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How to write anything

“I’m going to make a lot of money, and I’ll hire someone to do all my writing for me.” That was the rationale offered by a student many years ago for why he should not have to take a required writing course. A snarky comment crossed my mind, but instead I mentioned to him that if he had to hire someone to ghostwrite everything he would have to write in his life, it could cost him a small fortune.

The idea that there was more to writing than college term papers seemed to satisfy him. For me, it raised a new concern: just how do we help people write effectively about so many things—about practically anything?

Whether it’s a résumé, catalog copy for chocolate or flowers, a profile of a scientist, an endorsement of a political candidate, a safety manual, or a users’ guide, the key is to find some good models and study the rhetorical moves that other writers make. “Rhetorical moves” is a term introduced by linguist John Swales, and it refers to the different steps that a writer makes in constructing a text in a given genre—a bit like the standard opening strategies of a chess game.

Swales originally pursued the idea of rhetorical moves to analyze academic research writing, with its steps of establishing a territory, a niche, and a claim. But the idea of analyzing a genre of writing into a set of purposeful steps can be—and has been—fruitful beyond the domain of research writing.

For someone aiming to be a general-purpose professional writer, it pays to create a personal guide to different types of writing. When you find a piece of writing that you think is especially effective, sketch out its structure move-by-move. Doing this doesn’t require hours of pondering or a PhD. It can be a quick sketch, like the one below that captures the shape of many an opinion essay.

Describe what many people think about an idea in the news.

Introduce a new perspective that suggests there is more to this.

Offer a quote or two from an expert or a relevant personal anecdote about the new perspective.

Sum up by explaining what we should do next.

This bare bones skeleton has four moves—conventional wisdom, a new insight, expertise, and call to action—and it leaves plenty of room for a writer to personalize an opinion essay. The rhetorical moves are a skeleton not a straightjacket.

Here is another example. A personal profile might have a structure like this:

Tell who the person is and why they are significant.

Provide a chronology of relevant life events.

Interpret the person’s accomplishments and challenges, with quotes.

Include a telling, final detail or fact about them that brings it all together.

The profile format can be adapted further— to application essays or even obituaries or to a description of an organization or business.

Try looking for rhetorical moves with models of your own choosing—food, movie, and book reviews, for example, résumé or cover letters, and solicitations or complaints. Soon rhetorical moves will be cropping up everywhere you look.

Analyzing the rhetorical moves of your favorite bits of prose has another benefit. You will quickly become comfortable enough with the rhetorical moves to begin to adapt and play with them. You might, for example, open a profile without identifying the subject directly, letting the readers guess the identity at first. Or you might write an opinion piece that ends by lamenting rather than calling to action.

Being able to write anything at all is an exercise in reading for rhetorical moves and then adapting and extending those moves. With some practice and time, you’ll have an all-purpose rhetorical toolbox that will enable us to meet deadlines, communicate without fear, grow as a writer, and have fun writing.

And think of all the money you’ll save by doing it yourself.

Featured image credit: “QWERTY” by Jeff Eaton. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Grey

    Interesting. We learned a similar concept in college. It really helps you to build your own style out of one that has proven to be a success.

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