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Chapter 1. Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing 7
Face-to-Face Speech . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8
Codes and Contexts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10
Communication at a Distance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11
Rhetoric and Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14
Origins of Rhetoric . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .17
Chapter 2. Knowing Where You Are: Genre 21
The Textual Marking of Situationality and Activity . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
Conventional Forms and Inhabitations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .24
Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
Texts within Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .27
Recognizing Genres . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29
Personal and Public Histories with Genres . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30
What Do We Learn from Experience with Genres? . . . . . . . . . . . .32
Genres as a Frame for Reading and Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32
Recognizable Aspects of Genre . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34
Genres as a Potential Space of Reading and its Troubles . . . . . . . . . .35
So Where Are We? Have We Left the Material World Behind? . . . .37
Displaying the Material Conditions of Texts’ Creation and Use . . .40
Chapter 3. When You Are 43
Writing and the History of Cultural Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .46
Writing and Action Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
Individual and Group Perception of Moments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .48
Typical Action Sequences . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .49
Influencing the Future . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50
The Time Within the Text . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .52
The Temporality of Multiple Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
Time to Produce Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
Chapter 4. The World of Texts: Intertextuality 59
Intertextuality Is Like and Unlike Other Spatial and Temporal
Notions of Context . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .59
Extensiveness and Shape of Invoked Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62
The Intertext as a Virtual Theater of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .64
Chapter 5. Changing the Landscape: Kairos, Social Facts,
and Speech Acts 65
Creating and Influencing the Situation in the Here and Now . . . . . 65
Conditions Not of Our Own Making, That We Constantly
Remake: Social Facts and Speech Acts. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Kairos and Exigency in Embodied Face-to-Face Situations . . . . . . . 71
Kairos and Exigency in the Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72
Chapter 6. Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms 77
Typified Motives and Forms of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
Emergent Motivations in Emergent Sites of Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79
School Writing, School Situation, and School Motives . . . . . . . . . . 81
Gradual Evolution of Situation and Our Motives Within It . . . . . . 84
Chapter 7. Text Strategics 87
The Core of Strategic Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
The Crucial Ordinariness and Lack of Contentiousness
of Most Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 89
The Places of Information and Reasoning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
Chapter 8. Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning 99
Well-Known Genres and Sedimented Form . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
The Work to Do Within Genres: Making of Meaning . . . . . . . . . . 100
The Work of Academic Genres: Learning Through
Problem Solving . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
Giving Shape to Thought: The Paradoxes of Form . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
Being Practical About Paradoxes: Bidding the Muse . . . . . . . . . . . 104
From the Outside In: Understanding the Meaning of Form . . . . . 104
From the Inside Out: Midwiving Emergent Meanings . . . . . . . . . 106
Back and Forth: Between External Form and Internal Impulses . . 107
Drafty Drafts and Interim Texts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108
Chapter 9. Meanings and Representations 111
A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Where and How to Get Information . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
Ontology and Epistemology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114
Indexing and Representing Other Texts: Intertextuality . . . . . . . . . 116
Representing the Meaning of the Intertext . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
Disciplinary and Professional Literatures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
Chapter 10. Spaces and Journeys for Readers: Organization
and Movement 123
Starting the Journey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
Tying the Pieces Together: Cohesive Devices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127
Coherence in the Reasoning and Representation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
The Synchronous Spatial Picture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
The Gradual Development of the Spatial Model of Meaning . . . . . 132
Looking Back . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Chapter 11. Style and Revision 137
Emerged Meanings and Relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
Genre, Decorum, Register, and Activity Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139
Revision for Style and Beyond . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
Difficulties in Adopting the Revision Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Defining What to Look for in Revision . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143
Revision and the Professional Stance toward Writing . . . . . . . . . . 144
Chapter 12. Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text 147
Identifying and Working with Writing Episodes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 148
Developing and Maintaining the Writing Orientation . . . . . . . . . 149
Resistances to Writing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Prompting and Accepting the Muse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154
Trusting the Process . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155
Living with Our Limitations while Demanding the Best . . . . . . . . 158
Being Prepared for the Aftermath . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159
References 163


Writing can seem an amorphous task. Writers seem to fill blank pages with
inventions of endless possibilities—from cookbooks and instructions for the
latest electronic gadget to prayer books and legal codes, from corporate reports
on emerging markets and botanic treatises on leaf veins of deciduous trees to
undergraduate papers for history courses and personal diaries of self-doubts.
How do people do this amazing variety of things through writing? What can we
say that would help us do these things more effectively?
Indeed the variety seems so great that general advice or analysis seems
quixotic, and we ought to focus only on specific kinds of writing. One might
be able to say something useful about historically-evolved cookbooks, and how
one might go about producing one that speaks to the commercial market in the
United States in the early twenty-first century. We have learned things about
technical writing, business, and legal writing that have helped inform writing
education of professionals in each of these domains. Research and pedagogy
in Writing Across the Curriculum, in the Disciplines and Professions, and in
the Workplace have guided approaches for developing writing of many specific
If the writing task is specific enough, detailed instructions can direct the
text’s completion, such as filling out a government form properly (at least in
the particular version of the form used in a particular year)—very detailed
specifications tell us what we should write in each box and our writing choices
are limited as to which address or ethnicity we might report. Even if the form
contains a more open-ended narrative, such as in a grant application, often
the material that needs to be covered and the order it should be covered in are
directed by instructions and regulations. Such narrowed focus helps direct our
work, but it also limits our thinking, expression, identities, and commitments.
In the extreme cases of filling out forms we can become powerless subjects of
bureaucratic definitions and regulations.
Yet writing can be a powerful tool of thinking, feeling, identity, commitment,
and action. In turning our impulses into words, we can reveal ourselves
to ourselves and to the world, and we can take place in important debates,
movements, and activities. Writing forms the playing fields of our literate times
and each piece of writing we do claims a place, identity, meaning, and action
on those fields of life. The more we can write beyond the bounds of constrained
bureaucratic prescriptions, the more we gain power to define and represent
ourselves in the literate world.
But the problem of writing seems so amorphous that once we step out of
highly directed, highly instructed writing situations we may quickly feel at sea,
not knowing which direction to take and without signs to help us gain our
bearings and make decisions. Even if we are released on a small confined, pond,
such as writing a paper for a university political science course on political
parties where we are told what ideas to refer to and which cases to discuss, we
may still struggle to know which direction to go in.
Of course, in writing an essay for a political science course, the more we
know about political science, the longer we have been in the course and have
known the professor, the more political science papers we have read and written,
the more we have learned the vocabulary and read the literature of political
science and the historical accounts of political parties, and the more we know
the genres of the field, then the more effectively and efficiently we can address
the task. Yet underlying questions remain about what we want to accomplish
and how we can do it in more deeply effective ways; that is, we cannot reduce
our writing just to type, but must create it anew from our interests, resources,
thoughts, and perceptions.
What would be useful in this and many other circumstances is a way of
understanding our writing situation and what we might do with it—not just how
writing is generally done in these circumstances but how we might transform
the circumstances through our participation. This volume, A Rhetoric of Literate
Action, offers an approach to understanding writing situations and how we can
respond creatively in deep and transformative ways, because we understand the
game and our moves more deeply. The first four chapters of this volume provide
a framework for identifying and understanding the situations writing comes
out of and is directed toward. The next four chapters then consider how a text
works to transform a situation and achieve the writer’s motives as the text begins
to take form. The final four chapters provide more specific advice of the work
to be accomplished in bringing the text to final form and how to manage the
work and one’s own emotions and energies so as to accomplish the work most
The advice of this book is for the experienced writer with a substantial
repertoire of skills, and now would find it useful to think in more fundamental
strategic terms about what they want their texts to accomplish, what form the
texts might take, how to develop specific contents, and how to arrange the work
of writing. While the book contains some comments identifying challenges of
developing writers and writers at social margins with an eye to how a writer
can strategically address these challenges, those topics will not be at the center
of discussion so as to maintain focus on strategic choice-making experienced
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Likewise, I will from time to time discuss collaborative writing processes,
problems of multiple audiences, and the effects of changing technologies on
writing, how to accomplish it, and what its impact is. To keep an already
complicated and multidimensional subject as simple as I can, however, I will
predominantly attend to the actions of individual experienced writers expressing
their views and interests to readers, who each read one at a time, though from
their social and organizational locations and interests. As should be evident
from the presentation in this and the companion volume, the view of writing
presented here is deeply dialogic, interactive, and social, but still writing and
reading are done predominantly in semi-privacy, as readers and writers engage
in their own thoughts in relation to the text, often for extended periods. Even in
highly interactive collaborative processes, each participant must look inward to
understand and evaluate the meanings evoked by the inscribed words. Further,
writers aim to evoke meanings in individual readers, even though readers may be
parts of teams or organizations, and readers attribute those evoked meanings as
the expression of a writer, even if that writer is buried within complex corporate
processes. In any event, what is here said about individuals can be, with care,
extrapolated to more complex group processes.
Finally, while I will make some mention of multimedia and other
communicative changes that are part of the digital age, the focus will be on
the written word. The written word still maintains importance in digital
environments, and we live in a world given shape by literacy. While the digital
revolution is transforming our communicative and social environment, it is hard
to know exactly what these changes will look like in even a few decades. What
does seem clear though, is that the written word will maintain an important role
for the foreseeable future and that the social changes will grow on a foundation
established by the literate transformation of the past centuries. So it is of value
for us to get our bearings in the written world as we venture forward into new
communicative environments.
In providing advice about how to understand one’s communicative situation
and respond strategically to it, this volume follows in the long tradition of books
of rhetoric, from the time of Aristotle until today, but with some substantial
differences, as I will discuss at the end of the first chapter. So as not to encumber
the practical orientation of the book, I will keep references to a minimum
and cite sources only when they will directly contribute to exposition of the
advice. A fully-documented companion volume, A Theory of Literate Action,
examines the sources and theoretical reasoning behind the rhetoric and places
its understanding of language, utterance, and writing within a wider social
scientific understanding of humans, society, knowledge, communications, and
literacy. While there is not a one-to-one match between the topics and chapters
of the two books, the introduction of the companion volume identifies chapters
where some of the ideas from the first volume are elaborated in the second.
I would like to thank the many people who over the years have responded
to the emerging ideas expressed here. In particular I would like to thank Anis
Bawarshi, Joshua Compton, Christiane Donahue, David Russell, Sandra
Thompson, and the anonymous reviewers of the WAC Clearinghouse for their
thoughtful readings and comments on draft chapters of both volumes. Finally
I owe endless gratitude to my partner of over forty years, Shirley Geoklin Lim.
Speech was born in human interaction. It coordinates activities (“Lift
. . . now”), perceptions (“Look at that bird”), and knowledge of things not
immediately perceivable (“many fish are in the river in the next valley”). It also
leads people to modify their own behavior and/or states of mind on the basis of
the procedures, perceptual categories, and knowledge first received or developed
in social interaction. Further, speech articulates the categories by which people
may be held socially accountable and provides the means by which people may
give accounts of their actions (“If I do this, what would I tell people?”) Such
realized potentials of language have proved of immense evolutionary advantage
and have become key elements in our sociality and culture. By providing the
means to create shared accounts of where we have been and where we are
headed, it has made history and future culturally present. The beliefs, accounts,
plans, and modes of social organization of oral cultures are cast into a different
mode when writing enters.
Although speech and language go back to the beginning of human life,
writing is generally thought to have been invented around 5000 years ago
(Schmandt-Bessarat, 1992), simultaneous with the development of urban
economies, larger political organizations, extensive religions, and many social
institutions that have come to characterize the modern world (Goody, 1986).
Human language is built on interaction and activity in context and becomes
meaningful and purposeful only in use. Internalized language as well originates in
interpersonal interactions and has consequences for our internal self-regulation,
using the culturally available categories and imperatives of language (Vygotsky,
1986). Our internal thoughts then reemerge, reformulated in processes of
externalization to make ourselves intelligible to others (Mead 1934; Volosinov,
1973; Vygotsky, 1986). People regularly experience externalization as helping
them know what they are thinking and clarifying what it is they think. Our
later inventions that facilitate communication at a distance grow out of the
same socio-cognitive resources and motivations as spoken language—whether
fire signals or writing; whether cheap paper or computer screens; whether
telegraphy, telephony, or the Internet; whether mail distribution systems or chat
rooms; whether a tyrant’s stone tablets in the center of town or a commercial
publishing industry. As the means and reach of communication change, our
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
thinking, feeling, and motives may transform and grow in response to the new
opportunities; our minds and societies are plastic and creative. But the creativity
almost always is intertwined with our fundamental communicative capacities
and orientations.
Thus to come to terms with writing and how to do it, we need to understand
it both within the human capacity for language and in the social-culturalhistorical
conditions which have developed dialectically with our writing
practices. Considering how we successfully manage to use language in faceto-face
interaction will help us understand the challenges we must overcome
in order to communicate when we are no longer in the same time and
location to coordinate our meanings and actions with each other. In short, a
fundamental problem in writing is to be able to understand and recreate the
social circumstance and social interaction which the communication is part of,
but which is obscured by the transmission of the words over time and space
from one apparent set of social circumstances to another. We can understand
much about writing if we understand how writing overcomes this difficulty,
to help us locate our written communications in socio-cultural history, where
written messages are coming from, and where they are going to.
Face-to-Face speech, the condition within which language developed
historically, occurs in a specific shared time and place. We speak to the people
in front of us, as part of the events unfolding before us, in response to the
comments we have just heard. We speak in the clothes we have worn that day
and in the roles, statuses, and relationships we inhabit among those people we
speak with. We see and feel all this in our bodies, viscerally. Seeing where we are,
we react and speak. We say hello to a neighbor, good morning to a lover, and
“I’ll take care of that right now Ms. Johnson, immediately” to our boss.
In these moments of immediate transactions we can make distant people
and events imaginatively present by mentioning them. “Remember Mr. Jawari?
You know, Jackie’s teacher. Well, I saw him over at the mall yesterday . . .” Or
we can have distant unmentioned circumstances and relations in our minds,
influencing how we talk and what we talk about. We may remember our parents
telling us how to behave in public as we meet new neighbors. Our response to
a sales pitch can be tempered by thinking about our vanishing bank account.
Similarly our interlocutors name things they want to remind us of or show
us for the first time. We may sometimes even guess (though not necessarily
accurately) the urgencies and exigencies in their own life that stand behind
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
their behavior and talk (“Why are they mentioning this to me now?”). But
these non-present presences need to be evoked and mutually acknowledged in
the conversation for them to be part of the meanings and activities realized in
the here and now of talk (Sacks, 1995). That is, only when the child’s teacher or
the empty bank account are mentioned and oriented to by the people talking
together do they become a shared object of attention, a topic of conversation—
otherwise they remain private individual orientations open only to speculation
by our interlocutors about what was on our mind.
A central problem and task of spoken interaction is alignment within a
shared communicative space. Alignment starts with the initiating task of gaining
the attention of the one we wish to talk to and continues as people attend
toward each other and what they may be conveying. People look at each other
or stare toward the same point in space. Their bodies take mutually responsive
postures—opening toward each other or backing away, arms folding in similar
positions or gesturing into the space between. They also align to each other’s
speech patterns—coordinating turns, adopting similar and coordinated rhythms
and intonations, adjusting to each other’s accents and dialects (Chafe, 1994).
Further, they align to each other’s meanings projected into the public space
of talk. They take up common referents, themes, and knowledge introduced
into the talk by prior speakers, they adopt mutually confirming assumptions
(Sachs, 1995). They take what has been said as a given—both as meaning and
action. Indeed, in the way they take up and use what has been said before
they retrospectively interpret and create the continuing meaning of previous
Alignment is so crucial to the maintenance of conversation that people
regularly and consistently repair the talk when they feel that there has been some
breach that will disrupt the flow of talk, the social alignment of participants, or
the mutual coordination of meanings (Schegloff et al., 1977). Unless the talk
is repaired, the conversation can break and participants fall away. Such repairs
may correct misunderstandings, such as who was being discussed, but can also
involve backing away from something that was previously placed in the shared
space of interaction. Saying something was only meant as a joke or is not really
important indicates that what had been mentioned previously ought not to be
attended to as the interaction moves forward.
Through alignment of speech activities, referents, interactional roles and
relations, speech participants create a mutually recognized space of interaction,
which has been called footing (Goffman, 1981) or frame (Goffman, 1974;
Tannen, 1993). This footing goes beyond the recognition of the physical
space and set of participants one is within to giving it a particular social
characterization or shape. Thus by the change of posture or a few words one can
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
reorient the attention of a group engaged in a political argument to a shared
moment of satirical laughter, and then into a discussion of comics. Or if one
person indicates by facial gesture that he hears another’s comments as an insult,
all eyes focus on the social conflict and leave the substance of the discussion
behind. This reorientation from one kind of scene to another is facilitated
because we come to recognize patterned kinds of social scenes, interactions, and
utterances. We see events as similar to other events and recognize them as of a
kind, or genre.
The social understandings evoked in the speech-mediated framings can even
change perception and definition of the visible material event (Hanks, 1996). As
one person starts to recount a recent injury, a previously unnoticed discoloring
of the skin begins to loom large and become visible as a bruise. An intimate
interactive space can suddenly be opened up when one of the participants waves
to a friend across the street.
In daily life, we come to use and understand language within specific events,
shaped by the language as the events unfold. We use language on the fly as part
of emerging interactional dramas that change with every new word uttered. Yet
when we study or think about language, we look at it in a very different way,
focusing on the small components we carry across many kinds of situations—
the recognizably different sounds, the words, the organization of words into
propositions. Linguistic prescriptions and descriptions share this atomized
view of language, which then is reproduced in grammars and dictionaries—the
practical tools that popularly represent knowledge of a language, but stripped
of use in particular interactions.
Early learning of a first spoken language, as developmental linguists point
out, however, occurs largely in face-to-face interaction among already competent
language users of the community. Children may show at certain moments of
development an awareness of the code as code—asking repeatedly “what is
that?” as they begin to amass words, or as they hyper-correct and then soften
grammatical regularities as a result of increasing information. However, spoken
first language use and learning is much less a reflective and codified experience
as it is an accumulation of situated practical experiences in the course of daily
The study of written language has been dominated by code concerns—
writing systems, spelling, grammar, generalized word meanings, organizational
patterns. This abstracted view of written language may have partly emerged
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
because written texts come from beyond the immediate social situation,
specifically to allow travel to different times and places. Thus writing appears
have a kind of contextlessness, which might be better characterized as transcontextedness.
Communication at a distance through writing certainly has
burdens of being interpretable without all the supporting apparatus of face-toface
interaction; it also has a further burden of creating an interactional context
at a distance that makes the communication meaningful and consequential.
The linguistic, educational, interpretive, and regulatory practices that have
developed around writing have reinforced the impression of a contextless
code with universal meaning carried within the text, as long as that code was
competently understood and produced. Formal language instruction developed
first in the transmission of dead classical languages—that is, language which is
not learned in ordinary meaningful communications in interaction with live
speakers. Further these classical languages were used to access texts distant from
the immediate culture for a kind of transcultural, universalized veneration, or
for the maintenance of universal truths embodied in sacred texts. The coincident
development of printing, state bureaucracies, and cultural hegemonies in the
East and West fostered additionally code regulation—regulation of characters
and spelling, morphology, and syntax. This code-regulation was enforced and
rewarded through systems of class and power to create cultures of correctness
that again appeared as contextless markers of legitimacy to be on display in
every situation.
Yet written language can gain its meanings only as part of meaningful social
interactions. An uncontexted snippet of written code is no more meaningful
than an unidentified snippet of audiotape—probably less because we have
fewer clues of where it came from (through accent or background sounds) and
interaction (through multiple speakers, intonation, rhythm, and the like). We
can gain a glimpse of this problem if we consider the difficulties people have in
interpreting archeological fragments of texts. The interpretation rests not just
on breaking the code, but on reconstructing the context of use within which
the utterance was meaningful—often a very local context of a farmer’s granary
or a merchant’s counting house.
As writing began to carry messages across distances and situations, it was
delivered with visible symbols of its social meaning. Early messengers would
carry the signs of authority of the message senders, would speak in the name
of the king or other sender, and would command the respect granted to the
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
sender. Thus not only the message, but the social arrangements were extended
over distance.
Even such spare communications at a distance as the signal fires that carried
the news of the end of the Trojan War, as recounted in the Iliad, depended on
enormous social contexting to be meaningful. The signaling enterprise only
made sense in the context of the end of a momentous war, the return of troops
from a distance, and the interests of the Greeks at home. It was only made
possible by organizing a widespread group of individuals, carefully placed
at sites visible to other selected sites, and aligned to the task of noting and
reproducing fire. Finally, its interpretation depended on the initiators and
receivers having a shared, prearranged meaning of the symbol. Two millennia
later, when the French created a nationwide system of semaphore telegraphs,
they needed an entire bureaucracy to manage the signal, direct the messages
to appropriate parties, and create contexts of meaning for the messages, which
served a limited range of defined military purposes. Smoke signals and talking
drums equally are embedded within well-focused and aligned systems of
relations, communications, meanings, and social moments.
In the later half of the nineteenth century the telephone opened
opportunities for vocal communication at a distance, soon fostering focused,
recognizable contexts of uses and means of signaling those contexts. At first U.S.
telephone companies were small and local with a limited number of subscribers
already familiar with each other, for example within a town. The telephone
communications simply carried on and extended pre-existing relationships,
largely business—and thus each telephonic transaction was well-embedded
within a familiar set of business arrangements. Even then, telephone companies
needed to offer instruction in a new etiquette for initiating conversations,
identifying parties speaking, and introducing the specific occasion and
transaction (Fischer, 1992). As the telephone uses expanded to social calling,
further etiquettes were needed to signify the call.
Today any experienced user of the telephone can rapidly recognize the
source and nature of the many calls we now receive from even unknown
callers, including fund raising, sales, and political calls. Recognizable contexts
have emerged in the patterns of individual calls, typical transactions, ongoing
networks of relations, and organizational structures that have developed
around the phone, including banks of commercial callers, phone hotlines,
emergency services, polling organizations, phone-order sales, and product
help. The importance of establishing those contexts of meaning is made
salient to us every time we make a mistake and misattribute a call for a few
moments, until we realize that this is not a friendly call from a neighbor, but
a fund raising call for the youth organization; that this is not an independent
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
call from an independent polling agency, but a political pitch from an interest
Similarly, sound recording developed an entertainment industry, on one
side, with highly genred products offering anticipatable messages, activities, and
amusements to be invoked on appropriate occasions, with a rapidly developing
etiquette—where and when it was acceptable or desirable to play which kind
of recording at what volume. On the business side, recording technologies
developed for individualized, contexted messages, such as a reminder to oneself
or dictation for one’s secretary. These highly localized messages have specific
meanings for identifiable people in specific relation to the person recording
the message, often within a specific time frame. Now digital technologies have
facilitated a proliferation of personally produced sound and video files which
are developing their new kinds, functions, circulation, and etiquettes—and
thus anticipatibility and means of interpretation.
Presidential speeches to the public via radio and television are a good example
of how contexts are provided, even beyond the well-understood relation of a
leader speaking to constituencies. Annual “State of the Nation” reports to the
legislature provided one kind of forum, and speeches on national crises, another.
The broadcast press conference grew out of journalistic interview practices, and
bear much of the flavor of reporters going after stories and an office holder
defending policies and practices in the face of inquiry. But when during the
Depression the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to use the radio to
create a more direct and regular channel to the citizens, he recreated a fireside
atmosphere evoking intimacy of the head of households gathering families
together. Such regular messages of hope and planning, addressing problems in a
calm everyday manner, have developed a new kind of context of mass intimacy
of leadership. Only insofar as that bond of trusting intimacy is maintained are
such messages meaningful.
Writing, of course, was among the earliest forms of communication at a
distance and has become the most extensive, diverse, and pliable of means
of communication at a distance—even as the medium of delivery has
changed from a messenger bearing a letter to mass-marketed publications,
to digital packets flowing over the internet. To develop a rhetoric of writing,
to understand what we must accomplish to write successfully, we need to
address how writing communicates at a distance, how it can create contexts
of meaningful interaction, and how it can speak to the contexts it evokes and
participates in. There are some uses of writing that have no greater distance
than face-to-face conversation, as when people sitting next to each other pass
notes in response to a lecturer’s comments—an ironic “sure” scribbled. But
even if the note is to be passed across the room, it would need to display
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
much of the context that would have vanished by the time the note reached
its destination. The note would at least have to indicate who wrote it and
who was to receive it as well what the offending words were to remind the
reader on the other side of the room of what was said five minutes ago that so
exercised his ironic friend.
The problem of context is crucial to writing, yet it is elusive. Writing comes
to us on pieces of paper or digital screens that look very much one like another,
obscuring where the message may have come from, where it was intended to
go, and what purpose it was intended to carry out in what circumstances. If
texts travel through time and space, where is their context? Do they make their
own contexts, which they then speak to? Unless we have means to address such
questions, our approaches to understanding what to write and the meaning of
others’ writings are limited to issues of code (spelling, vocabulary, grammar,
syntax, and style) and decontextualized meanings (imagining such things could
in fact exist). The answers to these questions will give us the basis on which to
form a rhetoric for written language, a rhetoric which will differ in significant
ways from the traditional one formed around problems of high-stakes public
speech in political and deliberative contexts.
Rhetoric is the reflective practical art of strategic utterance in context from
the point of view of the participants, both speaker and hearer, writer and
reader. That is, rhetoric helps us think about what we might most effectively
use words to meet our ends in social interchange, and helps us think about
what others through their words are attempting to do with us. The reflection is
both productive, in leading to new utterance and further action, and critical in
helping us evaluate what has already transpired, presumably with an eye toward
future practice—knowing what stances to take to others and widening our
repertoire and reflective capabilities to act knowingly. While rhetoric as a field
of study has also developed analytical and philosophic components and many
rhetorical scholars see themselves primarily as theorists, the field is founded
on human communicative practice and its value to society is in its ability to
support more effective, more thoughtful practice. The theories presented in this
and the companion volume are, therefore, committed to this end rather than
the resolution of theoretical problems, though many theoretical problems may
need to be addressed along the way.
Rhetoric differs in substantial ways from the other disciplines of language,
first because it does not take disembodied code as its starting point. Code, for
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
rhetoric, is a resource to be deployed in concrete situations for individual and
communal purposes and activities, which are the primary concern. Similarly,
abstracted meanings that might be deployed in any situation are secondary to
the purpose and effect they are used for. Meanings do not exist as fixed absolutes
within themselves and the signs used to evoke them, but to be deployed,
constructed, imaginatively evoked, as the rhetor’s purposes and strategic plan in
particular situations warrant. Meanings and truths arise in the course of human
inquiry and activity.
Rhetoric is also different from the other arts of language because it adopts
the point of view of the users, rather than the unengaged stance of the analyst of
the code. Rhetoric is built for action, rather than static description. Rhetoric’s
fundamental questions have to do with how to accomplish things, rather than
what things are. How language works in context is worth knowing because it
lets you know how to use it. The concepts are ones that help you locate yourself
in the activity, define your concerns, and recognize and mobilize resources for
Thus rhetoric is strategic and situational, based on the purposes, needs,
and possibilities of the user, the resources available then and there to be
deployed, and the potentialities of the situation. While rhetoric identifies some
general processes and resources of communicative interaction, these are tools
to understand local situations and heuristics in helping the speaker decide
what to say, how to say it, and how to go about constructing the statement.
Rhetoric is cast in terms of purposes and possibilities and future outcomes.
It supports activity informed by goals rather than at already finished objects.
Even the completed text to be critically analyzed is considered in its social,
persuasive effects and not its pure textuality. Further the critical analysis has
its own further purposes, such as to delegitimate the words of an opponent
or to understand effective strategies to be used in future situations. Yet none
of these trajectories of action is certain in their outcomes, for the outcomes
depend on the purposes, actions, and trajectories of the audience and those
who make further utterances.
Because rhetoric is concerned with trajectories of on-going situations from
the point of view of the participants, it is also reflective, looking back onto
oneself and one’s co-participants. It helps us look at what is going on, so
we can do it better. However, the mirror never takes us very far from the
situation and our engagement in it. It only offers a bit of perspective with
which to watch ourselves as we remain engaged. Rhetoric is an applied art,
applied to ourselves, to direct our own courses of action. Even if professional
rhetoricians give advice or instruction to clients, that advice only becomes
of use as people themselves incorporate the advice or principles into their
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
actions. There are limits to what a rhetorician can usefully advise in a general
way beyond some conceptual categories for considering the situation without
enquiring deeply of the person being advised about their situation, goals,
resources and capabilities. When such an inquiry takes place, the rhetorician
inevitably becomes a collaborator in the rhetor’s thinking about and response
to the situation.
Thus, what a rhetoric can most usefully offer, rather than specific prescriptions
about what to say or write and how to say, is conceptual tools to ponder one’s
rhetorical situation and choices. If, however, situations are heavily constrained
and practices typified and even regulated, then specific advice might be usefully
given, but at the cost of constraining the writer’s range of action and choices.
In the extreme such advice takes the form of instruction manuals on how to fill
out bureaucratic forms or directions to sales clerks on how to fill out the sales
screens at the cashier terminal. In such cases rhetorical choices are few and the
writer’s agency is limited. Professional style manuals that give guidance on how
to produce work that meets the minimum standards of that profession also
constrain by intention. Yet such style manuals leave substantial opportunities
for the writer to express professional judgment and to influence what is said, and
what meanings are conveyed within the regulated constraints—for otherwise it
wouldn’t be a profession.
The rhetoric offered in this volume, however, will not take for granted or
foster any particular set of constraints or practices. Accordingly, it will not offer
prescriptions or ready-made solutions for particular writing situations. Here,
rather, I will attempt to create a rhetoric of wide generality, relevant to all
written texts in all their historical and contemporary variety. This rhetoric will
provide principles to understand any particular set of constraints and typified
practices in any focused domain, and could be used to uncover the rhetorical
logic in any set of instructions or style book. This rhetoric can help us see
that those who construct the bureaucratic forms or compose the professional
style manuals themselves exert extraordinary rhetorical power in shaping the
situations, interactions, discourse, and meanings of others. This rhetoric will
help us see how different social systems use writing to pursue their activities,
and how we can act most effectively within them—potentially even bypassing,
subverting, or transforming them through strategic action. While examples
may be drawn from many domains, the constraints of any of them will not be
taken as absolute or general, but only applicable in the specific situation. This
rhetoric is aimed at recognizing the diversity of activities using writing that have
developed over the five thousand years of literacy, and how we can effectively
navigate in the complex literate world we now live into pursue our interests
through the opportunities and resources at hand.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Most societies have proverbial wisdom on how people should talk—implying
a widespread recognition that one can reflect on one’s language use to guide
practice. One of my favorites is the central Asian adage, “If you are going to
tell the truth, you should have one foot in the stirrup.” But the most extensive
and prominent reflection on strategic communication arose in ancient Greece
and Rome. The vigorous tradition of classical rhetoric developed fundamental
concepts of rhetorical situations and how situations can be addressed. As well
it identified some of the fundamental resources available to speakers and the
ways in which language works upon people. A number of the concepts and
resources of classical rhetoric will be important within this and the companion
volume. However, classical rhetoric was concerned with only a limited range of
culturally embedded practices, all of which were oral and political, involving
high-stakes contentions. Its primary concerns were the public speeches of
the agora or market place addressing criminal guilt and innocence (forensic
rhetoric), matters of public policy (deliberative rhetoric), or celebration of the
state, communal values, and rhetorical artfulness (epideictic rhetoric). The
rhetorical analysis of situations, the kinds of goals, the anticipated interactive
processes, the resources considered available, and the media of communication
all were shaped around the agora. These forms of rhetoric are most directly
applicable to speechmaking in successor institutions, often consciously modeled
on classical forms: courts, legislatures, and political gatherings. Nonetheless,
these institutions have changed radically by literate practices as courts of law
have now become saturated with written precedents, filings, briefs, records, and
other texts and legislatures must deal with lengthy bills, technical reports of
commissions, paperwork generated by office staff and government bureaucracies,
and journalistic accounts that reach a wider public sphere.
Furthermore, many domains of speech in the ancient world were not
brought under rhetorical scrutiny, were not made the object of a discipline of
strategic reflection. Sales talk in the marketplace, although likely filled with a
wide folk repertoire of tricks and stances, remained outside the purview of classic
rhetoric. The language of commerce had to await the rise of business schools
and the marketing professions (themselves tied to the rise of wide-circulation
periodicals and large industrial corporations with extended markets) to become
systematically considered. Similarly, talk with intimates (though we presume it
went on in the classical world) was not the object of professional attention until
the twentieth century, except for risqué poetic advice in the ars amoris tradition.
Moreover, although literacy was widespread in Greece and Rome by the
time systematic rhetoric arose and despite the fact that rhetorical manuals were
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
written, very little attention was given to how one should write, except as a
means of scripting oral production (as Plato derides in the Phaedrus). Some
passing remarks were made on the style appropriate for letters, and a separate
smaller tradition of ars poetica arose, but the problems of how to write largely
remained unexamined.
Since then periodic attempts to consider writing rhetorically and to extend
the genres and concerns of rhetoric beyond high-stakes public argumentation
have been limited and have not yet resulted in a fully rhetorical consideration
of written communication. In the Middle Ages, the ars dicitaminas and ars
notaria were systematic attempts to consider letter and document writing.
Despite enduring consequences for bureaucracy, law, business contracts, and
accountancy, they have had little long-term impact on canonical rhetorical
teaching. In the Renaissance rhetoric attended to stylistic refinement that
suggests a kind of word-crafting and revision facilitated by writing, but there
was no attention to the fundamental problems of communication posed by
In the eighteenth century, the emergence of natural philosophy, public
journals, and new social ideologies—all of which decreased power of centralized
elites and used writing to connect widespread but increasingly important
publics—gave rise to attempts to reformulate rhetoric around the effect
of texts on the sympathetic imaginations and understandings of readers, by
such figures as Joseph Priestley, Adam Smith, and George Campbell. For a
variety of ideological and institutional reasons, over the long term this broad
reconsideration of rhetoric narrowed its focus to belles-lettristic rhetoric and
became a precursor to literary studies, increasingly distanced from the discursive
needs of daily situations and exercising power within the literate practices of
As the teaching of writing became a regular and widespread component of
higher education in the late nineteenth century United States, another theory
of written texts came to dominate education. This theory assumed a correlation
between faculties of human understanding and a small number of patterns of
textual exposition (known as the modes; Connors, 1981). The theory and the
accompanying pedagogy did not attempt to contend with the wide range of
social uses of writing, the many different social systems writing was part of,
range of goals and interests of writers, or the variety of potential readers with
different interests and different situations. That is, as a rhetoric, while reflective
of individual understanding (according to a particular psychological theory), it
was not strategic or situational. It rather assumed a constrained uniformity of
understanding, activities, and goals. This limited range of rhetorical activities
were congruent with the discourse practiced in the expanding university in
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
the United States during the period between the Civil War and World War
II, aimed at producing a professional class of managers, based on a model
that ideologically foregrounded individuality and dispassionate reason and
suppressed contention and difference of interest. As the teaching of writing
moved away from the rhetorical tradition, in the U.S. in the early twentieth
century, speech communication, which remained grounded in classical rhetoric,
split from English Departments (Parker, 1967).
Even though classical rhetoric with some modern additions has been
reintroduced into the teaching of writing in the U.S (for examples, Corbett, 1965;
Crowley & Hawhee, 1994), it would benefit from a fresh reconceptualization
around the problems of written communication, with an awareness of the
social complexity of contemporary literate society, and deeply incorporating
recent social theory and social science. Attempts at reconceptualizing rhetoric
on more recent intellectual grounds have in fact been rife since the middle
of the twentieth century. Fogarty (1959) in his philosophically oriented Roots
for A New Rhetoric draws on mid-century conceptualizations of language and
representation from Richards, Burke, and Korzybski. Fogarty, however, does
not succeed in synthesizing these into a fresh rhetoric with clear practical
consequences for writing. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) in their New
Rhetoric reinterpret Aristotle through legal reasoning and practice. Christensen
(1969) grounds his Notes Towards a New Rhetoric in linguistics and stylistics
to make new proposals on sentence style. Of these and the many others
using the term “new rhetoric” the only one who bases his reconceptualization
particularly on the problems of writing is Beale (1989) in A Pragmatic Theory
of Rhetoric, though he still identifies his theory as fundamentally Aristotelian
and he proceeds on predominantly Aristotelian theoretical and philosophic
grounds. This volume directed at rhetorical writing practice and its companion
elaborating the intellectual sources of the proposed theory attempt a more radical
rethinking of rhetoric based on the problematics of writing and grounded in
the thinking of contemporary social sciences, as elaborated in the companion
With increasing rapidity over recent centuries and decades, new social forces
have transformed social and cultural assumptions, distribution of work and
communications, political and economic arrangements. Social and economic
activities have become ever more thoroughly pervaded by literacy and symbolic
manipulation—so that people now characterize us as within an information age,
information that is multiple and global in origin. At the university discourse has
become more complex and reflective, with prior social and cultural assumptions
embedded in standard discursive practices increasingly questioned. More
narrowly, in the last half century within a reinvigorated discipline of teaching
Chapter 1 Rhetorics of Speaking and Writing
of writing, research and theory has been drawing on wider ranges of social
sciences, cultural studies, and humanities and has been addressing a wider range
of writing practices in the university, the polity, the economy, and society. While
many new lines of thinking about writing have developed, these have yet to be
fully articulated in a coherent overview of strategic writing. The most successful
model of writing set against the previous pedagogic traditions of modes and
forms has been of the writing process, which is a theory of managing how one
goes about writing, as an individual and as part of groups. This work, grounded
in classical rhetorical theory of invention but adding to that experimental
methods of cognitive science, has taken new directions because of the way in
which writing supports drafting, revision, and editing—allowing one to hold
on to and rework one’s text, as well as to gain others readings perspectives and
collaboration. However, process only covers part of what we must think about
in writing—even in the oral classical rhetorical tradition, invention was only
one of the five canons. The picture of writing drawn in this volume attempts to
cover more of what we are starting to understand about writing. This will be a
conceptual picture, to inform practical reflection on strategic communication,
and thus insists on being considered as a rhetoric, even though it may not look
much like previous books with that title. Because this volume considers writing
as it manifests in the complexity of the modern world, it will employ many
terms and concepts alien to the classical rhetorical tradition. It will deploy what
we have been able to learn about the formation and dynamics of situations,
the use of texts as active within situations, and the processes by which people
interact, communicate, understand, formulate intentions, imagine, and create.
And finally it will consider how we shape messages and create meanings within
the genred spaces of the texts we write.
The next several chapters will consider where, when, and in which field
of action we are writing for. Chapters 4 through 7 will consider the actions,
motives, and strategies that give direction to our writing. Chapters 8 through
11 discuss the form our texts take, the meanings we invoke through the text,
the experiences we create in our texts, and how we can bring the text to its
fullest realization. The final chapter steps back from the text to consider the
psychological processes and emotional complexities of writing, so we can
understand and manage how we can produce texts with greatest success, least
stress, and greatest satisfaction.
The fundamental problem in developing a rhetoric of writing is characterizing
the situationality of written texts because writing so easily travels through space
and time. Writing’s asset of transportability means the written text can leave
behind the physical location and moment in time when it was produced. It also
escapes the immediate social circumstances, relations, and activities to affect
different locales and activities at a distance, but these new locations are not
visible in the immediate physical environs in which the text is produced. These
new situations and interactions have to be constructed imaginatively by the
writer and signaled adequately enough in the text for the reader to reconstruct
Letters provide a strong case in point, for they overtly announce their
spatiality, temporality, relation, and activity. They typically announce the writer
and intended receiver, and they are frequently dated and marked with the
place of origin. They are generally intended for immediate use upon receipt
and then either discarded or filed away as a memory aid or record of the now
past transaction. Furthermore in salutation and signature they often specify
the particular relation between the corresponding parties (terms of honor in
the greeting and commitments of loyalty in the signature, for example). These
relationships may be further specified (“I write you in your capacity as executor
of the estate of . . .”; “I appeal to you as a fellow parent . . .”) and bonds
reinforced (“I hope all is well with you”) in the course of the letter. Even more
the substance of the letter may narrate the occasion that prompts the letter,
the situation the letter speaks to, and the particular action the letter aims to
complete (“I write in application for the position advertised in . . .”; “it has
been many months since we have seen each other, and my thoughts repeatedly
turn to your welfare, especially now that we hear reports of devastation in your
land”; “Mom, my bank account is tapped out, please send money.”)
Because the letter contains so many markers of its sociality, allowing the
reader mentally to locate him or herself in the social interaction, it early on
became one of the primary genres of writing. Starting with the explicit sociality
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
of letters, many other written genres were able to find shape and meaning,
until they became recognizable and recognized as distinctive forms—such
as business reports, scientific journals, newspapers and magazines, and even
financial instruments such as letters of credit, checks, and paper currency. It
is not surprising, therefore, that the first rhetoric of writing concerned the
writing of letters, the medieval ars dictaminis (Murphy, 1985). As a genre, or
an increasingly distinctive set of genres, the letter asserts its place in the social
world and helps formulate the sociality for many written documents (Bazerman,
Other early genres of writing relied on familiarity with well-known faceto-face
oral performances, the memories of which were evoked by the written
text. Special occasions, such as famous speeches, and everyday social events,
such as the telling of tales, found their way onto the page, to be recreated by the
reader. New texts could then be written drawing on the social understanding
that accompanied such texts, both to prepare or script oral performance and
to become new sorts of socio-literacy events, to be enacted during reading.
Reading of play scripts, for example, is greatly enhanced if the reader has actually
seen that play produced or even more, has rehearsed and performed the play—
practices often invoked by teachers of dramatic literature. However, some texts
such as some lyric poems or most philosophic treatises are written only to be
read by the individual in isolation. Reading these texts requires entering into
contemplative states of consciousness, oriented toward mental places abstracted
from immediate physical circumstances to a world of ideas that seems to exist
out of time.
Other uses for writing developed as part of well-structured activities, such as
economic, legal, or governmental transactions. These provided strong contexts
for the interpretation of texts and gave rise to regularized repetitive situations
calling for similar utterances, producing familiar, recognizable genres that
evoked relevant aspects of the entire activity system. For example, when you
receive a monthly bill from the electric utility which is government regulated
and taxed and you mail back a check with the bill stub, you rely on extensive
institutional understanding of the government, the utility, the banking system,
and your roles as a consumer, a householder, a citizen, and a financial agent.
While much of this knowledge of these complex institutions remains in the
background most of the time (especially now that this process is becoming
automated through electronic billing directly to bank accounts), it is there to
be invoked when relevant, such as when the utility sends you an unusually high
bill or claims you have not been paying and threatens to cut off service.
These institutions with their regularized activities, themselves have been
elaborated and extended through the genres of communication that have become
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
part of their constitution. Thus the activity of law depends on law libraries that
contain legislation, commentaries, precedents, and legal journals. Each new
case involves exchanges of letters, writs, subpoenas, briefs, opinions, and many
other kinds of documents. Much of what it means to take legal action consists
of reading and writing within specific domains of texts and text circulation.
Government too is built on laws and court decisions, as well as bureaucratic
regulations, reports, filings, and thousands of other documents—so much so
that government has come to be characterized as being about “red tape”—that
is, not the heroic commands from a charismatic leader but endless documents,
at one time bound in bundles with red tape. Religion, personal counseling,
insurance, truck driving and even farming are bound up with literate mediators
that play crucial and regular roles within the activity. It has been said, in fact,
that the key to successful farming is the keeping of records which allows one to
reflect upon one’s past practice and plan for the future.
During the European Renaissance printing and increased commerce created
greater opportunities for sharing texts with more people across greater social and
geographical boundaries. New forms of social, political, cultural, and economic
organization proliferated and many new genres arose, speaking to particular
needs and audiences, as well as creating markets for their own circulation. These
genres were parts of the proliferation of the activities, relationships, and states
of consciousness of modernity that the genres themselves in part made possible
and brought into being.
Now citizens of all nations live in highly complicated literate worlds of
many genres located within many activity and institutional systems that are
national and global in scope—which is why ever higher levels of education
are required to participate effectively in the institutions and practices of the
contemporary world. As we experience the literate world, we come to recognize,
almost as second nature, large numbers of genres and the situations that they
carry with them. We do so almost unreflectively, responding imaginatively to
the worlds they crystallize for us almost as soon as we see them. When we look
at the newspaper (whether paper or digital) we immediately recognize stories
of disasters or political conflict, as well as financial reports, movie reviews, and
sports stories. We read these transparently as representations of each of the
domains they report on. We become more consciously aware of genres when
we meet new ones, and we need some orientation to what is going on. The
first time we receive a particular kind of notice from the government we may
understand the words, but we may not understand what offices and regulations
are involved, what our responsibilities and obligations are, and what situation
and interactions are being initiated. To understand the document we need to
understand what is going on and what our part in these events are. Without
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
that understanding we lose our power to see what documentary systems we are
being enlisted into and we lose the ability to assert our rights and needs. Being
aware of genres and the associate systems helps us identify where we might write
back, intervening to advance our own concerns and positions. Genres to help
us think about the situation, the audience, what we might want to accomplish
through the text, and what might be recognizable forms we may adopt.
Although we often recognize genres by overt features of form and content,
genres are more than a series of conventions regulating form and content.
As the previous account suggests, they embody understandings of situations,
relationships, stances, moods, strategies, appropriate resources, goals and many
other elements that define the activity and shape means of accomplishment.
Genres are ways of doing things—and as such embody what is to be done and
carry traces of the time and place in which such things are done, as well as the
motives and actions carried out in those locales.
From the writer’s perspective, locating writing within systems of
communications, genres, and unfolding situations helps contend with the
blank page problem—that is, what we put on the page has no definition until
we give it some. Genre helps give purpose and form to what we write, as well as
identifies expectations readers are likely to have. Genre may also help us know
how our writing fits within historically evolving situations (see Chapter 3) and
relates to previously written texts relevant to this activity system (see Chapter
4). Moreover, as the situation and dynamics take over our imagination, we can
respond almost viscerally, in the way we respond to the presence of others. In
writing a letter to the editor our words may spill out on the page with passion,
in writing an apology our embarrassment may be palpable even though no other
person is in front of us, and in writing a proposal for a new business we may
become increasingly excited by the possibilities we are projecting. As we warm
up to writing a letter to a friend, we remember particular experiences we shared,
particular ongoing concerns, particular shared projects. As we start to enact the
bonds of our friendship and develop an idea we know they will understand,
we find the place our communication resides in and we start inhabiting it with
what we are moved to transact there.
As we are caught up in the mentally projected situation, we start to create a
presence that speaks to the situation. While filling out an application form for a
fellowship, we begin to give shape to the self-presentational spot we are on, and
craft an account of ourselves to fulfill the criteria the agency has set out, selecting
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and highlighting particular personal resources we bring to the situation. The
genre of application identifies for us a social space and a mandate that we take
on if we decide to apply and want to maximize our chances for success. Our
general knowledge about the application as a genre of self-presentation and the
specific formal requirements of the application (guided by instructions about
the kinds of information required with format and length constraints) elicit
information from us and direct us to represent ourselves in a particular way.
Insofar as we reflect rhetorically on this task, we recognize how we might fulfill
this space in ways that will impress ourselves upon the reviewers and enter
into their imagination as the kind of person with the kind of project they were
looking for. We go beyond the basic requirements of the genre to inhabit it
more robustly, distinguishing our application from the others in a way that will
help the agency reviewers imagine we would be an excellent choice to receive
their support or fill their position.
Each genre is embedded in a system of activity that we recognize and locate
ourselves in, but each time we engage with a genre as writer or reader is also a
particular moment in our lives, the lives of the respondents we meet over the
text, and activity the systems we meet within. In this way the genre is attached to
things that are both more extensive and more specific than we may understand
the textual form in itself to be. Further, as we locate ourselves in the genred
transaction that resides within the larger system, creating the space for a local
moment, we are able to enter into the scene imaginatively, flexibly, creatively,
and spontaneously, embodying ourselves in that imagined socially-recognizable
The recognizable social spaces of genres have developed simultaneously
with the activity systems they are part of and that they allow us to participate
in. Activity systems are historically emerged networks of people and artifacts
(such as buildings, machines, and products, as well as texts and files) that
carry out typified kinds of work and other activities over extended periods,
and that have developed ways of coordinating the work and attention of
participants in ways that become familiar to all participants. That is, to operate
successfully within each you have to become aware of their historically emerged
way of doing what they do, and to coordinate your actions with those roles,
procedures, regulations, and formats that direct activity within each. A game
of baseball is an activity system and so is an amateur league which organizes
interested players into teams, schedules a season of games, and maintains
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
records of competitive standings of teams and players. While some activity
systems are smaller and some are larger, they each coordinate the distributed
work of multiple participants by defining roles and forms of action. Some
of the activity systems have immediately visible manifestations—you can see
baseball players playing at different positions, handling and throwing the ball
or attempting to hit it with a bat—in sequences and patterns explicable by a
set of familiar rules and strategies, carrying out goals that are definable within
the system. But some of the activity systems or their parts are less immediately
visible, so that when watching a game you may not be much aware of the
league, except perhaps for some paperwork that needs to be filed by the team
coach. Yet the two teams would not be likely to show up on the same field at
the same time unless a league official had made a schedule.
There are even less visible aspects, carried only by print, words, and records,
kept in orderly ways in relation to the less symbolic elements of the activity
system. At professional baseball games, fans hold scorecards, and reporters
sit up in the press box. The manager in the dugout may have a notebook of
statistics to support decisions. Similarly, in hospitals you may see doctors
and nurses treating patients, but there are also offices where accounting and
insurance records are kept and processed. There is a library with the scientific
and technical literature. There are patient records kept at a station in each ward
and a clipboard of vital signs at the foot of each bed. Each of the doctors in a
personal office has an individual collection of literature and records—and access
to more extensive electronic collections—as well as reading that serves to relax
and inspirit them in their emotionally and physically draining work.
Some activity systems are so predominantly conceptual and textual that
you can understand very little of them by looking at them. Walking through a
university building, all you may see are people sitting alone in offices or together
in classrooms, looking at books and computer screens or talking with each
other. That tells you very little about the activity systems they are engaged in.
To understand what is going on in a classroom, you need to understand what
discipline it is part of and how the class fits into the course sequences outlined
in the university and departmental requirements. Even more immediately, to
understand the activity of a particular class you need to know the texts assigned,
the schedule of lectures and discussions, reading and writing assignments, and
exams. Once you have placed that day’s class within all these systems, you might
have some hope of understanding why and how that day’s class unfolds in the
forms it does.
Similarly, if you were to go into the professor’s office and ask what he or
she is doing staring at a computer screen, if the document is a memo for a
faculty committee you may hear about complex bureaucratic procedures, the
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entire system of university administration and faculty governance, the political
struggles between faculty groups, or the current issues that are exercising people.
Or if the professor is working on a paper you may hear about the particular
scholarly issue at stake and the professor’s current research, the specifics of the
conferences and journals the work is being prepared for, or the empirical and
interpretive practices, argumentative forms, and organization of the literature
typical of the professor’s discipline. Or if the professor is a in a cynical mood
you will hear about the publication requirements for tenure and promotion.
When you are writing or reading a text, it helps to know where that text
fits in which activity system. Such knowledge helps you identify the likely
reader or writer, the typical motives and actions at play, the constraints and
resources, the stances and expectations. That knowledge may come from your
ongoing embedded engagement or it may come from a more conscious analysis
of the situation. For example, a student given a question to write on may be so
caught up in the on-going discussion of the classroom and readings, she may
spontaneously know what she wants to write and the form it needs to take
to contribute to the class discussion. The embodied involvement the ongoing
activity may have so shaped the writer’s consciousness, that what she writes
is germane and appropriate as a matter of course—though I have seen many
students caught short by the differences between the dynamic of classroom
discussion and the demands of a major written assignment. If the assignment
asks for something more or different than what spontaneously flows from
prior discussion, the student needs to think about both the prior discussion
as setting the stage for the assignment and how the assignment changes the
stage—by demanding a different kind of statement, by requiring new resources
to be brought in, by changing the audience, or simply by shifting from oral
to written mode. Even more, if she is confused by an assignment that seems
not to flow directly from what has previously happened, it would help her to
think about how the question relates to the instructor’s goals for the course and
expectations for the assignment, how it fits within the total syllabus of the term
and the course evaluation system, how it draws on or shifts terms from the prior
readings and discussions, and who else might read it from what stance. It also
would help her to think about her own participation in the course and what
thoughts and interests she has developed that the paper might advance.
For example, in an introductory political theory course, after several major
theories have been read, lectured about, and interpreted, the instructor starts
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
asking comparative questions in discussion to help students see how different
theories give support to different kinds of governmental activity. The instructor
then assigns a paper for students to choose one governmental agency and see
how two different theories might suggest different ways of carrying out that
function and how they would in turn evaluate the current operations of the
relevant government agency. The student might recognize that she is interested
in understanding how certain government programs she values can be justified,
but she might recognize that so far this term she has only been critical of theories
presented. She may then recognize in this paper an opportunity to reconsider
the theories examined in the course to find the positive initiatives buried in
each—with reference to one program she favors. In short, in seeing the class
as an activity system the student can get a completer picture of where her own
writing fits in, what kind of piece in what kind of puzzle her own impulses
might motivate her to create.
In a different kind of example, someone seeking reimbursement for large
medical expenses from a major illness is more likely to be successful if he
understands something about the organization of activities and document flows
in his health insurance company. He will be helped in making effective decisions
about which documents to file at what point using what keywords and how to
coordinate with the doctor and hospitals if he understands which office receives
his reimbursement forms; how that office relates to the records received from
the medical providers; what decisions are made automatically by rules and are
perhaps even computerized; how category codes of diagnoses, procedures and
expenses might affect the reimbursement decisions; who makes decisions on
more complex cases requiring individualized judgments and what information
is used at what juncture in the process; how the application winds up in this
individualized procedure; and so on, through the many complexities of the
insurance company and its relation to health and governmental agencies. The
points of intervention then become clearer along with the kinds of information,
arguments, and actions that are likely to be effective at each juncture. Of course,
ordinary patients usually have very little of such information, and that is why
they may need advocates, just as we need advocates (another term for lawyer) to
deal with the legal system.
Some activity systems are more tightly or bureaucratically bound than
others, involving technical considerations of precise timing and form, while
others have greater opportunity for flexible intervention at multiple points in
somewhat novel form to accommodate local situations, mobilizing individual
motives and resources. For example, journalistic publicity for a charitable
organization may be sought in numerous ways. Offering a friendly reporter
an interview and photo opportunity for a human-interest story around the
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Christmas holidays, letters to the editor, announcements of national prizes, a
lecture by a national celebrity—all could also generate positive publicity on the
pages of the newspaper.
As these examples suggest, communications tend to flow within activity
systems in typical pathways, at typical moments, in typical forms, to enact typical
intentions, carrying out familiar acts. Newspapers carry certain kinds of stories,
in relation to events and the calendar, and people who hope to gain presence in
the newspapers need to have their concerns reportable in one of the forms that
newspapers publish. Students may get to share their developing understanding
or views with their instructors, but only in certain formats—exams, papers,
class discussions, perhaps individual discussion during office hours, or chance
meetings at the campus coffee-bar if the professor is particularly accessible.
These typical actions carrying out stabilized familiar intentions in recognizable
textual forms are those things we call genres. Genres are simultaneously
categories of textual forms, forms of social interaction, and forms of cognitive
recognition and shaping of motive and thought. That is, when a text suddenly
appears before our eyes, comes to our desk, or arrives in our mailbox, we start
categorizing it on the basis of certain textual features. It appears on a certain
kind of paper—cheap newsprint folded into about twenty double-size, doublesided
pages or a single sheet of plain white 81/2 X 11 office paper. It may have a
generic heading—“memo” or “proposal”—or the name of a familiar newspaper.
From this we start to form expectations of what it will contain, the kind of
people it is from, what kind of relationship the writer has to us, what kind of
stance the writer will take, how the parts should be arranged, where we should
look for specific material, and most importantly why we would or would not
be interested in it and what we would do with it. In short, we start to frame
personal meaningfulness for our personal purposes and interactions.
We also form expectations and hypotheses about the document based on
when and where it comes to us and our knowledge about the senders and our
relationship to us. It is delivered to the doorstep of our home in the morning. It
comes in the mail with a return address of a bank with which we have no current
business. It arrives in our office inbox signed by the name of the CEO of our
company. Large areas of our social knowledge are activated to work in tandem
with what we find in the text to help us identify what the text is about and what
kind of attention we might give it. Thus we enter into a mental conception of
a social space for interaction within which we start to build relevant meanings,
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
evaluations, and stances. In recognizing the genre, we locate an orientation
toward the text and the details we will find inscribed within it.
If there are gross violations of the expected interaction—if the CEO starts
telling intimate confessions about his personal life, if the bank with which we
do not do business sends us a statement of our account, if the newspaper has
advanced physics equations on its front page—we may well wonder about what
is going on. We wonder whether our boss’s psychological life is in disarray,
or we are a target of a financial fraud. On the other hand, we may find the
answer in the way writers are deploying multiple and complex understandings
of discourse to accomplish novel purposes in the documents. The CEO who
regularly sends out messages to build support for his leadership may, when
facing a scandal, attempt to maintain support by invoking genres of confession
and contrition by baring his heart in the public space of the memo. The bank
may be advertising through fictionalized projected statements of wealth if you
were to take advantage of their services. The newspaper in attempting to report a
major breakthrough may want to quote physical equations not so you can make
calculations, but so you may look in wonder that such a strange phenomenon
may be explained by such a simple equation. Multiple generic expectations are
being combined in creative ways to evoke special meanings for each specific
We learn about what to expect from genres through public and personal
histories of experience with them. Similar looking documents have circulated
in similar systems, available to many participants over a period of time, so that
a range of people can come to recognize and orient toward these documents
with similar understandings of what the documents are doing. Thus the writers
can create similar texts with a reasonable expectation that those understandings
will be evoked by the documents, particularly if the text is given all the physical
appearances that make it recognizable as an exemplar of the genre. At the same
time, our own repertoire of generic understandings is also a function of our
personal experiences with these publicly available genres. Before beginning to
work as a paralegal, we may have very limited sense of the documents that
typically circulate in the legal system, but within a fairly rapid time by observing,
and asking questions we can start to get a sense of the kinds of documents
we need to work with. Additionally, prior experiences may make us familiar
with a special repertoire we may recognize in a more refined way than our coworkers.
If, for example, before working for a law firm we previously worked in
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an insurance company, we might be specially skilled in understanding internal
insurance company documents when they surface in the course of litigation.
Some genres are well known to almost all members of a culture and are
identifiable by name—for examples in contemporary U.S. cultures most
people are aware of personal thank you letters, autobiographical narratives, and
newspaper editorials. Each of these genres is frequently taught in the middle
grades of schooling, thereby assuring wide familiarity. But in those areas where
we have special experience we may have a very refined set of generic recognitions,
some of which we may articulate with names shared with other experts, but some
may be entirely private recognitions. For example, auto insurance examiners
may know that within the standard damage reports, reports of some kinds of
typical damage from typical accidents don’t need very much elaboration beyond
a few stock phrases and reference to standard book values. However, if a custom
car is involved there may be needed more extensive, novel narrative of damage
and needed repair. Such special contingencies and situations might suggest to
an experienced examiner various kinds of information and narratives that would
meet the needs of the insurance company and address potential litigation. Some
of these additional reports may be laid out in requirements, but some of them
may simply be known through experience of many cases and reading many
examples. Some variants may be entirely idiosyncratic and lack names as when
an examiner over the years has learned that when he writes up certain kinds
of cases in a certain way he runs into difficulties, but if he writes them up in
slightly different way, they are never questioned. Similarly, in reading reports,
he may sense that some of them give him a slightly funny feeling that tell him
he needs to check out a particular aspect of the case, but these have no general
public name and general recognizability.
There is no limit to the number of genres, nor can we say the term refers to
document types of any generality, size, or level of public recognizability. The
process of genre recognition occurs any time any person at any level of awareness
makes some differentiation or particularization of texts on the basis of kind. Of
course, it would be foolish in writing a document to a wide audience to rely
on all the readers being familiar with an esoteric or personally idiosyncratic
genre. On the other hand, if personal knowledge of that genre helps you frame
a solution to a rhetorical problem that can be understood or interpreted in a
more general way, then that unusual genre knowledge has served you well. A
rock composer may use detailed knowledge of Bach’s three-part inventions to
provide harmonic richness to a song, which is hearable to most listeners simply
as a love song with a bit of a classical sound. On the other hand, certain listeners
of the same song may recognize the ironic invocation of folk gospel protest
songs signaled by hortatory metaphoric lyrics, but set against the self-absorption
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
of teenage love ballads of the nineteen fifties backed by syrupy fake-classical
orchestrations. One of the traditional roles of literary and artistic criticism has
been, indeed, to unpack the complex play of types evoked by artistic works that
achieve novel and complex effects.
Through experience we learn about types of utterances that occur within
certain types of circumstances, so that we become attuned to recognize them.
Through experience we learn much about how those utterances go, how
we might understand them, what makes them succeed and fail, and what
their consequences might be. The first time we may need to write a letter of
recommendation for a co-worker seeking a new job, we may be uncertain
about the best things to write and how to present them. But as we come to
read and write many such letters, we gain an extensive repertoire of strategies
and elaborations to draw on, depending on her personal characteristics and
accomplishments, the nature of the job she is applying for, and the particular
situation and process of hiring, We also know what has captured our attention
when reading such letters and what we have found implausible or irrelevant.
We know what kinds of letters have helped people get jobs and which are
ignored. This detailed strategic knowledge can be at any level of the rhetorical
and linguistic realization—from what typeface looks authoritative and what
phrases provide a sense of spontaneous authenticity, to what kind of details
establish the depth of knowledge of the applicant. We not only know the
genre, we know what we can say through the genre, and how the genre can be
made to work.
Even more with experience working with the genre we become familiar with
the variation of situations in which it can be used and the ways the genre can
serve to transform or evolve any particular situation. If we know something
about the organizations our friend is seeking work at, we can modify the letter
to fit the particular hiring processes of the company, the corporate culture, their
current needs, and what they look for in job candidates; we can particularize the
presentation to fit the situation.
Genres frame and locate the moment of writing, but do not obscure it
within generalities. The genre identifies, we might say, a room and an event,
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and implies some orientations, typical understandings, tools, and possible
trajectories, but it does not tell us exactly how the event is going to unfold.
That is up to the actual people working through their own particular interests
and modes of existence in their own particular ways as they make the event real
and particular. The act of writing then realizes the potentials of action in the
generically shaped moment, a way of fulfilling intentions and goals that can be
achieved within the genre.
If the generic space is crisply defined and compulsory at the moment, and
we have visited such a space often, we enter the genre’s habitat like a welltrained
and well-prepared actor enters into a familiar role, with one’s entire
body and emotions, yet with a reflective distance because we know exactly what
the role is and how to enact it. We can look at the drama unfolding even as
we are totally within it. We may have written shopping lists a thousand times
and have well developed procedures for searching the larder and projecting the
week’s food needs and menus of upcoming parties—nonetheless, we are still
thoroughly within the activity of producing that shopping list, surveying the
stale food in the refrigerator, uncertain about whether the milk is enough to get
us through to next shopping without running out or going sour, and anxious
about the dinner party that evening.
If the generic space is complex and unfamiliar, on the other hand, too
much may be at play to see clearly where all our understandings, thoughts,
and impulses are leading us; nonetheless, even fragmented understanding of
the generic demands and possibilities of the emerging situation can help to
direct and focus our confusions—it is a habitat that we can begin to recognize.
As we recognize that the endangered community day care needs to gather the
support of several key members of the City Council, and that each might be
reached in a different way—one by narratives and personal testimony about the
difference the center has made for local women, another by a detailed economic
report of how the center has extended the work force of local small businesses,
another by the personal evaluation of a long-time respected advisor, another by
a description of the educational character of the children’s activities—we start
to get a better sense of what we are doing, and where we need to go to reach our
long term goals. We may not be sure we understand exactly what is happening
and how well our words are meeting the situation, but we can start to gather
thoughts and channel energies into specific rhetorical tasks.
In either case, whether familiar and simple or unfamiliar and complex, this
habitat becomes a space in which we start to have spontaneous thoughts in
reaction to the particulars of the situation brought together in the interactive
space. With the shopping list, as we remember we will have a vegetarian guest
tonight, we realize we will need to improvise a dish using a tofu substitute for
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
the meat, and as we see more eggs in the refrigerator than expected, we may
start to list other ingredients for the omelets that have just entered into the
menu. Similarly, as we discover that the niece of a council member lives in the
area served by the day care and sends her child there, we may think of inviting
the niece to testify, but realizing that might seem too heavy-handed, we decide
to ask women in situations similar to the niece to testify, perhaps even women
the niece knows.
Thus as the situation emerges in the genred habitats, we come to populate it
with the specifics of life that are far from rule determined or faceless. Even the
simplest and most recurrent spaces can become complex and novel.
Often people associate genres with specific textual features or conventions
that signal presence of the genre or with particular textual patterns or constraints
that come into play once you are in a genre. The genre of sonnet is constitutive
of a formal kind of poem, regulated in formal features of number of lines, verse
and rhyme patterns, meter, and (somewhat more flexibly) subject and stance.
Patent applications are legally regulated in the content and by tradition and
practice in some of their formal appearances. On the other hand, textbooks of
different subjects, levels, and pedagogic philosophies and strategies may vary in
formal appearances, but what is characteristic of them all is that the books are
designed to fit into classroom practices.
Certainly some genres are highly regulated with many compulsory features.
On income tax returns the taxpayer is highly compelled in what he or she must
fill in on each line—name, total gross income, and so on. Even the specific
answer is held accountable by many procedures and related documents so that
the taxpayer cannot make up any number to place in the gross income space. A
letter complaining about a product and seeking refund also must do a number
of standard things to accomplish its ends: identify the product, the place and
time of purchase, the defect, the warranty conditions, the address and identity
of the writer, the specific required adjustment. Further, the letter of complaint
is more likely of success if it follows a standard format of business letters. Yet
a personal letter to a friend who works for a small company may accomplish
the task without once breaking into formality, though it still requires all the
necessary information. The friend will recognize the business letter that lies
beneath and within the friendly note. On the other hand, a business letter that
has all the formal markings and overt signs may fail because it is directed toward
the wrong officer in the company. The company may in fact have intentionally
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made it confusing to figure out who an unhappy customer should send the
letter to as a way to evade responsibility.
Similarly, the opening phrase “Once upon a time, long ago . . .” signals
many literary understandings about the text drawing on our familiarity with
the genre of fairy tale. Yet such signaling hardly encompasses all we come to
understand about a genre. Although a story may start out the path of a fairy
tale, it may immediately overlay that with science fiction, as in the opening of
the movie Star Wars— “Once upon a time, long ago, in a galaxy far away . . .”
Many kinds of understandings are subsequently invoked as the movie creates its
own place out of many worlds of literary narrative.
Given this range of features that may signal a genre and the range of aspects
that might be then considered typical or constitutive of the genre, the best way
to come to understand a genre is descriptive rather than by any prescriptive
definition of necessary features. What features to describe as most characteristic
of the genre cannot be determined outside of human use and practice. Rather
we as analysts might best begin with what seems to form the similarity and
what other people seem to orient toward in talking about similarity. We might
consider what would surprise the genre users within the genre and how they
would recognize the difference between neighboring similar genres. We should
note what aspects of the genre clue the users into its nature, and what kind of
assumptions or attitude they take for granted as part of the genre. We might
then note what kinds of thoughts users mobilize when they recognize the genre,
and what kinds of interactions they sense they are entering into with what
kind of partners in what kind of institutional setting, in what situation and
moment. That is, we need to take seriously the idea that genre is a psychosocial
recognition category and not fixed in the form of the text. We should
rather attempt to characterize what triggers the recognition and what users then
It is one thing to recognize a potential place of discursive activity within
some ongoing interaction and activity system and even to start to construct an
utterance that would start to carry forward the activity. It is quite another as
writers to have our desired co-participants meet us in that place, to attend to
the discourse at all, let alone with shared understanding. To put it bluntly, we
cannot always get our desired readers to read what we have written, nor with
the desired level of attention, nor with the spirit and attitude we hope for. They
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
may not want to come into the room we create, or at least through the door we
hoped, and they may not remain long enough to understand in detail what we
want to show them. On the other hand, they may stay around too long, poking
into corners and under rugs we don’t care to have them looking into.
We may write a poem and nobody will come visit it. Articles for publication
have to be inviting enough and of the right sort for the editors and reviewers
of the journal to grant space to reach the readers of the journal or magazine or
newspaper. Even if our text gets published, it does not mean that readers will
find the title and subject sufficiently inviting to do more than rush by the door,
or step in for a quick look and then wander away. So the realization of the genre
needs to come alive and deliver something of value to the readers who drop
by with some expectations. It needs to be an attractive example of the genre—
but what makes attractiveness may be very particular to the genre and to the
specific case. In reports of stocks, signs of timeliness and accuracy and depth of
judgment may convince investors to spend their time reading further. Readers
of celebrity fan stories, however, may be looking for endearing personal details.
On the other hand, sometimes people are obligated within their activity
system to attend to a text. Tax inspectors are bound by their conditions of
employment to look over tax forms, and every U.S. income tax form now
undergoes a preliminary computer inspection. So although we don’t desire a
close reading of those texts, we know there will be at least a certain level of
reading, matching numbers on various filings. In fact one rhetorical aim we
may have in filling out our forms is to fill out the form so as to not invite a
deeper reading that might be triggered by some claims that would make the
filing “interesting” or “suspect.” That is we want a certain level of reading and
no more. There are many situations, surprisingly, where we desire to satisfy a
certain level of reading without inviting any deeper or different sets of reading.
We might want our comments on a political candidate to be read as a commonsense
evaluation of their character and accomplishments, without invoking the
sense that we may be speaking from an ideological or partisan position. We may
want to write a letter to a friend attempting to heal a bond without invoking the
differences that caused the problem; we want the letter to be read as a gesture of
pure friendship rather than as a continuing justification of our actions. We may
want the reader of our historical essay to understand the narrative we construct
out of the archival material, but not to question our archival methods; we may
even make some statements indicating our standard professional technique so
as to block that kind of suspicious reading. We want to control the multiplicity
of reading such generic recognitions might invoke.
In some other circumstances, however, we might want to move the reader
beyond an ordinary reading to another level. Students writing a paper for an
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instructor usually want to write the essay to fit the generic expectations of
the assignment to avoid a failing grade. However, some students may wish to
do more than meet the generic requirements of the assignment to be judged
acceptable or even receive an A—they seek to share their thinking and to engage
the teacher in dialogue as a fellow intellectual or a personal mentor.
How others will take up our comments is ultimately beyond our control—
there are limits to how much we can compel others to attend to our words and
what kinds of interpretations they may pursue. Yet it is worth considering how
to encourage readers to take up an invitation and how to keep them from seeing
the text as an opportunity for quarrels and other unwanted interactions. This
issue is explored more fully in Chapter 7 of the accompanying volume on the
Interaction Order.
Having created a recognizable social discursive space for interaction within
an activity system, and having made it inviting enough for others to join in
the party—where does this party take place in relation to the daily, embodied
world in which we live surrounded by other people, weather, animals, rocks,
and buildings? Although we may meet people in the mental spaces created
by genres, both writers and readers live in material social worlds of here and
now (although the here and now of each may be quite distinct). If these texts
influence people, we might reasonably assume they influence how people walk
around and greet people in the material world—or do they live, as Auden claims
of poetry, in the “valley where nothing happens”?
Some genres are directly operative within activity systems that move bodies
and objects around. Shipment orders, bills of lading, and signable receipts put
people and goods in trucks and hold the people accountable for delivering the
goods to other people at certain times. Paperwork in numerous genres makes
possible our system of transfer and movement of goods. In a corporation, each
of the departments—production, sales, marketing, management, and legal—
adds its own layers of paperwork to facilitate making goods and profits and
holding personnel accountable to planned and monitored activities.
As police officers are often heard to complain, the apprehension, trial,
conviction, incarceration, and even execution of criminals is surrounded by
unending genres of paperwork. Despite the claims that this paperwork keeps
the police and other law enforcers from doing their work, it is precisely this
paperwork that ensures law enforcement is the work, rather than an unrestrained
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
and unaccountable exercise of state violence. These law enforcement genres
certainly move bodies around, but in so doing have the potential of transforming
those movements into a rule of law and bureaucratic efficiency—although not
always consistently achieved. The inscriptions created within these genres then
influence the status and life possibilities of each individual inscribed within that
activity system—incarcerated felon or upstanding citizen.
People who work in such systems have some, though perhaps grumbling,
knowledge of the values of the genres in their field. Some of the grumbling,
in fact, may come from the participants knowing only too well how such
documents make their actions and choices accountable. Making an account
is the essence of making oneself accountable. In any event, people could not
knowledgably and intelligently complete the various genres they are required to
complete without some understanding of how these documents circulate and
with what effect. A regular form of training in police and similar organizations
is to raise neophytes’ understanding of the consequences of the documents they
create, so that they take them seriously and provide the kinds of information
necessary for the operations of the rest of the activity system. The more nurses
and doctors understand the kinds of things that can happen if they do not
accurately update the patient’s chart, the more they are likely to write what is
likely to be needed.
Through such activity systems, not only are the material and bodily
movements regulated, they are given meanings. Controlled violence becomes
law and order. Buildings are built that in turn control the movement of people
through halls and elevators and provide locales for interaction. But these
buildings also become part of an educational or a corporate plan or an urban
design. They are even given ideological meaning and consequences as classrooms
are built on an open design or prisons built with panoptical effectiveness.
Educational research on the effectiveness of various arrangements of the
classroom and penology research on the controllability and/or rehabilitative
effectiveness of prison designs in turn may influence architectural documents
which will then influence the future environments that people will live in.
Studies in the sociology and psychology of education may influence arrangement
of seating and the presence of various learning artifacts. Even more, ideas and
research may transform people’s self-understanding of what they are doing in
situations, thereby influencing their behavior. Teachers may talk to students
differently, gather them in different groupings, assign them different activities,
provide different kinds of feedback and support on the basis of the research and
theory that makes its way to teacher education programs, curricular designers,
textbook makers, and individual teachers.
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The genres of psychiatric theory, research, and taxonomies of disorders
influence how clinicians interact with people who seek help and what categories
they provide for patients’ self-understanding. These texts influence what therapies
are offered, what the precise course of treatment looks like, and the behavioral
and emotional criteria by which clients and treatments will be evaluated. They
also influence whom insurance companies will reimburse for what kinds of
treatment. Through such means, the abstract work of psychological theory
becomes embodied in peoples’ lives.
Even the seemingly unworldly activity systems of literature can be traced back
to middle-class people sitting in easy chairs during leisure hours, contemplating
their lives, seeking extensions of their experience vicariously, or escaping daily
woes by exercising fantasies. This is not even to speak of the entire industry and
economics of literary publication, print, book sales, and cultural marketing that
keep many people and objects on the move.
Genres are also held accountable in their own ways to embodied life, social
activity, and other realms outside their boundaries. To carry out their work
properly and without excessive failure producers of genred texts need to attend
to the kinds of realities they inscribe and the kinds of realities that might catch
them up short. Within a rule of law, police must have just cause and evidence
for their actions, which they must be able to produce in courts and other
sites of accountability. If they cannot produce the blood samples and ballistic
tests that match the criminal to the crime, their work adds up to little and
they may even lose public support. Excessive numbers of patient mortalities
may lead regulators and the public to call into question hospital records that
indicate no dire problem. A collapsed bridge calls into account all the reports,
plans, contracts, and inspection reports that went into its construction and
Newspapers are regularly evaluated by the readers and critics on the
procedures by which they gather their stories and their care in substantiation.
Professional journalists develop their standards of ethics by which they hold
themselves accountable precisely so as to raise the public estimation of their
work. Newspapers as well are held accountable by competition from other
papers and news media, by interest groups and politicians trying to tell their
side of the story, by courts and laws, and ultimately by historians. None of
these processes creates an absolute accountability, but rather each provides
a specific kind of challenge that will draw on different evidence, arguments,
and questioning strategies. The newspapers must be able to adequately answer
such challenges from all these directions by the way they gather news (so as to
consider the positions of opposite sides, so as to avoid malicious slander, so
Chapter 2 Knowing Where You Are: Genre
as to dig out facts faster than the competition and not to have been blatantly
mistaken, so as in the long run to appear as a reasonable source for history, etc.).
Knowledge producing disciplines, similarly, each have procedures for
holding its members accountable to evidence and experiences that are drawn
on. In anticipation of being called into account, researchers will gather and
inscribe evidence according to the accepted methods and standards of the field.
Skeptical readers or readers of different experience, findings, and conviction
may well demand an accounting or be able to provide persuasive contrary
evidence. However, these forms of developing accountable evidence vary with
the disciplines—gaining a sample of current dialect use through interview with
a person deemed a local speaker and transcribing the recording according to
current linguistic conventions has a very different relation to the material world
than drilling a geologic core and running the components through a variety of
chemical analytic tests. Each must then defend itself against different sorts of
skeptical questions.
Some texts overtly remind readers of the physical location of their purported
creation, (“As I sit here in my prison cell considering the political conditions
that . . .”; “This study was set in motion by certain practical problems regularly
confronted by all teachers. . . .”; “I write this letter much agitated upon hearing
of your impending risky venture . . .”), of the text’s imagined circulation (“As
this plea reaches out to people in all lands . . .”; “In the several days this letter
takes to reach you . . .”), or of conditions of reception and use of this text (“Heed
these words wisely as you set off in your adventures in car maintenance.”)
Texts often use an imaginative reconstruction of these sites of material writing,
publication, and reading as tropes in their own arguments. Some genres even
specify that conditions of production or use be represented within the texts
to serve specific rhetorical functions, as the experimental report requires an
account of the initiating scientific problem; of the method carried out in the
laboratory; and of the actual laboratory happenings—all of which established
the conditions and material for the writing of the report. Similarly, institutional
reports often require accounts of the initiating problem and the procedures by
which the report was produced. On the other end, some genres explicitly index
the conditions of reading and use. For example, repair manuals for physical
devices direct you toward locations and procedures to be immediately found
on the object: “Note on the left front panel, just beneath the display labeled
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
‘distortion’ is a circular dial. As you turn this dial clockwise, when the indicator
line passes the vertical position, you will notice a slight, brief click. This click
enables you to locate the base position.”
Even without these explicit indicators, however, each text has specific
conditions of production, circulation, and use. Our perception of these
conditions influences our understanding of the character and force of the text.
In writing the text we usually are only too aware of the conditions we write
under—our limited resources, our wandering attention, our slightly chilly
room, our boss breathing down our neck. But at the same time those conditions
are transformed by the ideological and social nature of the genre. We may be
sitting at our desk, but that desk is enlisted into a hierarchical and competitive
world of corporate activity, into an evaluative world of an academic course we
are taking, or into the communal work of encouraging friends who are starting
an environmental organization.
Our texts are shaped by the social ideological worlds they are produced for,
and those same worlds are likely to define the distribution and circulation of the
texts. The corporate document is cycled up the organization, to be transformed
by managers who combine it with information from other documents, to be
used in particular meetings as a warrant for further actions. The classroom
essay is placed on the professor’s desk to be marked and returned. The access of
other people to that classroom assignment will be limited unless the professor
spells out particular procedures of group work or publication as part of the
educational experience of the class. The shopping list accompanies us to the
supermarket and then winds up in the wastebasket.
The conditions of use are equally generically shaped by the documents that
help shape them. The corporate memo is to be read by a subordinate to identify
the procedures for carrying out an assignment. Another researcher reads our
research reports as part of a literature search while contemplating a new research
project, or assigns it to a graduate seminar for them to learn the literature of
the field. Within each of these concrete settings, the documents we write add
particular meanings, representations, and actions to carry the activities along.
Through filling virtual spaces of interaction by our written genres we create
meanings that influence others. Our texts become social facts in their worlds,
creating acts out of language. Rhetoric is the art of understanding how that
creation of meaning works, so we a can make meanings that work better for
human action.

Time as well as space creates problems for texts. Although texts are written
at a point in time (or, more exactly, over a span of time, which has an end point
at which the texts are considered adequate to be presented to the intended
audience) and they are read at another moment (or again, more exactly, a
finite span of time), those moments may be far apart and have little to do
with each other except for the text that binds them together. Just as pieces of
paper may appear to be tied down to no particular place, they seem attached
to no particular time. The textual artifact can endure for years without being
used or even looked at. While texts from the future are still a matter of science
fiction, any text still surviving from the past is available for our current use.
Nonetheless, texts arise from historical moments in situations, are directed
toward others located in historical moments, with specific intent to accomplish
ends—influencing people and events within history. So where and how do we
locate texts in time?
In a large scale way we can see the temporality of texts in the changes of
genres that give them shape and locate them within activity systems. Texts seen
as being in older genres carry the scent of a world whose time has passed. Texts
also date in more specific ways. The specific occasions which give rise to texts
emerge, coalesce, then evaporate; or change; or become ossified to become
curious historical landmarks that constrain a changing world. The specific
occasions of reading may be also be concretely tied to immediate events, as one
may refer to a weather prediction the evening before heading out on a fishing
trip, but the weather prediction past its time is not much use, unless to settle a
barroom bet by corroborating an elaborate fish story.
When long-standing texts are seen as still current in their force and meaning,
they tend to maintain earlier moments and arrangements within changing
circumstances, such as happens with sacred texts, constitutions, or (more
obviously problematically) anachronistic laws. Usually the relevance and force
of such enduring texts are supported by equally enduring cultural and social
institutions and practices, such as schools, churches, and courts. Even if our
attentions remain fixed on a long-lived historical text supported by enduring
social institutions, changing events and contexts bring temporal mutability
to the reading and thus the interpretation and meaning of the texts, such as
the extensive theological arguments among religious sects and constitutional
divisions among legal scholars attempting to determine an absolute meaning of
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a text from long ago. The attention of readers and the sense they may make of the
text change and evaporate as time and conditions move on, so no ossification can
be absolute. More typically, when we read texts out of their specific cultural and
activity time, we too are engaged in new activities at our moment. Our current
concerns may lead previously ignored documents to suddenly become newly
significant, warranting detailed reexamination. Literary history is filled with
the rising and falling stock of different writers arising from changing cultural
concerns and tastes. To read through the history of Shakespeare criticism is to
learn as much about the obsessions of different cultural moments as it is to
learn about Shakespeare. This is equally true of our changing views of political
documents and philosophic texts.
These waves of history are what the Greeks called kairos, a term that finds
its etymology both in an archery target made by stretched strings and the
transient openings in the weaving of cloth as the shuttle passes through the
emerging network of thread (Miller, 1992, p. 313). This etymology vividly
highlights the transience of events and the opportunities and threats events
offer, but even more how reacting to those opportunities and threats adds to
the unfolding events, helps extend the cloth. Events are moments of cultural
formation, of intersubjective attention, and of conjoint activity. Events are
phenomenologically perceived by participants as salient in the organization
of unfolding activity. In face-to-face conversation time seems to happen
unremarkably. We all know the time of day and year, the chronos by which we
have come to mark time as a regular periodicity. If we are uncertain we can
check our watches and calendars or the sun (although calendars and clocks, we
should note are inventions precisely to inscribe time in a regularized symbolic
order, to be laid on top of unfolding events so we can plan, contemplate, hold
each other accountable for timeliness. Less determinatively, however, we also
sense the unfolding of events, the phenomenological time we move through in
the presence of others—we estimate our days through the pace of the activities
we are part of, and in the gathering of people and actions in focused events.
At times this sense of the moment comes to conscious attention, such as when
we await the right moment to enter into a discussion. Raising to conscious
contemplation this sense of the right moment is the function of the classical
term of kairos, to help us attend to the temporal location, moments that gather
and fade, the passing opportunities we may perceive and grab, so as to change
the course of events through our timely intervention.
As writers of texts we also ride the waves of time, time in which we perceive
our own urgencies of action, time in which we see others pursuing their
own course of interests with actions at their own pace. At some moment we
perceive events coming together in a time where a text would serve us well.
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Our perception of the moment includes whether the time is ripe for other
participants to receive our text. Will they pay attention to it? Will it change
the course of their actions? Will it redefine a situation for others so that they
will receive another person’s message differently. By inserting our texts in the
right moment in the right situation, we not only assert ourselves, we assert our
perception of time and events into the unfolding realities. If others recognize
the moment and space of our utterance, they share with us a common moment,
a common time of coordinated attention. The recognition of genre is important
in this coordination. Insofar as we create a mutually recognizable act in such
shared moments, we create a social fact that may have long-term consequences
for us and the others who come after. In writing we need to shoot an arrow from
our time to land within the time net of others.
In our texts we even create further senses of time. The text is something that
is read within time, and has its own pace or affords the reader multiple options
of time in reading. We may write a text that needs slow word-by-word attention
if it is to be meaningful or we may design a text that allows a busy executive to
find a significant fact rapidly. We may write a text that allows various readers
to enter in with different sequence and pacing. We both mesh with their time
and then ensnare the reader within the time and space of our text for as long
as they stay engaged with our text. This phenomenological sense of textual
time transforms the embodied reader’s perceived path through the day into
a space of information, reflection, and ideational comment, moving with the
pace of the ideas held up for inspection in the text. Readers may then return to
their embodied world carrying the remnants of the textual time, such as with
a panicked sense of rapidly unfolding global climate catastrophe presented in
the environmental report the have just read or with the contemplative sense of
eternity in a poem. Reading takes time out from the embodied day to assert
new time scales and events into it.
One further sense of time in the text is that of the events represented in the
text. Our slowly-read text may nonetheless represent a rapidly moving world—a
world that we vainly try to hold still by our acts of aesthetic lengthening. Or
we may present a world of deep causality where paleolithic events still leave
their mark on the current landscape around us. This world of represented time
also may change the reader’s perception of the embodied world around them.
We may walk down the street thinking not only of the ripening season, but
of the ripening economy, the ripening of philosophic questions, the geologic
unfolding of our region, or the seasons of the heart. So texts are not just
themselves part of cultural and historic moments, they influence the experience
of moments and the reflective perception of moments. To know the moments
of the texts we receive and shape the texts to create moments of attention, spots
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of time, we need to start to construct a sense of the way texts sit within and
locate themselves in time.
Anyone who has done historical work in archives of a previous century
knows how the documents carry the aroma of an earlier way of life. A look at
old family documents brings us back not only to past events, but to the pace
and relations of past days. Even genres that seem to have a fairly fixed form over
time depend on the enduring cultural activity systems in which they reside and
thrive, even as these systems evolve. People read novels of a few centuries ago
and from another culture, but only because of continuing institutions of leisure,
access, and education. Except for a limited number of titles that are continuingly
renewed by new editions and film remakes, these older texts vanish into the
obscurity of libraries, to be only occasionally looked at by scholars or people
with antiquarian tastes—people who as part of their own current activity seek
to be transported backward. Jane Austen’s novels may be constantly revived, but
what about those of contemporary author Tobias Smollett of Peregrine Pickle
fame, and even lesser literary lights of late eighteenth century England? The
revivals of old texts in addition to reinserting those texts within current systems
of text distribution and the economics of publication, update the pleasures,
and renew and reinterpret tastes and cultural systems of prior dates, holding
them up for our own uses of cultural ideals and nostalgia. They also in part
reproduce prior structures of cultural consumption, as a culturally complex
form of connoisseurship. People delight in being able to spend their leisure by
going backwards in imagined time—not only in the subject matter, but in the
style of reading.
More concretely, consider such apparently timeless documents as birth
and death records. These are only maintained as continuous and accessible
by the continuing institutions that collect and house them, such as churches
and governments. Even then, as anyone who has worked with such historical
records knows, they must be interpreted in terms of the practices and uses
of document at the time of original collection. Were births recorded on the
first day of life or at baptism or after a year survival, at the hospital, the city
hall or a religious institution, of all people or only of certain segments of the
population? Further, we only go back to inspect such documentary remains as
part of our own current cultural activities, whether reconstructing economic
and health conditions or recovering our family histories which carry meanings
for us now. Old texts are occasionally revived and given new social meanings
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by changing social concerns that give them new relevance—currently in the
Americas early Spanish colonial documents are being dusted off because of our
need to reevaluate colonialism and its impact on a world now trying to reach
toward new forms of global organization. Similarly, continuing relevance of
ancient legal documents may be affected by the continuity of legal systems that
provides such prior documents current legal force or influence.
The continuing relevance of the most ancient and stable of texts, the
sacred scriptures of living religions—the Bible, the Mahabharata, the Koran—
again depend on the continuing religious institutions wherein they remain
centerpieces of moral and philosophic worlds. Scriptural religions revive the
texts, constantly reinserting them in people’s lives. Similar texts of now extinct
religions—such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead—have a different kind of
contemporary status, primarily in the activities of scholars or those seeking after
hidden knowledge of the ancients. If, however, they should become the center
of a renewed cult or are taught in surveys of world culture, they again take
on new sets of meanings and new forms of circulation—such as, for example,
occurred when the tablets containing the Gilgamesh epic were discovered in
1853 after remaining buried and unread for millennia.
However, even the most stable of sacred scriptures are parts of changing
religions in changing worlds, and thus change their meanings. Changing
congregations, liturgies, sermonic practices, philosophies, life problems, church
economics, and ambient cultural practices—among many other factors—
constantly reposition the ancient sacred texts within modern activity systems.
Even the most conservative text-bound cults within those religions, most
dedicated to maintaining the word as written, nonetheless, constantly change,
even just in addressing the contemporary challenges facing them in their efforts
to hold to the old ways. It is very different to be a literalist New Testament
believer in seventeenth century England than in twenty-first century Georgia
or Mexico City.
Texts are often part of local and immediate events as these events unfold.
For example, an annual projection of a city’s economy made by an economist in
the employ of the chamber of commerce enables local government and business
to plan and make decisions over the ensuing months. One year the release of a
particularly dire forecast leads to a series of newspaper stories and statements by
local leaders—followed by a plan issued by the local chamber of commerce to
be placed before the city council. Each of these documents is timely, speaking
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to the unfolding events. If a local industry seeks to use these events to gain
tax abatement for a long planned expansion, they might time their request for
tax relief to take best advantage of the increasing anxiety and to fit into the
emerging plan for city action. While all the projections and plans may later
be of historical and comparative interest (to answer such currently-oriented
questions as how the economy has grown over the years, and what we can
learn from responses to previous downturns), they are all in the initial moment
directed at influencing actions to be taken in the near term.
Some documents are, however, designed to be used in a variety of situations
that may occur over an extended period, such as a reference book like a
dictionary. But even then each use is motivated by the particular circumstance
and needs of the user, which a well-designed reference attempts to anticipate.
What kinds of occasion will send people to a dictionary to check spellings or an
alternative meaning? How can the dictionary be designed to be handy for these
situations? Even general purpose dictionaries make assumptions about the level
of detail and needs of the users, as well as how the users have to configure their
behavior to be efficient or appropriate users—in fact we have to be taught in
school appropriate and efficient methods of dictionary use.
The constantly emergent and self-making aspects of kairos suggest we need
to attend to the unfolding events in which we are engaged, and to notice the
process of their unfolding so as to spot targets for our comments. But of course
our spotting of openings is influenced by our perceptions, of what is unfolding
and where things are going, of what kind of cloth is being woven, and what
kind of yarn we may add to make it something that contains our own meanings
and desires.
Some targets are clearly held up by others for us to notice as when a funding
agency sends us a form that we are invited to complete or a company announces
it is accepting employment applications. Our decision is only whether we will
aim for those targets. Some of those targets we are even compelled by law to
address, as when we are required to submit our annual tax returns or to report
births and deaths. Even these communicative moments, however, we may turn
our backs on, though at the risk of penalties.
Other targets are so fleeting and evanescent that they only exist when
a visionary individual sees it and then speaks to it, providing the means in
retrospect by others to recognize the moment that has been seized. Nobody else
might have recognized that moment in that way nor seen it as an opportunity
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to be seized. Imagine a group of people sitting in a circle talking. Each sees
different moments to jump in, and each seems to jump in from a different
angle, taking the conversation in a particular direction. If it is a particularly
heated discussion perhaps several people will always be ready to jump in, as they
each note a break in the previous person’s talk, a moment at which they might
interrupt. However, it is likely that each of these would-be speakers would want
to contribute something different. They will each likely find in the discussion to
that point a different and will each find a different opening in the moment for
weaving a different kind of cloth.
Now extrapolate this situation from face-to-face conversation to
communication at a distance. So many documents may be seen by individuals
pursuing different sets of interests, that people may likely see the unfolding
events and the moments for opportune intervention differently. The resulting
texts in response will likely vary in how they represent the moment, what they
say, and how they try to seize the moment. Even when many people, aligned in
similar ways, are paying attention to widely known events, their senses of the
moment may be varied and inchoate until a single text—a government report,
the carefully composed speech of a political leader, the powerful sermon—
crystallizes a mood and moment. Shared institutions, shared immediate
public facts and events, shared social positions and urgencies, then make these
audiences ready to accept the author’s framing of the moment, letting them
recognize through the utterance that this is exactly where they are at and what
they need at this moment. No matter how much the speaker’s situation is
prepared by institutional and historical pressures creating an opportunity, it
is only the rhetor’s grabbing of the moment in a particular way that coalesces
the moment and gives the audience the occasion to recognize what a powerful
moment it is.
Even if our words are not part of dramatic one-time events, we often know
when in a typical chronological sequence texts come to us and when we need
to produce texts in response. Some texts are set according to chronological
guidelines. Income taxes in the United States are due on April 15 of every year or
the report is due on the boss’s desk next Tuesday. These calendar times indicate
a local organizational time. The April 15 tax deadline is timed within a cycle of
financial record keeping and reporting based on financial events in the previous
calendar year, but reported to us and the government early in the new year on
forms familiar to taxpayers as W2, 1099, and so on. Tax review procedures
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occur afterward when we may be held accountable for the information we filed,
but there are limited periods of liability and compulsory record keeping. So we
can throw away most of our records after seven years. All of these temporalities
bear on how we fill out our forms.
The report to the boss is in relation to the unfolding of a project, the internal
temporality and deadlines of that project, expectations of the management, the
promised customer delivery date, the quarterly corporate earnings report, and
so on. All of these may bear to some degree on what we write to the boss on
that Tuesday. Similarly, candidates’ statements and political news are shaped by
the closeness of the impending election, the unfolding electoral events, and the
dynamics of forming new administrations after the elections. Events, sources
available to journalists, and the interests of the readers all conspire to make the
texts time-sensitive.
Even if we are not writing within a specific chronological frame for known
events or known organizations, still our texts are likely used at certain moments
within repetitive and predictable activity systems and action procedures.
Parts manuals in auto garages are consulted at specific junctures such as in
establishing inventory, costing and planning repairs, assembling correct parts
for individual jobs, and in billing customers. The construction of such manuals
(or their new electronic equivalents with even greater capabilities of integrating
and facilitating functions) needs to be aware of these typical activities, to fit the
moments of use. TV schedules similarly incorporate innovations to facilitate the
scanning of alternatives during a free moment between shows or in planning
out the evening’s entertainment. So even though documents are created and
consulted asynchronously and participants may be attending to documents
through multisynchronous frames (either conflicting or coming together over a
specific event), yet chronicity guides both writer and reader.
Particular documents may have the generic or specific mandatory force in
directing the production of a sequence of future documents. A city council
announcement of a special election sets in motion a predictable sequence of
print and speech genres. Likewise, a directive of a committee chair can set out a
sequence of reports, reviews, and comments that will lead to a committee ballot
on a proposal. This sequence may further set out an enforceable sequence of
calendar dates for deadlines, filings, and actions.
Since all utterances are designed to have some influence or uptake they all
speak not only to their moment but to the moments that follow. Some texts
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may embody specific designs for influence and aim at specific consequences: the
home improvement loan application, the advertisement with a return form or
discount coupon, the student essay that aims to have the teacher writing an A
on top. Some documents may be embedded within institutions that carry out
substantial consequences of the text—the judicial decree that can send someone
to prison or set them free, the CEO’s directive that can authorize a hefty bonus,
the military order that will set assault teams in motion.
Sometimes that desired influence will be more modest: to gain the recognition
that you have filed the necessary papers in a timely way so that you will not be
penalized for negligence or to announce that you are aware of certain facts.
The influence a text may seek on future events may be less clear-cut. Even a
private journal of personal experiences affects the diarist’s thinking, perceptions,
and consequent actions. The diarist feels better or worse, more determined and
focused on action or confused and uncertain, leading to inaction. The diarist
comes up with phrases to be used in more public communications in the future,
now that he or she knows his or her thoughts and feelings.
Because of this desire to influence future actions, the effectiveness of
documents may be improved if we can reasonably project the moment at
which the document will be taken up by others, under what conditions,
constraints, and motives. For example, if we are writing a letter of application
for a job, it may help us to be aware that the letter will go to a personnel officer
reviewing documents for five different positions simultaneously, each of which
may have a hundred applicants. And further, before the officer goes home
today he or she must pick a short list of people to interview for each position.
Those constraints may help us decide what would get favorable attention.
What works under these conditions of reading and decision making, however,
may not work when we are among a small hand-picked group invited to apply
for an elite position, where our letter will be read and discussed carefully by a
blue-ribbon committee and held in explicit comparison to the letters of three
other hand-picked candidates. To have any hope of influencing future events
in either case, we need some plausible sense of what those future moments
would be like.
In those moments of uptake the readers usually only have a limited number
of plausible actions to choose from. Being able to project this future can help
shape our writing to better effect. If the applications are to be initially reviewed
to select a short list for further interview, some issues may be premature to raise.
On the other hand, if hiring happens directly from the application, we may
want to be explicit about our requirements for pay and privileges.
Most wide-circulation publications as well have short shelf-lives, even if
later they take on different existence as historical documents. Newspapers and
Chapter 3 When You Are
online news sites measure life in hours and days. Magazine articles need to be
of interest in the month of release, and any extended reprint life is a bonus.
Most wide-circulation books need to gain popularity fast or vanish from the
bookstore shelves within months; only a rare few books gain a long-standing
place on publisher backlists. Even libraries, except for research libraries that
need to keep an historical archive, periodically get rid of older books that no
longer are of interest to the community. Research articles in scientific and
scholarly journals may be read for a number of years, but only a few get noticed,
read and cited as the years go on. Citation half-life, a concept from information
sciences, measures the extinguishing relevance of research articles for current
Writing that is intended for relevance to multiple readers over an extended
period of time still has temporality. Self-help books are read by people at
particular junctures in their lives; further, the tides of fashion, culture, and
knowledge make likely that the book will eventually be dated. Textbooks are
used with temporal sequences of classroom activities which the books must
support; additionally, knowledge grows and changes—so a textbook usually
must report the most current disciplinary findings while avoiding uncertain
new results that may be discredited during the anticipated life of the book.
Reference books, likewise, must walk the line between being current and being
transiently faddish. The best way to assure a text some enduring life is for it to
gain a central role in an enduring institution, such as a church, university, or
a government not troubled by coups, revolutions, or reconstitutions. (I would
mention the recent attempts of L. Ron Hubbard, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and
Uzbekhi tyrants to live by this wisdom, but their attempts may evaporate soon,
thereby dating this current book which I am trying to fit within the very slow
rhythms of academic rhetorical theory, which even keeps alive fragments that
predate Socrates). Of course, even if you get the work a safe institutional home,
then the rhythms and patterns of institutional activity will still shape when and
how the old book will be pulled out and read.
Some texts are designed to fit within the rhythms of life—such as the
phone book consulted when there is an immediate need for information. Any
significant delay in finding the phone number, pulling the reader away from
the pressures of life, will be a cause for irritation. Other texts, in contrast, are
designed to remove us from the here and now—to help us forget a long airplane
ride or to lift us from our living room easy chair to pre-Cambrian rain forests.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
The texts used within daily time urgencies need to be designed for
convenient and easy access during those activities and to provide desired
resources for those other activities to justify whatever time out required for
reference. The encyclopedia article must make its information easy to locate and
must provide good and useful information worth the time to read paragraphs.
During that period the reader enters encyclopedia time, becoming a processor
of encyclopedic information, engaged in highly focused search for desired
information and building up a schematic representation of the subject. But the
reader also enters into a world of disrupted chronologies, of atomized parallel
sequences that can be jumped across by cross-reference. The reader, familiar
with the organization of such texts as encyclopedia articles or research papers,
though, can restructure the order of reading and the amount of time devoted to
various parts to meet personal need.
On the other hand most of our expectations and training of reading
predispose readers to giving their time over to the writer. The writer then can
sequence the movement through topics, holding various objects and ideas up
for the reader’s contemplation—lingering on some, passing rapidly through
others, transforming ideas sequentially.
The writer may also attempt to control the temporal experience of the reader
more minutely by controlling the rhythms of the text, the difficulties of the
syntax, the technicality of the language, the digressions or explanations—or
by the directness and simplicity of a narrative. The writer may try to make the
reader stop and figure things out or hold up a multi-faceted object for wonder,
or the writer may move the reader rapidly across a clearly marked landscape
where pieces fall quickly in place.
While such issues may bring to mind the aesthetic concerns of poetry
and fiction, they are pervasive in many kinds of daily texts. In an article in a
management magazine the bulleted lists of advice facilitate the reader stopping
to think about their own current situations and problems. An economics
article in the same magazine may alternate between easy to read scenarios of
business activities and short dense paragraphs of economic reasoning over
which the reader may need to pause, but not too long, before being given
another fast moving survey of the current economic landscape. Such issues are
characteristically discussed under the heading of style—but they are as much
a matter of moving the reader through states of consciousness, attention, and
mood as they are about the specifics of the language used to do so.
In between these extremes of reader-timed texts and writer-timed texts are
many middles. The writer may assist the reader in shuttling between alternative
times and current concerns. The management article discussed just above are
part of a class of self-help articles that do not so much tell the reader remarkably
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new things as give the reader a leisured opportunity to contemplate their
current situation with the reminder of some familiar prescriptions. Other
kinds of instructional and do-it-yourself texts provide guidance for a hands-on
operation, but in a slowed-down instructional mode. A plumbing guide may
take time to explain how valves work—for a moment transporting the reader
inside the valve to notice the seating of the washers and the mechanisms of flow
and interruption—so that the home-owner can diagnose and repair the leaky
Even the most abstracted intellectual texts may need to bring the reader out
of the world of abstractions back down to their daily experience and concerns
so they can understand concretely what the ideas mean in practice and perhaps
identify moral or ethical applications. Spiritual books, for example, often mediate
between the eternity of timeless truths inscribed in long-enduring sacred texts
and the daily worries and puzzles of people taking time to contemplate their
lives, relations, and souls.
Even fictions and entertainments draw on readers concerns, frustrations,
and experiences of the daily world, pulling the readers from their street presence
into an audience—as the old tradition of dramatic prologue explicitly did.
Throughout the fiction daily experiences and life knowledge are transformed and
played upon. Sometimes this worldly connection is explicit as in political satire
or social problem literature, with perhaps some intention of transforming the
audience’s perception and experience of the world. Sometimes the connection
with the world is more distant, as the audience is left only with a sense of
refreshment, a reminder of emotions not felt in a while, and perhaps a different
way of looking at people or events.
Texts have the potential of linking our time and other times overtly
discussed in the text. An account of prior periods may exercise our historical
imaginations, add to our knowledge, and draw us back to an earlier time for a
few hours. It may also help us recognize our current moment as analogous or
even continuous with earlier moments, so we see our contemporary concerns as
part of larger flows of economic or political developments. Texts also introduce
readers to alternative ways of thinking about time—as we perhaps first
experience Proustian reminiscent time or we start to become aware of geologic
time. Some texts give us means to think of ourselves positioned in that time—as
accounts of biological and or cultural evolution may do. Texts further can make
these time frames visible and important to us, helping us see the multiplicity of
times in our lives. This transforming of our sense of our own time can change
our ideational or ideological orientation to the embodied world. Chapter 10 of
this volume will explore more fully how a writer can help direct and organize
the reader’s experience of time.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Sequences of text, too, bring their temporality in how they represent our
time and how they construct times for literate interchange. Emails may come
rapidly on one another, pressing for immediate response, while journals have
monthly or annual cycles and represent events with longer flows. Records of our
life events, educations, and careers add up over a lifetime, while great intellectual
and aesthetic traditions are seen in the flow of centuries.
Academic courses for the most part are linearly sequential processes,
defined by the structured time of a syllabus. Major asynchronicities only
arising from students’ bending of deadlines and teachers’ delays in returning
marked papers—with well-known difficulties arising from both. The main
potential source of multi-synchronicity is in the assigned readings that come
from different times, places, and activity systems. Many classes avoid these
complexities by only using a textbook of recent vintage that homogenizes and
codifies knowledge in what appears to be a timeless way, but actually reflects
an author-imposed consensus slightly behind the leading edge of disciplinary
inquiry and controversy. Synchronic discontinuity is only foregrounded when
textbooks are clearly out of date or late-breaking highly publicized findings
directly contradict the book’s teaching.
History and literature courses which consider temporally and culturally distant
themes and materials, however, often introduce texts that are explicitly asynchronous
with the classroom moment. That asynchronicity is foregrounded and managed
by the standard classroom distinction of primary and secondary texts to be read
in distinctively different ways—the primary to be interpreted as historical fact or
privileged literary experience out of time, and the secondary as reliable knowledge in
the synchronic now of the classroom. Only in more advanced classes in the subject,
as students start reading multiple, conflicting texts are issues of multi-synchronous
relations of texts usually dealt with. And even then, an official narrative of a main
textbook may put all the developments into a normalized historical narrative, fitting
all the texts within classroom time that unfolds from the handing out of the first day
syllabus until completion of exam and posting of grades.
The task of attuning to asynchronous and multi-synchronous processes of
literate interaction is more invisible and harder to monitor—but to people who
have been engaged in an academic or professional specialty for a while, it is
apparent who the newcomers are, those who may do things technically properly
but don’t know the underlying dynamics and pacing of the discussion and
the most effective moments for intervention. Neophytes are characteristically
judged as either too hesitant to enter when they need to or too quick to speech
when they might wait for events to unfold a bit more.
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Lawyers, for example, learn to juggle the asynchronicity and multisynchronicity
of relevant precedents, antiquated laws that have been
reinterpreted in practice, larger judicial issues that are making their way up
the court system, changing legislative mandates on county courts, the politics
of impending district attorney elections, the particular events involving the
victim and the accused, the commitments and habits of the presiding judge
and the unfolding of this particular trial, with multiple filings, appeals, and
actual courtroom events that lawyers must respond to. The complexity of events
moving on different time scales is ignored at the client’s peril.
Finally, writers should consider the time it takes to develop a piece of
writing—what has been called the writing process. During this process, a writer
engages in many different kinds of activities that ultimately bear on the final
text produced but that are not necessarily represented or manipulated in the
final text. Early idea-generation activities differ from those that developed
concrete plans, those that produced some text, and those directed at reviewing
and improving produced text. Such differing activities are often identified by
terms such as pre-writing, inventing, planning, draft-writing, revision, editing,
and proofreading. People do not necessarily follow these activities in a simplestage-like
manner, but rather move around them in a recursive fashion. Further,
people’s processes turn out to be highly individualistic, depending on personal
habits and tastes, along with the particular circumstances of each writing
situation. Yet the overall sequence of activities helps a writer bring a text into
being, emerging from first thoughts into polished prose.
Awareness that writing takes time and only gradually emerges through a
variety of activities relieves a writer from the anxieties that come from a sense of
incompletion and imperfection. Writers do not have to produce fully-formed
text from the beginning. After all, writers are solving problems and figuring out
what they have to say as they go along, so necessarily the partially emerged text
will appear flawed and imperfect with problems still to be solved. Awareness of
process opens up the temporal space of production as something to be thought
about, worked with, perhaps rearranged or managed, rather than something to
be simply painfully endured or to suppress from consciousness.
Even though writing processes may not always be carried out in a clearly
marked stages with definitive borders as one moves from one stage to the next,
the awareness that the writer’s primary attention is now focused on one level of
work, and that the writer can rely on one having previously thought through
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
certain levels of work, and that other kinds of things will be worried about
later, keeps the writer from having to feel compelled to juggle too many tasks at
once. The writer can think about sketching out big ideas, or search for strong
examples without having to worry about sentence coherence or spelling or
accurate typing. All will be worried through and done in its time.
An awareness that processes vary according to personal habits, task, and
situation, invites writers in each situation to articulate and improve their habits
without imposing an uncomfortable general model. And it invites writers to
think of the nature of the task and situation facing them and how their personal
habits may be accommodated and exploited to advantage in any particular case.
Chapter 12 of this volume provides further thoughts on the nature of writing
processes and how they can be managed effectively.
The perspective on genre and activity systems presented in this book also
provides additional dimensions to observing, understanding, and managing
writing processes. Each genre suggests the kinds of resources that need to be
drawn on and brought into it, the ways in which they should be typically
represented, the aspects that will be evaluated and expected and therefore need
to be attended to with special care, and thus the kind of work needed to produce
those documents. If a psychological experiment will likely be evaluated on its
methodologically correct and precise account of how the data was produced
and recorded, a writer will design one’s experiments and record the design
and ensuing events so as to produce an accountable narrative of method. If
an autobiographic reverie is dependent on the depth and richness of texture
of memory, an essential part of the writing process is to find ways to tap into
deep sensory memory. In writing for a job application, where judgments about
competence are likely to be made on final appearance and formal correctness,
then the writer might build in multiple end-of-the-process inspections.
Further, each genre just as it carries out typical forms and activities carries
with it typical situations and processes of production, learned as part of learning
the genre. Learning to write a news story occurs at the city hall, in making
connections with informants, in conducting interviews, as well as at the
keyboard. It involves learning how to keep a reporter’s notebook and when to
make an audio recording. It means learning when and where to compose a story
so as to meet deadlines, but not too early to miss late-breaking events. It has to
do with learning about the typical ways of the newsroom and the editor, and a
thousand other things that old hands know about the profession in general and
idiosyncratically at a particular newspaper.
The story of the newsroom highlights that processes of text production
are embedded in the entire discursive activity system—and learning the genre
and how to do it is learning the activity system, where the process of writing
Chapter 3 When You Are
documents within the system fits in to all the ongoing activities, including
editorial assignments, paper policies, and budget meetings. Further, it lets one
know where the supports and resources are—the ongoing relationships with
informants and public relations offices, the available files in the newspapers, the
wire services.
One can even predispose audiences to positive reception of the text
by engaging them in the production. Gaining the opinions of the upper
management on what kind of information is needed in a business report and
requesting access to relevant file, can increase the likelihood that the report
will speak to their needs and perceptions in highly effective ways. Having the
right people reviewing document drafts may turn these influential readers into
committed advocates even before the document is released.
Every piece of writing is deeply embedded in some activity system, and the
more deeply one understands that system and its rhythms, the more one can
let the activity system help one produce the document—drawing on, being
directed by, leaning against, and creatively resisting the ongoing welter of
events, artifacts, resources, and personalities, to produce an emergent text that
draws on the strengths of that system to be influential within it. Some students
learn how to use the activity and rhythms of the class to build their papers
and some never manage to get in the swing of things, so that they seem to be
taking a correspondence course—sending in papers from cognitive, social, and
temporal places that are distant from the activity of the classroom. A paper
submitted three months after the end of the class, when the student and teacher
are off doing and thinking about other things, goes without the supportive
environment that surrounds other students writing to the same assignment.
Strong writing draws on its time and speaks to its time. It knows when it is.
The previous chapters have represented written texts (although they may
appear to come from nowhere and to travel to everywhere) as always being
contexted in the lives of the people who read and write and located in social
spaces within which the texts circulate. The typification of genre draws
participants together in recognizable activities and contexts crystallized by the
genre. Even someone scratching an X on the ground where a hole is to be dug
potentially evokes a history of maps (and even tales of pirate treasure)—or at
least draws on a history of worksite inscription practices to identify specific
places to be acted on.
Each new text can relate to prior texts in other ways. Sometimes the text may
directly and self-consciously identify other texts it builds on or sets itself against;
sometimes the reference is more implicit, but intentional; and sometimes the
relation is entirely submerged, relying on familiar textual traditions and cultural
Intertextuality is this relationship among texts, and it forms a separate
domain or location within which texts can act. That is, intertextuality is both a
resource activated in texts and forms a playing field upon which texts can assert
their place, meaning, and consequence. The more deeply we understand the
intertextual resources we inevitably draw on whenever we write, the more we
will be able to manage, deploy, and position our writing with greatest clarity
and intent upon this history of texts and how the readers may perceive those
prior texts. And the more we understand how the texts we read also rely on
prior texts, we can understand with greater clarity what they are trying to
accomplish on which playing field, and whether we are satisfied with the kinds
of intertextuality they construct.
Texts are to some extent like interactions mediated in speech. A series of
letters may serve in a friendship or a business relationship much as a series
of turns in a conversation, so that each new utterance relies on and speaks
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
to the previous ones and sequentially is part of the temporal unfolding of
arrangements, relationships, and activities. But texts endure beyond our fading
memories of previous conversations, and so we can look at them to refresh our
memories, and we can refer to them as enduring artifacts in our new statements.
We may even quote them. If memories of our readers differ, we can produce
the prior letters, if we have saved them. Thus as texts add up into an archive
they become a binding resource on the current moment, locating current events
within a documentable space of prior texts.
Texts outside the immediate interchange may also come to be treated as
relevant, becoming accountable facts within the interactional situation. We
may introduce a prior contract that encumbers current negotiations. No matter
what current participants in the negotiation wish, they must now recognize and
respect the terms of the prior contract. Or, in another situation, we may refer to
a shameful family secret revealed in a letter that Aunt Rosie sent us. Of course
we could mention Aunt Rosie’s spoken comments or could even suggest our
respondent go speak to Aunt Rosie—but the enduringness and circulation of
documents means that Aunt Rosie’s divulging of that secret cannot be denied or
radically misconstrued or misremembered. These circulating documents, both
contract and personal secrets, may even be seen and read by numerous people
not part of the original or the current communicative interaction unless we
burn them or otherwise keep them hidden.
Networks of documents grow and circulate, and become mutually accessible,
particularly after the inventions of print, cheap paper, and widespread literacy.
Libraries, mass printings, and the transformative ease of digital communication
and the World Wide Web means that there are extensive sets of documents
that can be brought to bear on any new circumstance, written or spoken. Texts
become accountable to wide bodies of prior texts which are deployable as
The status of the intertext, nonetheless, remains tied to social and
institutional arrangements that value texts and how texts become intertwined
with social arrangements. Consider, for example, the history of the relation
of oral and written contracts. Before writing, all agreements were oral. When
writing entered the picture, writing was only used to remind people of spoken
agreement. The written document only eventually gained the status of an
enforceable contract as business law became a matter of record, and business
records established accountability for business practices. Now spoken contracts
have a much more dubious status and are harder to enforce, and all major
agreements are reduced to writing, with the written form taking legal priority
over any oral understandings (Tiersma, 2010).
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
With the coming of the Internet we now recognize a virtual world consisting
of digital communications, representations, and interactions, yet this virtual
world has been growing since the inception of literacy, as people started to
orient toward collections of texts as significant parts of their worlds, to which
they might appropriately respond with more texts. Texts bind together groups
of people who have access to, interests in, or responsibilities toward particular
kinds of documents. People in academic specialties are expected to be familiar
with the literature of their fields so as to be able to contribute to that literature
and apply it to cases where their expertise is called on. Lawyers need to keep
up to date on the latest rulings as well as prior precedents and laws so as to
have maximum resources in their own pleadings and to be able to counter the
deployment of these texts by their opponents. Stamp collectors and aficionados
of the fictions of Thomas Pynchon each have their bodies of texts that help form
the substance and interactions of their socio-literate worlds. For millennia,
pervasive intertextuality shaped the world of religious scholars devoted to sacred
texts and commentaries; similarly, now pervasive intertextuality has come to
remake the world of increasingly large numbers of people in economically
advanced societies. Institutions of law, bureaucracy, government, corporations,
finance, health care, science and social science, social welfare, academic research,
entertainment, journalism, and publishing—to name just a few—transform our
here and now lives in relation to deep archives of records, files, and knowledge.
Through the work of intertextually-guided professionals, these archives become
relevant for who we are, what we do, and how we are to be treated in the current
moment. Over a century ago we recognized the formation of large white-collar
workforce and more recently we have come to call ourselves the information
society. The requirements for education and high levels of literacy have increased
for those who wish to participate fully and establish high levels of agency in this
new way of life. Everyone needs to be able to move through realms of texts as
adeptly as they navigate the physical world, perhaps even more adeptly.
Bodies of texts not only provide a terrain against which new utterances
may emerge, they have their own rhythms of temporality. Documents from
the deep past may be rehabilitated and made immediately relevant, as when an
ancient law or a philosophic argument is brought from the recesses of forgotten
archives to be claimed to rule in a current case. Different domains have different
relevancies for documents of different ages, and how prior texts may be recalled
and made relevant to the moment at hand. Arguments may evolve slowly
or rapidly based on whether significant, slowly maturing statements appear
perhaps only several times in a century, or financial trades are transmitted and
responded to in micro-seconds.
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
When we now write, our activity is likely to be already deeply embedded in
one of the well-established activity systems relying on a robust intertextual infrastructure.
This intertextual infrastructure contributes to defining the current
moment as well as to the immediately relevant bodies of texts that need to be
explicitly and implicitly considered in framing our response. A lawyer preparing
contractual documents for a client must take into account the law and precedents
for the nation and local jurisdiction that specifically regulate the kind of transaction
being engaged. Even though none of the laws may be explicitly mentioned
in the contract, the terms of the agreement must be in conformity with the provisions
of the law, and lawyers would be well-advised to be mindful of the opportunities
the laws provide for creating favorable terms for the client. Litigation
precedents and rulings might also help guide the drafting of the document so
as to be effective if it were to come to court. The contract also should be well
positioned against the relevant business and financial documents that define the
client’s financial situation, obligations, plans, and wishes.
On the other hand, the lawyer need not attend to, nor in any way make the
contract responsive, to many documents, both near and far from the matter at
hand. In a real estate transaction, neither a newspaper description of the neighborhood
the property is located in nor the history of the property itself is likely
to be relevant to the effective contract—unless another lawyer does a great deal of
work to establish the legal relevance to the case, perhaps to indicate the property
has a different owner or contains toxic substances that are liable to legal regulation,
thereby bringing it into the relevant intertext. Even less likely to bear on the
case is the owner’s childhood schoolwork or medical records. The lawyer needs to
be careful in intertextually locating the contract in a complex textual world, but
a fairly defined one. Although the law now rules life, it rules life primarily from
the page, and anything that would come to notice to the law must wind up in the
network of legally admissible documents that the law would consider relevant.
Although in a less compulsory way, philosophic arguments exist in a network
of texts and anyone attempting to advance a new argument with any hope of
credibility, even in an oral forum, must take into account a canon of prior authors
that have puzzled over the question at hand. If the argument occurs among trained
philosophers the expectation will be quite explicit, as the writer will be expected
to take into account Aristotle’s and Locke’s positions, if the field has deemed that
in fact Aristotle and Locke are the most relevant authors for the issue. Training in
the field explicitly requires induction into the canon of texts deemed relevant and
in the appropriate ways of framing issues, positioning one’s views and arguing for
new claims in the on-going discussions over the accumulated wisdom registered in
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
the intertext. The training is equally in what texts and modes of argument are not
germane. Even in non-expert, daily life discussion of philosophy, the more one
is familiar with the kinds of objections and considerations posed in the history
of philosophy, the better able one is to frame views and anticipate objections—as
well as to solve problems that drive one to philosophize.
In an even less rigorously intertextually organized domain, every newspaper
story is framed against the unfolding stories of the previous days, the longer
flow of reported events likely to remain in the memories of the newspaperreading
public, and the stories of competing papers. Public documents and
reports, academic research, or private papers may become relevant and referred
to, or viewed as inappropriate or uninteresting to the news and therefore to be
ignored—depending on readers’ expectations and reporters’ attempts to construct
relevance. While neither law nor professional judgment may hold the newspapers
accountable to awareness of the relevant intertext and the boundaries of the
relevant, public memory, credibility, and interest will.
Every genre and activity system carries with it relevant intertexts to be drawn
upon and to which they are held accountable. This may always be expanded by
textual work that argues or insinuates the relevance of unanticipated documents,
and parts of the anticipated intertext may be similarly excluded by authorial
intent and strategy. Whole new intertextual systems may be made relevant, as
when the affliction of a celebrity movie actor with a dread disease links health
news with entertainment news for as long as the star holds the public attention
and uses his or her celebrity to give attention to curing the disease. Also the
magic of foregrounding and backgrounding as well as strategic remembering
and forgetting, may change the apparent shape or immediate relevance of the
intertext, varying according to the degree of inspection and compulsoriness of
intertextual accountability.
It should be mentioned as well that each domain has its common practices
of referring to and citing the intertext. Academic fields often foreground parts
of the intertext through explicit citation following the differing conventions of
various fields for footnotes or works cited, as specified in style guidebooks. Less
explicit, though, is which parts of the intertext are left entirely in the background
as “general knowledge” of the field, no longer attributed to any author. Also less
explicit are the practices of representing material from the intertext, whether
from extensive quotation and comment, paraphrase, summary, or just the
passing use of a term originated by another author. Non-academic professional
domains, such as law, accounting, and journalism, have their own regulations and
practices of identifying the relevant intertexts through citation or explicit linking
of documents. Some domains, at the other extreme, leave the intertext entirely
Chapter 4 The World of Texts: Intertextuality
implicit, as folk tales borrow freely from each other, remind us of other folk tales,
and capture a world-view resonantly expressed across many texts.
Texts originally were fully integrated into daily non-textual activities, as cows
and sheep were tallied in the meadow and barn and tax collectors carried their lists
as they traveled the land. To some extent this is still true as the express delivery
messenger carries an electronic device to one’s doorstep, to be signed and inscribed
at the moment of delivery of a package. But texts increasingly have retreated to the
counting house, government office, academic library, the internet and other sites
where texts can be readily collected, inspected, contemplated, and processed in the
presence of other texts, apart from the realities represented, analyzed, or directed
by the texts. Within such indoor worlds of reading and writing, calculation,
contemplation, and design, the most immediate realities to be contemplated are
those inscribed in other texts. Within the intertextual world, the world outside the
page only becomes accessible and relevant when inscribed through the typical and
accepted procedures of the activity system related to the intertextual field. Thus
for the operations of physical and biological reality to enter into the discourse of
science they must be observed, collected, and inscribed by acceptable procedures
of experiment, observation, or other legitimized methods. Then they are usually
further processed from the initial textual form as raw data into charts, tables, data
bases and other textualized and textually processed aggregates. When we are talking
about the environment and climate change, we are most immediately talking about
data bases, climate models, equations, scientific papers, policy reports and other
inscriptions produced, stored, consumed, and contemplated indoors. The warmth
of a sunny day is only relevant insofar as it is recorded and brought indoors in a
format that can be handled in the textual world. Chapter 9 of this volume provides
more detailed treatment of how we can inscribe realities into our texts and link our
texts to others to establish an intertextual domain of inscribed meanings.
In the inverse process, those documents that are most likely to be integrated
with our material, experienced world—such as architectural drawings used to
construct buildings or standards for automobile fuel consumption and exhaust—
are likely to have spent much time indoors being produced and processed among
other texts. Even the principles by which we conduct our personal relations are
pervaded by the textual work of psychologists, sociologists, and health researchers
that have led us to monitor and guide our behavior in new ways. The world of
texts, and now what we call the virtual world of information, has thus changed
the basic social and material landscape on which we live our lives.
Identifying a time and place of communication does not yet, in itself, provide
a situation or motive for writing. A motive embodies a desire or need to change
the situation—an felt exigency to remedy some shortcoming or imperfection,
as well as a belief that language can somehow contribute to the desired change
(according to Lloyd Bitzer’s definition of rhetorical situation as an exigent
situation marked by an imperfection that can be corrected by language (Bitzer,
1968). That is, the speaker or writer sees the need to get something done,
the opportunity in the moment to do this and the means to accomplish this
through language. At some moment we think “it is time to write a letter to get
a mistaken charge off my account” or “I need finally to write that paper tonight
in order to get credit for this course and gain my degree” or “This is the moment
to offer a critical analysis of Balkan geopolitics.”
A situation only comes into consciousness and takes shape from a perception
of exigency. An unseen and unperceived threat that kills before being noticed
provokes no situation for action, exists outside consciousness and response. As
we go through our daily life there are many things around us we do not notice
or think about, let alone write about. We are not moved to do so, because we
do not see them as relevant to our concerns and lives. It is only things we notice
and interpret as consequential for us that prompt us to wonder whether they
might be improved through our making of language.
While in our pleasant walk with friends across the field we may talk about
the birds above or our shared memories of amusing events, but we probably
would not be paying attention to the physical threat of runaway trucks until
we see one careening toward us. We worry about writing papers for classes
only when schools, courses, and degrees become significant in our lives. There
are many people who currently have no thought of educational institutions,
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
even though they may live around the corner from one; and there are enrolled
students who have other things on their mind so that a looming paper deadline
presents no exigency.
Conscious awareness and framing of a situation already has the seeds of a
motive and action, elevating attention above the level of general monitoring of
the environment. The sense of urgency turns the walk into a situation, turns
the near automatic monthly payment of bills into a problem to be attended
to, the professor’s assigned essay into something that consumes our attention
and energies. The perception of a situation then brings about the possibility
of action and potential moments and means for action. While a perceived
danger in which we see no site for resistance, action, or protection, leads us to
watch our destruction helplessly, it is the hope of action that leads us to search
for the opening and the means. If we perceive no means at hand to relieve a
pervasive heat, no shade, no fan, no air-conditioned room, we cannot begin
to frame an action, but if we believe that there may be an oasis beyond the
horizon, we struggle to move, despite the effort and added threat. If we believe
in the possibility of public resistance and democratic removal of an offending
government, we look for opportunities to influence the public debate with an
eye toward elections, which provide a social system for inscribing public wishes.
Despite the psychological nature of framing of a moment for action, if the
rhetor is to be successful in accomplishing his or her ends, the perceptions are
accountable to material and social conditions. Otherwise, one would risk being
perceived as a foolish henny-penny warning that the sky is falling when listeners
do not perceive the danger and cannot be made to see the danger. For them,
there is no urgency to the situation and no imperfection, so the words are just
untimely foolishness. If people feel no personal, physical or moral cost to a war,
nor even perceive events as one of unusual hostility, it is difficult to have them
oppose a war they do not notice or care about.
The rhetor has an easier task, of course, if the audience shares material
and social experiences that predispose them to see the rhetor’s framing of the
moment as common sense, even more so if they share relevant sets of social
typifications that would lead to congruent understandings of the immediate life
world. If in response to a terrible attack witnessed by all and suffered by many,
people anticipate that the government leader will speak and propose a call to
action, they are ready to listen. The leader may then be able to call on them to
engage in efforts that just the previous month would have been unthinkable.
While powerful rhetors may have some effect in reframing the situation
and influencing people’s judgments about events and appropriate actions, they
can do so only by being attentive to the experience, perceptions, and available
potentials of the situation. A situation may be transformed by the child
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
announcing that the emperor has no clothes, but only if available observations
or experiences can give credibility to the claim. As the story goes, the child
blurts out his transformative truth while the naked king is parading in front of
all to see.
This role of social belief and experience, and the rhetor’s perception of it,
constitutes the symbolic side of Marx’s (1937) famous comment that we make
our lives but not in conditions of our own making. On the material side, a
farmer may plow, fertilize, irrigate, and apply pesticides to fields, but that farmer
must still be attentive to the initial conditions of soil, climate, and ecosystem,
even though his or her actions may be able to transform them to some degree.
Influencing humans through language is equally a matter of evaluating, selecting
fields for action, and aligning to conditions even in the attempt to transform
them. But instead of aligning to material conditions, what we must align with
are social facts. Social facts are those things that because people believe are true,
are therefore true in their consequences, in the formulation of W. I. Thomas
(1923). Social facts are conditioned by and accountable to material conditions
and the experiences available to people, but ultimately the symbolic world of
communication must speak to the consciousnesses and emotional beings of our
audiences. Our statements must become facts to them, part of the symbolic
landscape they live in.
Acts of language create social facts that change the way people view their interior
and exterior landscapes, the relations with those around them, their material
conditions and themselves. This may be as simple, superficial, and emotionally
neutral as presenting them an electric bill they will honor and write a check to pay.
It can be as complex, profound, and wrenching as having them reconsider the
decency and morality of people whose behavior contravenes their personal values.
It can be accomplished in as familiar and formulaic a text as a utility bill, or it
may take a complex innovative performance drawing on multiple traditions and
hybrid textual forms that aggregate emotions and thoughts while disrupting and
reorganizing expectations and frames of reference—as perhaps occur in powerful
works of art. But each must became an unmistakable act that cannot be ignored
or denied, and consequentially change the audience’s mental landscape for action.
They must become social facts by being successful speech acts.
The theory of speech acts can help us understand how this happens, and what
we have to do to make this happen. Although developed only to characterize
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
short verbal pronouncements (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) and presenting some
difficulties in applying to extended written texts (see Bazerman, 1994), speech
act theory presents the powerful insight that words do things, mediated through
the alignment and understanding of others. Further, the theory notes that these
acts then change the reality for future utterances through the perlocutionary
uptake of the acts by listeners. But speech acts, the theory argues, accomplish
these things only if crafted to meet conditions necessary for success, which
Austin dubbed felicity conditions. These felicity conditions have to do in part
with the external conditions under which an utterance was made: who has the
rights to make the utterance, under what conditions and in what venue, with
what timing and what attendant cooperation. A baby can be christened only by
authorized clergy in a sanctified place and a law declared only by appropriate
members of government carrying out the constituted procedures of the country
through accepted institutional practices. Felicity conditions, however, also
concern the manner and form in which the utterance is realized and with what
understandings by both speaker and hearer. Thus in performing a wedding,
the clergy or judge must meet some minimum ritual requirements of verbal
performance, such as asking each of the participants whether they freely enter
a union, to which there must be an affirmative response. But also the presiding
official must also be of serious intent in carrying out this performance, as well as
believed to be of serious intent by the participants. Similarly the serious intent
of the married must be presumed in their acceptance; otherwise we would have
a mock marriage, a fraud, a satire, or other act, but a failed marriage.
A further insight of speech act theory is that part of every speech act is a
locutionary act—representing a certain state of affairs. In taking vows of marriage
people either explicitly or implicitly represent that they are not already married
to some other spouse. Again the act fails if the locutionary representation turns
out not to be true—or more precisely taken to be true by the relevant parties.
The speech act can fail and the marriage be declared invalid if a prior and still
valid spouse appears. But if the act is accepted as true, the representations or
implied representations are taken to be true. Thus speech acts create both the
facts of the accomplished action plus acquiescence to the explicit or implied
representations that are asserted as part of the act.
This concept of speech act then provides the mechanism by which our
words can influence the world and remedy imperfections in situations. Speech
acts change the social world by creating new social facts, which change what
we believe, how we interact socially, and how we act in the world. These social
facts then may even change our relation to the material world. If we believe
the world is flat, with edges one can fall off of, we may lose enthusiasm for
long sea journeys to unknown parts, while a conviction of the earth’s roundness
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extends our adventurousness and knowledge. If common social beliefs hold
that there is little you can do about the weather, that a certain number of
climate disasters are inevitable and to be expected, and that free markets always
respond creatively and successfully to changing conditions, then it is hard to
mobilize changes in energy and pollution policy to combat global warming. On
the other hand, if scientific argument convinces the public and policy-makers
that global warming is occurring and will have catastrophic consequences too
large to be absorbed by typical social processes, and further that certain of our
actions can ameliorate the situation, then we will look at and act with respect
to our environment differently. Of course, changing material experiences (such
as rises in aggregate global temperatures, increases in violent weather, rising sea
levels, and desertification) may also attune people to attend to different realms
of social facts, thereby changing their beliefs and orientations to action.
Let us consider a more ordinary and less extreme example of how this nexus
of rhetorical situation, speech act, social fact, and genre can work together
to make possible effective action. Consider a person contemplating a lack of
opportunities in the local job market and the sterility of his or her current
occupation (in an attempt to create his or her own life, but not in a situation of
his or her own making or even liking). Clearly the person sees an imperfection
in the situation, but how could it be corrected, how could life be made a little
more perfect? Noting that in the local economy people with university degree
have more opportunities, the unhappy employee might desire to obtain a degree.
Of course the person could just add a line to their resume, but that speech act
is likely to fail in creating a robust social fact, as any potential employer has the
intertextual resource of university records against which to hold the educational
claim accountable. In such a case the social fact likely to be created is not the
status of a university graduate but of a liar. Other short cuts such as paying a
few hundred dollars to a diploma mill to create a record are again likely not to
garner the full respect and credentials needed.
So there seems no path but to spend some time in an accredited institution
which will entail many documentary speech acts, such as exams, papers,
registration forms, and bill payments. Now, let us look in detail at one of the
earliest series of written actions that must be carried out to set this in motion.
Once having settled on an appropriate school to attend, to gain the status
of student, the person must first apply, which means not only locating the
application materials from the complex set of intertexts that constitute the
university recruitment and application systems, but then filling them out. To
complete the application materials the would-be student must write a variety
of representations of information in the proper form, asserting many facts
about identity, experience, prior educational accomplishment, and similar
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
topics. The would-be student may also need to write an extended statement,
take some exams, and fill out forms to have the scores forwarded from the
exam agency. The would-be student must also solicit letters of recommendation
and transcripts from previous schools. If the would-be student manages to
felicitously collect all these documents and appropriately inscribe them within
the university application system, he or she would then have completed the
successful speech act of making application, and may receive a written (perhaps
electronic) acknowledgment of this fact. The university cannot now deny
that the person has applied. The applicant has met all the felicity conditions
and a social fact has been created. Of course, if later it is found out that some
documents were forged or falsified, the application can be declared invalid and
the social fact erased. That possibility aside, that accomplishment is, however,
hardly the end of the story, because the person now having achieved the status of
applicant desires to be an accepted applicant. This requires that the application
meet other felicity conditions arising from the evaluation of the elements
inscribed in the application. The admissions evaluators may consider how well
the prior academic record, entry exam scores, and quality of the letters and
essays match the university’s mission, and expectations of the university and
compare to the records of other applicants. Even though these considerations
involve evaluation by the reader, we can equally say the applicant wishes to meet
them felicitously. The obsession of the college-bound is of course to anticipate
and meet these somewhat fuzzier felicity conditions, so that the evaluators and
they will be made happy. If the applicant is able to meet all these conditions
in the application, the evaluators will inscribe another document granting the
applicant the status of an accepted student. This then is just the beginning of
further sets of inscriptions that accomplish becoming a registered and enrolled
student in good standing, and then completing a record over the ensuing years
that would establish the social fact and status of being a college graduate. Each
of these steps could be analyzed in terms of what must be accomplished against
more or less well articulated felicity conditions, that may be rule-governed
or more dependent on the judgment of those who read and act on student
inscriptions, for example grading student assignments.
From the institutional side, of course, the university would be somewhat
imperfect if it lacked students, so it itself must create documents and procedures
that would recruit and induce students into the university, accomplishing the
enrollment of a select body of people transformed into matriculated students.
Similarly the university must go about recruiting and maintaining a faculty,
taking a thousand actions and building many systems that constitute the entire
system of the university. Thus the social facts of universities and educated
students are accomplished through the means of documents by which the
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system is organized, activated, and realized—accompanied by all the attendant
face-to-face and material actions that are implied and give credibility to the
documents, making the degree a meaningful one, by whatever standards of
meaningfulness the various participants and surrounding society may invoke.
The face-to-face situation of spoken language, the physical environment and
the visible social relations of co-participants often can lend a concreteness to
rhetorical moments that help align participants to common understandings of
what is going on and what is needed. The forest is burning around us, and
the apparent urgency of the situation will help others understand your cry for
help and will lend credibility to your claims and the exigency. Further if you
are yelling down from a high point and looking off into the distance, your
relationship to your hearers and the physical surroundings will be further
defined and again your comments made easier to understand, to be aligned
toward, to be credible, and to be influenced by.
Observable social and material conditions can aid the ready production
of shared social facts upon which all will act. Team sports players can make
their words intelligible to teammates even under the most difficult auditory
conditions because there is so much visible co-orientation on the court or
field and because of long common training that makes responses habitually
anticipatable. Two friends watching a movie together can make comments
cryptic to others, but hilarious to each other in the moment. As we say when
asked what went on, “You had to be there.”
In such real-time, physically embodied rhetorical moments the language
helps focus and organize our orientation to the situation. The speech acts
are readily interpretable as part of the events. Further, they are immediately
and materially effective within the here and now, and participants can often
observe the rapidly evolving consequences which mark the effectivity and social
meaning of the acts. People start spraying fire retardant, someone passes you the
ball, or your friends laugh—or they don’t.
Some written communications can also be highly embedded in
circumstances—fire teams can send out text alerts, sports coaches can chalkboard
messages from the sidelines, friends in a silent auditorium could be texting each
other. Typically the conditions of writing, however, are more removed from
the immediate surroundings, with the writer and reader not visible to each
other and separated by time. Nonetheless, it may be that on each end of the
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
transaction each is engaged in material real-time activities that are coordinated
by the text. The cookbook writer likely starts in the kitchen (no matter how
desk-bound the composing and production process might become) and the
reader may refer to the grease-stained cookbook open on the countertop while
following the recipe. The invoice informs the shipping clerk which items to
put in the cartons, the receiving clerk what to confirm, and the bookkeeper
how large a check to write. The reporter interviews the political candidate and
attends political events to create stories to provide citizens information that may
affect how they vote.
In these examples, however, the scene of action becomes increasingly mental
and cognitive. As discussed in the previous chapter, literacy has facilitated the
development of a virtual world of the intertext, and that intertext itself can
become the scene of action—the place where the rhetor can perceive an exigency
and an imperfection. Voters need information that they get in the newspapers.
A candidate has not gone on the record on the issue of school privatization and
the reporter perceives the public might be interested in knowing the candidates’
views. By interview and other means the writer gathers information for a story
to appear in the newspaper, thereby establishing the candidate’s position (that
is, if the story meets the felicity conditions of a credible news story and is not
effectively contested and thereby made dubious as a speech act and social fact).
If we remove the temporal and geographical focus of an election, and the special
relevancy status of voting citizen in the jurisdiction, we go one step further into
the virtual world. The threat of global warming and the ongoing international
negotiations on environmental policy may provide some material and social
exigency to work in climate science, but more typically work in climate science, as
in the other sciences, appears as a more generalized contribution to the scientific
literature moving at its own pace. While scientists may know each other, the
work is presented as though it were to anyone knowledgeable and committed in
the field. The only exigency is that there is something we don’t know yet and the
scientist through the work offers an increment of knowledge. The imperfection
is in the literature which has not yet fully examined some aspect of knowledge (as
is highlighted in Swales’ model of the scientific article introduction, 1990). The
language remedy is the felicitous report of a credible scientific study. Similarly
the exigency of a literary critic may appear even more out of time and space—
that we do not understand a poem or playwright as deeply as we might, or
we have been lacking some knowledge about a novelist’s relationship with their
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publisher that would shed further light on her famous works. The imperfection
in knowledge and interpretive depth is resolved by a work of scholarship. The
scene of action is perceived in the text and the text’s relation to other texts, only
available through interpretation of the inscribed words.
The formation of kairos within the intertextual world has been a gradual
historical phenomenon, accelerating in the last few centuries as robust
intertextual systems have emerged whose relation to here and now experience is
highly mediated through texts. To deal with a land dispute effectively these days,
you do not now go out and put up a fence or stand your ground with a weapon.
You enter into a complex intertextual world of deeds, registry, real estate law,
filings—and maybe a surveyor to inscribe your land according to the directives
of documents. To measure your wealth you no longer open your treasure chest
to bathe your hands in jewels, but you go into your office to gather documents
or examine a spreadsheet. Even to know if you feel healthy, while you still
might give some credence to your gut feeling, you need to consult your medical
records and results of tests. And to seek wisdom, while you still might seek a
personal guru, you are likely to read a few books that define the tradition the
guru is embedded in.
The intertextual world presents special difficulties for identifying rhetorical
moments, the right times for utterance, in that we are less likely to have events
unfolding in front of our eyes to excite, move or frighten us into writing—as
the fire racing toward us will induce us to yell help. Similarly we have fewer
immediate means to align our readers to an urgent here and now in which
they must attend to our texts—let alone in the spirit and orientation and roles
we would hope. It is one of the tricks of robust intertextual systems in fact
to create exigencies for us to attend to texts, often through some institutional
structuring that creates penalties or rewards, framed by deadlines. If we wish
to maintain health benefits, we must fill out a form by a certain date and
supply specific information. With web forms we cannot even file the document
unless all required fields are filled in appropriately—before the page times
out. And sometimes the information we provide is immediately checked out
against other databases for consistency and accuracy. Further, unless we provide
acceptable information we may not be able to proceed to the next page where
the information we desire is located. While such devices are so effective we may
not even think about them, these urgencies are rhetorical accomplishments.
These exigency devices are worth understanding so we can know our options
for responsive action better, and so we can mobilize them for our own purposes
to assemble virtual kairos.
Understanding kairos within intertextual domains first requires an
understanding of why the intertext matters to us. Given modern conditions of
Chapter 5 Kairos, Social Facts, and Speech Acts
life, for example, institutional records about us (payroll, school, police, credit,
health) might affect whether we are hired on a job, get a loan, get insurance
coverage or get appropriate medical treatment. Further, we understand typically
how a flaw in those records affects us—getting less pay than we are owed,
having a mark on the record that would stigmatize us, or not having the records
that would grant us preferred status. If we consider these imperfections of the
record serious enough to be worth the effort and if we see means to modify or
re-inscribe the record, we might then accept the exigency and attempt to have
our payroll deductions adjusted, or have a juvenile arrest expunged from our
record, or go through the effort of taking additional courses to complete the
requirements for a degree. Given the use cycles of institutional records we can
often anticipate when they are likely to be used and when might be the best time
to modify them. Shortly before we wish to apply for a loan we may feel moved
to check our credit rating so we can boost it if necessary. Educational records
may become most significant at times of employment or application to further
education, but the best time to remedy them is while we are still students. On
the other hand, we may have no successful means with an acceptable cost of
time, effort, money, or social displacement (such as by going underground and
creating a new identity) to change the records.
In each of these cases, we also need to be aware of the effective means of
changing the record that forms the intertext for our further actions—that is,
what felicity conditions must be met and how. We must determine how we
can demonstrate to the payroll office that we were due a raise, how we can
prove to the credit bureau there is an inaccuracy, how we can build an academic
record. This involves such things as establishing the credibility and authority
to act in the circumstances, acting at proper times in proper ways, with proper
verifiable supporting materials, doing whatever work is implied in the desired
inscription, adopting the appropriate stances and relationships to institutions,
and submitting the request in proper form in a timely way with all the relevant
We can either attend to the institutional facts residing in our records to
protect our interests or we let them slide and live with the consequences, but
they are undeniably parts of lives. Our stake in other intertexts may be more
matters of our recognition and active pursuit of them. We may not care much
about municipal noise pollution regulations until our neighbor adopts a pack of
highly excitable hunting hounds. Even then we need to become aware that such
regulations exist and are invocable, and then we need to learn the procedures for
filing a complaint and presenting evidence. Even then we must decide whether
invoking these procedures is worth the social costs of turning a neighborly
relationship into a municipal documentary one, with all the consequent legality
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
that might ensue. Similarly, we calibrate our attention to the news, how much
of what sort we attend to, and which we act upon. Do we follow the news to
consider the business consequences and modify our portfolio, or to ponder how
we will inscribe our votes, or to hold our own in casual conversations? Are we
political comedians who must every day write new jokes about current events to
earn our living? At what point and why do we feel the need to enter into a blog
discussion or write a letter to the editor, or begin to compose our own satires?
Where is the stake, what is the imperfection, what are the effective means at
hand, what is the timing, who is the audience? And then how can we draw the
readers into the same sense of exigency and situation we perceive so that they
will find our comments germane and worth attending to, our humor funny?
Such questions add new dimensions to the strategics of rhetoric, which was
initially conceived in a world of face-to-face interactions, where social facts took
shape in the here and now of mutual alignment in the moment. Indeed many
professions, careers and life projects are now devoted to building, maintaining,
and transforming the intertext in recognition of its importance for modern
lives. The most visible professions have been those who physically produce
and maintain the texts that provide the intellectual infrastructure—printers,
publishers, librarians, writers. These intertextual workers now include those
who build the electronic infrastructure within which information technologies
reside, and those who inscribe meaning in digital spaces. This in effect can
mean anyone who spends much of the day at the computer or working with
documents, from bureaucratic clerks to lawyers to market traders to academics—
each of them has the problem of aligning to a communal intertext and refiguring
that intertext to incorporate or take account of their work, to create new social
facts that will be visible and consequential for those that attend to that textual
informational space. Meeting the well-articulated mandatory felicity conditions
as well as the more suasive, strategic conditions that invoke readers’ selective
attention, evaluation, and memory form the basis of successful action.

Writing requires extended work over time to create a verbal artifact that
can work its effect, often at some physical (temporal and geographic) distance
from the site of its creation. Such extended work directed toward distant ends
requires we become aware of and understand our motives, so that we attend to
them despite distractions and obstacles in our immediate environment. Good
writing is aided by locating and nurturing our motivations.
Our motivations in any writing situation occur at the intersection of our
long-term concerns and the emergent situation, recognized and given shape by
our typifications about how situations are organized and the forms of action
available in such situations. That is, our genre and situation shaped perceptions
of openings for immediate action serve to crystallize underlying concerns and
interests that lie behind our sense of imperfection in that situation.
Sometimes the motive is obvious to us, as familiar and compelling
circumstances call on us to adopt a role and take a well-defined action. For
example, when we arrive for a medical appointment we are given a form to fill
out reporting our medical history. We are already in the role of seeking medical
help, and we understand that the medical providers need information from us
so that they can do their task well. We know we do not want to wait long for
our appointment and we set directly to filling out forms so as not to fall back
in the queue waiting for attention. Pressing circumstances cast us into a role.
Often, though, our more ambitious and difficult writing tasks occur separated
from the circumstances we are responding to and we must write without the
immediate pressure of events unfolding around us at the moment. In such cases
our motives may only take shape as we start to contemplate and give mental
definition to our situation and then begin to plan and carry out actions. In this
process the possibilities of action begin to unfold which in turn crystallize our
motives for concrete objectives.
On one extreme our motive for writing may come from the need for social
or legal compliance. Mandatory writing tasks often come to us in regulated
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
forms on regulated occasions. We then either participate or visibly resist
with consequence. If we participate, our influence is only in inscribing our
compliance within the regulated forms of participation, within the allowable
ranges of freedom. A clerk or other bureaucratic subordinate filling in forms at
a computer terminal has only limited influence in what he or she inscribes as
detailed information within the form, though there are some decisions to be
made about the exact information and the form it is to be presented that might
benefit or penalize the client. Electronic systems have increased the use of forms
and held them more tightly to narrow standards, to the point of immediately
rejecting a response if it does not contain all required elements in the expected
form. Electronic systems may even check the accuracy of information by
matching it with related forms and databases, so that credit card numbers must
match with accounts, and case records must match with already existing case
files before the response is accepted and we are allowed to continue. Yet still we
do have some choices about the information we include to represent ourselves
and our interests—whether which phone number we inscribe or what we list as
a cause for complaint and how we elaborate in an available open field.
At the other extreme are self-chosen genres in situations of personal choice. No
one except the philosopher him or herself determines what topic and discussion
to address at what moment in time, and in which of the professionally acceptable
genres. Poets may write when the spirit moves them and in the form that their
impulses dictate. Political bloggers can take up topics and develop them when
and how they see fit, within the flexible space with generic variety that blogs
allow. Little other than personal impulse compels an individual in most cases to
take on the role and voice of a poet or a philosopher or political blogger.
Many intermediate cases combine a degree of social compulsion with
individual choice making about topic, substance, and genre, as well as the
underlying motives that might be served. Assigned work in academic settings
often provides substantial room for students to pursue curiosities, resolve
personal puzzles, or assert identities and commitments. Journalists or their
editors have degrees of freedom to select which stories to develop and columnists
to decide on topics, stances, and approaches.
Even when confronted with social compulsion our motives are important
to determine whether we will comply rapidly and willingly, whether we will be
evasive and minimally compliant, or even deceptive and subversive. Depending
on the nature and personal importance of our motives we can decide not to
comply with the request, or even to actively resist the requirement. In cases
where there are more readily available degrees of freedom our motives can play
a much more integral role in how we respond, and thus the kinds of texts
we will produce. Sometimes our feelings about the role we are cast into are
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
complex and mixed; consequently, even though we may consciously believe
we are committed to a writing task we act reluctantly. Chapter 12 considers
psychological ambivalences, whether real or chimerical, we may have toward
writing, so that we can overcome them to write with our whole heart and energy.
Emergent motivations take shape when felt discomfort begins to meet
locatable sites for action. The force for action grows as the site takes shape.
We may even see an imperfection that we can name and would like to remedy,
but until we locate a possible site for remedying it is an unscratched itch.
For example, a student’s interest in how local governments work may have
been whetted by a summer internship in the local parks department which
left her wondering about certain seemingly irrational policies. This curiosity
then supports a decision to register for a political science course on municipal
government. As she is introduced to different theories and examples her
experience becomes a touchpoint for thinking about what she is learning. When
assigned to write a paper about planning processes, she takes the assignment as
an opportunity to look into parks planning and how the policies that troubled
her came about. In the course of doing research she then uncovers a longstanding
set of conflicts among homeowners, renters, businesses, and real estate
interests, which becomes the topic of the paper. As she gets into the project,
she realizes she may be deviating from the assigned paper. She then visits the
professor to see whether she can renegotiate the assignment.
On the other hand the irrationality of her experience in the parks department
could have taken her in very different directions if she started seeing herself as
an advocate for people who were hurt by the policies, or if she were taking a
creative writing major and were looking for material for a short story, or if she
worked at a comedy club and were looking for material about the absurdities
of daily work life.
Of course, which way we go to scratch an itch is a mixture of estimates
of what else in our life we know about and are doing, how we perceive our
established and emergent identities, what kinds of support are around us, and
estimates of our ability to successfully carry out work in the corresponding
genres. In thinking about the consequences of our actions we may also consider
the likelihood of gathering an audience who will understand and be engaged
in our meanings created in the genre we work in. Thus our motivations emerge
and take shape in a complex world.
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
Effective writing is aided when we understand a wider repertoire of possible
directions and have a wider range of skills to form our emergent motivations
into a greater range of potential objects—so that we don’t always follow the
most obvious, well-worn and least demanding path—though often that may in
fact be the best solution. If we want to buy a product, filling in the online order
form according to exact instructions, as we have done many times before, will
most efficiently meet our needs, even if it is not particularly challenging. We
may even be bored by it, especially if we have to fill out twenty forms for twenty
different products.
To pursue a bit more complex example, our desire to get to work, get around
town, and visit our friends may be facilitated by having a driver’s license.
Obtaining a license requires filling out forms, passing tests, and registering
at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The motives to enter the documentary
system of the department of motor vehicles are extremely powerful—as anyone
who has observed an adolescent in the United States or other developed
country knows only too well. It is easy to follow that path, hard to avoid it,
and writing the forms and taking the tests is not all that demanding. It is the
obvious solution. Nonetheless, costs of car ownership and insurance, likelihood
of traffic congestions, and looming global warming may in the long run may
make one think about alternative forms of action and may even lead one to
become a motivated environmental activist. These solutions, however, will take
much more time and work, and require one to write far more effectively in far
more difficult circumstances to much wider, conflicting audiences than filling
out a few forms for a clerk whose task it is to facilitate and accept properly filled
out forms.
On the other hand, understanding the alternative paths our motives may
take us into more fundamental workings of society, can open the doors to
greater influence on how we live, provide us deeper forms of engagement, and
challenge us to more effective writing to more significant ends. Yet, even though
such a path may lead us to take less expected actions and require from us more
creative, less anticipated writing for which we must solve many novel problems,
we cannot leave typification behind. Typification rules in originality as well as in
the most boring and conventionalized task. The further we contest the taken-forgranted,
the further we wander from the absolutely conventional, the more we
must understand and use typification. For example, the environmental activist
might need to deal with genres from science and engineering, governmental
regulation and planning, public advocacy and organization, journalism and
opinion, litigation, fund raising and NGO administration, as well as the
specialized genres of environmental impact assessment and environmental
modeling. Further, the environmentalist may need to take standard genres and
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
invest them with new motives and forces, as when a class action suit is filed
in a case arguing not about financial damage (typical for such suits), but an
inequitable burden of environmental degradation on one community.
These complexes of genres, hybridization, and multiple choices only come
into our view over time. The more we engage in a project and we map the
situation and our opportunities, the clearer it becomes to us what we can and
want to do. Thus it is inevitable that much of our learning to write occurs “on
the job” (or in the community), insofar as we recognize that writing is part of
the job and we invest time and energy into advancing our skill to carry out
the job. As we get drawn into the motives and opportunities of our sites of
engagement, we see how we can go beyond the most typified forms of action
that were immediately apparent. This learning coincides with us taking on new
identities, presences, and power within these socially organized activities.
While engagement with each new field of action brings learning about the
literate opportunities of that field, we bring the experiences, tools, and skills of
our prior writing engagements—as we move from one organization to another, as
we move from one area of public action to another, as we move from advertising
to public relations, as we move from journalism to non-fiction writing. In each
case the prior experiences with literacy give us confidence and analytical abilities
to frame writing problems and a range of tools and models to draw on. At times
the tasks are similar and we can diagnose key issues quickly so we can readjust
to modified circumstances, though creative action may still require deeper local
analysis. But often the cultures and practices of the new domain of action are
substantially different, so we must learn a new way of doing things even before
we try anything unusual. When our area of endeavor switches entirely, such
as when moving from marketing electronics to organizing famine relief, we
must address new values, purposes, systems, relations, and cultures; and we
must adopt new stances, genres, and styles to accomplish very different kinds of
work. In the course of this the motives attached to writing change—and thus
the very nature of the act.
The biggest leap most people make in their writing is from schooling to
whatever they write outside of school. By that time people have spent so many
years in schooling, and so much of their experience in writing has been carried
out in school, it is often hard for them to see writing in any other than school
terms. The school experience of writing becomes a general characterization of
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
all writing, and the values and practices of school writing get carried over to
non-school situations in ways that are inappropriate. While school provides
many tools and facilities that can be of value, unless the transfer is intelligent
and thoughtful, the practices of school can be limiting or even misleading. Thus
people who do learn to use writing successfully in the world often say they
only learned to write once they have left school. Many others say they never
really wrote once they left school, or they write only privately. They never have
made a real leap from the writing they learned to do in school to the tasks and
opportunities the world presents them with. Insofar as they engage with new
opportunities, they may discount them as real writing, thereby limiting their
ability to think about these new writing situations creatively and to reflectively
transfer and reconfigure what they have learned in school for new purposes.
Therefore it is worth spending some time to sort out the relationship
between writing in school and writing elsewhere, so we can understand the
transition and manage it more effectively. Such thinking can also guide teaching
to better to prepare people for the transition. One of the characteristics of
learning to write in school is that it is a time apart from the ordinary activities
of life in order to enhance our life—through learning skills like the three R’s,
or engaging in the arts, or contemplating our values, or acquiring specialized
forms of knowledge and practice, such as associated with engineering. When we
finish schooling we are expected to take on various roles in the world, but while
in school our primary engagement is with schooling itself. We learn about how
to do school assignments; how to advance and gain rewards in schooling; how
to use to advantage the minor institutional genres around the edges—whether
excuse and doctor’s notes, hall passes, or petitions for exceptions to regulations;
and how to participate in the culture of students through note passing, secret
peer notebooks, or sponsored activities like newspapers.
The central writing activities in school are framed as assignments set by the
curriculum and instructors in fulfillment of the courses, and they are evaluated
by the instructors or outside evaluators to see whether we can demonstrate
the required knowledge and competence. That is, our writing is evaluated and
corrected in relation to the curriculum. Our motives typically are minimally
to get school done and maximally to get school done well. Both are usually
associated with a grade and avoiding correction—and sometimes with praise for
exceptional achievement. Consequentially, some of the most important writing
is associated with examinations—local, state, and national. These examinations
may then define the taught curriculum which shapes the tasks, attitudes, and
skills associated with more daily writing. This basic institutional structure
can be supplemented by values of interaction and engagement—the teacher
caring about what you are writing and responding to the thoughts you express,
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
whether about your personal life or subject matters like history in order to
mentor you to more sophisticated thought. Yet the personal response is still that
of a teacher and not a parent or friend, and even the most engaged dialogue on
subject matter, whether of mentor/mentee, or erstwhile colleague to established
scholar, is within the frame of academic subject matters within an educational
environment—where the primary work is the development of individuals.
The student writer is the object of development—whether being regularly
evaluated and corrected, or supported, encouraged, and led into rewarding
halls of learning. Only when the upper ends of education intersect with actual
professions, disciplines, arts, or service activities do educational practices begin
to overlap robustly with practices in the world. And even then students always
know that the educational reality of teacher assessment based on student display
of skills and knowledge makes the school writing different from business where
the final test is a profit or a building that does not collapse (Becker, Geer &
Hughes, 1968; Dias, Pare, Freedman, & Medway, 1999).
In addition to evaluation with attendant punishments and rewards, several
other aspects of schooling limit our ability to engage more deeply in other
forms of writing. The practice of teachers setting assignments is essential to
challenging the students and keeping them on the learning task; the practice,
however, limits students’ ability to identify meaningful writing situations which
they may want to respond to and thus does not nurture their ability to identify
motives to write outside assignments. Writing is thus not seen as an actively
invoked tool for personally felt tasks in personally perceived situations. Rather
writing is something assigned by others, with the writer searching for a successful
way to fulfill the assignment—at best the student can locate a topic or approach
he or she is interested in and cares about within the frame of the assignment.
Further, writing assignments often are made only to practice writing skills
rather than pursuing a substantive interest in the content or action. When a
substantive task is assigned, it is frequently a faux action, such as pretending
to write a letter of complaint about a product, but not sending it because it is
not part of a real situation and need. Further when presumably writing about
substantive maters in their various subject courses, students are rarely asked
questions that the instructor/examiner doesn’t already know the answers to, so
even then the writing is about display of knowledge and analytic skills rather
than sharing of valued thoughts and information. Finally, assignments are often
part of a very short sequence of interactions, so that the student writer is always
in the position of starting up a fresh conversation, even initiating it—with all
the uncertainties about the audience, the topic, the issue at hand that usually
attends first meetings. The student writer rarely gets the sense of being in a
long conversation with extensive back and forth—focusing and strengthening
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
motives, forming a relationship with the interlocutor, and developing issues and
content at play in the conversation. Rather the writer is always in the position
of warming up, trying to get something going.
As a consequence of these characteristics of school writing, for most
people writing is about pursuing correctness, being evaluated, and displaying
knowledge and skills. The motives most deeply attached to writing are avoiding
embarrassment and gaining approval. No matter how deftly the evaluations
are given, students’ imaginations of what can be accomplished in writing are
limited, and their motivations are often heavily freighted by aversive emotions
and fear of being found wanting. The student is not prepared to see writing
simply as performing a task successfully, so that it meets the conditions to do
what it has to do. Anything of this character in the school context is not counted
as writing—just filling out a form—and therefore is not a serious exercise of
skill. Even when tasks engage other situations and motives, they are still infused
with school situations and dynamics.
School-based standards of writing seem to endure long past the context of
school, rather than standards drawn from the tasks of the world. I regularly
hear from lawyers or scientists that those who write best are those who use
poetic figures, wide vocabularies, and other marks of school approved writing
rather than getting the job done—whether explaining the theory and evidence
clearly or making a persuasive case for a client. While training in school can
provide basic tools, habits, and practice, the situation and motives of school
are distinct from those of other activities. Not understanding the differences of
school writing and writing elsewhere can be an obstacle to addressing new tasks
successfully and may even prevent people from taking on new challenges, as
they feel the weight of school experiences too heavy to confront. Consequently,
they never develop a long term engagement in a field of writing that is
personally meaningful and they never develop motives and commitments that
will keep them working at the hard task of writing that will lead to high levels
of accomplishment.
Just as we spend many years learning how to be students, it takes a while
to learn the landscape of new domains, become familiar with the genres and
the associated activities and dynamics, identify our opportunities to intervene
by writing, and the repertoire of devices, styles, phrases, and tactics that are
effective in the relevant genres. As we develop these skills we may also develop
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
a higher level of understanding of how the entire system we are participating
in works, so we can become more strategic about when and why we write. As
we learn these things, we also re-form ourselves, taking on identities, stances,
and commitments that give focus and strength to what we do as writers, how
we project ourselves as writers, and what we attempt to accomplish through
our writing. We move past the awkwardness and uncertainty of beginnings in
unfamiliar social situations, to knowing the people we are communicating with,
what we want to communicate, what will work, and where next we may take
the conversation. We learn this by continually writing within a world where we
see the effect or lack of effect of what we do.
Even within a single episode of writing there can be a substantial evolution,
as the writing process occurs over time and each step we take in the writing gives
more focus and shape to the situation. We get a more refined and directed idea
of where we are going with each step we take. We can look on what we have
produced so far and reflect on what is coming into being and refine it, as the
later chapters of this volume will explore.
An even more significant evolution can occur as an interaction develops
over time, so that problems get defined, roles of participants emerge, work to
be accomplished becomes clearer, facts of the situation and relevant knowledge
become salient—in short we know a lot more of what we are doing in a place
we have become more familiar with. Sometimes our motives may in fact change
as we come to see what is possible and impossible, or we come to recognize
new opportunities in the situation, or we come to understand through the
process more about our motives and fundamental concerns. But even when
our fundamental motivation is stable, we refine by finding locally relevant
expressions of it in the unfolding activity. As opportunities and situations
change, so our local motives come into focus to meet the protean social realities
we work within.
The importance of writing being part of ongoing interchanges is evident when
we join some case after it has developed. To get “up to speed” we need to read the
file, which gives the facts of the case, the facts of the participants, the positions
each has staked out and elaborated, and the relationship forming among them—
and the overall trajectory of the interaction. It often helps to have someone who
has been part of the proceedings to this point to explain and interpret what is
going on. Only with great and focused work can we attempt to undo any of the
social facts and speech acts already accomplished in the file. Further, even with
explanations from the prior participants, reading the file, is usually not enough to
get fully up to speed, for which we need a couple of further turns in the back and
forth. Equally, interlocutors need to see the moves the new person makes so they
can evaluate what our intentions and modes of procedure are.
Chapter 6 Emergent Motives, Situations, Forms
Unless we have some reflective understanding of our motives, the unfolding
nature of situations, and our changing participation in a dynamic situation,
we are at risk of getting locked into a set of motives and stances that are less
productive and may not achieve our ends. A slavish following of what we believe
is the right form for the situation or a slavish adherence to our first conception
of our motives can lead to an unfortunate trajectory of interaction that leaves
participants at an impasse, or caught in an unproductive distracting side-issue.
It is worth asking ourselves periodically what we really want from a situation,
what will meet our needs and carry forward a productive interaction with our
audiences and interlocutors.
With such an understanding we can think about whether a change of
footing will create a more favorable ground for reframing the interaction,
allowing parties to define new roles and stances, engaging in adjusted projects.
This is where motives and genre meet. Each genre has implied motives, implied
roles for the readers (what Bakhtin, 1986, called addressivity), and actions
which represent the illocutionary force of the genre. Equally, our readers may
have developed stances, attitudes, and resistant responses to the genres, roles,
and stances we adopt. Accordingly a shift of those genres and understandings
surrounding them on both sides may re-center the discussion on more
productive grounds. Or combining multiple generic understandings within a
single utterance, may invite greater complexity of response and understanding.
The strategic understanding of how we may advance our interests and concerns
in a situation is the subject of the next chapter.
Traditional views of rhetoric have identified the key strategic action to be
accomplished as persuasion—that is to bring the audience to agreement with
the speaker’s view or position. Such a strategic goal is appropriate to the arenas of
judicial, parliamentary, and political decision within which rhetoric developed,
and even to the arena of spiritual conversion and homiletics (to which rhetoric
became extended in the early Christian period). When the goal is persuasion,
the main vehicle is argument, to turn other minds in the desired direction.
However, the view presented in this book suggests a range of strategic written
actions that may be accomplished in many arenas of activity, unfolding over
time rather than in single moments of decision. A broader way of characterizing
the goal of rhetoric is influence rather than persuasion. Influence only requires
that other people act in some way that recognizes or responds to your utterance.
A geologist need not have any degree of disagreement with another person to
influence them by providing a detailed report on geologic stresses along a fault
so that you can together estimate current risks. Nor does a homeowner need to
argue with other neighborhood homeowners in a series of emails coordinating
an annual clean-up drive that all are committed to by long-standing practice.
The communicative work in either case is not to persuade someone to something
they would not already have acceded to. The influence is to create conditions
for successful outcomes by providing information or coordinating schedules.
In other cases, it may be that the desired influence is not to create
agreement, but to create further divisions and differences with the interlocutor.
A businessperson may wish to identify exactly where her concerns and interests
differ from a business partner, so that they can renegotiate the terms of the
agreement. People may wish to detail the idiosyncratic particulars of their lives,
experiences, and emotions so that they may understand each other better or
just enjoy sharing unusual events and perspectives. In a contentious situation
a statement can be for the benefit of third parties to understand the choice
they have in adopting different views or can be to instigate an opponent to an
extreme action or statement. Influence is as various as human activities and the
ways we have of participating in them so as to somehow affect the outcome. So
to think strategically about writing, we need to be considering what outcome
we are looking for and how our writing may help bring that about.
Even within the traditional realms of political deliberation sometimes the
most effective writing actions are not those aimed overtly at persuasion, as anyone
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
who has written an agenda for a committee is aware. The most effective action
may not be to bring powerful arguments and evidence to a meeting, but to allow
or disallow an item coming to a vote or to shape the form of the proposition
to be voted on. At times even more powerful is to write the agenda so that
before the contentious issue comes to the floor, a committee can report that it is
undertaking a study to gather facts on a related issue, such that the contentious
vote is tabled pending the report. Then when that report arrives, its facts serve to
redefine the nature of the problem the committee is addressing. While there may
be specific elements of persuasion and specific arguments given in the course of
the process, the overarching goal is influencing the events and outcome.
The underlying strategic question that brings together all these situations is:
How through a speech act can I change the symbolic landscape
so as to change the field upon which others will act
in order to assert my concerns, interests, contribution, or
participation into the process or outcome?
This question turns attention from the internal beliefs held by audiences and
interlocutors to the unfolding of a social process in which I interact with others.
At times the desired influence may require that I change the beliefs or views of
those around me, replacing or qualifying some previously held belief they have,
but more often it simply means they have to recognize and accept the legitimacy
of the speech act I have made. As a consequence of that acceptance, they then
need to calculate my act into any further move they make.
Rhetorical strategy, so conceived, examines the unfolding social situation,
and the effect of any symbolic intervention in moving the situation forward.
Rhetoric then attends as much to who is witnessing and paying attention to
what I and others are saying as much as what is specifically said. In looking
at what has been said, what I might say, and how others might take it up, as a
rhetor I move from reading and anticipating minds as viewing what is visibly
in the social field, including the unfolding intertext into which the new text
will be inserted. While the strength, size, and effectiveness of some speech acts
may depend on how it resonates with the dispositions, beliefs, sentiments, and
interests of the relevant audiences, it is as important as to attend to the nature
and rules of the game one is engaged in, and the particular forcefulness of
moves in that game than to pull out all the operatic stops.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
By identifying the act one desires to accomplish, the rhetor turns his or her
energies toward what conditions need to be met for the act to be felicitous or
successful in the particular situation. Further, the rhetor considers how you
can make the act as forceful, well-defined, identifiable, and solid as possible,
accomplishing its tasks as strongly as possible and standing for as long as it
needs, for all the purposes and auditors it needs to. Again, this directs attention
toward the evolving landscape on which influence will be asserted, the unfolding
actions of others, and the social rules, expectations and values that define
acceptability, compelling force, and evaluation that will influence the fate of the
speech act. This further directs attention to the way a successful speech act will
then inhibit or support others to do what they wish in its wake.
Most of the writing we carry out in the world is not in opposition to any
particular others, nor to displace any beliefs or commitments people may have.
Indeed, displacing someone’s existing beliefs or commitments is difficult to
accomplish. It is easier to tell someone something new than to get them to change
something they already believe, even though for reasons of social harmony they
may appear to acquiesce at the moment. Even if they agree with you, you may
find it is only on a detail rather than with a deep-seated understanding and
acceptance of your view. You may well find old beliefs persist and resurface
later. This persistence of beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives, in fact should be
expected, for after all, personal experiences, knowledge, and views are often
long standing and integrated with an individual’s way of looking at life. How
often do a few words by someone else significantly change the deeply structured
patterns and networks of our thought and perceptions? Such moments are rare
enough to be considered remarkable—and even many of those cases involve
simply the articulation of existing inchoate impulses ready for crystallization.
Only in highly structured situations like courts, parliaments, or scientific
disciplines with regular procedures for coming to communal decisions does
effective changing of minds or at least compelling acquiescence to the communal
judgment happen with frequency. In such domains there are well known forms
of compelling evidence, acceptable lines of reasoning, publicly recognized
evaluative criteria, and public accountability for one’s ultimate position.
Contention to be effective must stay within well-defined rules particular to
the domain—the rules of evidence in experimental psychology are different
from that in ethnographic sociology, let alone high-energy physics. And those
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
are all very far from the rules of evidence and testimony in court, so that the
knowledge of these fields to be admissible in court requires new procedures
and transformation of form, evidence, and authority. Further, even in those
domains of structured judgment, individuals whose claims lose and no longer
stand with any communal force still may maintain belief that they were right
even as they are dragged off to jail or fail to have their grants renewed and
works cited. It is the institutional and collective judgment carried out through
institutional procedures that has the final judgment, not the state of mind of
particular individuals.
More commonly writing is carried out within mutually agreed upon
activities that do not depend on agonistic struggle. We write to participate
within systems and organizations, establish relations, carry out responsibilities,
facilitate conjoint work, build bonds and relations over time, assert identity
and establish self-esteem within communities, entertain each other, or share
common passions. Within such activities we do not displace any social facts
that others have asserted and successfully established; we rather attempt only to
create our own new social facts. We make speech acts, and only rarely attempt
to undo the speech acts of others. And in making our speech acts we create the
occasion and resources for others to act.
Creating a webpage describing our collection of antique phonographs
may serve many functions in sharing nostalgia, amusing others with quirky
aspects of history we have found in our avocation, displaying our pride in our
collection, raising our esteem among aficionados, engaging young people in
the history of technology, or in supporting scholarship in industrial history and
cultural studies. We may even be trying to create a market in these artifacts and
attract people to our antique offerings or catalog of reproductions. Yet none
of these displace what anyone else does, except in the sense that others might
have to carry out their similar activities in a more crowded landscape, which is
not necessarily a bad thing for them, as it increases the overall traffic and adds
resources for their own activities.
Writing a newsletter for our community association lets people know who
is doing what, builds bonds of joint recognition and action, and provides
information to allow people in the community to participate. It brings events,
people, activities, and possible cooperations to people’s attentions, thereby
making their lives a bit richer. Only when the town council entertains a zoning
motion that threatens some in the community might there be arguments for
and against—and then that rhetorical agonism most likely would be directed
toward a council meeting or an election, where a decision will be made.
Otherwise, the task is building new things and not opposing anything already
on the discursive landscape.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
When one applies to a college, or for a grant, or any other competitive
situation, one presents the best representation of one’s own work and
accomplishment in ways that will be credible and stand as an accurate and
truthful statement. One tries to make as strong a speech act as possible that
will not topple over because one of its fundamental props is found faulty. One
typically is not in the business of undermining the attempted speech act of
competitors, but only in having one’s act standing taller, larger, and more in the
correct spot for the purposes and criteria of the judging institution.
Even in filing an application for a building permit that meets all regulations
and requires no exceptions, one is creating speech acts that carry forward
bureaucratic regulation—populating the city records with information to be
evaluated and used by others in monitoring, planning, collecting taxes, and
other daily actions. Likewise sending holiday greetings to friends keeps alive
social networks as well as shares participation in seasonal rituals. All these
quotidian texts expand the intertext within which others operate and thereby
create more facts to attend to in making their choices and asserting their actions.
In completing each of these acts there are expected things to be said and
information presented, and other things that would appear inappropriate.
The information needed for a tax form would be inappropriate for a holiday
greeting, even if your friends were tax examiners or your tax accountant. That is
for another time and place—and another document.
Each genre and its related social activities call for specific kinds of information,
reasoning, and sentiments—which in classical rhetorical terms would be called
topoi or places. They are places the text might visit in carrying out its work.
While a topus or topic can be thought of as something mentioned in the text, it
also attaches the text to something in the world, audience’s emotions, speaker’s
character, or other texts. It then mobilizes, builds on or transforms our relation
to the topus brought to mind. Thus in a sense each topus the text visits attaches
the reader to something outside the text, which is brought to bear on the
action of the text. Thus in asking for a personal loan a person may remind the
potential lender of long friendship and trust, to recall the borrower’s reliability
and responsibility and also to invoke a special trust that the borrower would
not violate. In visiting these issues the borrower attempts to take the lender
mentally to these places and activate them as relevant. On the other hand if
the lender holds strongly to the adage that loans spoil friendships and that
one should never loan to a friend unless you are ready to lose both money
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
and friend, taking the communication to the relationship might suggest the
opposite reaction. You don’t want to go there, as we commonly say.
As each of our words index some reality, they each take the minds of others
to places familiar or uncomfortable, known in detail or unknown and filled
with specters—whether fearful or entrancing. Most often we just bring each
other facts that make visible the world in which our speech act takes place and
which fulfills the conditions that need to be met for the action to be successfully
complete. Thus for parents to enroll their child in a local school, they must
provide basic data, specified on a form with fields we must fill in, such things
as names of child and parents, address of residency, emergency contact person
and information, age and prior schooling of the child, vaccination and other
health history. These establish within the school’s documentary system realities
relevant for the school’s treatment of the application and then the actual child
once the child enters the school door. The form requires the parents to visit
each of the appropriate places and bring back the relevant token of that reality.
Further, there needs to be confirmation of those indexed realities, which is
often intertextual, requiring back-up documents, such as a birth certificate,
vaccination certificate, and proof of address. While these documents may be
accepted on their face in the moment, they of course each link up to other
documentary systems, and their validity within those documentary systems
could be tested. Even more forcefully, filling out the form directly links this
current application with active intertextual links the system may have, such
as initiating a request to the child’s prior school to send records or linking the
address into the city residency and taxpayer base. Parents may even have fears
that there will be linkages to documentary systems where they would not want
to appear, such as the immigration service, the taxation system, or a justice
system with active warrants. Only if they know enough about the system and
there are explicit privacy policies that limit uses and linkages, can these specters
about the documentary realities invoked be laid to rest.
A second strategic set of questions is that of places—the places you enter and
stand on along with the places you bring in as part of your speech act:
a. Where do you want to enter the documentary system and where not?
b. What place within it do you want to inhabit, act, or take a stand?
c. What kind of action in that place do you want to create to reach your
d. What other places do you want to index and invoke at the place you are
taking your stand or creating your act?
Let me go through each of these four more carefully.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
a. The places you decide to enter or not enter
The parents who fear filing information with the school because they
don’t know where that information is going may or may not be justified in
their fears, depending on state and local regulations about the articulation of
information between systems and the actions of local officials, but they are
correct in understanding that any time you write or have inscribed information
within a system you are creating a presence within it and with any other
systems that may intersect with it. You are entering the places of that literate,
documentary activity system by asserting a presence. As literate systems have
spread and become pervasive, some people try to keep their entire presence or
some aspect of their lives outside of the encompassing documentary system. As
the tax system and its monitoring of transactions has grown, it has produced
a grey economy of transactions conducted “off the books” in cash or barter or
“off-shore” so as not to be visible to national tax documentation. Companies
keep themselves private so as not to be subject to the scrutiny of stockholders
and the various agencies that protect the rights of stockholders. Most people do
not write letters to the editor or engage in the public sphere of politics, except
perhaps when they are asked to be an anonymous respondent in a poll or a
voting booth, and even then they may be hesitant. People, as well, know once
they announce themselves to a charitable organization by giving a donation
or putting themselves on a mailing list, they are opening themselves up to
persistent solicitations.
The core of privacy issues as they have emerged on the internet concerns
which documentary systems inscribed information will go to and to what
extent it will stay within the ambit for which it was initially inscribed, whether
as an email to an individual, an order to a commercial seller, a comment in a
password protected chat room, or a posting to a publicly accessible blog. Given
the extensiveness and publicness of electronic networks, however, it is difficult
to identify what the bounds are of the world you are communicating with. In
the print world only a small group of self-selected individuals published their
work, usually on a limited range of issues through a crafted public voice. In a
world as comprehensively documented and inscribed in every aspect as ours,
however, it has even become a form of ideological, individualistic commitment
of some to “live off the grid.”
Most of us choose most of the time not to enter into most documentary
systems except those we feel compelled to do so by such strong social forces as
schooling, government regulation, community expectations, or employment.
Indeed most of them are of no interest to us, unless we ourselves are programmers
of a particular computer language, macramé weavers, aficionados of Raymond
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
Carver mysteries, animal rights activists, or engaged in scriptural interpretation.
We are so unaware of most of the literate spheres of activity that go on around
us that we would be surprised to find out how many of them there are and how
extensive some of them may be
We define our lives, interests, and activities by those social groups we
selectively engage with. The immediate compelling relationships of those we
engage with daily face-to-face have always been primary in shaping our lives,
but increasingly over the centuries these have been supplemented, enriched,
and encased within documentary systems that link us up with people at a
distance of time and space. While sitting around at night by candlelight and
then by electric light, we came to read books, write letters, and now withdraw
to separate computer terminals—connecting each individual in the family up
with different collective worlds that may affect vocabulary, manner of dress and
self-presentation, beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and actions.
While the literate communities we connect up often have to do with the
chances of personal acquaintances, community affiliations, and local institutional
arrangements of school, church, and government, over the last several centuries
communication technologies have opened up increasingly greater opportunities for
elective engagement—starting with the circulation of books, creation of periodicals,
and the formation of public libraries. Initially our worlds grew mostly as readers,
as consumers of the products of a small group of authors, who were perceived
as extraordinary. While some limited networks of publications had more of a
symmetrical sharing of roles, such as in special interest group newsletters, only with
the emergence of the internet and associated forums of digital interaction (e-lists,
self-sponsored websites, chatrooms, blogs, tweets and whatever else will be coming
along) were fuller ranges of participation available to most people. This proliferation
of opportunities makes the issue of choice of where one wishes to become engaged
a serious question for more and more people.
b. The place you want to inhabit, act,
take a stand on, or be noticed
Even when we have interests in participating in specific networks of
communication, we must make a commitment of time and energy to visit the
places where people engage in our chosen domain of activity, identify and select
relevant texts to read, and start to make sense of that world. It is even a further
commitment to think we might have anything to add and then to begin to
frame our own contributions. We make a further commitment when we decide
to make ourselves visible by sending the letter, by pushing the submit button,
by seeking publication of a notice in the local newspaper. In becoming visible
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
we cause ourselves to wonder what kind of figure we will cut, whether people
will pay attention, what they think of what we contribute, whether we will
create negative views or even get ourselves in trouble. Thus we need to become
strategic about exactly where and when we appear.
A strong statement in the wrong time and place will not be attended to
because people’s minds and energies are going in different directions and are not
primed to attend appropriately to the statement. Within legal systems papers
have to be filed in timely ways to the right office, otherwise they are rejected or
ignored. Less technically determined, a letter to a newspaper editor about an
evolving political issue a month ago will likely not be published, or sending the
political comment to the entertainment editor will be equally ineffective. We
must identify a time and place when our words have a reasonable possibility of
having the hoped-for attention and effect.
c. The kind of action you want to take and
the presence you want to establish
In conjunction with deciding the appropriate moment for entry, you need
to decide the particular form of action you want to take, which then suggests
the genre you choose to write in and thus the way you will make your presence
known. Actually these choices are not distinct and sequential, as the available
genres suggest the kinds of presences and action, and the kinds of presence carry
with them consequences for genre and action. Each moment creates constraints
of appropriacy because your readers will be primed to accept, recognize, or
be interested in only a range of actions, genres, and presences they perceive
as appropriate or germane or meaningful to the moment. No matter how
important a student may feel that the professor should understand the deep
background of personal ambivalence the student has toward the subject matter
of the course, the instructor may quite likely wonder where the answer to the
question assigned is. The instructor may also wonder whether he or she really
ought to be this student’s intellectual therapist, or more properly focus on being
a history instructor.
On the other hand you may have a number of different ways of responding
or carrying forward an activity that would be considered relevant, meaningful,
and useful. Several genres could serve to introduce your fellow board members
to a new approach to building membership in your organization. You could
describe a future scenario of a vibrant organization with new groups of
members, you could analyze current member trends, you could review recent
other attempts and why they have failed, or you could narrate the success story
of a similar organization. Each approach invokes a genre and defines whether
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you present yourself as a visionary, a careful analyst, a strategic thinker, or an
inspirational motivator.
Equally with each choice of action, genre, and presence you are making
a series of choices about stance toward the ongoing conversation, issues, and
activities. Your proposal for increasing membership can express anxiety about the
current situation or evoke empathy for an unmet need. You can have contempt,
agnosticism, or respect for previous proposals. You can see some facts as needing
attention and others as insignificant and not worth mentioning. The stance
you take will resonate with or alienate your readers, will create a perspective for
your readers or distance you from the perspectives they are committed to, will
influence them and strengthen the force of the action or will undermine how
much they are willing to accept your act at face value, rather than attributing
hidden motives to you.
Thus in engaging in a discussion, you are attempting to stake out some
ground on an ongoing landscape of communication and activity that your
readers will recognize. You need to be able to define the ground in a way the
readers will recognize and place your attempted act so that they will see it fitting,
acceptable, appropriate, and meaningful.
d. The resources you want to draw into your space
Too often we think of texts simply as written within their own spaces—as
though they were fictions floating apart from other worlds. But even fictions draw
on the readers’ experiences and emotions in the world to create power within the
fictive worlds. Even more, everyday texts draw on and bring together realities
outside the text to establish their relevance and force in specific circumstances.
Presenting demographic facts about unequal healthcare accessibility is not just
a rhetorical trick to make a point; it indexes social realities that need addressing.
It says the world demands the kind of attention being given in this text. The
text’s invocation of these facts then makes the text and author accountable for
the accuracy of the representation—that those statistics are well gathered and
are germane to the issue at hand. Similarly tying texts to files of information on
a patient’s case or a long standing discussion of philosophers locates the text in
on going exchanges, but also gives the weight of prior discussions to the text at
the same time as holding the text accountable to those discussions.
A text representing the world and taking action in it is only as strong as the
ground it is anchored to and the strength of the anchors. That is, the claimed
representation of conditions in the world must accountably be supportable. An
application for a loan identifies the applicant as a person with a credit history—
which will be checked against the files of banks and loan institutions. If the name
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
is false, the claim of employment is inaccurate, there is no history of financial
transactions, or the transactions are flawed to indicate lack of creditworthiness,
the application will fail.
In some situations the expectations of the genre necessary to take action
are so specific that they address all the conditions necessary to complete the
act—and also thereby all the resources that need to be brought to bear, indexed,
and accountably certified. At the extreme are bureaucratic forms that dictate
all the information to be provided, the appropriate form and order in which
they need appear, intertexts of data bases and files that confirm and provide
expanded details on the reported information, and signed statements making
one accountable under legal penalty for the accuracy and truthfulness of the
information provided. The bureaucratically determined requirements of the
regulated action walk you through all the places you must visit and report on,
identify the kinds of details you must use to index the realities and how far you
need to go into them—and no further (limited by the size of the space and
the specific items requested). Further, the form locates your assertions within
institutional and informational resources, activates all necessary supplementary
materials, orders them in a way that facilitates their processing by the receiving
agency, defines your stance as an applicant or other subaltern to the institutional
and organization body, and makes you accountable for your role in the process.
Even in somewhat less compulsory genre situations the expected organizations
of texts identify the places you should be taking the discussion, the information
and resources you need to represent, and the kind of reasoning you should be
doing with these resources. If you are considering for an urban civic blog the
impact of new policing procedures, you must first establish the policies you
are talking about, when they have been put in place, and some sense of the
community situation before and after. Then you might take the discussion to a
number of places, but each of those places must be demonstrably related to public
impacts, consequences, and responses to the policy. You may take the discussion
to crime statistics, a description of main street on a weekend night, the mood of
people in one of the more troubled parts of town, the talk in a local gang hangout,
the concerns of parents expressed at a community meeting, a press conference
held by the local civil liberties organization—or any of a number of places where
consequences of and reactions to the policy may be seen. You could take the
discussion to state laws and the federal constitution, with scholarly discussion
of what is permitted and what violates fundamental law. You may even take the
discussion to a scene from a popular television crime show or movie.
Each choice of place you take the discussion carries with it a kind of
reasoning. Legal discussion requires you to examine legal material through legal
reasoning. Listening to community groups raises issues of public belief, interests,
Chapter 7 Text Strategics
and reactions which need to be discussed. Reference to entertainment requires
you to be aware of the difference between fiction and reality and possibly also
the role of media-represented beliefs and images in affecting or contrasting with
realities. Not only are you accountable for the reasoning of that location, but the
reasoning that ties that location to the issue you are considering. Also typically
at the end of such a piece, you would return to the realities of your town.
You may even create hybrid genres that take the discussion to strange places.
You could take your consideration of the policing policy to a science fiction
fantasy to demonstrate a dystopic or utopic future that would result from the
policy and related approaches, or you could create a computer game or cartoon
to mock the impulses behind the policy. But still you need to be sure the
audience understands the fundamental linkage of this kind of representation
to the issue at hand.
The contrast between the closed example of the loan application and the
open-ended one of the civic blog also highlights differences in depth the places
indexed may be examined. In the loan application it is only important that
the representation be good enough—what is asked for, accurate, appropriate,
truthful. More would only get in the way. Once you have given what is needed for
approval, no one needs or wants to hear any more. In the civic discussion there is
no clear ending to how deeply you might want to go, where the discussion would
lead. The strength of the act you want to build may be limited by the information
you can find out, the amount of concern the community has, and the tolerance
and attention span of your audience, but there is nothing predetermined in the
genre or basic action to tell you when enough is enough and when more is no
longer useful or even welcome. Chapter 9 of this volume provides more details
on managing representations of the world and the intertext in your writing
Writing a text is creating a new object on an intertextual landscape and
populating that text with representations and meanings and to animate those
meanings as the reader engages with the text (see Chapter 11 of this volume).
The rhetorical influence of the text is a consequence of readers’ engagement with
these texts transforming their view of the social, material, and literate worlds
of their future actions. The fundamental strategic question is how you can best
populate the intertextual landscape with new objects to gain the influence
you hope for, to meet your own interests, needs, concerns, or creative visions.
Selecting the most effective places to inhabit, building engaging landmarks that
call attention to those things you select for others to be aware of, and then
creating ways of thinking about the place and objects in the course of text are
the strategic means of influencing thought and social processes. The remaining
chapters of this volume pursue how one can bring these textual objects into
being in their most complete and effective form.
The writer’s emergent strategic judgments about construal of situation,
places of engagement, effective actions, relevant resources, and stances contain
many implications for the form the text will take, both at the level of genre and
of details that make a particular text. Strategic choices shape what aspects of the
situation and the particular object of concern will be represented, how other
contexts will be brought to bear, and how the writer will attempt to engage
the minds and spirits of the readers. The text is the form into which all these
considerations are crystallized and dynamically conveyed to the readers. That
form must be recognizable and meaningful to the readers to allow them to
make sense of what the writer is doing and then act upon it appropriately.
Sometimes a writer may be able to characterize the situation and action in
well-defined, stable, non-mistakable generic terms—now it is time to send out
an announcement of the upcoming party or now is the time to write a letter
threatening legal action unless the bill is paid. Each of these has well known
characteristics with a certain limited range of choices, known to those who
regularly practice them. If a writer has difficulties with either, it is likely either
because of lack practice in the genre or because exceptional circumstance put some
strain on genre expectations. Further, each genre places specific requirements
on what must be accomplished through particular textual means, no matter
how inventive the writer is in carrying out some of the textual functions. So
whether the writer expresses a festive and welcoming atmosphere with pictures
of balloons or a joking excuse for the party, or expresses dignity with formal
calligraphy on parchment, the invitation needs to identify who is invited, who
is doing the inviting, the nature of the event, date, time, place, some indication
of the dress or formality, and perhaps directions and a request for response. This
is true whether the invitation is publicly posted on a lamppost or personally
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
addressed on a specially printed card. Equally the letter threatening legal action
needs to identify the recipient and sender, the agreement and obligation, the date
and place for response, and other details that indicate the legal consequences. In
most cases legal threat needs to be cast in sober legal business letter format to be
taken seriously; having it sent by an attorney further emphasizes the seriousness.
These well-known genres have created packages of situations, actions, resources,
author stances, and audience roles all wrapped up in well-known forms. All you
need do is fulfill the requirements of the form and deliver the package.
As the action situation and the genre choice emerge, some writing decisions
follow quite directly. Of course much substantial textual work still is to be done
in selecting appropriate and effective words to fulfill the requirements as well
as other related, non-textual work. Before you finish writing the invitation,
you need to arrange for a place to hold the party and a commitment for its
availability at the time, as well as to make sure that you have the funds for the
promised entertainment and refreshments, and so on. Similarly in writing the
legal letter you need to gather together all the relevant legal documents and
agreements to know what details to include, how defensible your position is,
and how to properly threaten within this particular legal situation. If you want
to add legal muscle, you need to hire a lawyer, and the law firm has had to
develop a suitably powerful looking letterhead. All of these other actions will
bear on how the text will appear, what specific language and information is
used, and how the text will be interpreted.
In working within stable, familiar genres you would do well to look to
previous examples and existing genre-specific guidelines to know the formal
requirements, what the readers will expect, and the choices that are likely to be
effective. But you also need to look to the particulars of your situation to make
the text do the specific work you need done in this case. For some genres simple
fulfillment of requirements may be all that is needed. Submitting an order
for a new product needs to be accurate and complete as to what is ordered,
where it is to be shipped, how payment is to be made, and so on. It must be
addressed and transmitted to a business that sells the product and can deliver it
as requested, and you must have the authorization to order and make payment.
Once you have presented this as clearly as possible in the most familiar and
easily interpretable way, your job is done. Any extra information, attempt at
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
humor or a personal touch, or political comment might confuse the businessclient
On the other hand, you may need further work on the text beyond the
required minimum. While sometimes a standard party invitation is enough,
at times you may want to encourage participation or raise anticipatory joy
by clever words, interesting graphics, personal photographs, or some other
individualizing device. To do this successfully you need to go beyond the typical
formal elements of the genre into the spirit of the event and the specifics of the
situation. For a wedding invitation you might want to look into the values and
dreams of the couple and the role of the partnership in their lives to provide
clues as to what makes this celebration special. The standard legal letter, in the
other example, may not be sufficiently threatening to be effective in a particular
case, given what you know of the circumstances and the callous attitude of the
offenders, so you may need to look into the offenders’ vulnerabilities and fears
to know what will spell trouble to them and get their attention. In both cases,
nonetheless, the inventiveness remains within the expectations of the genre,
though heightening its force.
Many genres have the expectation of novelty, originality, fresh thought,
particular situational aptness or other invention even to fulfill successfully
the basic requirements of the genre. The genre directs the character of the
invention, points the writer toward particular kinds of work, and whets the
readers’ appetites for a particular kind of surprise. Jokes (unless they are in
special categories of old and familiar jokes such as “groaners”) require a surprise
in the punchline, usually involving a pun, juxtaposition, incongruity, or other
disruption of ordinary thinking—but it cannot be too shocking or sobering.
While Op-ed columns in the newspaper are typically of a certain length, within
a recognizable style, and about current events, yet each one is expected to
present a fresh perspective on the events that show a special wisdom, insight,
perspective, or knowledge that will stimulate the reader’s thinking. To do
this the columnist has to watch for interesting stories about which he or she
has something fresh to say. Much of the work of writing such columns is in
identifying events to talk about and the perspective from which to discuss them.
Most student papers in fulfillment of university assignments similarly need
to respond to an instructor’s expectation of fresh thinking on the students’ part,
often specified and directed in the assignment. This fresh thinking typically will
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
require the use of ideas and methods presented in the course and discipline,
and will typically be based on reason and evidence, but will include some
novel critical perspective, evaluation, analytical reasoning or other recognizable
intellectual work. The student to succeed must not only recognize the general
requirements of the assignment, but also the specific expectations of novel work
added, to distinguish this paper from and above others in the class at the same
time as being recognizably within the framework of the course and assignment.
In university settings student writing is often assigned to develop student
analytical thinking, and ideally students and teachers enter into a productive
dialogue about the disciplinary material, growing from students’ engagement
in the subject matter and the ideas being raised in the course. Academic
genres, particularly in classroom or seminar settings, frequently have strong
dialogic expectations—reprising ideas and materials already developed as part
of the course as well as bringing fresh but appropriate external resources as
part of the student’s creative, critical, informed contribution. Furthermore,
readers (or interlocutors in this educational dialogue) are usually looking for
the organization, linkages and reasoning that provides evidence of a mind at
work on disciplinary questions, using disciplinary resources and tools—that is,
a mind that is being disciplined through the disciplinary task.
From this perspective, the genre the students are working in, directed by
the prompt or assignment, becomes a problem space in which the students
are learning by working through disciplinary issues using disciplinary tools
and varieties of analytical, synthetic, and critical reasoning. The formulated
argument of the paper then becomes both an expression of the student’s answer
to this problem and evidence of their thinking, reasoning, and learning.
In such assignments the disciplinary learning and the writing become
inseparable, and the instructor is likely to evaluate and respond to the paper
precisely as a piece of disciplinary work, revealing the student’s disciplinary
understanding. There is sometimes an even deeper reading of the student’s
development which can be evaluated and responded to, concerning the student’s
depth of engagement and commitment to the field and its fundamental
intellectual perspectives. That is, sometimes the instructor may be looking for
evidence that the student is not just displaying disciplinary reasoning—even
novel, clever reasoning—as an acquiescence to the authority relations in the
classroom, but that somehow the student has made the disciplinary perspective
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
his or her own, has integrated disciplinary thinking into his or her own
internally persuasive resources (to use Bakhtin’s terms, 1981) as something to
believe and use in viewing the world. While the indicators of that engagement
may be fluid and task specific, they would indicate thought that extends beyond
the immediate problem and the obvious resources as part of some further
intellectual transformation within the student.
One of the regular challenges students have as writers, if they are indeed
working from their own deeply internal thought, rather than thinking of the
writing as simply an external set of forms and requirements to be fulfilled, is
that they get lost in their thoughts and their writing may remain elliptical as
internal thought often is (as described by Vygotsky, 1986.) Further, because
student writers may have a sense that they know what they are talking out,
the writing may not be intelligible to a differently minded audience. Because
they have lived through an episode and may have multiple visceral memories
of the situation, they may not share details necessary for others to picture and
understand the situation. Certain personally important words may be used
in idiosyncratic ways or with a force understood only by the author. So an
important part of students learning to write for these situations is to expose and
elaborate enough of their thought and experience so that their thought becomes
intelligible to the reader.
These expectations about what might appear in the final paper raise paradoxes
of internal processes and external production which riddle education as an
enterprise, as educators evaluate external behaviors and products to determine
students’ internal development. Educators set challenging activities and establish
responsive environments in order to foster internal development, and regularly
make attributions about students’ intellectual and emotional selves on the basis
of their behaviors and products. These paradoxes are heightened in schooling
because of the focus on the development of students’ minds, but actually the
tension between external form and internal thought runs throughout writing.
Writing, as all language, is a vehicle to evoke meanings in other peoples’ minds.
Readers in turn believe that the thoughts they glean from a text had their origin
in the mind of the writer. Even a pro forma social nicety or a lie must still
be selected and thus thought. Yet what is transmitted are the words on paper
or on the computer screen—an external object made of signs, which can be
manipulated and evaluated as a formal construction. Nevertheless, the signs
index thoughts entertained and projected by the writer and thoughts evoked in
the readers, although the reader’s thoughts may not match those projected by
the writer.
The complexity and personality of thought leads to an indeterminacy and
creativity in what the formal realization might be. But that formal realization
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
requires that we work with forms and make choices about formal elements.
That tempts us to treat writing on the purely formal level, for that is where skill
seems to reside. Yet we are always engaged in the task of making meaning and
wrestling with form to express that meaning.
One way to deal with these paradoxes of inner meaning and outer form is
to wait for a moment of inspiration when one’s perception of the situation,
impulse for meaning, and sense of possible form crystallize in an intuitive sense.
Such moments of writer’s intuition can be very powerful and can direct writing
strongly. Certainly a writer should cultivate the ability to identify and respect
those moments when they appear, but their appearance at best will be sporadic
and unpredictable. Most of our writing does not arise in the leisure that allows
us to write poems only when the spirit moves us and the vision is clear. Even
in that luxurious situation, such moments of illumination are more likely to
strike if we are regularly at our keyboard or have pen in hand, struggling with
meaning and form, at the altar of the muse, ready to recognize and transcribe
when the muse visits us.
So what can we do until the muse arrives or even in the likely case the muse
never visits? We can work from the outside in, or from the inside out, or moving
back and forth.
For fairly stabilized genres in fairly stabilized social circumstances, models,
guidelines, advice, instructions, or textbooks can tell us what to include, how
it should be organized, how it should be expressed. These directive documents
range from detailed instructions about how to fill out government forms, to
collections of model letters, to reference books on how to write a scientific
article, to self-help books on writing scripts for television. They may even
lay out very specific technical requirements for specific fields, such as proper
terminology and citation form for scientific articles in chemistry, or all the
items that must be included for an application to be considered. Increasingly,
especially in digital environments, templates are provided (and sometimes
monitored) to identify (and sometimes compel) topics and information as well
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
as to structure the presentation. Forms can even police our responses to ensure
they are in the correct format. Although now machine monitoring of generic
completeness is limited to fairly simple items in forms (name, address, etc.), we
can only expect that this kind of structuring and monitoring will increase—
including inspection of the content of more open-ended sections. In any event,
even if such content expectations are not externally prompted, we can query
ourselves and start to make lists of the kind of things expected in the document
and specifics that we might want to include. Through such lists, notes, and
outlines, the contents of texts can emerge and then be organized, giving us
confidence and direction in what we say, even if we do not strictly adhere to
this early planning.
Sometimes the guidance is more sketchy and open-ended, recognizing the
differences of particular cases and the need for the creation of new meanings
within the genre. This guidance may be more strategic identifying impulses or
gists that need to be carried out or identifying larger sweeps of meaning. Such is
the advice offered for scientific article introductions developed by John Swales
(1990), that identifies a series of moves that a researcher needs to do to identify
the rationale for a piece of research. One creates a research space by a series of
moves that identifies a problem, establishes what prior research has been done
in the literature and identifies a gap or opening in the research. Similar analyses
have been done for other forms writing, identifying the usual set of moves
in a genre, with the typical variations, additions, deletions, substitutions, and
changes in sequence. These move analyses usually display a strategic logic in the
selection and order of the moves, which are identified by examination of many
real examples.
The tension between external form and the internal meaning-making
suggests we take a somewhat sophisticated approach toward the formal
requirements and practices typical in a situation. Models and guidance about
specific contents, organization, appropriate language and phrasing, and other
describable aspects of language put the appropriate tools of language at our
fingertips, reminding us of the many things we already know or introducing
us to new particulars that can extend our repertoire. But we also are helped by
understanding the meaning to be conveyed that prompt these formal elements.
Understanding the logic, the idea behind the formal requirements, first of all
lets us know what we are doing, so we can direct our attention to the basic
task of making meanings that fit the situation. The form does not displace
the meaning, but helps us understand what kind of meanings we can create.
Second, in moving us toward the underlying gist realized through the form, we
can think about how to create the gist more forcefully and effectively. Third, if
we understand what we are trying to accomplish in the genre in terms of detailed
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
meaning making, we are freed to try to alternative means—while still keeping
in mind readers’ expectations. While at times we may have to write exactly in
the prescribed form or our reader will not accept our information, we often
have some freedom to try new things as long as we respect and pay attention to
expectations—explaining how we will fulfill expectations in a different way, or
explaining persuasively why those expectations may need to be modified.
As we understand the meaning potentials and interactional gists that
may be achieved in a situation, we may then also see that we can evoke more
complex sets of understandings within the situation. By bringing the clusters
of understanding packaged in multiple sets of genres we can develop meanings
that draw on and resonate with several domains of activity, knowledge, ideas,
and actions. If we consider genres not as fixed forms but recognizable clusters of
psycho-social understandings, we have the possibility of invoking rich complexes
of understanding in making our points. Of course, this requires clarity and
focus in what we are doing so these multiple domains reinforce rather than
confuse each other. This is all the more reason we need to look deeply into the
worlds genres exist in and the worlds created by them.
As discussed in previous chapters, our responses to situations are visceral and
complex, bringing many resources to the task as a communicative situation takes
shape. Whatever theory of internal language, intuitive judgment, subconscious
or preconscious mind, affective thought, or brain architecture and dynamics
one may hold, all views recognize that the resources and responses that give
rise to our statements are only partially available to our conscious mind and
planning. In forming utterances we act below our self-conscious monitoring of
meaning production to tap deeper processes. Arranging our lives so as to make
our deepest thought most available is an important part of our work as writers.
We can identify our best time of day for writing and leave it open for writing
without distractions. We can organize a conducive working environment and
have our favorite coffee in our favorite mug. Developing rituals and routines that
relax and focus our mind, or organizing daily work to begin with easier warm
up activities, such as looking at necessary sources or reviewing the previous
day’s work are all part of the process of getting our mind in the right place to be
receptive to our emerging thoughts. Such activities could be called prompting
the mind, finding the right place to put your mind into, or assembling the right
frame of mind—they all are forms of mental preparation.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Preparing the mind to write is not always easy, especially if the subject is
challenging—intellectually, emotionally, socially, or technically. Such challenges
may leave us with an uncertainty about whether we have something appropriate
to say or whether we are capable of saying it. We may not feel comfortable and
may resist committing ourselves to words (see Chapter 12 for elaboration of
these psychological challenges). But we must assemble the courage to begin
putting something on the page. Notes, outlines, plans, random sentences, freewriting
journals are all low stakes ways to get the words flowing—not fully
committing us to decisions, but yet producing something outside the self. Ideas
may then begin to flow. Low-stakes writing can open some directions to take and
even phrases to keep. For the rest the wastebasket and delete button are near at
hand. At the very least we wind up with some text to look at, evaluate, modify,
or replace with something better. Externalizaton reduces the cognitive overload
of keeping everything floating in the head and perhaps decreases the confusion
that occurs when juggling too many ideas at the margin of consciousness.
As we get text on a paper, our ideas take material shape, as a painting
emerges from an empty canvas. The impulses to project meaning turn into
particular words and sentences, inscribed contents, sequences of thought, and
pieces of text organization. At the first level we may simply consider whether
this is what we wanted to say and whether it is intelligible to others or could be
said more effectively. But then we can see where it is headed—what is necessary
to complete the thought or elaborate it to be more fully understood, and what
next point needs to be addressed.
As the text emerges, thinking moves more and more from discovering
what it is you want to say to craftsman-like working with the actual text. Even
then, crafting text still can be a continuing process of discovery as you have to
answer questions about how one part relates to another, or what is an accurate
example or specification of an idea, or whether audiences will object and how
objections can be addressed. As we construct the document we literally make
meaning, articulating impulses and organizing them into a document that
becomes the conveyer of that meaning. Work on the document sharpens the
public meaning, which then becomes the words which we stand behind. In
that process we need to keep questioning about how true that text is to our
impulse—for only by that questioning can we maintain a commitment to
your words. On the other hand, the written words become our commitment
Chapter 8 Emergent Form and the Processes of Forming Meaning
as we struggle with how to make them say what we want, thereby creating a
more elaborated meaning.
A writer works with the meaning as it emerges. This may mean you may
come up with a key phrase but with no clear idea where it will fit within the
text. Get it down. Or a paragraph explaining a key concept may be a good
place to start, or a description of a key location, or a reminder list of some
things you want to make sure you cover. If in a research article the research
methods you employed are easiest to write, begin there. On any pieces of
writing, the introduction is the hardest part. You could skip it at first or just
try anything to warm up, with the knowledge that you can delete it, change it,
or substitute something later once you see what the body of the text actually
winds up saying.
As you build the first draft, it can be quite drafty, with much air flowing
through it. If you have sections that are difficult to address or which require
further research or other activities, then you can skip them over, but do leave
as many words as you can to guide you when you return to fill in the holes.
When you first begin writing, it does not even have to be a draft of the final
text. You can write some interim document, such as a freewrite journal or
a description of the materials you have available, just to get your thoughts
and plans out. Many kinds of projects require different documents at various
points long before the final document gets drafted; the interim documents get
the writers to a position to be able to write the final document. For example,
major research projects may start with a brief proposal long before the research
is done. Reading notes on related studies may capture important points for the
new study or identify important procedures. Collecting information, whether
from experiments, surveys, or archives, produces a variety of texts, notes, data
documents, or files. Rearranging and displaying the information in tables,
narratives, graphics and other formats can help make sense of them. Then
analysis may produce a whole different generation of documents. Short interim
presentations of work in progress for supervisors, colleagues, or sponsoring
organizations can help clarify actions, thinking, and results to this point.
While all these may be written long before final articles or books, they help the
writer think through the project, figuring out what to say and what material
to include. Phrasing, descriptions, and even whole sections that will find their
way into final documents emerge. Often people writing large projects find it
useful to publish shorter articles that become the basis of larger books.
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If you trust the process, meaning and form will gradually emerge over
the long period to produce a text that crystallizes your meaning. Trusting the
dialogue between yourself and the emerging text can give you courage to face
the uncertainty about how the page will be filled and what will fill it. This
dialogue is enriched by engagement with the materials one is writing about and
with others interested and knowledgeable on the subject. Too often in schooling
we view each text as a one-time effort to be produced in a limited time span,
with few texts and other humans around us. Outside school, we are more likely
to write as part of an ongoing interaction with others, so that we develop our
thoughts, positions and actions in each exchange. The process is ongoing and
being caught up in it is the means by which we produce texts for it. It is rare
that a full and crisp vision will impel the writer from the beginning. Rather we
must learn to take courage from a process driven by our best efforts and deepest
impulses to communicate. We can do no more. Trust the process.

A form in itself is a gesture toward a social interaction, but it contains little
meaning in itself beyond the gesture. Occasionally that is enough, simply
registering a social action, like saying hello, acknowledging receipt of a previous
message, or signaling compliance with a request. But most social actions benefit
from saying more, offering more meaning evoked through the contents. It is
the contents that engage the mind of a reader, providing desired information or
exciting the reader’s thinking or evoking a shared perspective on the world or
provoking outrage and action. This chapter provides some ways to think about
the contents to select and how to represent them. The next chapter will provide
some thoughts on how to bring these pieces together to create a total picture
and a journey for the reader.
We know that if we are looking for specific kinds of information, we go to
specific documents. If we want to know the ingredients for a dish, we check a
recipe in a cookbook. If we seek information on voter preferences we check polls
available in newspapers and political websites. If we want information about the
most recent findings in microbiology, we go to the research articles of the field.
Each genre is associated with certain kinds of contents made available to
or directed toward particular kinds of readers. As we write for each genre, we
need to keep those expectations in mind, usually with the intention of fulfilling
those expectations for those who will consult or read the documents. If we don’t
fulfill expectations we have some explaining to do or costs to pay. Some genres
are highly restrictive. Any failure to include any of the required information
in an application may lead to immediate rejection—and perhaps even a web
application form will refuse to process it. Further, that information must be
of the precise form expected, such as an address according to street, house and
apartment number, city and state. A florid description of the charming house
and how you might identify it by its distinguishing character would not work
here, though it might be appropriate for the directions sent for a party.
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
Other genres may have more open expectations, but still some things in
some forms would be clearly inappropriate. Information appropriate for an
architectural proposal would not fit within a love letter, and the contents of
neither would fit in a financial audit report. Each has its appropriate contents of
interest and concern to its appropriate audience, a concept described by Bakhtin
as a chronotope (1981)—the time and space each genre is placed in along with
the appropriate scenery, actors, and actions. He uses the example of a Greek
romance, but it is equally appropriate to a laboratory report that tells of several
time places—the events carried out in the laboratory by the scientist through a
method and apparatus, the story of what happens to the material placed under
the experimental conditions, a framing story of what the discussion has been
in the scientific literature and how this study intervenes in the discussion, and
ultimately an emerging picture of what happens recurrently in the world as
revealed by the findings of this and related studies. Each level of the story has
its typical settings, time frames, actors, and events. Further, each level has a
structured relation to each of the other levels of chronotope in the research
report: the scientist’s actions seek results relevant to the scientific discussion by
designing an experiment which produces findings that contribute to a general
picture of the operations of nature.
Sometimes seemingly inappropriate material can be brought into a genre,
but it requires some specific warrant and some discursive work to legitimate
its presence—diary material on the front page of a major newspaper would
need to be justified as evidence in a serious political or financial scandal, unless
the readers were to then decide this newspaper was turning into a tabloid
scandal sheet. Perhaps a science writer could include a description of a flowercrowded
garden at the beginning of a popular article on plant genetics, but only
if the writer made clear connections to the article’s exposition of its subject,
such as connecting the varieties of flower colors, sizes, and shapes to genetic
mechanisms determining such variety. But in a more professional research
article in a scientific journal, a writer could probably not be able to justify such
an aesthetic description no matter how hard the writer worked.
The genre chosen sets expectations of what needs to be included. Conversely,
awareness of the kinds of information and ideas to be transmitted to particular
audiences can suggest the appropriate genre to bring together and convey the
message. Examining examples of genres you are considering can help you identify
what the information expectations, the forms of representing the information,
the level of detail and precision, and the uses made of the information—as well
as the underlying need or justification for that information. Of course you must
then look into the logic of what you are saying, and what particular needs your
argument or task or subject calls for. At the intersection of your subject and the
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expectations of the genre you may be able to identify what you need, what your
readers will expect, and the quality of the information you should provide.
But then there is still the question of where the information comes from
and how to find it. Some genres carry specific expectations of procedures
and standards for gathering and selecting the material, and may even require
accounts of how the key material was collected. Research articles typically
include explicit methodological narratives to provide warrant for and means of
interpreting the information reported. Often, as well, they imply accounts of
which concepts were selected and why, what articles were considered important
to discuss, and which facts were important to consider.
In a typical school situation, the sources of information are often well defined
by the textbook or assigned readings. If the teacher wants the students to seek
additional materials from the library or from conducting a laboratory experiment,
interviews, survey, or other research the teacher usually will be specific about
the sources and procedures. Outside of school we may equally be expected to
follow specific procedures for locating and selecting information, and then how
we represent it in the text. Journalists, for example, are trained to gather facts
from the courthouse, police briefings, interviews, informants, public records,
and other accepted journalistic sources. Even in domains not shaped by such
professional standards, writers are faced with the problem of which information
to include and what are appropriate ways to get and confirm that information.
If we are complaining to a seller about prices we have been billed, having the
exact amount billed, the original invoice, the invoice number, its date, as well as
the exact amount will make your case stronger, as will a cancelled check or credit
card bill. If we are claiming a discrepancy with an advertised price, then having
the details that appeared in the original and, along with the date and place of the
advertisement, and even a photocopy of the ad will provide evidence for the claim.
Some personal messages, of course, rely primarily on memories and feelings, but
looking over photos of the past few days of vacation, or even the business cards of
the restaurants visited, might help bring back a lot of strong feelings and specific
memories that could give some force to a personal letter or a travel blog.
Awareness of the information typical of a genre and the procedures by which
that information is accessed is important to help you know what to include, what
should drive your choices, and where you can find what you need. It also lets you
know the standards of the field or domain, to make sure the material you include
is respected, trusted, and accepted by your readers. In certain fields evidence must
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
be collected by proper experimental procedures defined by the field, and for which
you must be trained. Introduction of new evidence, unusual collection methods, or
different reasoning from evidence to conclusions will require extra work to justify
the novelty and persuade the readers of legitimacy of the procedure. If professional
journalists are discovered to have deviated from the procedures of their profession,
they are at risk of being deemed incompetent or unethical. If journalists make an
alternate choice, as did the new journalists of the 1970s in the U.S —such as Tom
Wolfe and Norman Mailer—or more recently political bloggers, they need to do
work to justify that unusual choice and its validity, and run the risk of rejection. But
that new form of work may also create new genres and evidentiary expectations.
The kinds of information appropriate to each genre establish the world to
be considered by that genre. That information represents and points to objects
and events in the world beyond the text, and thus indicates the ontology of
the genre. What is represented in genres that circulate among a social group
identifies what objects and events are valued and worth paying attention to
by the group; conversely, those things not represented are not visible to the
group’s discussions, considerations, calculations, evaluations, or negotiation of
accuracy. Any change in what can be made visible in the genres circulated in a
social group or how it is made visible changes the group’s ontology.
Further, expectations for the kind of information to be used to represent
the objects and events and how that information is to be collected carry with
them deeper considerations about how we can know and represent the world,
what modes of knowing and representing are reliable and significant, and how
our collections and representations index the world (that is, how they point to
aspects of the world and what they tell us about the world). Generic expectations
also define what methods of collection and representation are not allowable
as faulty, misleading, imprecise, uncertain, or otherwise discrediting. Such
considerations of how the text can come to represent knowledge of the world
through the collection and representation of evidence operationally define the
epistemology of the text and the group.
As a writer communicating with any social group, it is worth being aware
of the readers’ ontologies and epistemologies, whether or not you share their
views. Often professional training in a discipline or profession is precisely an
induction into the shared ontologies and epistemologies of the field. If there
are explicit discussions about the ontologies and epistemologies of the field you
are writing for, it may be of value to look into them, particularly if you are a
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stranger to the field, but do remember that sometimes these discussions are
written by philosophers outside the field seeking normative guidelines that do
not necessarily reflect the actual ontologic and epistemic practices or orientations
of insiders. On the other hand, many insider discussions about ontology and
epistemology often go by other names. Often books for neophytes and students
can be very enlightening about what the field attends to, what it considers the
right way to learn about the world of interest, and how that evidence from the
world should be best represented.
Many scientific fields have extensive methodological discussions of credible
ways of gathering evidence and ways to evaluate the evidence so gathered. They
have discussions about what objects are properly the concern of a field and
what belong to other fields, as well as what appearances are not appropriate to
the field and what common sense ways of looking are not really accurate by
disciplinary standards. Fields also often discuss or contend over the appropriate
way to represent information gathered about the world so as to enter into the
reasoning and calculation of the field. Each domain has its appropriate forms
of representation. For example, in ancient days, taxes were collected directly
in kind from agricultural produce, so that one would have to offer every tenth
bushel of wheat or every tenth cow to the authorities. Accounting of these taxes
were in terms of the produce. But modern taxes are now accounted through the
local currency in quantitative form, so that if you were paid through food and
lodging, you would have to convert that into its cash equivalent to be reported
on the tax forms. In some fields results need to be presented as quantitative data
of the sort that can be manipulated and evaluated through various statistical
procedures. Some fields favor theory-driven graphs of energy levels, aggregating
many trials. Typically in historical fields, specific historical actors need to be
identified and evidentiary documents need to be identified and discussed to
establish specific actions, intentions, and beliefs. In some areas of ethnographic
social science research, identities of people need to be kept hidden, although
detailed accounts of their social circumstances may be elaborated. Over time
fields also change their modes of representation as new theories become important
and new data collection devices are used. These modes of representation make
the data or evidence available for reasoning, evaluation, and calculation in the
ways characteristic of the field. If the information is not represented in the
proper form, the readers will have a hard time working and reasoning with it.
If you are writing as an insider, readers will expect you to have internalized
and to adhere to the epistemologies and ontologies of the field (or at least one
of the several that may exist within a more tolerant multi-perspectival field),
and if you vary you will have to provide to your colleagues principled and
persuasive reasons (themselves within the values of the field) to reconsider
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
their epistemologies and ontologies. Not only professions and research fields
have such ontologies and epistemologies. Religious communities also teach
its adherents to attend to certain emotional or spiritual experiences or certain
texts that are core parts of epistemologies and ontologies. Sports fans also have
things they agree are worth their attention, how those things should be properly
known, and what is a distraction from or diminution of the sports experience.
As an outsider to any group, it is also important to attend to the ontologies
and epistemologies of people you are communicating with—starting with
which genres they are likely to attend to, but also as to what kinds of evidence
is meaningful to them and how they would expect it to be gathered. Have
you done the experiment or gathered the statistical evidence and done a costbenefit
analysis to argue to educational policy makers for the introduction of
an education program? Have you had the appropriate spiritual experience and
did you testify to it in a credible way to persuade a spiritual group that you
understand their values? When you write about changes of media coverage of
basketball, do you share in the excitement of the game?
If you cannot enter into the audience’s world of objects and ways of knowing,
how can you get them to turn attention to new evidence, attend to a different
part of the world, and gather knowledge in a different way? Perhaps you can
call on another role or identity that gets your audience to look in a different
way, such as reminding the sports fans that they are also consumers in a very
extensive market that is being manipulated by media corporations—and thus
getting them to remember evidence and ways of knowing that are important to
them in other times and places. Scientists are often directors of labs, and must
attend to information and reasoning from the financial and legal domains.
Ontologies and epistemologies are not just philosophic abstractions; they
are also practical matters of communication. To influence your audiences you
need to know what they look at, what is important to them, and what they
are likely to accept into their universe of attention. The more one enters into a
field the more epistemology and ontology direct the reading and reception of
audiences. Multidisciplinary or multi-group communications are likely to bring
these issues to the fore, whether or not participants use philosophic terms to
describe their differences of understanding.
Texts are not isolated communications. As considered in Chapter 4, they
exist in relation to prior discussions in other texts, which create a world
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of facts of ideas which the readers are familiar with and which shape their
knowledge, orientations, and concerns. To communicate with an audience
you need to be aware of the texts that inform them. These texts can also
serve as resources of shared ideas and information, topics of discussion, points
of difference, or definitions of situations ripe for action. Behind and within
the represented world is an intertext of similar and related texts which have
previously represented that world and neighboring areas. The scientific report
and the ethnographic account each is built on relevant literatures that have
posed questions, brought a discussion to a certain point, produced related
findings, identified appropriate methods, and set criteria for the current study
to address. The current article must create a relation to this intertext and
create a place for itself within a landscape it will change by its presence. Even
the fairy tale rests on the memory and experienced pleasures of previous fairy
The most explicit way texts rely on other texts is by quotation—a segment
of another text is directly imported. Another author is allowed to speak for
him or her self, to take over the voice the text for a moment. But of course
the textual space is handed over to the other author with some cost—the gift
is not a free will offering. The current author uses the words of the quoted
author only for the quoter’s own purposes, even if the purpose is to draw
on the authority of the quoted author as an eloquent spokesperson for the
quoter’s cause. But the quoted may also be the drudge who has produced the
facts and statistics that allows the quoter to weave fiery arguments, or the
quoted may be the misguided holder of opinions to be the target of critique
and derision.
This handing over the voice of the text is hardly a license for the quoted
to say whatever he or she might desire. The quoter has control over which of
the quoted words will be chosen—the quoter’s only constraint is to transcribe
the words accurately. The quoter also gets to introduce, discuss, and pass
judgment on the words quoted. These words can be explicitly characterized
as wrong, or silly, or misguided, or idealistic, or prescient. The judgment can
be expressed subtly, with verb tense to indicate ideas of the past or present,
ironies, juxtaposition with other quotations and statements, or placement in
an unfolding logic—limited only by what the resources of language allow
one to do. These characterizations bring us closer or make us more distant
from the words we are getting filtered through the quoter’s framing. While
the quoted gets to speak, it is the quoter who gets to frame and construct the
drama, and to tell us how engaged we ought to be in it, from what perspective
we ought to view it. The constructed drama of multiple voices ultimately
serves to set off the quoted’s position, to carry off the writer’s intentions
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
and advance the writer’s own voice: at the head of the parade he or she is
marshaling, as the humble servant of past wisdom, as the encompassing spirit
who can synthesize and embrace multitudes, or as the shining light that cuts
through the veil of misguided foolishness.
Paraphrase and summary of the original writer’s words provide even greater
transformation of the original voice of the person cited. This allows the further
subordination of the original voice to the purposes of the writer, either being
homogenized into the writer’s voice, spoken in the tones that sound like the
voice, or further characterized and perhaps stigmatized as something other—
perhaps as a target or a foil or as an ally from great distance. The gist, rather
than the words, becomes imported and heightened as a social force within the
unfolding narrative but without a sharp a picture of concrete other actor who
asserts identity through his or her words.
As the distinctiveness of original words fade, it also becomes easier to
detach their gists from any specific actor. Thus assertions can be subsumed
into “opponents who claim . . .” or “common sense frequently tells us . . .”
These hazy shadows can provide a context for the current circumstances while
removing the author from direct confrontation with focused other social
actors, identified and represented in their own words.
At its most subsumed but most common form, these socially received ideas
and terms are simply taken as assumptions, a recognizable and recognized
cultural and social landscape against which all new statements are made. Every
discussion rests on the long history of discussions developing knowledge and
terms and issues. Only sometimes, however, are readers reminded of long
histories and commitments—“Freedom of speech, maintained only in the
struggles of every generation, comes dearly—only by challenging the borders
of the unspeakable in every generation can we fulfill the promise of growing
enlightenment.” At other times prior texts may be treated blandly, relying
on common unthinking assent, so as to bypass serious thought or emotion,
keeping attention only on a small bit of current news added—“Police officer
Smith, about to stop a pick-up truck for speeding, noticed that the vehicle
seemed to be operated by a dog sitting upright in the driver’s seat.” The typical
text serves only as background to the variation that stands out for attention.
Through deployment of texts and voices ranging from the specifically
memorable to the background murmurs of “what everybody knows,” writers
are able to represent their chosen social context for their current utterance. By
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attention to, selection among, and strategic representation of these voices—
bringing them forward or hiding them in the background, with shrill sharpness
or honeyed sweetness—the author can orchestrate a relevant social reality.
Of course other voices that the reader might remember or have access to
and consider relevant limit the writer’s ability to create this social reality, for the
reader can always evaluate the writer’s proposed intertext: “Ahhh—the writer
is just following the party line, citing the party hacks, and relying on tired old
party reports.” “Hasn’t this guy read any history, doesn’t he know . . . ?” “Why
isn’t she paying attention to the Biblical injunction against . . .?” The writer’s
representations of the prior intertexts and the positioning of the new statement
in relation to the intertext must be credible and persuasive for the readers to
accept the social reality, to accept the intertextual space the writer is creating,
and then to consider the text as plausibly responding to the opportunities of
that intertextual position.
Readers’ memories or perceptions of relevant intertexts may be aided or
hindered by the expectations of genre. Legal briefs are expected to be attentive
to relevant law and precedent within the jurisdiction, and a judge may lose
confidence in a brief that forgets the important case that every lawyer in the
state ought to know. It is in fact a strategy of the opposing lawyers to remind the
judge of all the other relevant law and precedent that make the case look entirely
different. On the other hand, if the judge in reading the brief remembers some
lines of poetry, those lines can at most serve as a stylistic flourish and not a
germane fact or reason. Indeed poetic lines only rarely come to mind in the
court as judges are much more likely to be preoccupied with the legal files in
their brains and libraries as they read the brief. If indeed the brief writer wants
to introduce the literary quote or a philosophic principle into a brief he or
she needs to do some work to establish its relevance and to limit the amount
of weight put on it. Its place is not self-evident and reliable within this genre
within this activity system, and its presence is therefore unstable and potentially
dangerous and destabilizing if given too much authority.
Similarly the genres of scientific articles in various fields suggest the
literature that can and ought to be evoked, the standard and particulars of
codified knowledge that need to be respected, and the usual degrees of play
that individuals can use to construct a review of literature that paves the way
for their new claim. Any person who wants to question the taken-as-accepted
literature and codified knowledge, or bring to bear extra-disciplinary knowledge
has rhetorical work to do to legitimate the construction of an unexpected
intertext. In addition to defining the expected resources of relevant intertexts,
genre expectations also constrain and direct the usual manners in which other
voices are brought to bear—typical formulations, typical footnoting, typical
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
evaluative phrases and characterizing moves. While a political commentator
may be allowed to characterize a speaker as duplicitous, preface a quotation
as evasive, and then display a brief quotation for its outrageousness, a political
historian has to create distance more carefully and choose the quotations on
different criteria. This is more than a matter of bluntness and politeness, or
seeming objectivity. This is a matter of bringing the outside resource into the
domain of a new discourse and having it serve as a useful and meaningful
utterance in the new context.
The regular explicit invocations of particular ranges of texts within particular
kinds of articles identify professional literatures. These are the texts one is held
accountable to knowing, drawing on, and placing one’s current project in
relation to. The texts that seem most salient for the current project are likely
to be explicitly mentioned by the writer, particularly in an academic field with
such practices, but it is fair game for readers to invoke any other of the texts that
can be plausibly made to seem part of the relevant literatures—and the author
is held liable then to address the difficulties or complexities arising from this
invocation. On the other hand, texts from outside the professional literature of
that domain can be generally assumed to be beyond the pale, leaving the writer
free of responsibility for taking them into account.
The literature then comes to identify the knowledge within a field, and the
work of academics can often be seen as contributing to a literature, expanding
the boundaries of available statements for people interested in the kinds of
things this specialty has to say. Thus in many scientific disciplines it is expected
that in the introduction to research papers there is succinct statement of the
prior relevant theory and research literature on which the current study relies
and to which it seeks to contribute. If the article over time is accepted as reliable
or true by other experts in the field and is used to help them carry forward new
research, that helps confirm the interpretation of the literature in the article’s
review. Thus knowledge and the literature in a field gets codified (that is accepted
and put in coherent relation) by an ongoing process of reuse, interpretation,
and the emergence of a coherent story of what the many articles in the field add
up to. Also freestanding reviews of literature, sometimes written by field leaders,
bring together the literature of the field in a coherent way, adding up prior work
and perhaps pointing to next stages of work needing to be done.
In these ways we can see each successful article, both new research
contribution and literature review or commentary, as intervening in an ongoing
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
discussion, both affecting the ongoing trajectory of the discussion and creating
new landmarks which change the landscape which all future articles need to
attend to. However, not all articles successfully enter into the professional
landscape of the literature, or part of the expected chronotope that should
be paid attention to in future articles. They may be seen as trivial, adding no
new important insights or findings, or inaccurate, or just otherwise not worth
attention. They may never get cited or used by anyone, and are thus forgotten
in the collective memory.
We can extend this view of development of collective knowledge in
academic writing to the deployment of intertexts in all writings. By attempting
to create social worlds in which their statements best have meaning and
thrive, in reflecting the perspective the writers wish to project, the intertextual
assumptions of each article attempt to influence the reader’s basic point of
view, basic assumptions about the world, or what one could call the discursive
construction of the world. Thus people may start to identify their changing
beliefs about various aspects of life by the authors they are currently reading
or the people they are listening to. They may even say, “I was so persuaded by
reading a particular writer, that I started to read all her works and all the writers
that elaborate a similar point of view.” Even outside academic circles, where
people do not talk in such self-conscious ways about their reading, the same
phenomenon occurs, as readers are drawn into the world of sports biographies
or model railroad hobbyist magazines by a particular text that introduces them
to that world.
Intertextual fields then become domains of meaning established and
maintained by social groups and that one enters into by reading, participating
in them, and contributing to them. These intertextual fields serve as traditions
of symbols that flow in and around the group whether or not these symbols
are still attached to particular authors or particular texts. They become climates
of opinion, ways of thinking, and ways of seeing and representing experience.
These traditions of meaning themselves are bound up in the genres by which
they are enacted. By entering into literate activity systems and participating in
the genres, one enters into the rooms where these intertextual traditions are
gathered and speak, where they resonate in every word. Just as Homer’s epics
resonate in the later day epics of Milton, Wordsworth and Kenneth Koch, and
the common law resonates throughout contemporary court cases, yesterday’s
news resonates through today’s papers and old office memos of a corporation
still faintly chime behind today’s email directive.
The terrains of intertext which new texts constantly re-invoke and cast in
new light are an ever-growing resource, creating new positions to speak from.
Writing in the twenty-first century is a far more complex and varied thing than
Chapter 9 Meanings and Representations
it was five thousand years ago, or even one hundred years ago, in large part
because of the expanding textual inventions and resources; the large numbers of
text which one can echo, rely on, and set oneself against; and the complex social
relations that have taken on institutional force through the sets of texts that
define them. Thus, each new participant in recognizing that the law is the law,
school is school, and Colgate-Palmolive is not RJR Nabisco, are also implicitly
acknowledging the intertextual webs that support each and the way roles are
intertwined with daily roles and relations.
Texts are not just collections of information, though many texts indeed are
primarily fact collections such as phone books and almanacs. But even these must
be well-organized and make sense to the users. In phone books, organization
is important for readers to access and make sense of the information they want
readily. Almanacs with more kinds of information have varying organizing
principles by topics, each of which has locally organized tables, lists, and similar
information display devices, and there are chapters, tables of contents and
indexes to help the reader find the appropriate display. The internet, digital
searches, and hypermedia are changing display formats along with the principles
of organization and access of informational reference documents, but still an
intelligibly ordered structure is needed.
Encyclopedia entries have complex internal organizations beginning with
the name of the topic, overviews, and a list of major topics (if there is an
historical aspect that usually comes first), defined by headings, beneath which
is a narrative paragraph or paragraphs presenting the information in a way that
establishes the connection of the facts and making them easy to comprehend
in the clearest language appropriate to the topic. There are also cross-references
to other articles or related topics in the encyclopedia. The article usually ends
with further resources. This organization is so useful for access and clarity that
electronic media and hypertext have changed it little except turning the crossreferences
and other resources into links. The bigger changes have to do with
multiple community authorship, which has led to the back pages in the wiki
format, containing the history of changes, participants, discussion of issues
and like material—all important for the management and evaluation of the
collaborative contributions.
Texts that are primarily for the storage, quick access and retrieval of
information have a predominantly spatial organization, so a reader can rapidly
locate the spot with needed information. In writing such a text, one should
keep in mind the readers’ ease of location and rapid making sense of the desired
information. But other texts, meant to be read sequentially (even if sometimes
selectively) have more of a temporal organization, as reading occurs over
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
time with readers introduced to one thing and the next. New forms of digital
texts have both substantial spatial and temporal elements, as readers navigate
spatially conceived hypertexts in temporally structured sequences, while also
processing elements within each multimedia station or page. These digital texts
present challenges for creating hybrid ways of thinking about how such texts
can provide ordered, interpretable, meaningful experiences for readers. Here,
however, I do not deal in detail with the rapidly changing developments in
digital media, but rather present organizational and stylistic principles derived
from traditional texts, even as they may now be produced and delivered digitally.
Perhaps the comments provided here may be of use to consider the new hybrid
spatio-temporal texts, but only time will tell what guidance will be useful in
this moment of textual change. While I have some confidence that the more
fundamental issues in the earlier chapters will be applicable in the digital world
(though of course translated and freshly applied), I am less confident about how
actual textual form will evolve under what principles, as these are so tied to the
form and conditions of delivery.
Most traditional texts provide sequences of information, arranging them so
they are meaningful as readers move down an information or reasoning path.
The most obviously sequential text is a set of instructions which provides just the
information the readers need to know at each point in accomplishing a task, and
then gives the readers specific options based on individual needs or desires. The
coherence in instructions comes from the sequential organization of attention
to the objects and sets of actions. The meaningfulness and persuasiveness
depends on the right things being presented at the right moments. If the readerusers
cannot locate the dial to be adjusted at the right moment, or they do
not understand the relation of two parts to be aligned, they may discard the
instructions as not useful. At the very least they must solve some puzzles to be
able to know how to move to the next step. Enough such difficulties may lead to
a breakdown in meaning and distrust of the instructions. Further, if the results
are not as anticipated or promised, if the recipe does not produce an appetizing
dish, the reader is likely not to trust the source for future directions.
Directions must lead the reader down a clear path of action and produce
acceptable consequences. The need is no less great when mental actions are at
stake, whether intellectual or emotional. The readers must always know where
they are and where they are headed. Even if uncertainty, puzzlement, or mystery
are in fact an expected part of the journey, as in a mystery story or presentation
of a philosophic quandary, the uncertainty must be specific and contained,
limited to precisely those uncertainties that are expected and tolerated (if not
in fact to be enjoyed) by the readers. Leading readers to cliffs and then pushing
them off, loses readers—except for thrill-seekers, who are expecting such things
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
from the kind of texts they choose. So an important part of the text is to create a
tolerable, intelligible, and rewarding path, so the readers will understand where
each step is taking them and will want to take the next step. Often this also
means that readers need to be able to locate the relevant information in their
memories to make sense of and understand what is presented, so that the text
helps draw greater parts of their mind into alignment with the text, building
richer and more forceful meanings as the text progresses. Reading is an effortful
activity, where the readers have to work positively to give their minds over to
imagining the writer’s meaning. They can easily give up if the time and effort
becomes too great, too unpleasurable, or too confusing—or if the text leads in
directions readers do not care to go, that conflict with or are distant from what
their minds already contain or think about. If because of external constraint,
such as legal and financial consequences or school grades, a reader continues
despite confusion, unpleasantness, or seemingly purposeless burdensome effort,
the reader is likely to give only minimal and resentful cooperation. The readers
are then like people on a forced march, hardly in the mood to appreciate the
scenery or to give full attention to collaboratively solving the difficulties of the
Organization of a text is about creating meaningful, rewarding, purposeful
trips for readers through the information, narrative, argument, reasoning,
calculation, and other material you want to present. The text needs to be
presented coherently, so readers will be able to follow you in every step of the
way with some engagement and enthusiasm, without feeling they are asked
to take undue leaps of faith, to make excuses for you, to fill in gaps that you
neglect, or to jump from one place to another with little guidance. And when
the readers reach the endpoint you want to bring them to, they should feel the
endpoint was worth the journey.
Thinking about organization as a coherent sequential journey through an
information landscape provides a temporal perspective about reasoning, which
is usually seen spatially as a consistent and supportable structure. Of course,
readers, after they have read, may go back to examine the structure and overall
meaning of the text, as we will consider later in this chapter. Even as they proceed
temporally through a first reading they may be building a spatial model of the
text’s coherence, particularly if the text’s conclusions are important for some
work they need to carry out. Yet first, as they initially read it, they also need
the experience of being carried along moment by moment, building meaning,
maintaining comprehension and trust in the text, knowing where they are and
not doubting any step they are being led down.
The following are some strategies for making the textual journey intelligible
and trustworthy for the readers, but since genres vary so greatly in structure and
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
activity, the following comments are framed very generally to be appropriate to
a broad range of texts. Nor will these comments explain the many genre-specific
details of language which are well covered in many textbooks, guidebooks, and
other sources of advice, although it may point at well-known topics covered in
these books, from which I have learned much and to which I have little fresh
to add. Here I am just offering a fresh perspective for thinking about and using
well known features of text and language. Similarly, I will not provide detailed
examples, which are well covered in the many textbooks and guidebooks, in
ways that are selective and focused for the kind of writing concerned. My
examples here are only to show how wide-ranging the contexts might be where
general principles could be applied. For any specific kind of writing, it is useful
to consult an advice or stylebook appropriate to your task, genre, and audience.
Further, in the long run, it is useful for any writer to develop practical familiarity
with a wide repertoire of organizational and stylistic options, working with
many kinds of texts. The wider the repertoire of style and organization, the
greater choices the writer will have at hand at any moment and the better able
the writer will be able to discriminate among options and choose the most
appropriate to the immediate situation.
Depending on the trust, authority and purposes of a text, readers may need
more or less orientation to where they are heading, but in all cases the writer
needs to engage readers’ attention and motive to continue on the textual path.
Even if you are relying on the importance of the subject to the reader, you
still have to offer the promise of something new, interesting, or immediately
relevant and valuable, even if only confirmation of beliefs at the moment when
confirmation is needed. Beginning writers when given such advice about gaining
attention may invent bizarre and barely relevant attention-getting devices. Even
more mature writers may resort to well-worn devices like starting off with an
evocative story to make personal an abstract or technical issue for a more general
audience. However, one does not need to act like the barker at a carnival,
saying anything to get the customer into the tent. A more sober approach is to
identify what needs, interests, or concerns might have brought the readers to
the text and then somehow speak to those motivating concerns. In some cases
this might mean providing statistics about the magnitude of a problem and its
consequences, while in other cases it might mean identifying a point at issue
between two philosophers. Elsewhere it may be presenting the overview of the
recommendations in a report that then directs people to the internal sections if
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
they want to follow up on an issue. It all depends on the kind of document, the
needs it serves, and the particular context it appears in. The strategies used in
documents similar to those you will write can give you a sense of the collective
wisdom of previous authors engaged in similar tasks. Recognizably evoking the
motivations associated with a genre has the further advantage of helping the
readers rapidly orient to the kind of text it is and the directions it will take.
Thus the standard formats of scientific articles help readers locate the news or
contribution of the articles, allowing them to decide which articles to follow
up on and in what depth. Equally, business correspondence that is part of an
ongoing negotiation or transaction often begins by identifying the specific case
and previous relevant documents, with perhaps a brief refresher narrative of
where the transaction stands.
Once you have the reader in the door you have to be careful about
maintaining attention and good faith even if you must disagree, challenge, or
otherwise irritate readers. It is easy for readers to be alienated and close the
book and walk away. Or if they stay, they can become resistant critics, mentally
constructing countertexts of alternative interpretations and evaluations. An
important element in allowing readers to know where they are and how that
relates to where they have been and where there are going is cohesive devices,
that include
• Text markers, section identifiers, predictors of the reasoning or steps
coming up, or summative passages tying together where one has been in
previous sections, so as to launch the next stage.
• Transitional words and phrases that explain the connective logic between
sentences or paragraphs, such as “therefore,” “afterwards,” or “as a consequence
• Compound and complex sentences that put several topics in relation.
Even simple sentences can tie together multiple prior topics of discussion
and launch new topics from previous ones.
• Pronouns that refer back to prior subjects, keep them alive, and provide
continuity, but the reference must be clear. Texts soon wander into confusion
if the reader no longer is sure which of many things an “it” can
refer to.
• Precise use of verb tense to identify the time locations of specific actions
and their relation to each other. The tense system is delicate and
precise in most languages, but if used inaccurately can lead to as much
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
confusion as pronoun uncertainty. The common advice that one needs
to stay in the same tense is oversimplified and inexact, but it does at least
raise the issue of time confusion. However, even in the same sentences,
some actions may be completed before others begin, and other actions
continue while being punctuated by others, while still other actions may
be in the future or be hypothetical possibilities. The delicacy of tenses
in indicating complex time relations is shown by examples such as this:
“After Samantha had completed her application form, she was waiting
in the front office when an enraged young man ran out of the interview
room muttering ‘Never, never will this happen.’ Samantha became apprehensive
that her own interview would not go well and she would be
leaving with a heavy heart.”
• Repetition of exact words or core roots—what is known as lexical cohesion.
Repetition of key terms allows the reader to keep track of main
elements and plant them firmly in the imagination, following their progress
through the changes of the text and arraying other elements around
these key anchor terms.
• Using synonymous or related terms, to establish a limited domain of
meanings and familiar relationships (or semantic domain), helping the
reader make sense of the text. As one moves through a text, the semantic
domains may shift following the logic of the organization and argument.
Accordingly, the opening of an article on the economy might start in
the daily business world of customers and shopkeepers with groceries,
products, and prices, but as the discussion turns to underlying analyses
the semantic domain might shift to that of economic theory, with supply
and demand curves and equilibrium points. Nonetheless, for readers to
understand how the argument fits together you will clearly need to connect
one semantic domain to the next by some transitional move, such as
“These daily actions are readily explained in theoretical terms . . .”
All these cohesive devices are related to and provide guidance for the reader
about the underlying coherence of a text, but do not in themselves guarantee a
sense of coherence for the reader. Ultimately coherence depends on the reader
being able to build a picture of the text’s meaning that fits together in a unified
picture (even if that is intended as a fragmented picture of a fragmented reality,
as in the portrayal of the chaos of a battlefield). We will examine this underlying
issue of text coherence from the perspective of logical or reasoned arguments,
from the perspective of emotions and stance, and from the perspective of the
total picture being constructed. All of these have a temporal element, as the
reader moves through the text, but all also have an after-the-reading residue,
which can be viewed in a more spatial way.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
If the text is presenting a reasoned argument or examination of an issue or
topic, the logical and evidentiary connection from one part to the next directs
the readers down each step and gives them confidence that they move forward
on solid ground, led by a trustworthy, reliable guide. Thus the reasoning that
warrants each step of the journey should be made explicitly enough to reassure
the audience that they are not taking faulty steps.
Of course at the end of the reading, readers always have the freedom to
disagree and find fault, but in the course of reading they are granting their
imagination to the author, even if they are holding some mental reservations
because of disagreements or other questions. Each reservation they add distracts
from the totality of mind they are giving over to the imaginative construction
of your ideas and the personal commitment they are giving over to the meaning
you are asking them to create. As these reservations or mental alarms add up,
readers may begin feeling they are giving their minds over to an unreasonable
person who makes unwarranted, unsupported, or bizarre claims, who is asking
them to make unacceptable leaps. The natural reaction in that case is to say “I
am not going to go there and I am not going to waste any more of my mental
energy in this journey.” If readers continue reading beyond this point, their
interpretation of the text will be filtered through a negative characterization of
the author or text, such as the writer being unreasonably partisan, just wrong,
or comically foolish. Rather than constructing your meaning, the readers will
be constructing a story about what is wrong with you and your text.
This also means there needs to be precision in what is said, so the reader
knows what they are assenting to in their imaginative reconstruction of the
meaning, and exactly how that provides a next step in the reasoning. Otherwise
readers are likely to insert their own meanings, desires, or perhaps aversions into
the underspecified story, leading them in a different direction than the path
being set out in the text, with a consequence that the readers at some point
may be confused, caught up short, or lost. Being sufficiently explicit in the text
markers, transitional phrases, and other ligaments that tie the parts of the text
together can help the readers to be precisely aware of how one step leads to
another and to make the desired connections rather than following their own
Although the above advice points in the direction of confident, directive
statements, this needs to be qualified in a couple of ways. First, you should not
be more confident, certain, or directive than you actually have the evidence and
certitude for. This means you must be careful to qualify your remarks through
modal verbs and hedging statements where appropriate, as well to recognize
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
and address contrary points of view, especially if they are likely to come to
your readers minds unprompted. Recognizing questions and alternative views
may even increase the trust of readers, as they perceive you as an honest and
reasonable evaluator of the evidence and logic. But this fairness then puts further
responsibilities on the remainder of the text, to living within the limits that
you have recognized, claiming no more than your argument has allowed, and
keeping contained the questions raised by the concessions so that the readers
can still continue down a path of reason, while carrying the uncertainties with
them. If the counterclaims or evidence or uncertainties stop your argument
dead in the tracks, readers may not travel much further with you. But carefully
framing and limiting the concessions will allow you to carry forward, even
though with lessened ambitions.
At the same time as recognizing and addressing legitimate difficulties, there
is no reason to proliferate difficulties, doubts, or questions where these are not
directly relevant to the direction of your argument. Nor is it usually necessary
to include information and concerns not essential to the forward direction of
your discussion issues if you are aware that they are likely to upset, confuse,
or arouse opposition. That is, given the great variety of human perspectives
and the delicacy of reading which can lead to readers’ misunderstandings,
multiple interpretations, loss of good will, and disruption of co-orientation, it
is worthwhile considering what is necessary or useful to say, and what might
serve to distract, divide, or lead astray.
Finally you also need to be aware of the sophistication of your audience. If
you can be sure that many arguments, reasoned consequences, or information
are familiar to the readers, you need not tell them at length what would be
obvious to them. Tediously repeating the familiar will not respect their expertise,
and perhaps even indicate that you do not understand what expertise in the
field consists of—marking you as an outsider or novice with little authority to
speak to the insiders.
While it is important to consider the steps in front of the readers and how
you can carry readers forward on their journey, it is also useful to consider the
accumulation of steps they have taken and how these fit together in laying
out a picture up to any particular point they may have reached in the text.
Your text gradually reveals a world of meanings to the readers. Although readers
experience a journey through time, they also develop a more synchronic spatial
or structural view of the meaning that at each moment has a certain shape
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
and contents. This spatial construction of the meaning of the text may occur
even if the reader does not read it sequentially, but probes it in different places,
gaining pieces of information that add up to a picture of your text as a whole.
For example, research scientists may skim the abstract at the front of the article
then jump to the data charts to see the results and then jump to the end to
see what the author is claiming on the basis of the data. If then the article is
important to them or raises questions, they might jump back to the methods to
see how the results were produced and then dig further into the results. Then
some questions of interpretation might lead back to the theoretical section,
and to the review of literature to see whether the authors were aware of related
studies with other findings. But all this jumping around is not incoherent—it
brings the readers into a deeper and more complete understanding of the text
as a structured argument.
This synchronic spatial meaning is the kind that can be looked at all at
once, perhaps represented in a summary, an outline, a flow chart, or a map.
Such representations make simultaneously visible all the parts, relations, and
sequences. This is the kind of representation a reader builds if he or she writes
a summary or set of ordered notes on a reading, but a skilled reader can also
build it mentally. A small child first learning to read may only be able to hold
in mind a single letter or cluster being phonetically sounded out, or a phrase or
sentence being made sense of, but as readers develop they are able to grasp larger
units and see the smaller ones in relation to them to form a mental construct
of the total text meaning. When readers have an adequate mental construction,
encompassing the whole text, they say they understand it. Of course there are
some texts that attempt to disrupt our constructing such a meaning or want
to keep emphasis on the experience of a journey that constantly challenges
our senses, but even such texts are open to post facto accounts. Even the
disruption or destabilizing of meaning relies on certain senses built in each
smaller sequence with disruption points of particular kinds at specific junctures;
further, the cumulative experiences, moods, emotions, or transient states of
mind are aggregated across the total textual experience.
This spatial sense is ultimately what we refer to as coherence, how the text
as a whole holds together in our mind to form a lasting impression we take
away as we move further from the text. After the fact of reading, we typically
hold the text in our mind as a single event, having been completed, except for
texts that provide extraordinary experiences of passage or where we read the
text under remarkable conditions that lead us to recall the experience in transit.
If a reader finds a text especially difficult, the reader my need to reread it, look
over the abstract, review section headings, create an outline or other summative
representation. Such activities rely on the meaning already built, but bring them
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
to a further level of clarity and coherence, giving the sense of understanding the
whole text with all the parts and relations.
Later in this chapter we will consider how texts end, punctuating the journey
of reading, usually gathering it together, closing it off, and occasionally holding
certain threads in suspensions or pointing forward to future developments—
thereby further cementing the overall meaning of the text.
This spatial model of meaning does not usually dawn unexpected on the
reader in a single moment. Rather it is built as the reader goes through the
text, adding piece to piece and finding patterns of sense. Each further step can
fill out this picture, make it larger, create a shift in perspective, overlay it with
new colors or filters, or even establish counter images. But at each moment
of reading the reader relies both on former knowledge and ideas he or she
brought to the reading and all you have presented previously in the text out of
which the readers construct what they believe your meaning or intent to be.
The reading journey has led the reader into a world you have stage-managed,
orchestrated, and articulated, particularly if the reader has trusted your
representations at each step. The world you have constructed has inhabited
the reader’s mind, at least to the extent of giving some of his or her mind
over to it, contingently. Each step into that world builds a bigger picture,
and provides more reasons, more facts, more connections, more richness to
believe it, to trust it, to see it as a viable world. Further, in coming to see the
world you are presenting, each reader has used what he or she knows, thinks,
and assumes as part of sensemaking, linking your vision to what the reader
already has in mind, potentially reorganized around the representations and
connections of your text. That is, the reader has thought the way you have
asked the reader to think, at least contingently and temporarily. Mentally
the reader will have walked at least once down the pathway you suggest,
making it imaginable and leaving at least a mental trace. Even more, the
world you have represented becomes context for interpreting each further
sentence, paragraph, or chapter of your work to be read—that is, the reader
has to continuingly exercise and strengthen the world you represent in order
to understand the further parts of the text. Additionally, in imagining your
thinking, the reader has imagined you as someone who makes sense, speaks to
his or her mind, and sees things in ways that he or she can also see.
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
The implications for these processes of co-orientation, co-knowing, coimagining,
and co-thinking, are significant for how you construct your texts so
as to maximize alignment, deep persuasiveness, and mental influence.
First, you must keep track of what you have shown the reader to each point:
what elements, facts, objects, other texts you have brought into the text that
evoke reader meanings, so that you can be aware of what exists in the world
you are coming to share with the reader at each point in the reader’s journey.
Further, you need to keep track of the connections you make among these
meaning elements and how they sit in relation to each other. This is exactly
like the way a novelist must keep track of the characters she has placed in a
novel, what she has said about each, what motives and actions drive each, what
their interactions and relations are, how much they know and care about each
other as to what issues there are between them as well as ongoing activities. The
novelist must also be aware of the state of mind of each character so events and
actions will make sense to the reader. What has been already presented must be
factored into the ongoing momentum of each page of the novel, as new events
and relations unfold based on all that is in place and in motion.
If your aim is expository or explanatory you need to make sure the reader sees
and understands all the concepts and facts necessary at each point to understand
what is going on and to be ready for the new element you will introduce. If
your purpose is to set out a logical or evidential case, the reader needs to see
what evidence is presented, what the reasoning steps are, what principles and
arguments are established and how one builds on another. If you are presenting
an inquiry process, the reader needs to see the concept and motives behind the
inquiry and what knowledge and tools you (and the reader) have on embarking
on the inquiry, then the plan for engaging the inquiry. When all the necessary
information is on the table then readers may be able to follow your discussions
and what you may conclude.
You may notice that each of these examples seems to follow the logics built
into a number of well-known genres of exposition, argument, or research.
Indeed, the historically evolved genres usually contain a kind of situational,
task-based wisdom on steps that will not only lead a reader down a path, as well
as for what readers need to know at each point to make sense of all that has been
presented and to set the stage for the next part of the text.
Second, these elements must add up and make sense to the readers, so
at each moment readers are engaged in a plausible imaginative universe. If
the readers need to suspend judgment or accept confusion, or adopt some
unconventional or odd assumptions that contradict common sense, you must
give them warning, ready them for it, and have created enough trust so that
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
they will temporarily suspend common sense to allow their imaginations to go
to the place you direct. You must then keep this world of suspended judgment
contained, so that having passed over the chasm of suspended judgment, the
readers again find themselves on recognizably solid ground.
Third, you need to be aware of where and in what way you are evoking
the readers’ own experiences and perspectives. It is often useful to mobilize
readers’ own thinking and associations—after all as a writer you have only
the imaginable meanings in readers’ minds to work with, evoke, and shape
through the prompts of your texts. But, unless your text is meant to be only
open-endedly evocative, projective and associative—that is, you are happy to
let the reader take the meaning anywhere they will following the only dynamics
of mind and meaning released by the text—you need to keep those personal
thoughts coordinated with where you are taking the reader, to keep them in the
universe of meanings you want them to understand, connect with, and perhaps
act on.
Fourth, every reader’s journey is swathed in dispositions, orientations, and
emotions that create a wholistic state of receptivity. Even rational arguments
depend on evoking an appropriate state of mind in the reader so that they can
absorb the reasoning—uninterrupted by outrage, comic distance, or melancholic
longing for some preferable state of affairs. It is likely that underneath the
argument there is a highly affective motive, whether a quest for truth, a desire
to uncover manipulations by powerful figures, or the drive to find a vaccine for
disease. Emotions and dispositions concentrate the mind and motivate readers
and writers in their rational quests. Further, within the frame of such quests,
particular findings or developments can be felt as exciting, disappointing,
puzzling, frustrating, activating. So just because a text does not seek arguments
based on emotions or attempt to evoke emotional states, nonetheless, states
of mind and emotion are a necessary concomitant of all texts and tied to the
writers’ and readers’ motivations. The more meaningful texts are for readers, the
more deeply the texts mobilize the entire dynamic of their minds.
Some texts more directly engage the emotions—whether the evocation
of certain emotions or states of minds are the ends in themselves, as in some
aesthetic works, or they are a means of creating affiliation, opposition, agreement,
approval, or other persuasive ends. These texts may represent emotionally
evocative material in isolated moments, but the emotional trajectory of a text
can be dynamic as events transform hope into disappointment, optimism into
fear, fear into relief. In sequences of emotions, each state of being prepares or
impedes the next, as well as provides the grounds for transformation. Some texts
in fact are aimed at creating specific sequences of emotional transformation, such
as an elegy that brings a reader from a devastating sense of loss through various
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
emotions of grief to a final consolation and acceptance, or an advertisement
that converts desires for excitement into desires for automobiles or anxieties
about social acceptance into purchase decisions for hygiene products. In these
one can follow the sequences of information, action and representation—of
meanings—in relation to the emotional path being laid out for readers.
Rational or information-based arguments can also gain from attention
to the sequential mental dynamics set in motion—as an identification of a
problem may lead to an underlying analysis of the causes, an examination of
the resources available for solution, a proposal, and an accounting of the costs
and benefits leading to a recommendation. Each of these stages is associated
with an orientation and state of mind of the reader along with specific contents.
Discussion of a current political disagreement, for example, may lead to an
examination of the underlying ideological issues and then a philosophic
consideration of the vision of the world presupposed by each, followed by a
consideration of the distinctive visions of the future of society. Each step in the
text brings to bear different informational contents, forms of reasoning, and
reader dispositions or states of mind, but each must persuasively grow out of the
previous ones, translating the important motives from the earlier landscape into
the new terrain, and the reader must be brought to the new step in thinking
or state of mind. The new state of mind then reconfigures the interpretation,
evaluation of, and stance toward the earlier synchronic space of meaning,
perhaps even bringing out elements previously not attended to or changing the
interpretation so radically as to transform the meaning of the earlier part.
This dual consideration of spatial and temporal meaning of a text provides a
more dynamic way of thinking about the conclusions of texts. Of course, some
texts are just expositions of information and end abruptly, as when you reach
the z’s in a phonebook or fill out the last item in a form. Such texts do not ask
readers to construct any challenging meanings or change their minds, other
than to add a few informational items. But most texts require constructing
a meaning or evoking sentiments, calling on existing information, mental
relationships, and ways of perception and then integrating the new with the
So if one thinks of the text as a taking readers on a journey into a set of
meanings and through a set of experiences, at the end the readers should be
able to view the material of that journey in a different or more complete way
then at the beginning, and they also may be able to apply that new perspective
Chapter 10 Organization and Movement
to the world or thoughts outside the text. The end of a text is the last moment
you as a writer have to help the reader integrate the meaning of the journey,
understand the consequences and implications, reframe prior knowledge on the
basis of the journey, translate contemplation into action, understand the text’s
value, and apply the text’s meaning to some context beyond the text. Just as the
opening engages readers from a world outside the text and organizes attention
in a new direction, setting in motion the revelations of the text, the ending
brings that journey to an end, adding it up and reintroducing the readers to the
world, transformed by the meaning of the text which now resides in the readers’
minds. The opening and closing sit at the borders of larger intellectual and
practical worlds, and the textual journey has moved or transformed the reader
into a new kind of agent, with new resources, perceptions, positions, thoughts,
and information. Just as the introduction catches the reader into a world of
meanings, the closing releases them outward.
One can think of the text as a time out from the rest of the world, when
readers turn their minds to the contents and sequences the author displays for
them to contemplate. This contemplation is a mental pageant holographically
projected by the interaction of the text with the contents and pathways of
the readers’ minds. The closing can pull together that experience and provide
some enduring impression that holds even when the experience of the complex
journey fades and the time out is over.
In the end a text comes down to sequences of words on a page that carry
the reader on a journey. The right choices of words add depth and engagement
to the journey, while not standing in the way—by distracting, calling attention
to themselves, or misdirecting the readers to think about things that vitiate
the journey and meaning. Effective choice of words maintains and builds
trust, brings readers to the mental and emotional space that makes them most
receptive to the meaning, that does not irritate them or waste attention, that
forms bonds of relation. There are many kinds of places you may want to take
readers to, many forms of engagement, many relations, many meanings, many
journeys—each with an appropriate style. Despite guidebooks that set out
unwaverable rules for style, there are many styles. Style is a set of choices in
pursuit of a reader’s experience, and any single set of rules for style expunges the
sources of style and resources that might be useful in some situations.
Style shines off the surface of a text. It may please the eye of the reader or
glare harshly when seen in one light or another. Yet the sheen may have a depth
that reveals the meanings, intents, and relations that are built into the text.
Each of these levels—the surface, the social world of delivery, and the depth
of meaning creation—can lend insight into what we mean by style and can
point to how we can work on it. And each of these levels can inform the work
of the others. I will examine these levels separately in an order perhaps opposite
the way we are most familiar with them. Style is often recognized through
surface figures in the text and the surface is something we think to work on in
revision once our contents are set. Certainly, revision gives us the opportunity
to heighten and refine the emerged style of the text, but style pasted on at the
last moment with little understanding of where it comes from, where it goes,
and what we want it to carry, can weaken and distract from the force of a text.
Of course in certain communities and actions, there are preferred, even
mandatory, styles. Violation of preferred style can in itself irritate readers and
even block communication. So in contemporary business communication,
stylistic preferences for a direct, action-oriented, concrete style that stays within
a limited vocabulary are so pronounced they can be dictated in handbooks
of business style. Such handbooks exist for many domains, whether for a
newspaper, for student assignments in literary studies, or research articles in
psychology. In the academic world not only will the prescriptions differ among
Chapter 11 Style and Revision
disciplines; they may subtly differ between those enforced on students and the
practice of fully credentialed professionals.
Other kinds of more flexible resources are available on style. There have been
training books throughout history giving neophytes practice in rhetorical and
poetical figures (such as Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesy, 1589). Other books
recognize the variety of styles and techniques for modulating style to support
principled choices among alternatives (for examples, Eastman, 1984; Lanham,
1978; Williams & Colomb, 2010). Additionally, functional grammars, which
consider the functions of language underlying its forms, reveal general resources
of language which can be deployed in varying circumstances. These can also
be very useful if you put in the time to learn their specialized terminology,
particularly Systemic Functional Linguistics (See Halliday & Matthiessen,
2004; or Stillar, 1998 for a simpler presentation). Rather than replicating the
work of presenting the resources of style already done so admirably by others, I
will be providing a way of thinking about style that can be applied in a variety
of circumstances and in relation to a variety of perspectives.
As texts’ motives, strategies, shapes, and meanings emerge through the
writers’ decisions as described in the last few chapters, texts develop ways of
representing materials, defining relationships between writer and reader, and
providing direction for each reader’s journey and experience. As part of that
process, specific wording arises somewhat spontaneously to fit these dynamics,
constraints, and foci. I say “somewhat spontaneously” because style may not be
foregrounded in the writer’s earlier thinking, but still words are chosen to bring
the meaning into communicable space. Writers always must be projecting words
at the point of inscription on the page. As the constraints and motives of a text
become defined, the writer may pause to consider what word or phrase will fit
at this moment. Yet the word choice at this point is likely to be predominantly
dictated by what the writer is trying to say and how the writer is trying to move
the discussion along.
Nonetheless, earlier drafts and sketches contain a number of tentative
commitments about how to represent the subject matter (whether in detail
or summarily, highlighting certain aspects, selecting certain data indicators to
represent a phenomenon, and so on) and how these representations might vary
in different parts of the text. Similarly, reasoning, logic, or connections will
be framed (whether allusively and by metaphor or by logical propositions, by
producing experimental evidence or synthesizing prior work.) Further, writers
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
in early drafts adopt certain stances and relationships with respect to the readers
(whether as authority informing neophytes or inquirer making proposals to
These early choices will likely have been guided by genre choices that imply
perceptions of the situation, audiences, and activity systems—along with
specific perceptions about the particular situation. For those familiar with the
genre, genre choice will draw forth certain voice, personal stance, and relations
to the reader. The experienced writer for a newspaper takes on the voice of the
journalist or editorialist or financial analyst or sportswriter, depending on the
kind of story. Decorum (speaking the right way for the situation) comes in
some sense with the territory, if you are familiar with the territory. Failures to
adopt the appropriate style, to choose the word with the right vernacular or
technical ring, will strike readers as striking a discordant note, not quite in tune
with what the text ought to be doing.
Described from a linguistic perspective, the range of appropriate choices
can be characterized as register, but further specific choices arise from the
specific situation, role, interaction and meaning being realized. In dramatic
terms, in adopting a genre, the writer falls into character, able to respond with
spontaneity, creativity and appropriateness to the specific scene. Most writing
is part of continuing engagement in some ongoing social group and associated
activities, and even in some ongoing project that is shared. Language is already
floating around in the social context, identifying objects and ideas discussed,
offering already made phrasing, cementing connections between ideas,
establishing available evidence, and suggesting other texts that are relevant.
In response to that environment of language and meanings the writer begins
to coalesce a new set of meanings and intents, drawing on the linguistic and
meaning resources at hand. Even when a writer has been working in privacy
on a project over time—taking notes, gathering data, sketching out ideas,
reading other books—there, too, terms already are floating around in the
texts consulted long before writing the first draft begins. The emergent text
crystallizes new meanings selecting from the language and representations
already within the intertextual space.
For an insider, then, genre, decorum, register, and specific relevant
representations are already at hand to use when the writer begins drafting.
Genre, decorum, register, and wording are more problematic for the outsider
or novice attempting to fit in within a discussion or communicative group
Chapter 11 Style and Revision
they have not been previously been part of. Decorum manuals or style manuals
are then typically for the novice, though some are used for regulation, to
be referred to by the professional gatekeepers and decorum police, such as
On the other hand, if some event radically changes the context,
composition, and concerns of a group, the at-hand stabilities of genre,
decorum, and wording may be disrupted, testing the inventiveness of all
participants. The collapse of a long-standing governmental and ideological
regime, for example, may shake up the discourses of politics and law, as well
as of history, schooling, social sciences, businesses, and even family support
services. Within the well-embedded, stabilized situation, however, genre,
decorum, register, and wording only become major issues when the writer
wants to bend, expand, or break the decorum—from the tactful inclusion of
a fresh perspective to the intentional attention-grabbing transgression. The
activity system with its genres and history provides tools of expression to
guide behavior, even down to the level of word choice, phrasing, and use of
appropriate graphic elements. With familiarity of genre, comes immersion
in the language and way of representing, so expressions take on the form
associated with the situation seemingly spontaneously.
Viewing style as an outgrowth of genre-shaped emergent meanings provides
a way of looking at revision as recognizing and heightening the expressive
dimensions already taking shape in the earlier drafts. Revision, as well, can go
beyond the local phrasal and sentence choices that cumulatively across the text
may be said to constitute the style. Revision can look at fundamental issues of
focus of the discussion, organization, selection and use of information and data,
identification and presentation of intertextual contexts, or any other element
that goes into the construction of the final text.
Revision is an ongoing process as we examine and reconsider what we have
written. As we see what emerges, we can evaluate whether we like the direction
it is taking or want to redirect it. As we commit to a direction and examine the
results, we can consider how we can make the text more of the kind of thing we
see it becoming—that is, how we can make the text stronger or more effective
in terms of the text’s emergent designs and objectives.
Sometimes this revision, a reflective look at what we are doing, comes in the
course of producing the initial draft. Sometimes this revision occurs after we
have a completed draft or a sketch to look at. Sometimes revision can send us
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
backwards to do more drafting or even to find more information. Yet, revision
more often drives us forward to take the text to where its design is telling us
and to shed the unnecessary weight of extraneous diversions, doubts, and
hesitancies in order to give the text presence, clarity, and force, as appropriate to
the situation, genre, and decorum.
Feigning certainty where there is none and suppressing complications when
they are relevant are usually not in the long run effective, for trust of the readers
is the writer’s most important asset. Nonetheless, advancing the statement with
greatest warranted clarity and force helps the reader attend to the written words
so as to reconstruct and align with the writer’s intended meanings. The writer
should seek to take the readers as far as possible into the meaning and intent
while still maintaining their trust and cooperation.
The trick of revision—that is, seeing a text freshly so as to be able to improve
it—is to establish some perspective or criteria from which to view and evaluate
components of the texts. It is not easy to get a fresh perspective or vantage
point from which to read or evaluate one’s text. We come out of the processes
of writing having exhausted all our resources in coming up with the solution
of what to put on the paper. We have done our best, and at first blush have no
further ideas. Also mentally exhausted in the more usual sense of being tired,
we have no desire to return into that space of hard work of meaning making
to upset the fine network of solutions we have managed to piece together. That
working state of mind was a transient mobilization of many cognitive resources;
it is hard to reconstruct that state of mind, even if we know there are still some
things to work on. Some people are so filled with anxiety about what they have
written, they even have a physical aversion to rereading their drafts, let alone
consider changing them. Eyes blur and minds numb when confronting the text,
so one cannot even make sense of what one has written.
A focused set of concerns or criteria that directs us to ask specific questions
about the text can give us positive, specific work we can reasonably accomplish
and can help overcome resistance. The simplest questions to ask are those at the
surface editing level. Are there any typos, spelling errors, or other transcription
problems? We can examine the manuscript treating it as a spelling, grammar,
and punctuation test. To do these tasks, all we need do is remember the rules
we learned in the early school years and keep a dictionary at hand. Computer
tools now can help us with this inspection by pointing out words or phrases
Chapter 11 Style and Revision
that appear not to be correct for us to consider. Many experienced writers have
these rules so internalized that often errors pop out spontaneously as they scan
the surface of the text, and thus they may treat editing as a task just of rereading
attuned to possible false notes. But professional copy-editors and proofreaders
know that they need perceptual tricks to make the surface of the text visible,
such as reading the sentences aloud or in the reverse order, or thinking of the
sentences as grammatical structures rather than conveyors of meaning. And
they need to keep reference books at hand.
Forms of surface editing point the way toward deeper revision in that they
help create a distance between us and what we have put on the page. But deeper
revision requires deeper questions, deeper tasks, and a greater separation from
the words we have chosen to express our meanings. It is hard to read our texts to
see whether they will make sense to readers who are not ourselves. After all, they
made sense to us as we wrote them, and therefore looking at the text again may
only evoke the meaning we already have in our head. Having another reader to
point out lapses, confusions, or ambiguities helps us examine the text freshly
as an expression of a set of coherent meanings. Even reading the text aloud to
someone else may give us enough consciousness of the words to make us aware
if we are making sense.
Learning to listen carefully to the criticisms and suggestions of others is
itself a challenge. We may view their suggestions about language as either
trivial or an attack on our meaning. We may view their failure to comprehend
our ideas as an intellectual failure on their part. Or we may feel that their
suggested revisions take the text away from our intentions. While we need
not accept everything suggested to us, we do need to take every suggestion
seriously to see whether it can improve the text. We need to be able to push
the language to realize our meaning impulses even as we are ready to let go
any particular formulations. We have to be ready to recognize that we make
errors, that our initial choices can be reconsidered and improved on, that
our ideas can become transformed as we find new ways of elaborating them.
Such an attitude toward our own writing is only built slowly as we learn what
perspectives other readers may have on our writing and we learn to give up
our passionate attachment to our initial words as though they were parts of
ourselves, while still remaining passionate about our impulse to communicate.
Only once we have internalized that distant position of a reader, removing
us from our texts to truly treat our texts as though they were fully outside
of ourselves, then perhaps we can check the coherence of meaning by our
own slow reading. When we can view the criticisms from others with some
dispassionate judgment, we can begin to be dispassionate in judging our own
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
Making the text more of what it is emerging to be is challenging. For that
we need to have a reflexive idea of what discursive space (or rhetorical situation)
the text claims, how it is attempting to occupy and fulfill the potential of the
discursive space, and a technical understanding of how it is attempting to do
this. So we need to get outside of the text we have cobbled together in the heat
of struggle. We need specific things to look at and criteria to evaluate the text
by, for otherwise we will either see little or we will circle around our own selfdoubts,
with no guarantee any change is really an improvement rather than just
a digressive response to uncertainty.
It helps to define different parameters of the text that we might reconsider.
At the style level we have been considering in this chapter (as well as at the
other levels examined in previous chapters) we can consider the interpersonal
dynamics the text is setting up and whether we are satisfied with them, whether
the text projects us in roles we are comfortable with, whether we occupy
too much or too little a presence, whether we are inviting and respectful
enough with our readers, whether the text provides adequate roles for them
and accommodates their likely varieties of views and knowledge. Similarly,
we can look at whether our ideas are present cohesively and the directions of
the arguments and ligaments of the text are marked well enough to provide
guidance to the readers as they attempt to find the inner coherence identified by
the outward markers of cohesion. Further, we can look at the specific ideas and
information presented to see whether they are identified adequately, whether all
relevant parts are presented, and whether reasoning processes are made visible.
Similarly, revision provides the opportunity to consider the implications
of the genre position we have taken. How consistent is the text in pursuing
the aims inherent in the genre? If we adopt hybrid genres, is the combination
effective and do the readers have enough clues to understand and accept what
the hybridity is attempting to accomplish? How might the generic features be
heightened, toned down, or played against each other to sharpen the message,
emotion, or presence? How can we strengthen credibility in the projection
of ethos or maintain the most appropriate stances for readers? How much
passion of what sort, how much reason, how much of an associated mood,
are appropriate to expand thinking, build confidence, or allow the reader’s
thoughts grow in appropriate directions? How much precision and univocality
of meaning is needed given the nature of the genre and the task?
One way to identify issues to pursue in revision is to articulate through
discussion with others or through extended written comments to ourselves a
description of what we have produced and what we hope to accomplish. This
Chapter 11 Style and Revision
then can provide us with a series of questions by which to interrogate the draft
in terms appropriate to the goals of the final text, realized at every detail of
language and composition.
Although the process for adopting a systematic stance toward revision which
I am presenting here seems to be ignoring the spontaneous sense that there is
something wrong or not yet fully realized, I am suggesting rather that any such
intimation, intuition or unease is best elaborated so that we know what is creating
the concern. This then can be turned into a systematic principle or query stance
that can then guide revision. Since in producing emergent phenomena we don’t
always know where we are going—we are just following what seems good to
us—only as issues emerge can we start to articulate them. This is particularly so
if we are in a flow state where we are drawing on all our resources doing complex
problem solving in real time, at the limits of our working memory and drawing
simultaneously on less conscious forms of calculation and emotionally signaled
estimates of success, as discussed in the next chapter. It is important not to
interrupt that flow state or interpose too many forms of conscious monitoring
in the moment. Yet after an hour, or a day, or a month, after being able to look
back on the text, then we can start to articulate what it is that has emerged.
Then we can begin to sense where our lights were leading us and identify means
to take us more effectively to that place.
Another way to think of this revision stance is as a professional view of
writing. Professionals in any domain constantly work on their craft and
monitor what they do to improve performance. Musicians, though driven by
a love of music, practice their technique, do exercises, listen to tapes of their
performances, and play before coaches and instructors to find out where they
need improvement. Then they do appropriate exercises and self-consciously
monitor their performances to ensure they are incorporating the new skills and
avoiding bad habits. This professional attitude does not diminish their love of
the music; it only increases their expressive potential through finer control of
the directions and details, and gives them even more reason to love their art.
Professional athletes, likewise, no matter how much they love their games
and feel they have great talent, do exercises, get critiques from their coaches,
work on particular skills, and monitor themselves with awareness of those things
they are working on. They are aware that performance is different than desire or
impulse, though these internal feelings may lie behind their performance. The
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
performance, nonetheless, must be realized through detailed, skilled, practiced
behavior, responsive to informed criticism. Of course, professionals can sort
out the difference between useful advice and uninformed suggestions from
those who do not understand the craft, but they know the value of accepting
any criticism, no matter how painful, that helps them recognize an area of
weakness that could use work. This does not decrease commitment to sport,
skill, and accomplishment of performance. Rather the commitment to craft
only increases commitment to the game and a realistic sense of what goes into
an accomplished performance.
In writing we are very attached to our words by our impulse to communicate
and to the meanings that well up from inside ourselves to reach out to others.
Further, the technical skills of text manipulation seem so complex at the same
time as being so closely tied to meaning, that it is especially hard to view the
performance as something to be worked on. We may even feel the attempt to
revise as an intolerable burden that somehow interferes with our meaning and
impulses. Yet revision gives us opportunity to see our text from the outside
and improve it to realize our impulses more forcefully. We can look at our
sketches and drafts, and keep working on them in semi-privacy before we send
the final polished version to the intended audience. This allows us to become
more objective in seeing the texts as symbolic objects, constructed and to be
improved, rather than as direct overflows of our subjective states and excited
thoughts. In the end we will have greater expressive potential, greater success
in communicating our meanings and more influence on others, even if the
revision process at times seems cold and technical.

The guidance in this book has focused on the identification and crystallization
of the communicative space—the textual version of the rhetorical situation—
and the emergence of the text in that space. The focus has been on the textual
object being made, the actions it is carrying out, and the people it is going to.
Although the ultimate product is external to the writer in the form of a text that
travels in the world, much of the work and meaning that makes it happen arises
from within the writer. When the task is familiar and simple we may not think
much about our writing processes, as the writing solutions may be immediately
at hand. A memo similar to many we have seen and have written many times
may be more an exercise in typing from memory with a few local adjustments
than difficult problem solving. But as the difficulty of the task increases, it helps
us to be able to understand our processes, manage them to best effect, and
adjust them to fit the particulars of the task.
The previous chapters have discussed how to conceive of and direct the work
to make that emergent document as though the writer were fully rational—
but humans aren’t built like that. Even our rational, conscious, and self-aware
processes work in curious ways. These psychological complexities have their
origin in the complexities of neurobiological human nature; the richness of our
experiences; the limitations of our attention; our self-perceptions of identity,
roles, and relationships, and the potential (or imagined) social consequences of
our words.
This volume, particularly in the last few chapters, has focused on a writer
working individually in semi-privacy, though with input and response from
others. This chapter continues in that vein. Much writing in organizations and
disciplines, however, is accomplished collaboratively, with work negotiated and
distributed among many participants, and managing that collaboration requires
particular skills and organization of the tasks. Nonetheless, all the tasks and
functions presented here can be reconsidered in a collaborative context. Even
some of the personal issues of anxiety and risk discussed later in this chapter,
are often played out in a collaborative context, but with the advantageous
potential of these problems in some team members being recognized by others
and brought to explicit discussion and management.
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
In this chapter I want to give an overview of some of the many psychological
issues that may play out at various moments in this emergent process, starting
with when we enter into a situation that may call for writing.
As discussed in Chapter 3, the impulse to write arises in response to
situations, so writing begins with recognition of a rhetorical situation where
we see people and events around us coming together in an exigence that we
feel can be influenced, affected, or constrained by our words. The recognition
of people, events, exigence, impulse, and possibility of influence all involve
individual perceptions, and judgments. The accuracy of those perceptions and
judgments are likely to affect the success of our endeavors.
Sometimes it is easy to perceive with some accuracy our need to respond
the people and events outside us, and even the likelihood of our influencing
events through writing. If students are enrolled in an academic course, and the
instructor announces an assignment of an essay that must be completed in class
that day to count for 10% of the course grade, the students are immediately
mobilized to read the assignment prompt and begin thinking about it. Unless
unprepared or confused, the students will soon be writing and focused on
the task. If it is, however, announced that the assignment will be due weeks
later at the end of the term, only some of the students are likely to feel an
immediate need to start thinking about the assignment, gathering the materials,
and interpreting the instruction of the course through the need to produce the
paper, while others may not start feeling any exigency until the night before
the due date. The ones who perceive the exigency early can devote more work
and attention to the task through a more extended process, and are likely to do
better. In such an example, we see the value in recognizing and committing to
a rhetorical situation early when we find ourselves in it. The more clearly and
immediately we see it and commit to it, the more we can gather and interpret
information, think about our purposes and focus, and allow our response to
emerge over time with multiple levels of thought and work.
There are many instances where we are handed assignments by others,
whether on the job, from government, or in the community. We are asked to
write a report, file a document, or prepare publicity for neighborhood fair. We
are in effect told what the situation and events are, who the relevant people
are, what is at stake, and our ability to affect the situation (if only to avoid the
penalties of not doing what is requested).
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
At other times, however, it is up to us to recognize how events and people
come together to create a situation calling for our writing. No one but ourselves
perceives it is time to write a personal letter, submit an application for a job, or
begin a book, although we may perceive external pressures that push us to those
actions. The extreme case of self-defined writing episodes is personal reflective
writing, impelled only by inner compulsion to sort out emotions, events, and
thoughts. Our decision to open a notebook depends entirely on our perception
of our needs in our current situation, but making that choice then establishes a
commitment to a writing task and initiates a writing episode.
The very impulse to write is based on a kind of psychological orientation to
action, arising from our perception of the situation. This is what psychologists
call arousal. Something has caught our attention as potentially needing some
action, so we attend, gather information and start weighing choices of action,
whether conscious or not. Recognition of this state of focused attention
directed toward action is worth noting, so as not to deny it or fight against it,
but rather to make most of it. In a state of arousal, brain systems are mobilized
and neurological chemicals are released, heart rate and blood pressure go up,
and senses are more alert and ready to act.
A century old principle of psychology (the Yerkes-Dodson law) correlates
arousal with quality of performance, but if arousal is too great, performances
may suffer. This suggests for writing that recognition and self-regulation of one’s
level of engagement in a piece of writing may help keep one at the maximum
level of performance—working hard but not overwhelmed. Many writers have
experienced the pleasure and focus of writing episodes, where all one’s attention
and energies are focused toward the object of creating a text, but many have
also experienced becoming so obsessed or so stressed that they no longer can
think straight. At the extreme they no longer can decide what to do next or
what words to put down: they are exhausted with a welter of conflicting ideas,
and they suffer tunnel vision and decreased memory. They can no longer solve
problems and are caught in an impasse. When writers reach that point then
they have to turn attention away from the writing task and do something else
until they can think straight and separate useful ideas from noise.
Awareness of one’s state of arousal can help the writer see and accept the
need for an extended, punctuated writing process that allows for regular periods
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
of work, interspersed with breaks and engagement with other tasks. This is part
of the core wisdom behind recommendations that it is better to write for short,
regular periods every day rather than for extended concentrated sessions over
a short period of time. Multiple moments of attention over many different
sessions also allow the writer to focus on a limited number of things at a time,
but gradually covering all the multiple levels and focuses of attention the
complex document may need. In addition, awareness of arousal can also alert
writers to the difficulties that might come with narrowed attention. Reviewing
drafts after placing them aside for days or weeks allows one to reexamine the
writing when one’s mind is no longer encased within tunnel vision.
Being in an aroused state of writing is a bit different than arousal in a brief
sexual episode, or in a fire, where one is intensely focused for minutes with all
else fading from view. With writing, this period of engagement with a text may
extend over days, months or years, while other aspects of life continue. Unless
the writing task is short, one cannot give undivided attention to the writing
task from start to finish. Learning how to regulate the intermittent periods of
full attention, knowing when is enough for each day, each session, also means
the writer needs to learn to keep the task alive in a more subdued mode during
the interim periods. Without constant commitment and regular return to fuller
attention, the mental orientation to the project may evaporate. The writer can
readily lose a sense of the emergent impulse and emergent text, as attention
turns elsewhere. Even if the writer maintains a commitment to a project, if he
or she cannot find a way to bring attention back into the project and recreate a
state of mind where the writing project dynamically grows, the project can fade
from attention and commitment.
The writer needs to build skills to return to the mental place of writing where
a perception of the task and situation has formed an impulse to communicate
and is crystallizing in a set of meanings and textual forms. Letting the mind
refocus and reassemble its internal attention and resources toward written
action is a form of meditation and mental composure. Beginning writers may
only be able to visit such a writing state of mind in the presence of supportive
mentors, and each writing session is a fresh start. We can see this in young
children whose ideas for writing are prompted by questions from adults who
remain in the vicinity to help with problems of formulation and transcription
so the child can remain on task. Even at university level, facilitation by an
instructor or tutor at crucial junctures helps students focus on a writing task
and overcome difficulties that might lead to loss of direction and vitiation of
attention. Even very advanced writers may have difficulties mentally recovering
projects that have been long dormant or challenging projects that strain their
mental resources. Nonetheless, practiced writers over time can build their
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
ability to remember the motives and processes of an emergent text, where they
were in the text, or even more pertinently in their mind—over a day, a week,
or even months.
This process of re-calling the writing project to mind can be helped by,
at the end of each writing session, leaving off at a place where it is easy to
restart, rather than at a place of impasse. This requires recognizing that you are
approaching the limit for the day and stopping at an opportune place before
reaching that limit. Perhaps sketching a few sentences or phrases indicating the
way forward or outlining the next section and identifying topics to be covered
can help remind you where you are headed. If you are not quite sure where you
are heading, briefly writing out the problem that needs to be solved before you
go forward can at least remind you what you were working on, and may even
give you something to mull over before the next writing session. If you foresee
an extended period where you will not have the focused time to do the deepest
composition, may set yourself some lower order tasks that you can take on as
discrete units. For example, if I foresee as the summer ends that I will have only
limited time and attention in the coming term, I might identify some material
that needs describing, or some sections needing polishing. I will then set up
those tasks so I know what I have to do with the limited time, attention, and
energy available to me in the next few months. This way I can keep making
progress without having to bring the whole project to mind and without having
to occupy my whole mind and state of being in the project while I am also
occupied with other compelling tasks.
When I come back to the text, I have tricks to pick up the breadcrumb
trail. I draw on all the relaxation and focusing techniques I have learned from
performance arts, sports, and meditation practices to remove extraneous
thoughts and focus on the work at hand. I work at places conducive for
concentration, depending on my mood, whether it is at my desk with a cup
of coffee or in a quiet corner in a coffee shop if I feel I need others around
me (though not disturbing me) to help me concentrate. If I am still mentally
not there, I begin revising earlier sections, creating outlines of the most recent
sections I have written, or free-writing about my current thinking. If the project
has been dormant for a while, I may work my way back into the text by looking
over some of the source texts or theory, reexamining data collections, or reading.
At times I may even impose on someone else as I talk aloud my thoughts on
where I have been and where I am heading. These actions may take minutes, or
days, or even longer to reprise extended projects that have slid into the further
recesses of my mind.
This slow cooking of projects over time has added benefits and dangers. It
provides time to solve numerous puzzles, take in more information consciously
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
and unconsciously, and play around with many solutions, configurations, and
strategies. While we may not be aware of the relevance of some of the stray
thoughts or observations during these fallow periods, they may indeed be part
of drawing on resources and ideas from surprising sources to help find ways to
solve problems. We are relieved of the tunnel vision of intense concentration
and can explore more widely. Yet all of this requires that the project remain
at least activated at some level, with commitment and attention somewhere
in the back of the mind. Awareness of a project on slow simmer, on the other
hand, may raise anxiety about an incomplete project with many things left to
be done, but as we gain confidence that cooking continues even at a slow rate,
we become more comfortable with the project evolving at its own pace. In
slow cooking, however, one must keep an eye on the pot so as to adjust it to
the right temperature. A very slow cook that still leaves one with almost all the
work to do at the last minute may be little better than starting the night before.
This monitoring of the pace of the project is also part of the work of successful
Just as an individual enters a state of arousal when beginning a writing
episode, a group of people or an organization is mobilized for a period as they
recognize and commit to writing tasks. While there may be focused moments
of intense group collaboration and attention in developing plans or forming
core texts, there may be other moments of individuals and the group attending
to other tasks. While individuals gradually make their own progress on their
separate contributions, the group can periodically return to discussion and
planning to reestablish coalignment or one person may coordinate the work and
monitor the overall progress and meaning of the document. An organization can
work on an even slower time scale, setting in motion information-gathering and
analytic processes, to eventually lead to a report or a plan or a sales documents
years down the line. While there may not be frenetic group activity and other
aspects of the group life may get more attention (at least until the latter stages
of producing the final document), yet there is a continuing group activation
moving the project along. If that activation vitiates, progress on the document
Recognizing that we are entering into a writing episode creates challenges,
challenges that we may prefer not to have. First, a writing episode requires
cognitive work, sometimes quite strenuous, exhausting, and even painful and
debilitating work. Writing is hard work that can produce headaches along
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
with all the ultimate pleasures of accomplishment and discovery. Second,
this work requires a commitment that puts an obligation on us and becomes
a statement of what we value to others. Third, writing defines a relationship
to others, represented in the text or to whom the text is addressed, and we
may not feel fully comfortable with the commitment, confrontation, criticism,
affiliation, or other social positioning that is emerging through the text. Finally,
commitment to acting in a situation puts at risk—of both failure and success
and the consequences of each.
Often enough ignoring work assignments or public debates over rezoning
our neighborhood may require less effort and evoke less anxiety. One common
method of avoiding recognizing we are in a potential situation is to believe we
have little influence over events, and that our statements would be unlikely
to change any outcomes. In this way we erase the possibility of a rhetorical
situation and we don’t even begin to search for kinds of genres that might have
an impact or the kinds of things we might have to say. We just do not take on
the commitments and obligations, work, and risks of the situation. Another
common method is to put off thinking about the situation until the last minute
when we do the task in a rushed panic that does not allow us to confront
the full complexity, meaning, and potential of the task. Or if we procrastinate
really successfully, the time will pass and it will be too late, relieving us of all
obligation, even if we have to live with the consequences of inaction.
Once we have recognized there is a situation and made a commitment—
perhaps because we want to keep our job or pass a course, or more positively
because we anticipate enjoyment or success—then we still have many ways to
resist, slow down, deviate, or wander from the task. Internal criticism about
our ability to produce may keep us from setting to work with a whole mind,
and cause us to question our choices at every stage from first definition of
the situation to every grammatical choice. This questioning from lack of selfefficacy
is far beyond the reasonable monitoring we need in order to evaluate
our choices and consider alternatives. This self-questioning in particular may be
fueled by our doubts of how our words will appear to others and how they will
evaluate those words. When we put words on paper we are making a statement
and committing to a public presence that may endure. This anxiety about our
presence may go well beyond our spelling or grammar, which others may use
to stigmatize our education and intelligence, to the opinions, perspectives,
knowledge and reasoning we inscribe for others to look at carefully over time.
People might declare us as right or wrong, informed or ill-informed, interested
in trivial topics or important ones, too political or not political enough,
advocating the right side or the wrong side. By writing we commit ourselves to
roles, whether as an applicant for a job or as a poet or a reporter for a hobbyist
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
newsletter. The anxieties raised by such concerns may lead us to wander from
the task or may cloud our mind so we cannot think as sharply as we might, or
to veer away from the topic and most anxiety-provoking or challenging issues
as we write.
Robert Boice in his very practical book Professors as Writers (1990, useful
also for non-academics) summarizes the extensive literature on psychological
resistances to writing and finds the following diagnostic behaviors for people
with blocking problems: work apprehension and low energy when writing,
dysphoria, evaluation anxiety, perfectionism, procrastination, and impatience.
These he finds related to the following causal factors: internal censors or critics,
fears of failure, negative early experiences, general state of mental health,
personality types, work habits and attitudes. He offers many useful ideas for
short term and long term ways of improving productivity and overcoming these
resistances and their causes.
Writers sometimes have golden moments when the writing overtakes them,
and they feel compelled to sit down and transcribe the words flowing through
their heads. They awake in the middle of the night or pick up a notebook
in the middle of a journey, then lose all track of time as they seem to be
transcribing words handed to them by the muse. Such moments have been
reported sufficiently often for them to become iconic for the experience of
“really writing,” and some people will not sit down to write unless they sense
such an inspired moment to be overtaking them.
But for such a moment to arise, the writer’s mind must already be working
on a writing problem or another problem that finds its expression in writing,
whether the writer has been consciously focused on it or not. A writer who
recognizes and is committed to a writing episode and is consciously working
on the problems posed by the writing is more likely to assemble pieces that
will come together in such moments of deep flow, as Csikszentmihalyi (1975)
has described the experience. As writers, we gain if we learn to take ourselves
regularly into places of complex problem solving, no matter what fears,
pain, risks, or tempting distractions may stand at the entryway—even when
inspiration hasn’t quite taken over. Regular work, a short set amount every day,
even if uninspired is more likely to define the problem you are working on,
identify resources, consider possibilities, and otherwise set the table for when
the muse decides to arrive (or more accurately, when your mind finds a set of
solutions that is generative for producing text).
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
The impulse to write within one is more likely to blossom if you make space
for it and invite it. Having set the table with the preliminary work, you still
need to commence the meal—creating moments to confront all that you have
assembled, to listen to the inner impulses bringing the disparate pieces of the
task together, and to attempt solutions. Setting moments to examine the pieces
you are working with, seeing how they are fitting together, and shaking them
around will increase the chances that they will fall in place and a clear direction
forward will emerge.
The muse, or the creative problem-solving thoughts, moreover, when they
arise, may not always be pleasant—for such reasons as discussed previously
of anxiety, overtaxing one’s brain which may become oxygen depleted, and
challenging settled mental organization. We may then experience exhaustion
accompanied by dysphoric feelings. Words pressing to be expressed can feel
raw and pressured as they emerge. This is all the more reason why we need to
commit to regular work and regular times, so we confront this difficult and
sometimes painful work. At times I have felt I need metaphorically to chain
myself to my desk. Writers often need to find a quiet room far from distractions,
and not emerge until they have gotten past the hard parts. Some go out of town
and rent hotel rooms. Numerous rural writers’ colonies are organized so there
is little to do but write.
This commitment to confront the taskmaster muse does not mean we
should torture ourselves when we reach an impasse. When the mountain is too
high to climb at the moment, we can select a smaller preparatory task, head
off in a related side direction for a bit, do some warm-up activity like freewriting
or sketching out goals. We may even on occasion walk away for a bit,
having looked the task in the face for a time and finding no way forward. While
we turn to other tasks our mind can continue to sort out what the problems
we have framed. But then we need to re-gather our thoughts and courage to
return to the task. Otherwise, the mountain remains unclimbed and the text
never written. But then also come the wonderful moments of parts falling in
place, discovering new ideas, surprising phrases appearing on the page, and
satisfaction with accomplishment. The climb is strenuous and muscles may be
sore, but the mountain has its pleasures and rewards.
We have to accomplish many kinds of work in writing—and except for
simple and familiar tasks all this work rarely happens in a single piece, despite
our hopes that it will all come in a vision, as symphonies purportedly came to
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
Mozart—with all the rest just being transcription. Such visions in themselves
indicate the mind has already been working on a problem, whether consciously
or unconsciously, and there is one fortunate, memorable, glorious moment
when all falls together. Further, even if we are fortunate enough to have had a
vision of the overall structure and gist of a text (this does happen), yet there are
still many details and levels of work that need to be pursued to bring the text to
realization. I remember visiting an archive when over the course of a few hours
the vision of what was to be the book The Languages of Edison’s Light (Bazerman,
1999) came to me, but I had been working on the rhetoric of science for over a
decade, and I had specifically been working on electricity for three years, with
several papers already written. And then it took another ten years to carry out
the detailed research, write and revise the chapters, and work with the publishers
to bring the book to press.
So writing is inevitably a process, even if it is just in two-minutes for
reading an email, recognizing we need to respond, deciding what we need to
communicate, framing the best words, and proofreading before pressing the
send button. Whether the process lasts two minutes or a decade, the initial
impulses and words on the page may not be anywhere near what the final
completed document will be. The imperfection of the first words may lead to
despair at the limits of our accomplishment and the immensity of distance we
still have to go, but awareness that there is a process to guide us can give us
confidence and direction, limiting our work and attention at each moment with
the assurance that we will be able to attend to other matters at some point in
the future. It is a relief to not feel we have to solve all problems simultaneously
and keep everything in mind all at once; we are then able to focus our inevitably
limited mental resources on one item at a time.
Process is not a fixed sequence, as it is sometimes taught in school, because
each task, each set of conditions, and each personality working with particular
sets of resources calls for different ways of working and different sequences of
events and attention. The standard processes taught in school arise out of the
particular conditions of assignments set in the classroom to be completed in
a relatively short time, with resources largely already in the student’s mind.
Although such a model that moves from idea-generation through drafting to
revision does not fully recognize individual differences, it does serve well enough
to introduce students to the idea of process. But outside school some tasks
must be done in two minutes and others may continue for years with no fixed
deadline; some tasks require great attention to social politeness while others
require extensive reading or fact gathering; some are parts of large collaborative
projects during the work day and others are personal projects done in spare
time; some are strictly regulated in bureaucratic coordination while others are
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
improvisatory or even disrupted by untimely addition of constraints or new
information. Processes necessarily vary to fit the tasks. Moreover, especially as
tasks become more complex, people have different preferences about how the
work should be done. Yet there is always a process.
Explicitly identifying and understanding the process you are engaged in
will most directly help you identify what you are primarily working on at each
moment and what is the next task in front of you. It will also make possible
an overview to make sure that all the necessary work will be done and all the
dimensions of the task will be addressed. Most of all, it will relieve you of the
debilitating sense that everything must be worked on at once and the equally
debilitating sense that the text has not gone far and is riddled with problems.
There will be time to go further and to address each problem in its time. By
seeing that there is a process, you can come to trust the process.
Of course the mind is unruly and the emergent text is constantly suggestive
of what needs further to be done. So you need not be a slave to your initial
process plan and you can adjust it—whether doing new research to cover a new
essential topic you uncovered in writing, adding in new rounds of discussion
with the management team to identify their goals more clearly, or suggesting an
alternate strategy that occurred to you as you put the facts together As you read
a draft, you may realize you need to rearrange the order of your paragraphs, or
you need to change the tone of the sentences. Equally, if in sketching out early
ideas you get an idea for a way of phrasing a crucial section, you may want to
spend some time in carefully drafting a short section before returning to the
sketching ideas. Although you may be far from proofreading, if you see a few
misspellings and typos you might want to fix them, but you don’t have to,
either, because you know you will get to that later—it is just easier and more
convenient to do it now, as long as it does not distract you from the task at
hand. It would, however, be a waste of time to correct every spelling and typo
in a draft so rough it is possible you may not use much of the exact phrasing
you have at the moment.
Trusting the process is particularly important in the earliest stages of writing
when ideas about what the final text might look like may be unformed and
uncertain, with little concrete direction. At this moment, we may be casting
widely outward to understand the situation and discover what might be useful
resources, while looking inward to discover our interests and concerns in the
situation and what we want to say. Such work requires some presence of mind
and freedom from anxiety. Yet this may be a place of great uncertainty, needing
the greatest courage and confidence to face—the hardest place to step up to
the task. We need to have great trust in the process to begin and give our work
directions that will become more focused as we progress.
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
As our text emerges, almost inevitably we will find flaws and limitations.
As our unformed impulses take shape in words they may seem less grand and
transformative, less novel and creative than we first thought. What seems large
in the struggles of our mind, turns into something smaller and specific in
the world. As we draw on the language and resources we find around us, the
received language and knowledge of our society, our words can start seeming
more similar to others, and perhaps less impressive. Psychologists may talk of
confronting the grandiosity of narcissism, but we can also recognize that the
world of communication is concrete and specific using genres, language, and
situations already richly formed in prior interaction. Each utterance we add only
moves the discussion and interaction along, sometimes with more force and
redirection than other times, but rarely in the transformative way we imagine.
Communication brings us from our private world of mental changes to the
complex of social interactions. The more people involved in those interactions,
the more our words will have to intersect with the thoughts, beliefs, forms,
and words that move others. Moving the minds of many requires entering into
familiar shared worlds of meanings.
Further, texts in process are unfinished and will rarely be as impressive as
the reworked, revised, polished prose they might turn into. Further, when we
are in the middle of working on our texts, we are constantly problem solving,
so we are always looking for parts that need development or revision. We are in
the business of finding faults to work on, so it is no wonder we become aware
of many flaws, and may even despair of fixing them all. We are also aware of
the devices we use to solve or sidestep these problems, and we may not feel fully
confident in them, or we may feel that we are making only surface technical
fixes and not addressing something deeper. In any event, because we are in the
middle of the factory, watching the messy and contingent process by which
texts are produced, we are aware of the difference between where our text is and
where we would like it to be.
Finally, our awareness of the all these limitations of our emerging texts makes
us aware of our own limitations as writers. We become aware that it would be
good to be familiar with certain facts or theories we have not addressed or do
not know in detail. We wish we had studied certain other models more deeply.
We wish we were more skilled in finding creative organization, or finding fresher
and more powerful metaphors or writing more focused and incisive sentences.
This awareness of our own limitations can be compounded by beliefs about how
others will judge us through our writing. By writing we put ourselves literally
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
on the line, for others to evaluate our accomplishment. Thus as our text emerges
toward final form, we can become even more unsure of how others might value
our work and us. We may even fall into a kind of obsessive perfectionism, that
if only we can make this text precise and perfect, it will overcome all of the
uncertainties of audience and consequence to have exactly the effect we hope.
To move forward with our writing, however, we need to learn to live with
our uncertainty and sense of limitation. There is no alternative, if we are to
write and grow as writers, to keep on working despite our perception of our
limitations. Every time we feel moved or need to write, we work from limited
knowledge, limited skills, limited sense of the environment, with only guesses
about the impact of our words on others and possible outcomes of events. While
there are occasions when the situation of writing is so well known, shared and
constrained that we can be fairly sure of the outcome, yet in many situations we
must often act within deep uncertainty about the situation and anxiety about
the outcome. Thus writing takes courage and a willingness to step forward
despite risk and uncertainty.
We write with the skills and knowledge and resources we have now, and not
the skills or knowledge we might have in five years. But we will not progress
unless we keep working on the tasks in front of us. It is through confronting
tasks, gathering the knowledge to pursue them, and solving the problems these
tasks pose that we develop as writers, so that perhaps our work five years from
now will be more advanced. We have to keep in the game. Yet making our peace
with our limited skills and resources, does not relieve us from doing the best
we can under the current circumstances—seeking the extra information if it is
available, rewriting and reorganizing the draft if we see a better path, going over
the drafts enough times from enough angles to be sure we have done the best
we can do now—and then leaving it at that. You place your bets and take your
The text being finished does not mean the end of personal and psychological
issues we have to deal with. First, particularly if the writing has required especially
intense effort and problem solving, our relief at having finished may be mixed
with less pleasant emotions. We may suffer a mental exhaustion, leaving us
unable to concentrate on any mental work, especially other writing. We may
even feel physically drained, even unable to engage in any kind of distraction.
This may be further compounded if the writing has been the central focus of
our thinking for an extended period, so we may not easily find something else
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
to turn our attention to. This exhaustion and lack of distracting alternatives
finally may lead to us to dwell on our anxieties about the text and what people
may think about it. We may be filled with second thoughts and obsess about
imagined faults.
Such feelings may lead us to hold on to the text long after useful work has
been completed. Even after we send it to the editors, publish it to the blog, or
hand it to our boss, we may be haunted with such thoughts. There is little to
be done with such feelings except to recognize them as such and not get too
upset by them or take them too seriously. Resting, turning attention elsewhere
as emotional resources renew, and waiting for realistic responses before making
any judgment about the text’s effectiveness are all that can be done. After all, we
have done the best we can do, and the rest is in the hands of others.
Often with writing we may get little or no response, which can be quite
disappointing, increasing self-doubt about the value of our message or our
skill in delivering it. This uncertainty may arise from something as simple as
our not getting a response when we fill out an online form and getting no
acknowledgment of our submission (Did we fill it out correctly? Will we get
the product? Will our credit card be charged with inappropriate fees?) The
uncertainty and disappointment becomes greater the more the writing reflects
our extended work and thought. If no one, however, writes a response to an
article, that does not mean in fact that no one has read it, thought about it,
or was influenced by it. It is in the nature of writing that texts go out into the
world often with little feedback or response returning to us.
On a smaller scale we feel such abandonment if we are participating on
a list serve or a chatroom and the discussion goes on just as if we had never
contributed. We seem not to have created a visible social fact that has changed
the dialogic landscape. As writers we have to come to terms with this kind of
inattention, and try to learn from it, to understand why our message seemed
ineffective in order to make it more effective the next time, to wait for the right
moment, to enter the discussion from a different angle, to make our message
more pointed and forceful, or to enter with issues that might connect more to
the other readers. We cannot let the rejection so discourage us that we do not
attempt again, but rather understand that this is just a sign of how hard we have
to work on effective writing to have an impact where we want it.
When others do respond, then we have further issues to deal with. We would
like people to accept and understand our message just as we imagine it with all
the emotion and importance we attribute to it, yet that often does not happen.
The one place we are most likely to get response or feedback is in school, but
the teacher’s role is complicated. Often teachers feel the need to identify areas
for correction, improvement, and instruction, or even evaluate our work for a
A Rhetoric of Literate Action
grade. This may lead to many negative comments mixed in with the positive
receptive comments. Teacher responses may make us fear all audiences will be
constantly evaluating and correcting us. Even if teacher comments are positive
and receptive, we know they are responding from a teacher’s role rather than as
someone who has practical, personal, or functional reasons to take our messages
If we submit something for publication, editors and reviewers, even if they
like our manuscript and want to publish it, are likely to have suggestions for
improving the text. While we sometimes may immediately appreciate the
wisdom of these comments and begin to meet their concerns, we may well
see the comments as misguided, foolish, or silly, perhaps even threatening the
integrity and meaning of what we are trying to communicate. It is common
for authors to respond with anger, sense of insult, and a strong to desire to
give colorful labels to these editors and reviewers, no matter how tactfully the
criticisms are phrased. Reporters have a saying: All editors are idiots; there are
no exceptions. Yet editorial comments may sometimes actually be right on
target and have touched a raw nerve or blindspot we have had. After some time
to let the temper cool, it is worth rereading and thinking through exactly what
is being suggested under the assumption that the reviewers are intelligent, wellintentioned
Even if the comments are in fact totally misguided and missing the text’s
meaning or ignorant of important contexts and background, we need to ask
ourselves why those readers read your texts in such unexpected ways. Those
editors and reviewers may well be indicative of our desired audience, and if
they are misunderstanding or unjustly rejecting, we need to figure out why and
how the text might be able to reach those readers, or at least counter the stated
objections. The way readers understand and respond to a text is very important
information and we should always be thankful for it, even if it at first we find
it offensive. Part of developing a professional attitude toward writing is being
able to see our writing in its larger communicative context and not assume that
others ought to see things as we do. People’s experiences, knowledge, beliefs
and commitments are so various, that to reach them and activate their minds
in ways that are receptive to our message may require much thought and skill,
and any information we may get about how the message is received by different
audiences, no matter how negative, helps us understand the challenges better.
When facing the text again for further revisions on the basis of feedback
from teachers, editors, reviewers, or friends, it helps to look at the text through
their eyes, to see what they have seen in it. This may mean significant changes
in the text, rearranging orders of ideas, providing different entryways to bring
readers in, offering them more guidance, or eliminating things that are obvious
Chapter 12 Managing Writing Processes and the Emergent Text
or irrelevant to them. It may even mean eliminating elements that we may
be most attached to—because they represent idiosyncratic perspectives or
phrasing that are more meaningful to us than to anyone else. If these meanings
are essential to the text we may need to find a different way to express them
and show their relevance and importance. At the very least, trying to take the
position of the reader will give a deeper understanding of what the text does and
does not accomplish for others, and how to make it more effective for them.
Then once our words are out there, we have to learn to live with what we
have said, but yet see it as part of a long dialogue carried out over time. If
we are fortunate enough to get specific response, it is likely not to be simply
positive in adopting our views. People are more likely to respond if they have
something to discuss or argue with or present an alternative to. So then we
need to decide whether to respond immediately, not respond at all, or let the
discussion evolve before we chime in again. And then if we respond, we need to
find a constructive way to do so, even if we need to defend something we have
previously written. We have to find a way to clarify and defend what we have
put on the line without being defensive. But we should also be open to evolving
our thoughts as a result of the dialogue.
Few texts are timeless. Some are read over more times than others. Some
may be read actively for months or years, influencing ongoing discussions.
Some live for a few moments then vanish maybe into archives, or maybe into
the trash. Discussions and contexts evolve, modifying the meaning attributed
to the text, providing opportunity to make further contributions, or taking
ideas and work further. Those few works still read over centuries have different
effect and different meanings in changing contexts and social concerns. Even
sacred scriptures undergo changed interpretation in changing contexts and
applications. We need to see our texts within the changing world they are part of
and our own ability to say more. When we are writing, finishing the text seems
to be an end in itself: we want it to say all we have to say on the subject, and to
say it for all time. But if we are aware whatever we write as part of an evolving
universe of meanings, we will have more equanimity as we write, and later as
we see what happens to our text as it does or does not get filtered through other
minds. We do not always have to be writing the final and permanent word. In
fact, we never do.
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