Rhetorical Stance

What is the rhetorical stance? How can I learn to better balance subject, audience, and ethos in my texts, compositions? How can I identify the salient scholarly conversations on a topic? How can I discern "the interests and peculiarities of the audience"?  What sort of persona, point of view, tone, or voice should I adopt for a particular rhetorical situation?

What is Rhetorical Stance?

The Rhetorical Stance is

  • a rhetorical theory proposed by Wayne Booth in 1963.
    • Booth theorizes writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . need to balance three rhetorical elements in order to communicate with clarity:
      • “the available arguments about the subject itself, the interests and peculiarities of the audience, and the voice, the implied character, of the speaker” (141). In Booth’s model, poor writing is the consequence of a writer failing to balance three rhetorical elements (i.e., subject, audience, ethos). In contrast, good writing exemplifies an appropriate balance between these elements.
  • an act, a rhetorical move, made by a writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . in response to a topic and audience.

Synonymous Terms: Rhetorical Stance may be referred to as stance or footing or positionality.

Related Concepts: Audience; Footing; Positionality; Rhetorical Analysis; Situatedness


Wayne Booth’s Model of The Rhetorical Stance

In 1963, Wayne Booth introduced the concept of the rhetorical stance in a brief academic essay that he published in an academic journal for Writing Studies:

“The common ingredient that I find in all of the writing I admire—excluding, for now, novels, plays and poems—is something that I shall reluctantly call the rhetorical stance, a stance which depends on discovering and maintaining in any writing situation a proper balance among the three elements that are at work in any communicative effort: the available arguments about the subject itself, the interests and peculiarities of the audience, and the voice, the implied character, of the speaker. I should like to suggest that it is this balance, this rhetorical stance, difficult as it is to describe, that is our main goal as teachers of rhetoric. Our ideal graduate will strike this balance automatically in any writing that he considers finished. Though he may never come to the point of finding the balance easily, he will know that it is what makes the difference between effective communication and mere wasted effort.”

Booth, Wayne C. (1963). “The Rhetorical Stance“. College Composition and Communication. 14 (3): 139–145.

Booth’s articulation of the rhetorical stance informs theories of composing as well as theories of interpretation, especially rhetorical analysis. Booth’s model of the rhetorical stance presumes writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . need to have a deep understanding of the topic and audience in order to write with clarity. Additionally, writers . . . need to adjust their persona, point of view, tone, and voice to account for the special needs, opinions, and attitudes of the audience.

Booth did not elaborate in his model of the rhetorical stance regarding how writers . . . can judge the appropriateness of particular appeals to topic, audience, and ethos–i.e. “discovering and maintaining in any writing situation a proper balance among the three elements” (144).

Booth doesn’t elaborate much on how people could achieve balance—i.e, discern which particular rhetorical element (topic, audience, & ethos) to emphasize at any given moment. Booth also didn’t address how writers develop their sense of rhetorical stance nor did he address how writers could discern which stances were appropriate for particular rhetorical contexts. Frankly, he never elaborated much on appropriateness.

It’s also not clear what Booth means when he write writes “Our ideal graduate will strike this balance automatically in any writing that he considers finished.” I suspect he’s saying that this process of adjusting what we are going to say based on what we know about our audience is so foundational to human communication that this intellectual process goes underground, becomes invisible–a form of tacit knowledge. We cease to focus on it, much like we don’t think about breathing or thinking. We just do.

The Rhetorical Stance & Composing Processes

Booth’s model of the rhetorical stance has some important implications for composing and composing processes: it presumes writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . need to take a deep dive into the subject matter and audience. Subsequently, they can develop their persona, point of view, tone, and voice.

  1. Topic

    Writers . . . need to invest the time needed to understand the topic. They need to develop an understanding of what their audience knows about the topic and how their audience feels about the topic. After engaging in informal research and strategic searching, writers . . . need a sense of the archive, of prevailing conventions, and the current status of scholarly conversations on a particular topic.

  2. Audience

    To find the available means of persuasion, writers . . need to understand what their audience knows and feels about a topic. Writers . . . need to know their audience so well that they know what the audience is likely to think, feel, and do when they receive particular messages. Writers . . . want to have engaged so fully with the audience’s perspective, to have so fully empathized with their audience, that they can understand the audience’s pain, their point of view, their reading of the topic or conversation.

  3. Ethos

    The ethos of the writers . . ., what Booth called “the voice, the implied character, of the speaker” goes a long way in determining whether or not an audience will consider a message.

    Communication fails when the ethos of the writer annoys readers, listeners, users . . . No one may listen to you if sound uninformed, overly emotional, or impartial.

The Rhetorical Stance as a Measure of Writing Quality

Booth contended poor writing was defined by a lack of balance among the three elements of discourse: Subject, Audience, Ethos.

Based on his observations of student work which he conducted as a professor of English, Booth suggested that there were three common rhetorical stances that characterized poor nonfiction writing:

  1. Advertiser’s Stance
  2. Pedant’s Stance
  3. Entertainer’s Stance
Advertiser’s StanceThe advertiser’s stance overemphasizes the audience at the expense of the subject; it appeals to the emotions, the pathos, of the audience.
Pedant’s StanceThe pedant’s stance overemphasizes the subject: “it consists of ignoring or underplaying the personal relationship of speaker and audience and depending entirely on statements about a subject . . .” (p. 141).

Booth suggests much of students’ school writing, especially writing about literature, adopts a pedantic tone. He critiques academic writing for being ahretorical. He suggests that when there is no real audience for a paper, when it’s just school work, students may not even care about the subject nor think much about the audience. Rather, they only care about a grade.
Entertainer’s StanceThe entertainer’s stance emphasizes the charm and character of the writer.

In some contexts, use of the first person is inappropriate. For instance, in scientific writing, investigators may avoid the first person in their methods section.

Related Concepts

Persona and rhetorical stance are somewhat intertwined concepts. However, persona suggests the writer may be engaged in role playing, misrepresentation, and rhetrickery (see Rhetoric). That’s the stuff of sophistry–of smoke and mirrors.

The rhetorical stance, in contrast, concerns the degree to which a writer balances appropriately

  1. Topic
  2. Audience
  3. Ethos.

Works Cited

Booth, Wayne C. (1963). “The Rhetorical Stance“. College Composition and Communication. 14 (3): 139–145.