Gianluca Stringhini)

11. Writing is like composing. The same notes can generate masterpieces or c***. To write a beautiful text, every bit of it should be considered carefully, from logic flow to sentence structure, from tone to word choice. This is Rhetorical Writing. It is about how to use the language as a tool to express what is in the writer’s mind, clearly and precisely. A well-written paragraph should not look like a forest, where trees grow randomly. It should be a garden, where every plant and rock is placed intentionally and carefully to construct a self-contained, aesthetic entity. When such a text is presented to a reader, the intention and the idea should be understood without extra effort. This is why we write. This is why we write rhetorically. I hope I achieved some of it in this paragraph. (Bolun Wang)




“. . . At the end of the two-year [MFA in creative writing] program, I read aloud from my thesis novel. People complimented me afterward, but no one laughed, not even a titter. It was an odd feeling. I tried to reassure myself; who needs laughs when you might one day be the author of “an unflinching and elegiac novel that echoes the work of (insert name of very important writer)”?

After graduation I shopped my thesis around. I sent it to agents with a more literary bent because I now considered myself a literary writer. I received a slew of rejections. One kind agent leveled with me and said my prose was competent but lacked personality. I wanted to write her back and say, “Wait. I thought that was a good thing?”

I was stymied for a long time, trying to figure out who I was as a writer. Eventually I did a rewrite, employing my breezy pre-M.F.A. style. I queried again, expecting rejection letters echoing my classmates and professors, saying, “Too precious” or “Seems glib.” Instead I got five offers of representation.

Two years later, I continue to write fast-paced, funny novels, and if my professors were to read my work now they’d probably say, “That chick-lit girl learned nothing.”

In fact, I gained something invaluable: Each writer enters into the craft with a specific strength. For me it was humor. For another it might be storytelling or the creation of beautiful sentences. As beginners we tend to rely too heavily on our strengths, and sometimes we have to minimize them in order to focus on our weaknesses. Along the way, different styles beckon. Eventually, though, we must embrace the gifts that enticed us into being writers in the first place. As one of the Southern characters in my novels might say, “It’s best to dance with the one who brung you.” “

From A Master’s in Chick Lit by Karin Gillespie – The New York Times April 26, 2014


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