Chapter 2: Reading in Writing Class

2.3 How to Read Rhetorically

When we read rhetorically, we are moving beyond simply trying to comprehend what an author is saying at a basic level. Instead, one who reads rhetorically seeks to understand how meaning in a text is shaped not only by the text itself, but also the context.

Rhetorically focusing on the text might include observing the following: what the author says, how he or she arranges information, the types of information that he or she includes.

Rhetorically focusing on the context might include observing and researching the following: the context of the text; the author’s identity, values and biases;  the audience’s interests and needs;  the medium in which the author composes; the purpose for creating the text, and more.

Rhetorically Reading the Text: Understanding What the Author is Trying to Say

  • Who is the author? What else has he or she written? What is the author’s occupation? Is the author a journalist, professor, business person, or entertainer? Is the author an expert on the topic he or she is writing about?
  • When and where was the piece originally published? Research the original publication. Does that publication have a perceived bias? Is the original publication highly regarded?
  • What is the author’s main idea? The main idea is the author’s central claim or thesis. Describe the author’s main idea in your own words. Does the author make his or her claim successfully? Is the claim held consistently throughout the text? Does the thesis appear in one sentence or in bits and pieces throughout the text?
  • What information does the author provide to support the central claim?Making a list of each key point the author makes will help you analyze the overall text. Hint: each paragraph should address one key point, and all paragraphs should relate to the text’s central claim.
  • What kind of supporting evidence does the author use?Is the evidence based more on fact or opinion, and do you feel those choices are effective? Where does this evidence come from? Are the sources authoritative and credible?
  • What is the author’s main purpose?Note that this is different that the text’s main idea. The text’s main idea (above) refers to the central claim or thesis embedded in the text. The author’s purpose, however, refers to what he or she hopes to accomplish. Is the author’s goal to persuade his or her readers to adopt a viewpoint or to act in some way? Does the author intend to provide information or to entertain?
  • Describe the tone in the piece. Is it friendly? Authoritative? Does it lecture? Is it biting or sarcastic? Comedic or dire?
  • Describe the diction in the piece. What word choices does the author make? Does the author use simple or technical language? Is it full of jargon? Does the language feel positive or negative? Formal or conversational? Does the author use figurative language?
  • Is the author objective? Why does the author try to persuade you to adopt his or her viewpoint? If the author is biased, does this interfere with the way you read and understand the text?
  • Does the text seem to be aimed at readers like you or at a different audience? What assumptions does the author make about his or her audience? Would most people find these reasonable, acceptable, or accurate? Is the author trying to reach a certain age group, ethnicity, gender, or educational background?
  • Does the author try to appeal to your emotions?Does the author use any controversial words in the piece? Do these affect your reading or your interest?
  • How is the piece organized? Where does the thesis appear? Toward the beginning or the end of the text and why? Are there sections with bolded subheadings, and if so, do these subheadings accurately reflect the content of the section.
  • Does the piece include images or graphics? Are there illustrations, photographs, or graphs? Do these images add to or detract from the written text?

In addition to these textual questions, we need to look at contextual considerations when we read rhetorically.

Rhetorically Reading the Context: Understanding Context

Let’s define context as the time and place and setting of the event, the writing of a text, a film, etc., in a society. In the First-Year Writing class, you will read essays, news articles, scholarly research findings, and to help make sense of it all, you must contextualize these texts. Why? Well, today is not like yesterday. Remember, the current beliefs change over time.

An example of how yesterday is different

Think about your smartphone. You may have been born at the end of the 20th century or the start of the 21 stcentury. Your family had a cordless phone. Thirty years ago, most households had landline phones and had to dial a number (see the above photo), which was called a rotary phone. In most households today, there is no landline.

“Western Electric Model 302 Telephone c.1945” by fwaggle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

How to consider context

Everything you read, and all that you write must be considered contextually. Some instructors refer to rhetorical context, or the writing situation. As writers, you have to think of this as you begin any reading or writing assignments. Below are a few questions you might want to consider when analyzing the time, place, and setting of a text:

  • Where was the text published?
  • Was it published online or in print?
  • When was the text published? What does this tell you about the time it was written? Is it still relevant information or outdated?
  • What is the author’s main idea? Is it a current belief?

As a student, if you begin to read contextually, you can shift to reading critically. These are the skills a critical thinker employs to make inquiries about the world.

Rhetorically Reading the Context: Understanding Author Bias and Authority

Most reputable websites and news sources will list or cite an author, even though you might have to dig into the site deeper than just the section you’re interested in to find it. Most pages will have a home page or “About Us”/”About This Site” link where an author will be credited

Often, understanding the author’s bias or authority will require some research that goes well beyond any blurb that might be included with the actual article. Google the author, or consider looking at his or her LinkedIn profile. Look at several different sources instead of relying on just one website to understand who the author is.

  • Does the author support a particular political or religious view that could be affecting his or her objectivity in the piece?
  • Is the author supported by any special-interest groups (i.e. the American Library Association or Keep America Safe)?
  • Is the author a highly educated expert on that topic who is choosing to publish an article for a popular, mainstream audience?
  • Is he or she a journalist who specializes in the topic? A journalist whose specialty is unclear? A citizen who is weighing in?
  • Is the author writing from personal experience, or is he/she synthesizing and offering commentary on others’ experiences?
  • Each of these different levels of expertise will confer a different level of authority on the topic. It is important to understand whether or not an author is truly an expert on the content.

Be careful that you are not using an article that is actually a middle school student essay published in a school newspaper!

Rhetorically Reading the Context: Understand the Publication Ideology and Bias

Certain newspapers or magazines are subject to corporate owners’ political ideologies or biases. Just as you can do some background research on an individual author, do some research on the publication that hosts the article you would like to use. Again, google research can help. Look at several different sources — do not rely on just one website.

  • Does the publication have an ideological bias? (conservative? liberal?)
  • Is the publication religious? Secular?
  • Is the publication created for a very specific target audience?
  • If you are looking at a website, what is its purpose? Was the site created to sell things, or are the authors trying to persuade voters to take a side on a particular issue?

If you are looking at a website, the sponsor of the site  (the person or organization who is footing the bill) will often be listed in the same place as the copyright date or author information. If you can’t find an explicit listing for a sponsor, double check the URL: .com indicates a commercial site, .edu an educational one, .org a nonprofit, .gov a government sponsor, .mil a military sponsor, or .net a network of sponsors. The end part of a URL may also tell you what country the website is coming from, such as .uk for the United Kingdom or .de for Germany.

A note on publication bias

You can find many articles indicating that a bias exists in academic publishing. This publication bias means that only certain types of research studies get published in academic journals. In the sciences, the publication bias favors studies that have positive results (“we got some results!”) rather than negative results (“this did not work as we had hypothesized”). In the Arts and Humanities, some have argued that prestigious academic journals favor articles that come from professors at elite colleges and universities. Other speculation about publication bias in academic journals focuses on the bias in the peer reviewer: that a peer reviewer is more likely to accept an article for publication if that article confirms his or her own thinking.



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