In their writing textbook, Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen offer the following strategies for careful, close reading with rhetorical interests in mind:
Situate the Reading Rhetorically
There is no such thing as “just information.” Virtually all readings possess what speech-act theorists call “illocutionary force,” by which is meant the goal of an utterance. Everything you read, to varying degrees, is aware of you, the audience, and is dealing with you in some way. One of the most productive ways of analyzing a reading is to consider the frame within which a piece is presented: who its intended audience is, what it seeks to persuade that audience about, and how the writer presents himself or herself to appeal to that audience. Readings virtually never treat these questions explicitly, and thus, it is a valuable analytical move to infer a reading’s assumptions about audience.
Find the Pitch, the Complaint, and the Moment
An element of situating a reading rhetorically is to locate what it seeks to accomplish and what it is set against at a given moment in time. We address these concerns as a quest to find what we call THE PITCH, THE COMPLAINT, and THE MOMENT.
- THE PITCH, what the piece wishes you to believe
- THE COMPLAINT, what the piece is responding to or worried about
- THE MOMENT, the historical and cultural context within which the piece is operating
THE PITCH: A reading is an argument, a presentation of information that makes a case of some sort, even if the argument is not explicitly stated. Look for language that reveals the position or positions the piece seems interested in having you adopt.
THE COMPLAINT: A reading is a response to some situation, some set of circumstances that the piece has set out to address, even though the writer may not say so openly. An indispensable means of understanding someone else’s writing is to figure out what seems to have caused the person to write the piece in the first place. Writers write, presumably, because they think something needs to be addressed. What is that something? Look for language in the piece that reveals the writer’s starting point. If you can find the position or situation he or she is worried about and possibly trying to amend, you will more easily locate the pitch, the position the piece asks you to accept.
THE MOMENT: A reading is a response to the world conditioned by the writer’s particular moment in time. If you attempt to figure out not only what a piece says but also where it is coming from (the causes of its having been written in the first place and the positions it works to establish), history is significant. When was the piece written? Where? What else was going on at the time that might have shaped the writer’s ideas and attitudes?
Rhetoricians sometimes use a term from classical rhetoric, kairos, for what we call “the moment.” This Greek work has been translated roughly as “the right time” or “opportunity.” Another useful term for the concept of the moment is exigence, which refers to a writer’s reasons for writing, such as a problem the requires or deserves immediate attention.
THE PITCH, THE COMPLAINT, and THE MOMENT: Two Brief Examples
Here are two examples of student writing in response to the request that they locate the pitch, the complaint, and the moment for a famous essay in the field of Writing Studies, “Inventing the University,” by David Bartholomae.
And here is another example that treats the moment in particular.
Audience Analysis: A Brief Example
Consider the following paragraph of student writing on Bartholomae’s work, this time focused on how Bartholomae establishes his relationship with his target audience. Here is the assignment the writer is responding to: Write a brief analysis of the essay’s rhetoric—the various methods it employs to gain acceptance with its target audience. a)Who is the target audience? How can you tell? Cite and analyze evidence. b) What decisions has the author made on how best to “sell” his argument to his audience? How do you know?