Reading in Writing Class

10 Reading Rhetorically

Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel

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

Rhetorically focusing on the text might include observing the following: what the author says, the types of information that they included, and how that information is arranged.

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


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

The following are questions and prompts that can help lead you to a rhetorical reading of a text:

  • Who is the author? What else have they written? What is the author’s occupation? Is the author a journalist, professor, business person, or entertainer? Is the author an expert on the topic covered?
  • When and where was the piece originally published? Research the original publication. Does that publication have a perceived bias? Is the original publication highly regarded?
  • What is the author’s main idea? The main idea is the author’s central claim or thesis. Describe the author’s main idea in your own words. Does the author make this claim successfully? Is the claim held consistently throughout the text? Does the thesis appear in one sentence or in bits and pieces throughout the text?
  • What is the author’s main purpose? Note that this is different than the text’s main idea. The text’s main idea (above) refers to the central claim or thesis embedded in the text. The author’s purpose, however, refers to what they hope to accomplish. Is the author’s goal to persuade their readers to adopt a viewpoint or to act in some way? Does the author intend to provide information or to entertain? Why does the author try to persuade you to adopt his or her viewpoint?
  • What information does the author provide to support the central claim? Making a list of each key point the author makes will help you analyze the overall text. Hint: each paragraph should address one key point, and all paragraphs should relate to the author’s central claim.
  • What kind of supporting evidence does the author use? Is the evidence-based more on fact or opinion, and do you feel those choices are effective? Where does this evidence come from? Are the sources authoritative and credible?
  • Is the author biased? Remember that evidence of an opinion does not necessarily constitute bias. Everyone has opinions and values, but an author’s bias may compromise their ability to contribute a useful argument if their bias contradicts evidence or common sense. So, consider that if there is evidence that an author is biased, does it interfere with the way you read and understand the text?
  • Describe the tone in the piece.  Is it friendly? Authoritative? Does it read/sound like a lecture? Is it biting or sarcastic? Comedic or dire?
  • Describe the diction in the piece. What word choices does the author make? Does the author use simple or technical language? Is it full of jargon? Does the language feel positive or negative? Formal or conversational? Does the author use figurative language? Does the author use any controversial words in the piece? Do these rhetorical choices affect your reading or your interest?
  • Does the text seem to be aimed at readers like you or at a different audience? Is the author trying to reach a certain age group, ethnicity, gender, or educational background? Which parts of the argument relay the primary intended audience for the text? What assumptions does the author make about the primary intended audience? Would most people find these assumptions reasonable, acceptable, or accurate?
  • Does the author try to appeal to your emotions? Does the author use any controversial words in the piece? Do these affect your reading or your interest?
  • How is the piece organized? Where does the thesis appear? Toward the beginning or the end of the text and why? Are there sections with bolded subheadings, and if so, do these subheadings accurately reflect the content of the section?
  • Does the piece include images or graphics? Are there illustrations, photographs, or graphs? Do these images add to or detract from the written text?


Rhetorically Reading the Context: Understanding Context

In addition to posing textual questions, we need to look at contextual considerations when we read rhetorically. Everything you read, and all that you write must be considered contextually, which is what instructors are referring to when mentioning "rhetorical context" or the "rhetorical situation". Let’s define context as the time and place and setting of the event, the writing of a text, a film, etc., in a society. In a First-Year Writing class, you will read essays, news articles, scholarly research findings, and to help make sense of the arguments in these documents you must contextualize their contents. Why? Well, today is not like yesterday.

For an example of how yesterday is different than today, think about your smartphone. You may have been born at the end of the 20th century or the start of the twenty-first century. At that time, your family had a cordless phone. Thirty years ago, most households had landline phones—rotary phones—and had to dial a number. In most households today, there is no landline and rotary phones are now considered historical artifacts.


Black and white photograph of a rotary phone
Figure 1: Rotary phone

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

This example of the rotary phone should reveal to you that people’s experience with communication was much different a few decades ago than it is now. And this should help you to realize that better understanding the historical or societal context in which an argument is made is essential to comprehending the exigence for that argument, as well as key to determining if the argument was made at a kairotic moment.

Think about Susan B. Anthony’s speech “Is it a Crime to Vote?” from 1872 – 1873. If you do not consider that women did not have the right to vote in America when that speech was made, then her claims would not make sense, claims such as “One-half of the people of this nation to-day are utterly powerless to blot from the statute books an unjust law, or to write there a new and a just one.” Consequently, understanding context is essential to understanding arguments.

In order to read and write rhetorically, you have to carefully consider context as you begin assignments. Below are a few questions you might want to consider when analyzing the time, place, and setting of a text:

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

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


Rhetorically Reading the Context: Understanding Author Credibility

Often, understanding an author’s credibility will require some research that goes well beyond any blurb that might be included with the actual article. Google the author, or consider looking at their LinkedIn profile. Look at several different sources instead of relying on just one website to understand who the author is. Most reputable websites and news sources will list or cite an author, even though you might have to dig into the site deeper than just the section you’re interested in to find it. Most pages will have a home page or “About Us”/“About This Site” link where an author will be credited.

To better investigate for credibility, you might consider asking yourself questions like the following:

  • Does the author support a particular political or religious view that could be affecting his or her approach to the piece?
  • Is the author supported by any special-interest groups (i.e. the American Library Association or Keep America Safe)?
  • Is the author a highly educated expert on that topic who is choosing to publish an article for a popular, mainstream audience?
  • Is the author a journalist? ? A citizen who is weighing in? In other words, is it a news report or an opinion piece?
  • Is the author writing from personal experience, or is the author synthesizing and offering commentary on others’ experiences or studies?

Each of these different levels of expertise will confer a different level of authority on the topic. It is important to understand whether or not an author is truly an expert on the content.


Checking for Publication Bias

Certain media may have particular political ideologies or biases that impact their reporting. Just as you should do some background research on an individual author, do some research on the publication that hosts the article you would like to use. One of the best sources to help you get a sense of a particular source’s potential bias is to consider the Media Bias Chart. This resource helps identify whether the purpose of the particular media source is entertainment, informative journalism, or supporting a particular political agenda. All people have opinions, so if you see evidence of an opinion in writing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not a reliable source. The key is to determine whether or not the opinions and/or biases expressed by a particular source or author compromise the ethics of factual reporting. Compare different sources and be attentive to the way findings are shared.

You might also use the following questions to help you recognize whether or not a medium is inherently biased:

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

If you are looking at a website, the sponsor of the site—the person or organization who is footing the bill—will often be listed in the same place as the copyright date or author information. If you can’t find an explicit listing for a sponsor, double-check the URL to get an indication of what the source is. The following are types of website addresses with some explanation of what each is:

  • .com indicates a commercial site
  • .edu an educational one
  • .org a nonprofit
  • .gov a government sponsor
  • .mil a military sponsor
  •  .net a network of sponsors

The end part of a URL may also tell you what country the website is coming from, such as .uk for the United Kingdom or .de for Germany.

Media Attributions

  • Telephone


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Reading Rhetorically Copyright © 2021 by Melanie Gagich & Emilie Zickel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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