Rhetorical Modes are
- forms, or types, of writing (e.g., Classification, Definition, Description, Exemplification, Exposition, and Narration).
- the embodiment of organizational schemas. Thus, the Modes reflect foundational ways of reasoning and innovating.
- a Rhetorical Option
- elements of discourse that are used in Genres.
The Modes have been a popular way of classifying discourse since the 1900s. In his influential essay, “The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse, Robert Connors (1981) traces the emergence of the Modes as a popular way to organize writing instruction since 1866 when Samuel Newman analyzed the textual features of Narration, Description, Exposition (didactic writing) and Argumentation:
Writings are distinguished from each other as didactic, persuasive, argumentative, descriptive, and narrative…. Didactic writing, as the name implies, is used in conveying instruction…. when it is designed to influence the will, the composition becomes the persuasive kind…. the various forms of argument, the statement of proofs, the assigning of causes are addressed to the reasoning faculties of the mind. Narrative and descriptive writings relate past occurrences, and place before the mind for its contemplation, various objects and scenes.2Newman, Samuel P. A Practical System of Rhetoric (New York: Mark H. Newman, 1827) pp. 28-29.
Following Newman, in 1866, Alexander Bain provided a thorough analysis of Narration, Description, Exposition, and Argumentation in English Composition and Rhetoric. Newman’s rhetoric became the dominant resource for teaching writing in the U.S. during the 1900s. Not only did his rhetoric sell well, it also led to many derivative works. By the 1930s, the Modes were commonly defined as “definition, analysis, partition, interpretation, reportage, evaluation by standards, comparison, contrast, classification, process analysis, device analysis, cause-and-effect, induction, deduction, examples, and illustration” (Connors 1981 p. 450).
The Rhetorical Modes were a popular way of organizing instruction in writing courses from the late 1900s to the 1950s. Focusing on the Modes in the classroom represented an important transition from the belletristic tradition, which had focused on using class time to discuss essays, poetry and literature.
The Modes in the Modern Writing Classroom (Post 2020)
Contemporary pedagogy no longer favors Declarative/Conceptual Knowledge in the Rhetorical Modes as the main focus for a writing course. Rather, thanks to Composition Studies, the focus is now on Collaboration, Editing, Genre, Information Literacy, Invention, Mindset, Organization, Research, Rhetoric, Revision, and Style.
The Rhetorical Modes have not been an important focus of writing instruction since the 1950s for multiple reasons:
- Following McCrimmon’s Writing With A Purpose, textbook authors moved away from using Modes to organize their textbooks. They did so because the focus on categorizing discourse, talking about the belletristic tradition (what is now called current-traditional rhetoric), didn’t help writers actually produce text.
- The Writing Studies community judged assignments that treated the modes of discourse as full blown genres to be arhetorical, as Engfish (meaningless assignments written without an audience for English classes). Instead, it became more commonplace to view modes as textual patterns represented at the paragraph level.
- For instance, a Rhetor who has been asked to recommend software for a client might deploy multiple modes (e.g., description, definition, and comparison and contrast) in order to analyze Microsoft’s Cloud vs Amazon’s Cloud Services.
- The Writing Studies community became preoccupied with textual production rather than textual analysis.
What is the process we should teach? It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world. Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness.Donald M. Murray, “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” The Leaflet (November 1972), rpt. in Cross-Talk in Comp Theory, 2nd ed., ed. Victor Villanueva, Urbana: NCTE, 2003.
In summary, at Writing Commons, we view the Rhetorical Modes to be more than common forms of writing: they are tools of thought.