by Charlotte Howe
Why can’t writing be as simple as the King’s advice to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop”?
Writing involves making choices. Lots of choices.
We choose what to say, when to say it, where to say it, and to whom. We choose the form our message will take, and the tools we will use to create and deliver our message. As we write, we make many choices of style and tone, organization and flow, word usage and sentence structure, and more. So many choices! It can seem like a Las Vegas buffet with too many dishes to choose from and not enough time or space to try them all. In other words, so many choices can seem overwhelming, which can lead to the dreaded writer’s block—that condition of staring glassy-eyed at a blank page while a deadline looms ever nearer and panic begins to set in. Why can’t writing be as simple as the King’s advice to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop” (65)?
When we write, we are responding to the needs of a situation, a conversation already taking place, an occasion that has prompted us to speak. We listen to the conversation for a while, we do our research, and at some point we give voice to our message. If we want to be heard, understood, and perhaps even agreed with, we must make choices, develop strategies, and enact decisions that go beyond simply deciding what we want to say. We must choose the occasion—find just the right moment—to speak. We must consider audience—who are we speaking to? What do they believe and what do they already know? What is our purpose in speaking to them? How will we deliver our message—what type of writing shall we use and what are the expectations our readers will have for that type of writing? Shall we meet those expectations or stretch them in some way to surprise our readers?
Our answers to these questions cause us to make choices that go beyond what we want to say to considering how, when, where, and to whom we say it. To simplify this process of making choices, we can start by looking closely at the situation that calls for us to respond in writing. This instance of communication is often called a rhetorical situation.
In every instance of communication (or rhetorical situation) there is a message (or text) being sent by an author to an audience for a purpose—and this communication happens in a time and place (or context). So these are some terms that will help us make sense of our writing choices:
- Text & Its Message (a purposeful, written communication)
- Author (the person who creates and often delivers the text)
- Audience (the individuals who receive the text, whether intended or not)
- Purpose (the reason for sending the message)
- Context (the time, place, and environment for the message)
And this is how it works: To increase the chances of our message being heard, we’ll need to consider our purpose, our chosen audience, and our context as we write. And we’ll make many choices about content, tone, length, format, genre, and mode of delivery based on our analysis of the rhetorical situation in which we are writing.
While writing is never as easy as Lewis Carroll’s “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop,” learning how to make writing choices based on your analysis of the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, context) can help you reach your audience strongly and clearly.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: MacMillan, 1865.