Rhetorical Stance

Most people like to think they're honest, and "keeping it real," but often that goes out the window when it comes to writing. Often students think that good writing is merely good grammar and spelling, or using big words, or filling in slots in a prescribed format--if it looks good and sounds good, it IS good. Here's two papers that show the range of what people do in Writing 1/2; (sample 1, sample 2 ) which do you think is better?

Actually, keeping it real is the key to good writing: a real purpose, a real audience,  an authentic "voice," and real reasons. Sadly, students will often pick some random topic form the Top Ten English Theme topics (euthanasia, drinking, the rain forest) because they think that a controversial paper will be more interesting; some will even take the opposite side of what they actually believe if that side is in the minority and thus more controversial. But merely parroting the standard arguments (often without specifics or with silly hypotheticals--and what else is available if you have little or no experience and not enough commitment to the topic to get some evidence?) can't interest anyone because we've heard it all before.

Also, you can fake indignation, but you can't speak with true passion, nor can you show us anything real that might move us.

The best way to understand why these papers don't work, and how to write one that will, is is have a basic understanding of rhetoric. Quick history (here's the whole story): in ancient Greece a bloody dictator is overthrown. The problem was how to return the land to those it was stolen from, since there were no records. The solution was for everyone to make a speech (no lawyers) about what was theirs. This incredibly civilized and democratic idea caught on, and soon rhetoric was a central part of schooling for two thousand years. Aristotle wrote a book on the subject, which is still one of the best. He laid out the essentials: in any situation, there's the speaker (ethos), the hearer (pathos) and the message (logos). In the generic English Theme, the speaker might come across as wishy-washy or opinionated/biased, or might sound more like a committee or a textbook than a real person. Remember the beach and farm papers? Which person do you believe? Which would you rather have a beer with?

Pathos has to do with feelings (as in sympathy), but it also has to do with values. It's also useful to see why Aristotle saw this as a triangle: if we like and trust the speaker (which often comes down to shared values), we're more apt to let them move us emotionally, and to believe their facts and arguments (logos).

Ideally, we'd have ethos, pathos and logos in equal measure, but sometimes you can't. For example, if an anti-gun advocate were addressing the National Rifle Association, he or she could try to improve their ethos, but would not have much success. Thus even real horror stories of gun violence would be dismissed as anecdotal or mere emotion (post-Columbine hysteria even). Thus in such a situation what would you use to try and get through? (aside from a bullet-proof vest)

A bonus of having a real purpose and audience is that it makes the writing process easier, since you can more easily make decisions about what the audience needs to know, in what order, and what will be the most effective.