Approaches to Rhetoric, Writing, and Revision in English 100

An Overview

UW-Madison English 100 Program


English 100 offers a space for developing rhetorical awareness and for understanding how rhetoric informs writing practices. If we typically understand communication as an exchange of ideas, information, or experiences among people, rhetorical awareness asks us to pay attention to how and why that communication happens in the first place.

You are likely familiar with the way the word rhetoric is often associated with a lack of substance and even with deceitful intentions. We hear this in common claims made by pundits and politicians when they say things like “Let’s cut the rhetoric and get down to the facts” or “That’s just rhetoric.” But this is a very limited and even erroneous view of rhetoric. In fact, rhetoric has a long, useful, and even esteemed history. In the West, rhetoric developed from a Greco-Roman tradition that prepared men for public leadership. (At that time and place, women were largely discouraged from public life.) Although this tradition focused on speech (orality), today we see the rhetorical tradition as informing our understanding of wider communicative practices, including writing. In addition, our discipline (that is, the field of writing studies), recognizes the important contributions of rhetorical traditions developed in cultures around the globe.

Over time and across cultures, rhetoric has taken on a variety of definitions. One of the best-known conceptions of rhetoric is from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who suggests  that rhetoric entails identifying the “available means of persuasion” in any given situation. More recently, composition scholar Andrea Lunsford defined rhetoric as “the art, practice, and study of communication.” Both conceptions of rhetoric link persuasion and communication, a link that transcends a multitude of rhetorical traditions.


Sequence 1 in English 100 focuses on narrative modes of persuasion and communication. In this first sequence of assignments, you’ll use narrative strategies to explore concepts, ideas, and experiences. A narrative is a story with a beginning, middle, and end that describes a sequence of events (though not always in chronological order). Narratives can be heard and read everywhere, from conversations to news stories, to podcasts and books. People constantly use narratives in speech and writing to entertain, to teach, to move people to action, to bond with one another, or simply to share information. Some types of writing that rely on narrative include biographies, memoirs, histories, creative nonfiction, and ethnographies, but even lab reports and business plans tell a kind of story.

Narratives help us think. Stories engage our brains in ways that help us pay attention and make connections. We understand identity, personal history, life goals, and other people through narratives. For example, the stories we tell ourselves help us understand how we got through the toughest years of high school, or why we excel at a particular skill. And stories we hear about other people can help us understand that the world around us is much larger than our own experiences. Narratives can also be very broad and shared by millions of people. Think of familiar childhood stories such as “Chicken Little” or “The Three Little Pigs” or a narrative about an event such as the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. These shared narratives communicate an idea, belief, or lesson beyond just telling a good story or providing an historical account.

Many scholars have argued that much of our thought and communication takes the form of narrative. Consequently, knowing how narratives work and how to analyze them are fundamental skills for any writer. One place to begin this analysis, especially when telling personal stories, is with the concept of memory. Many narratives people tell are based on their own experiences, and therefore memory can serve as  a critical tool—as well as the source material—for a writer or storyteller when they turn their own experiences into a narrative. To tell stories about the personal past, writers need to be able to draw upon remembrances, facts, events, and other pertinent information.

Memory can help a writer to be inventive and creative. Using memory, a writer can draw upon what they know, have heard, have read in books, or have themselves spoken. Memory allows a writer to remember the links between concepts and ideas, to connect one narrative to another, and to draw various elements together to form a complete idea. For example, in writing an essay about love, a writer could draw from personal experience, the story of Romeo and Juliet (and its many versions), and/or the film Love, Simon (2018).

Additionally, memory can be a form of research — part of a process of discovery. Scrapbooks, yearbooks, diaries, letters, photo albums, old school essays, and drawings are some of the places where memories are stored. Locating and analyzing these objects can allow a writer to access their own memories, but also memories that are beyond personal experience, memories that have been archived by other people, and to learn about the people who left this record.

Another kind of memory is cultural or collective memory, the practice of keeping alive culturally specific histories to teach a culture’s current and future generations about themselves. Books, museums, songs, traditions, and rituals are all ways that cultures actively remember and reconstruct their pasts to teach the next generation what it means to belong. The Wisconsin Historical Society’s collections on Freedom Summer and the Civil Rights movement and the television show Band of Brothers (on World War II) are examples of ways in which a culture is preserved for future generations.

For English 100 students, an important feature of narrative to understand is that memories are not yet narratives. For a memory to become a narrative, it needs to be told. In being told, a memory changes from sensation, image, archive, or other vestige of sensory or thought experience into a crafted narrative. That is, the narrative reflects the writer’s choices, omissions, emphasis, and so on.

Once a memory is transformed into a narrative, it has the ability to influence people to think about themselves or the world in specific ways—it becomes rhetorical.

Consider a criminal trial in which two lawyers are arguing about whether a defendant is innocent or guilty. The defense lawyer constructs a story that claims the defendant’s innocence, while the prosecution constructs a story that demonstrates the defendant’s guilt. Both narratives are argumentative; they try to persuade a jury to think a certain way about the defendant. It’s even possible that both narratives tell some version of the truth. Because narratives necessarily omit, rearrange, or amplify details, and because this can be done  to achieve a specific effect, narratives can be understood and used rhetorically.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur takes this conception of narrative to an even deeper level. He argues that narratives are all inherently persuasive by virtue of their composition. First, narratives draw various elements, memories, or sundry details together in time. When you tell a story, you link events, some related, some not, into some kind of a chronology.

This chronology suggests that all of the elements of your story have a natural unity or relationship. For example, when you tell a story about taking a nap and being awakened by the doorbell, your story implies a relationship between these two events. Second, when you tell a story, every event that is recounted appears as if it were necessary, as if it had to happen. For example, someone who won the lottery might begin telling the story from the moment they bought the ticket, connecting events in a way that implies winning the lottery was the most natural thing that could have happened. In truth, the outcome of winning the lottery was incredibly unlikely. Third, narratives usually involve people, real or fictional, who share relationships with others and who act, react, and are framed in particular ways. Any time a real person becomes a character in a story, that person is re-created by the teller. In essence, the person becomes a narrative device for the storyteller. With all of these aspects, Ricoeur suggests that we can never regard narrative as a perfect representation of reality, for it is always distorted in its translation into language.

These complex ideas suggest some important things about narrative. First, a narrative, whether based on memory or not, can never be seen as completely “true,” even when the writer is upholding high ethical standards, such as those required in college writing. What we mean when we say that a narrative cannot be absolutely true is that it cannot be a perfect representation of memory or reality. In thinking about this complexity, it’s important to remember that deliberate lies or distortions make effective communication impossible. Nevertheless,  words are symbols, and a narrative is always the product of choices, conscious or otherwise, that shape a story or an argument. Second, understanding that narratives can be a form of argument allows us to read narratives for their rhetorical content. Because narratives reflect their writers’ choices, we can analyze the decisions made by a writer, along with our own responses to the text, so we can discover how narratives persuade us or don’t.

Understood this way, narratives are not only stories but also complex forms of social interaction that represent details and events in order to influence readers or listeners in specific ways. Of course, there are other ways to understand stories, too — for example, through the lenses of art and myth — but keeping the rhetorical possibilities in mind can help you see how to use and shape stories effectively for your own writing purposes.


In Sequence 1, you’ll construct a narrative that connects to an idea or concept. Storytelling and memory will be at the center of your writing and process of inquiry. You’ll establish routines for asking questions, pursuing possibilities, and composing narratives, which you can then build on in future writing projects. Sequence 3 will require you to craft a piece of writing based on a researched inquiry, usually as an argument or persuasive project. Sequence 2 can be seen  as a bridge between these kinds of projects, asking you to cultivate a stronger relationship to information sources and varied perspectives — exploring, if you will, multiple stories and conversations surrounding a given issue, text, or event.

The informational (expository) writing required in Sequence  2 asks you to use memory and invention again, but a stronger connection will be made to research and cultural memory. As already mentioned,  we can say that memory not only exists in individual consciousness but also is recorded by members of a culture in written documents and other materials. Members of a culture might hold certain values, ideas, places, histories, or languages in common. At the same time, no culture is monolithic. There are always competing and complementary versions and values.

The resources of cultural memory can help us understand the varied stories and conversations that are generated around any topic a writer may choose to explore. As a student writer in college, you’re expected to be familiar with the kinds of resources created and used by scholars operating within academic cultures. The work you do in Sequence 2 will help you learn to work with these resources, and most likely other types of information resources, too..

Sequence 2 asks you to engage with other peoples’ ideas and with data or different kinds of  raw material through research. Specifically, you will practice a process of selecting, summarizing, analyzing, and synthesizing information and ideas from sources. Completing these kinds of  activities effectively will require that you make decisions in response to the components of a rhetorical situation. These include your role as a writer, your audience, your purpose, and the context in which you’re writing. “Selecting” means strategically choosing sources from a range that will be appropriate for your audience, purpose, and context. “Summarizing” has to do with accurately conveying and representing another writer’s argument or purpose to your own readers  “Analyzing” requires you to consider the structure, strengths, and weaknesses of a text, event, or object. Finally, “synthesizing” entails interpreting for your audience how multiple sources convey meaning in relationship to one another. Completing these tasks will help you to engage in an ongoing conversation around your topic. And this work can also help you begin to craft a project for Sequence 3.


In Sequence 3, you’ll bring together the thinking and writing you’ve done throughout the semester to design a project in which you identify an interest, research it, and develop a reasoned critique that makes an argument or identifies a set of questions. That is, you’ll approach your topic or issue in a curious and analytical way to create a text or multimodal project that communicates your own perspective on it. Very often, the Sequence 3 project develops out of research started in Sequence 2.

The writing you produce should make some form of an argument about your researched topic, supporting your views with specific reasons and evidence. It’s important to remember that strong arguments do not take sides in a simplistic pro or con manner and also that arguments don’t need to reach a definitive answer. Arguments can be made as a way to explore an issue and raise intelligent questions.

Thus far, we’ve discussed the rhetorical situation in relation to specific practices and purposes, such as composing a narrative or analyzing and presenting information. For Sequence 3 you’ll need to consider the rhetorical situation in a more comprehensive manner, mapping your research, developing your line of inquiry, and making some form of an argument for a purpose and with an audience in mind. In many cases in English 100, the purpose is to engage with the practices and ideas of the course, and your audience includes both your instructor and the other students in your class. In other cases, your instructor may ask you to design a project with a more public purpose and audience in mind.

Communication is effective based on how well it negotiates the elements of any given situation.The writing and work you do in Sequence 3 will require you to be particularly mindful of the rhetorical situation as you negotiate and consider many different ideas, sift through research and information, and begin to formulate a new idea, an argument, or a call to action. The rhetorical situation focuses on how any communicative act occurs within a context, with various actors such as writer/speaker and reader/audience, and the writer/speaker’s purpose in communicating. The elements you’ll want to consider include

  •   Context: When you think about contexts—whether social, cultural, historical, political, or some other framework—your attention is directed to how writers enter into an ongoing conversation, and how writing places you in relation to other writers and audience members. Context also highlights that people write for a reason. That is, writing usually does not just happen but often is a response to some form of exigency, question, or disagreement.
  •  Writer: When you respond to an exigency (an event, happening, or action that creates a purpose for communication), you establish an ethos (credibility, personality) with your readers through the writing. This ethos may be informed by your  background, expertise, and the way you create an identity through the writing.
  •  Audience: College writing is always done for an audience (readers). Through the text, a writer creates a relationship with this audience. In creating this relationship, writers appeal to reason (logos) as well as emotion (pathos). Writers base their decisions at least in part on assumptions about their readers (audience) and the communicative expectations this audience may have in regard to genre or conventions.
  •  Purpose: In public writing, a writer always has some purpose they would like to achieve with readers. A writer may want to persuade their audience to take a certain course of action or to inform them of new and compelling perspectives on the issue-at-hand.
  •  Message: Considering all of the previous elements of the rhetorical situation will lead you to best compose your message (i.e., your text). A message is typically successful when it responds appropriately to context while effectively communicating a purpose to a target audience. Careful organization, deliberate argument structure, use of appropriate evidence, and development of ample details all help to ensure your message is clear and logical to your audience.

In most college writing settings and work situations, successfully negotiating the rhetorical situation leads to effective writing. So, as you work toward your own writing goals, rather than thinking about “good writing” and “mistakes” or “bad writing,” consider that the effectiveness of writing is not based on how it follows certain rules but on a writer’s ability to achieve their purpose with an audience. This way of thinking about writing connects to the Core Beliefs of the English 100 Program, especially “All writers have more to learn.” We’re always learning about context and conditions for any piece of writing we undertake, and developing strategies to respond.


Workshops can be useful at any stage of the writing process. In English 100, you might be in a workshop group to brainstorm ideas for a writing project, generate or answer questions related to research, respond to  partial or entire drafts, or help one another review nearly finished work.

A writing workshop is, simply speaking, a place to borrow someone else’s eyes to help you see your ideas and writing from a different perspective. Often you are too invested in or exhausted from your own writing to see it clearly, and a writing workshop helps you see what you can’t see yourself. Workshops are not places for evaluation. Instead, they provide a low-stakes venue for responses and feedback to your work.

When working with other writers to provide feedback, be sure to consider how your feedback can be helpful. Your instructor will either provide guidelines for workshop and peer review or help you, as a class, develop those guidelines together. It’s generally a good practice to balance appreciation with useful descriptions of what’s not yet working in the writing. There are many kinds of criticism, but only respectful, specific criticism is likely to be useful. If your aim as a reader is to respond to the text, then you need to draw attention to the writer’s effective strategies as well as to places in the text that still need work.

Workshops can be open-ended interactions that help both the writer and the reader. They can help the writer by generating new ideas, letting him or her hear a response from an actual reader, or by providing specific suggestions that will help the process of revision. At the same time, they can help the reader by exposing them to different ideas and strategies. Being a reader can also help you develop analytical and critical skills for both reading and writing. Workshops are a chance to go public and test your work without worrying about a grade.

In general, writing workshops in a class get better with time, practice, training, and building trust. The most productive writing workshops consider both a  writer’s concerns and readers’ attention to higher order points. Those higher order points include:

  • Content: How interesting, specific, accurate, or relevant is the content or information?
  • Meaning: What does the writer make of their materials? How are the writer’s key ideas or claims significant? What consequences might their ideas or claims hold for others?
  • Audience: What might readers want and need to know? What relationship does the writer want to create? How might writers effectively appeal to their audience?
  • Form: Are the genres and language or discourse conventions an effective choice for communicating the text’s intended meaning? Does form match purpose?
  • Structure: How is the piece put together? What is the logic of the organization, arrangement (global and local levels), and development of the text?
  • Voice: How does the writer develop a sense of authority and style, and demonstrate a connection or concern for the topic? How formal or informal is the diction? Does it match with the purpose?

When reviewing a draft in a typical workshop session, lower order concerns such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar are not the focus. Rather, global concerns and the actual responses of real readers take precedence. At this stage you would want to see how effectively the draft works on readers. How does it consider its audience and fulfill its purpose? Workshops can help identify how well a draft participates in broader conversations and how well it answers the “so what” or “why does this matter” questions. Workshops can also include description, letting a writer hear what a reader understands from their draft. Possible questions to ask in a workshop could be:

  • Who do you think this piece of writing is for?
  • What is the writer trying to do with this piece of writing?
  • How would you restate the writer’s main point?
  • What does the writer assume readers already know?
  • How formal does the language need to be for the audience and purpose?
  • How might the central claim or idea affect the way other researchers could approach a similar problem?
  • How does the writer justify why this story or research question matters? In other words, how do they answer the question “so what”?
  • What is the logic of the structure? How does the organization work or not?
  • Where are claims supported with evidence? What kinds of evidence are being used?

A workshop might begin with a brief conversation in which the writer clearly identifies his or her main concerns and asks for specific feedback. Readers might want to jot those topics down and ask the writer to explain the context for the draft. Then, after listening to the writer read the draft out loud or reading the draft yourself, you can begin to tackle the higher order concerns of the paper.

Since a writing workshop is a place for dialogue, you should listen carefully to the writer’s intentions, ask open-ended questions, make suggestions that lead to learning and new ideas rather than to simple solutions, and be responsive rather than judgmental. For example, when looking at information, consider whether the information is interesting, accurate, relevant, and specific. Ask the writer to explain his or her choices and then consider how that information serves the paper’s purpose.


English 100 is a class that emphasizes practice. Learning how to write well is like learning to play a sport or a musical instrument. You have to practice to develop good habits and skills, and like shooting free throws in basketball or playing scales on the piano, practice makes perfect. Revision is like working on your free-throw shooting form. When you practice free throws, you go over the same thing multiple times, improving as you find out and preserve what works and change or discard what doesn’t. Revising your writing involves the same kind of self-assessment. This is why revision plays such a prominent role in the English 100 program: becoming  a better writer is about developing good habits of writing through practice, drafting, and redrafting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Writing is a process that includes at least four major steps. These steps are recursive—that is, the process does not necessarily move in one direction in a straight line. Generally, though, we think of the steps in this order: prewriting (invention), when you come up with your initial plan for what you’re going to write; drafting, when you start to write your ideas; revision, when you look at your draft and consider all the ways you can strengthen it; and editing and proofreading, when you put the finishing touches on the spelling, grammar, and overall presentation of your work. Research is also part of the writing process and can occur at any point.

When we think about writing, we often think primarily of the prewriting and drafting stages of the process. Sometimes, too, writers  procrastinate and only have time for one draft. But this can result in less effective writing. When you spend time revising, which literally means “looking back” or “looking again,” you give yourself a new perspective on what you initially wrote, and this new perspective can help you reconsider the rhetorical situation, try out different strategies for connecting to your readers, or see how a literary device like a guiding metaphor might improve your overall effect. .

Revision does not mean simply correcting mistakes in grammar, punctuation, or formatting. These are “lower order concerns,” sentence-level problems that can be  easily fixed with the help of a good style guide during the editing stage of the writing process. In contrast, revision focuses on “higher order concerns,” such as the organization of an argument, the point of a narrative, the assumptions we make about our audience and so forth. Unlike editing, or even prewriting and drafting, revision takes time. In fact many writers spend much more time revising than they do writing a first draft or polishing a final one.

The emphasis on revision in English 100 underscores the fact that good writing need not rest on “natural” talent but requires the development of good habits. This understanding of writing as a process is built into the English 100 grading system, which relies on portfolios. Papers are not drafted and turned in for an immediate grade. Instead, major assignments go through a process of drafting, feedback, and revision. Grades come at the end of the process when you turn in a portfolio (or collection) of your work according to guidelines your instructor will give you.


The term “media” encompasses any format for communication. “Media” is actually the plural form of “medium,” which is a Latin (and now English) word meaning “middle” or “intermediary.” A “medium” is the “middle” part of communication—the means by which a message travels from one person to another. Different “middles” exist for oral, written, printed, and digital communication. For example, a musician uses a voice to share tunes and lyrics with listeners, or you might handwrite a postcard to communicate with your grandparents or a friend who is far away. In the first case, the voice is the medium; in the second, it is the postcard (or the writing on the postcard). Often, media are used in combination. Digital media, such as Web sites and blogs, are especially integrated. And YouTube videos, for example, combine oral and written media and then transmit them to an audience using a digital medium.

One of the central goals of English 100 is to teach students critical and effective ways to engage in the four modes of literacy: speaking, reading, listening, and especially writing. But these modes of literacy aren’t static: as the media or texts we encounter change, our literacy must also adapt. Think about the way you read today. A typical Web page displays a complex arrangement of text, hyperlinks, images, advertisements, even videos and sound. Reading a Web page requires a different literacy than reading a book: you must learn how to navigate all the elements of the digital page.

Digital literacy is  something you’ve grown up with, something you use every day when you text or contact friends through social media sites. Digital literacy is also an important tool in the classroom. Improving digital literacy can help you become a more discerning researcher, capable of analyzing the reliability of sources. In addition, learning to create and assess your own digital writing can strengthen your critical thinking skills by promoting rhetorical awareness across different media. In other words, the skills of synthesis and analysis that you learn with one kind of text are transportable to other modes of communication. The rhetorical approach you take to analyzing a digital film can inform the way you construct a podcast or write a paper. Exploring digital media in English 100 provides the opportunity for you to understand how communication is changing in our culture and, more broadly, how you can most effectively communicate ideas within this changing context.

So far we have touched upon many examples of digital media: Web sites, blogs, YouTube videos, and the like. But as technology changes, the types of digital media we use will evolve as well. How, then, can you recognize digital media?

Digital media share three common elements: they integrate various forms of media, are social, and are user generated. Let’s take a blog as an example. A blog includes text and usually pictures and video or audio content; each of these elements engages with different rhetorical modes, enhancing audience interaction.  Blogs also participate in and stimulate conversations: links connect one blog to additional sources, and comments create a space for readers to agree with or challenge a blogger’s argument. Finally, anyone with an Internet connection can start a blog. Unlike traditional media, no one vets or publishes—or refuses to publish—a blogger’s post. While everyone has a voice, you still must scrutinize sources for yourself to determine their ultimate reliability or legitimacy. Digital media transcend the boundaries between content producers and content readers, between static texts and dynamic discourses, and between official and nonofficial sources. When you use digital media in the classroom, you create dynamic texts that participate in real-world conversations.

Multimedia work often involves prohibitively expensive equipment and software. Fortunately, UW-Madison offers a wide variety of multimedia tools for rent to students, TAs, and faculty. Laptops, projectors, still cameras, video cameras, audio recorders, and even iPads are available across campus. Generally speaking, renting equipment is free with a Wisconsin ID card. The easiest way to find out what can be rented where—and what’s available at any given time—is the UW InfoLabs Equipment Checkout System, accessible on the Web at or as a downloadable UWEquipment app from iTunes (available for iPhones). You can search by equipment type, find the locations that carry what you want, see where the buildings are located on a map, and get in touch with the location to arrange your rental. And some of these locations—College Library, for example—have computers with multimedia software like Photoshop and Final Cut Pro installed on them. Just call or email the location to find out if they have what you need.

To help you maximize your time and the efficacy of your multimedia work, UW-Madison also provides training for both equipment and software. DoIT (Division of Information Technology) offers a huge range of training services, including personal and class sessions through a program called Software Training for Students (STS), and extensive video training. Information on DoIT training is available, too. And if your equipment ever malfunctions or breaks, DoIT has a staff of trained technicians to help you get back up and running. You may also find help at DesignLab located in College Library.



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Approaches to Rhetoric, Writing, and Revision in English 100 Copyright © 2019 by UW-Madison English 100 Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.