Rhetoric and technical writing?

Subject: Rhetoric and technical writing?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 16 Jan 2006 10:51:19 -0500

Stuart Burnfield wondered about "rhetoric": <<I don't believe adding an irrelevant, emotive, all-caps adverb and some exclamation marks to an instruction has anything to do with the art of rhetoric as it applies to tech writing.>>

Unless, of course, you're referring to the illegitimate child of technical communication and Sales: "Marketing". <g>

<<But this did get me to wondering what rhetoric _does_ mean when applied to tech writing. My dictionary has as its primary definition: "the study of the techniques of using language effectively." There are other definitions, including "the use of language to inform and persuade" and "excessive ornamentation and contrivance in spoken or written discourse; bombast"... but I assume the first definition describes how rhetoric is usually applied in TW courses.>>

I can't speak to the academic perspective, but my take on rhetoric is that it's the study of how we communicate effectively with an identified audience to accomplish a specific goal. The first definition comes close, but without any reference to tailoring the message to the audience or purpose; it's implicit in the definition, but should be made very explicit.

The second definition is the more classical (in the sense of Aristotle et al.) definition, but it also clearly relates to technical communication: mostly we write to inform our readers, but sometimes we must write to persuade (e.g., a warning message: do this and die! don't do this and you're hosed! <g>). The third definition is the pejorative flavor, and refers not to rhetoric per se but rather to rhetorical excess or unskilled communication. Hopefully not something we indulge in.

<<What are the main rhetorical techniques? Or are they pretty much the usual writing issues that come up often on the list--chunking, active versus passive voice, first person versus second person, vocabulary, consistency, and so on.>>

Got a semester? We can do the whole Rhetoric 101 thing if we both have time. <g> My take on this, from the practitioner's standpoint, is that the reason to study rhetoric is that it lets us make informed decisions about what techniques to use in a specific situation by teaching what techniques are available, how they can be used, and when they're (in)appropriate. That turns us into thinkers about communication rather than just people who blindly apply learned patterns.

I can't recommend any specific books on rhetoric, since I've learned what I know through many years of reading a wide range of books and articles that touch on the topic. I have vague memories of Sir Ernest Gower's "The Complete Plain Words" having a good discussion of rhetoric, but it's been many years... in any event, it's available inexpensively from Amazon, and presumably in any good library.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Rhetoric and technical writing: From: Stuart Burnfield

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