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Consider the Rhetorical Situation

One of the first things that many writers do before they begin writing is to consider the “rhetorical situation.” Think about the rhetorical situation as your writing situation or set of circumstances that you find yourself in as you need to communicate something. As a student, it may be difficult to critically assess this set of circumstances because the writing you’ve been doing the past few years has most likely involved you writing to one audience (your instructor) and fulfilling a purpose that the instructor may have designated.

But, a unique rhetorical situation exists every time you write because you will always need to adapt your writing to your purpose and audience. You’ve unconsciously done this process in the past—you’ve adapted your writing to your instructor’s assignment or guidelines. Essentially, to consider your rhetorical situation, you need to analyze those sets of circumstances that arise in each particular writing situation. As you analyze your situation, you’ll begin to see how your purpose and audience fit together with your subject.

Figuring out your rhetorical situation is one of the easiest parts of writing research papers, and it’s something that you’ve probably already started to do without thinking about it. Essentially, you need to make a list of what you know about your writing situation.

You’ll find a list of questions below. These questions intend to get you thinking about your rhetorical situation and don’t demand that you provide “final” answers to the questions. Two other handouts, “Generate Ideas” and “Consider the Audience and Purpose,” will help you further define your topic and audience and further understand your rhetorical situation.

You may want to keep this handout handy throughout the prewriting process. As you generate ideas and consider your audience and purpose, you’ll be refining the answers to these questions.

Answering the following questions will get you started in thinking about your rhetorical situation:


What is my assignment? (research paper, proposal, case study, etc.)

What are the guidelines for my assignment?

What are the constraints for my assignment? (page length, due date, etc.)

What will be the purpose of this assignment? (to inform, educate, persuade?)

What topic (s) am I interested in writing about?

Who will be reading the assignment?

What do readers already know and need to know about the topic?

What expectations would my reader have for my paper?

How will readers use the information in my paper?