Rhetorical Knowledge

Rhetorical knowledge plays a major role in successful writing and communication in postsecondary settings (Council of Writing Program Administrators et al., 2011). By understanding rhetorical principles such as rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning, students and professional writers can better analyze and respond to diverse rhetorical situations.

Rhetoric concerns perception, interpretation, and communication

What is Rhetorical Analysis?

Rhetorical knowledge is

Key Words: Epistemology; Rhetoric; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Situation

Why Does Rhetorical Knowledge Matter?

In Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing, The Conference on College Composition — the major conference for researchers and teachers in writing studies — defines rhetorical knowledge as a foundational competency in college-level writing:

“The assertion that writing is “rhetorical” means that writing is always shaped by a combination of the purposes and expectations of writers and readers and the uses that writing serves in specific contexts. To be rhetorically sensitive, good writers must be flexible. They should be able to pursue their purposes by consciously adapting their writing both to the contexts in which it will be read and to the expectations, knowledge, experiences, values, and beliefs of their readers. They also must understand how to take advantage of the opportunities with which they are presented and to address the constraints they encounter as they write. In practice, this means that writers learn to identify what is possible and not possible in diverse writing situations. Writing an email to a friend holds different possibilities for language and form than does writing a lab report for submission to an instructor in a biology class. Instructors emphasize the rhetorical nature of writing by providing writers opportunities to study the expectations, values, and norms associated with writing in specific contexts. This principle is fundamental to the study of writing and writing instruction. It informs all other principles in this document” (Conference 2015).

In turn, in The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project (2011) identify rhetorical knowledge to be a basic literacy–a foundational skill needed to interpret information and compose:

“Rhetorical knowledge is the ability to analyze and act on understandings of audiences, purposes, and contexts in creating and comprehending texts. Rhetorical knowledge is the basis of good writing. By developing rhetorical knowledge, writers can adapt to different purposes, audiences, and contexts. Study of and practice with basic rhetorical concepts such as purposes, audiences, contexts, and conventions are important as writers learn to compose a variety of texts for different disciplines and purposes. For example, a writer might draft one version of a text with one audience in mind, then revise the text to meet the needs and expectations of a different audience” (Council, 2011, p. 6).

Further, the Council et al. (2011) argues teachers should create ample opportunities for students to

  • “learn and practice key rhetorical concepts such as audience, purpose, context, and genre through writing and analysis of a variety of types of texts (nonfiction, informational, imaginative, printed, visual, spatial, auditory, and otherwise);
  • write and analyze a variety of types of texts to identify the audiences and purposes for which they are intended, the key choices of content, organization, evidence, and language use made by their author(s), the relationships among these key choices and the ways that the text(s) appeal or speak to different audiences;
  • write for different audiences, purposes, and contexts;
  • write for real audiences and purposes, and analyze a writer’s choices in light of those audiences and purposes; and contribute, through writing, their own ideas and opinions about a topic to an ongoing conversation” p. 9.

In his book The Rhetoric of Rhetoric (2004), Wayne Booth argues that knowledge of rhetoric is essential for avoiding violence and promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts. Booth asserts that effective communication and persuasive discourse can help people navigate disagreements and misunderstandings without resorting to violence or aggression. By engaging in what he calls “listening rhetoric,” Booth believes rhetorical knowledge can help people can engage in meaningful conversations, find common ground, and work towards mutually beneficial solutions:

[Rhetoric refers to] “the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another: effects ethical (including everything about character), practical (including political), emotional (including aesthetic), and intellectual (including every academic field). It is the entire range of our use of “signs” for communicating, effectively or sloppily, ethically or immorally. At its worst, it is our most harmful miseducator — except for violence. But at its best — when we learn to listen to the “other,” then list to ourselves and thus manage to respond in a way that produces genuine dialog — it is our primary resource for avoiding violence and building community (Booth, p. xi-xii).

In summary, rhetorical knowledge is a foundational competency — a skill that is required for successful communication to take place.


Conference on College Composition and Communication (October 1989). Revised November 2013, Revised March 2015. Principles for the Postsecondary Teaching of Writing. https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/postsecondarywriting.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project (2011). Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, http://wpacouncil.org/aws/CWPA/asset_manager/get_file/350201?ver=2975.

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