Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Category: Writing

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.

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


The Nuances of Voice and Tone


We know that voice and tone are very important in a written text. Every word we choose in every sentence we write will have a nuanced impact on our reader.

No matter the genre or the subject matter, our readers will hear our story and judge our sincerity and intent.

So what does this mean for the writer? It means that we must take care of voice and tone — and say what we really intend to say. Of course this care-full commitment to clarity means a lot of drafting, editing, and redrafting.

Here is a touching expression of how hard one writer worked to find the right voice and tone when composing condolence letters. He writes:

“Each condolence letter ended up taking about three hours to write . . . The cliché would be that the memories poured out, but they didn’t. They required being tweezed out, one at a time. Cliché would also state that the letters required no editing, but of course they did, and I found myself hunched over my computer in familiar fashion, shifting sentences around and removing stray words like I was on deadline, and my editor was breathing down my neck. The process of writing is always the same, whatever the subject, whomever the reader.”

Read the entire New York Times text: The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter By Saul Austerlitz.

Learning to Tell the Story Behind Scientific Research

Adam Jorge is a first-year graduate student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. With undergraduate degrees in philosophy and political science, he has chosen to follow his heart and pursue work in environmental science.

So now he is writing science papers. A lot of them. And the way his new discipline shares ideas through writing is different from what he is used to.

“And to think I thought it would be easy…

I somewhat naively expected a balance between the disciplines, but upon arrival I was greeted with some heavy-handed readings, and some frighteningly scientific assignments.

The facts, figures, stats, definitions, and terminology leave me completely dazed. The content of written work is so different, and I lose my voice somewhere in the data.

Choosing an approach to my writing proved challenging, and I wasn’t sure why. This writing class revealed something very important about my writing style: My tone is my springboard—all of my work begins with my tone selection.

Tone and information go hand in hand; while data/information is almost self-developing, tone comes with the development of voice—my voice just so happened to be inhibited by a lack of experience interpreting the science.

But my favorite part of this class has been learning to tell the story behind scientific research.

Telling the story in philosophy, political science and public policy comes naturally; ideas within social sciences tend to be horizontal and sequential, as opposed to the vertical integration I see in the sciences.

Prior to this class, I assumed that scientific literature simply reports observations. Uncovering the words hidden in data, the importance of research, and the significance of implications now helps me weave the story behind the science.

Finding ways to layer and stack the depths of information on top of one another provides me with a new method for story building:

Telling a scientific story is less like a map, which directs a reader from one destination to another; it is instead more like building a skyscraper, where the reader navigates each floor, which both stands on its own and is dependent upon the floor beneath.”

Thank you Adam for these wonderful insights!

The Right Word

• “It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.” Isabel Allende

• “Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.” Susan Orlean

• “Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.” Francine Prose

From things I read on Brain Pickings.

E.B. White’s Approach to Style

“. . . We approach style in its broader meaning: style in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. Here we leave solid ground. Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries . . .”

“. . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course. Writers will often find themselves steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

E. B. White in The Elements of Style.


E. B. White and the Job of a Writer


What are your views about the writer’s commitment to politics, international affairs? You have written so much (The Wild Flag, etc.) about federal and international issues.


“A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”


In a country such as ours, which has become increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology, what role do you see for the writer?


“The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

From “E. B. White, The Art of the Essay.” 1969. 

Introducing Captions

A caption is the voice of an image. It speaks for a photo; a diagram; a chart; a bar graph; a drawing; an outline; a list.

It is the job of the writer to give the image voice so that the reader understands its significance and value.

After you have given the caption a title, what other details should be included? You might consider the WALTER approach to writing a clear and helpful caption. Remember — the caption should serve to advance your ideas and bring your reader to a better understanding of your point of view.

Jelena Marašević, a PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at Columbia University, attended my Academic Writing class for PhD students this September-October. Here is what Jelena says about captions — and here are her before and after captions for the same image. Thank you Jelena!

“Before taking the class, I was not sure what to write in a figure caption. I thought that it is better to only have a title for a figure, and explain in the text what the figure presents. Here is an example of the same figure I used in a project report in the Spring semester, and that I am using in a paper I am currently writing (the relation before-after should be clear).”





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