Lost in the Rhetorical Triangle

Lost in the Rhetorical Triangle

Are you familiar with the Bermuda Triangle—that piece of ocean where ships and planes go in but don’t come out? What if I told you that writing had its own Bermuda Triangle called the rhetorical triangle?

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You see, according to myth and legend and Andrea A. Lunsford, “[writing] has at each of its points a key element in the creation and interpretation of meaning: writer (speaker, rhetor), audience (receiver, listener, reader), and text (message), all dynamically related in a particular context” (920). It is these three points which form the rhetorical triangle. The rhetorical triangle represents the connected nature of what’s being written, who’s writing it, and who it’s being written for. Conceptually, this should be a pretty straightforward idea, right? But what happens when these points aren’t as clear as you might think they are? That’s when you become lost in the rhetorical triangle. 

To understand the idea of being lost in the rhetorical triangle, we must first understand what writing is. According to the metaconcept in chapter one of Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, “writing is an activity and a subject of study” (829). What does that mean? Like many people, when I use the term “writing,” I am typically referring to the physical act of putting words on a page (or screen, or wall, etc.) According to Heidi Estrem, “writing is often defined by what it is: a text, a product” (893). However, writing is more than just the physical act. Concept one of the text declares that “writing is a social and rhetorical activity” (854).

Well, how can that be? When I’m sitting alone with a blank page and a vague idea of what I want to write, I’m not being social. Right? And rhetorical? Isn’t that just when you ask someone a question you don’t want them to answer?

On the surface, it may seem that way, and it is this perception that can lead writers into the rhetorical triangle with no way out. 

You see, writing is a social act on several levels. According to Mike Palmquist, “many of us think of writing as a solitary activity — something done when we’re alone in a quiet place. Yet most of our writing, like other forms of communication — telephone conversations, classroom discussions, meetings, and presentations — is an intensely social activity.”

First, consider your audience. Everything you write is meant to communicate something to someone. If that’s the case, writing doesn’t exist in isolation. Whether your audience is a professor, a classroom of your peers, or even just yourself, you are writing in order to transmit an idea, a thought, a feeling, a desire, etc.

Additionally, taking yourself as the writer into consideration also helps to make writing a social act. As a writer, your ideas are informed by the world around you. There are social, racial, and political cues that color the way in which you view the world. This world view then shapes the way in which you write.

Moreover, the literal text itself is social in nature. According to Kevin Roozen, “writing puts the writer in contact with other people, but the social nature of writing goes beyond the people writers draw upon and think about it”(874). How are you creating this text? Is it on a computer? Is it with a pen and paper? Is it being drawn in the sand? Are you writing in a particular style? Are you creating a sonnet? Are you writing a fantasy short story? Are you writing a jingle for an ad campaign? These very elements of the creation of text are contributions made to your writing by someone else. Roozen says “all of these available means of persuasion we take up when we write have been shaped by and through the use of many others who have left their traces on and inform our uses of those tools, even if we are not aware of it”(880).

Now, if you take these three points of socialization and overlay them, you see how writing forms that rhetorical triangle. Writing becomes more than just putting letters together to make words on a page. It becomes a multidimensional conversation between the writer and the world, and without understanding the way these dimensions interact, the writer can fall victim to the rhetorical triangle.

Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth A. Wardle. “Writing Is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.

Roozen, Kevin. “Writing Is a Social and Rhetorical Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.

Estrem, Heidi. “Writing Is a Knowledge-Making Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Kindle ed., Utah State University Press, 2016.

Mike Palmquist. “Understanding Writing Situations.” Writing@CSU. Colorado State University. https://writing.colostate.edu/guides/guide.cfm?guideid=3.

5 Comments

  1. Peyton

    Willie, I like your comparison of the Bermuda triangle to the rhetorical triangle. It is strange that writing can be so closely compared to class discussions and phone calls when the latter seems so social and writing seem so private.

    When you say “additionally, considering yourself as the writer also helps to make writing a social act,” I wonder how a person writes without considering themself the writer. If a person is writing, surely they are thinking of them-self as the creator of the word on the page. Do you see a difference between just writing to write and writing with the purpose of starting a discussion? Does a person viewing them-self as the writer allow them to think more critically about the effect their words have on the audience?

    1. W. Lawson

      I don’t think that anyone writes “just to write.” There is always a purpose in writing, even when it’s not explicitly clear. I do think, however, that many people engage in the act of writing without considering themselves writers, and that can lead to them ignoring the way in which they, as the writer, influence their own content. When you understand the role you have as the writer, you are able to think more critically about how your experiences, background, biases, etc. color what you write.

  2. Conner Sutton

    “Additionally, considering yourself as the writer also helps to make writing a social act. As a writer, your ideas are informed by the world around you. There are social, racial, and political cues that color the way in which you view the world. This world views then shapes the way in which you write.”

    Willie, this section, in particular, stood out to me as I was reading because it does a good job of explaining how the lone writer is never truly alone. It reminds me of a term I came across in my undergrad called the writer’s habitat which influences and informs the way someone writes, both on a meta-level (like you highlight) and on a local level (such as the literal place in which you are composing). I like how you tried to connect the rhetorical triangle to the Bermuda triangle, but I’m still a little unsure of the connection. Is the rhetorical triangle where meanings and messages are lost? Or are the roles just unclear at times?

    1. W. Lawson

      In my mind, the connection of the rhetorical triangle with the Bermuda Triangle stems from the idea of navigation. If you are skilled at navigating and have the proper tools at your disposal, it is less likely that you will become lost in the Bermuda Triangle. I think the same is true for writing. If you are skilled in the concepts of rhetoric and have the tools necessary as writers to address each point, it becomes less likely that your meaning, context, purpose, etc. become lost in the mix.

  3. Hi Will,
    I enjoy reading your posts because of the unique eye you look at issues through, and the spin you can then put on them. You and I both spoke of the “rhetorical triangle,” but while I was looking at it to determine how it can be used by the writer, reader, or teacher, you looked at it and compared it to the Bermuda Triangle. I can see how a writer can get lost, and the lines of meaning, context, and purpose get so blurred that they are almost unrecognizable, or even disappear just like boats in the Bermuda Triangle. However, I do believe that it can be used as a tool to ensure the content is appropriate for the audience, and vice versa. If you aren’t aware of your reader or listener, how can you be sure they will be receptive or even understand the content you are putting forth.

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