Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
by Benjamin Solomon
One way to think about rhetoric is as the art of effective communication. We make specific choices as writers and we do our best to imagine what effects those choices will have in our writing, and by extension, how those effects might influence or move our audience.
Choices and effects. Choices and effects. Let this be the mantra you say in your head before you do any writing—for this class, for work, on social media—wherever. Then ask yourself, “What choices will I make in this piece of writing and what effects will I create in order to influence or move my audience?”
Below, we’ll introduce three major effects that experienced writers use all the time to connect with their audiences. These aren’t the only effects out there, by any means, but we think they’re the big ones, the workhorses, the ones that skilled practitioners of writing, composing, and rhetoric go to over and over again.
It’s important to note that even though we are exploring each of these three effects separately, most writing that circulates publicly uses a combination of these effects, sometimes foregrounding one effect while backgrounding a couple others. Generally speaking, the shorter something is, the more likely it is to focus on only one or two effects, while longer pieces often foreground a series of effects at different stages throughout the piece.
Why study these effects? Because they tend to work, and because they tend to be durable—they’ve been around for a while—and because writers have repeatedly adapted them to suit various purposes, across a wide range of writing situations: academic, professional, civic, or otherwise. No writing class can give you a blueprint for all the writing you’ll do in your life. But by practicing these effects in a writing class—studying them, talking about them, trying them out—we can become more flexible and adaptable writers.
When writers foreground storytelling—big stories or small ones—they’re using the narration effect. To use this effect in our writing, we need to explore the possibilities of structuring a significant story; grapple with ideas like plot, character, imagery, and cause and effect; and acknowledge the conventions of storytelling in various cultures and the strategies storytellers use to craft stories that move their audience. [See the chapter “The Narration Effect: Story as the Forward Frame.”]
When writers foreground information, data, statistics, facts, and other results of research for a specific audience, they’re using the information effect. Using the information effect means sharing, exploring, and explaining the information we’ve found with an eye for how to best organize that information so it can be most useful for those it’s intended to reach. More than just throwing out a bunch of facts or data, the information effect is about how we deploy those facts in the service of a specific purpose. [See the chapter “The Information Effect: The Facts, the Figures, the So What?”]
When writers foreground both subtle and overt attempts to convince an audience that particular points of view and/or actions are worth considering, they’re using the persuasion effect. Using the persuasion effect means exploring how we can give others a vivid picture of our point of view, and in the process, work to sway, influence, or otherwise move our audiences. We don’t necessarily need to try to make them change their minds completely about an issue, but to invite them to fully consider the merits of another way of seeing things, a new course of action, or the possibility of meaningful change. [See the chapter “The Persuasion Effect: What Does It Mean to Write Persuasively?”]
You could argue that most writing uses combinations of the effects above. You could argue that effective, complex, and rich writing uses all the effects together. But often writers choose to let certain effects take center stage while others play supporting roles. Skilled writers work to blend these effects in ways that best suit their purpose and the needs of the audience they want to reach. In other words, they make deliberate choices about what to foreground and background in their writing in order to achieve specific overall effects.
You can do this too, and in the process, you’ll become a more flexible and adaptable writer.