Reading Rhetorically
Lee Mortensen's Quick Guide
last updated 8/30/05

In English, post-structuralist theory says that the word "text" can stand for anything you can interpret.  This linguistic (and political) theory of texts says that everything  is a matter of interpretation, and thus everything can be considered a text.  A car, an advertisement, a logo on a t-shirt, an article, a soda can, a song or its music, the clothes you're wearing, even your body can be interpreted like we interpret a book.  When we look at each other, we don't merely see cells and platelets.  We see signs and immediately begin to add meaning to these signs.  A teenager with large basketball shoes, a Fubu jacket, and a backwards baseball cap is sending his "readers" a certain message (or set of messages), and we as his readers are interpreting these messages in a variety of ways.  Post-structuralists (and many others) believe that the way you interpret the rhetorical choices (and subject matter meaning) of a text depending on your culture, gender, ethnicity, age, education, socioeconomic status, spiritual beliefs, politics etc.  In other words, when we interpret a "text", we always, already come with baggage that will make us see certain things in certain ways, and not see some things at all.  Someone else wearing similar clothes to the Fubu boy might look at him and think, "He's cool.  I wish I had the ultra-mega-high-tech Nike's too."  I might look at the Fubu boy and think, "Be careful.  He's probably a sexist and homophobe.  He might beat me up.  Or maybe just give me a raw look."  Of course, I am not his intended audience, but that doesn't mean I don't end up being one of his readers.  So, even if the Fubu boy wants to send a certain finite message, his readers are probably going to create many messages he might not have intended.

A book can also be interpreted like we interpret these more multi-dimensional texts--not just for it's overt meaning, but also for it's effect on whoever happens to be looking at it, as well as the effect of the reader's biases on the text.  

In other words, texts are hard things to control.  But we're supposed to learn more about control in this class, and so we will artificially break things down a bit by studying the details of rhetoric.

Rhetoric: the art of persuasion (which can mean many things).  You could also say rhetoric is about the craft of writing, which is actually how I would prefer to talk about all this.  Writing as a craft.  This is how I talk about creative writing with students.  But in a composition class, the word "rhetoric" can help us focus on audience concerns in a way conversations about craft don't.

Rhetorical Strategies or Choices: The microscopic and macroscopic choices an author makes to create a certain effect on a certain audience.  Subject matter choices (what the text is saying; the text's surface and deeper meanings) are certainly intertwined with rhetorical choices (the effect of the text rather than it's meaning).  You really can't pry these apart, but we will try in order to more deeply understand the craft of writing for an audience, and to become better critical thinkers.  By the way, I prefer the word "choice" because "strategy" feels like some kind of hideous, manipulative, violent war plan.  "Choices" sounds more open, more like fluid possibilities rather than something systematic.  Notice how just a small word change can create a very different effect.  That's why rhetorical choices are complex and infinite and thus interesting to play with and interpret.

To kind of boil it down then, when we interpret a text, we can ask subject matter questions: 

And we can ask questions about rhetorical choices:


THE MICROSCOPIC other words, ANALYSIS: looking at the little details via any of the ...

THE MACROSCOPIC other words, SYNTHESIS: looking at the overall effect(s)...

  • Graphics/pictures
  • Font
  • Colors
  • Layouts
  • Advertisements


  • Subject matter fixation/focus
    • types of information (stats? research? narratives? arguments? jokes?)
    • politics/class/race/sexuality/gender/education/ability
  • Diction
    • formality or informality (jargon or colloquialisms?)
    • sentence lengths and complexities
    • tone (attitude, persona)
  • Structure of the writing (opened form? closed form?)
  • Amount of text vs visuals/graphics
  • Order (layout) of subject matter (1st? Last?)
  • Subject matter (or information) left out or avoided (what's the effect?)

PAGS (purpose; audience; genre; style; another way to organize analytical thought)

  • Purpose: entertain? inform? argue?
  • Audience:
  • Genre: the category of item/text you are looking at (Movies--Westerns--Contemporary)
  • Style:
  • Who is the intended audience for this text, and how do you know?
  • What is the main persuasive purpose of this text?  What are they really trying to say or sell or do?
  • What is the political stance of this text?  Conservative?  Liberal?  Moderate?  How do you know?  What does this mean about the intended audience?
  • Are you part of the intended audience?  How or how not?
  • What is the overall effect this text is trying for?
  • Is this text effective for it's intended audience?