The Rhetorical Triangle

Welcome back! This post is the second of a three-part series concerning the connections between why we write, the rhetorical triangle, and audience. Last post, we explored the question “Why do we write?”. We concluded that the answer had something to do with the relationship between the writer and the audience, which we will define today.

In my English 100W class in fall 2013, my professor introduced me to the below image: the rhetorical triangle, a useful tool that helps writers visually place themselves in a relationship with their audience. The writer is obviously the one writing; the audience the one reading. “Subject” refers to what the writer is writing about and what the audience is reading about. The message within the triangle is what that writer is trying to communicate to the audience. The entire triangle lies within the circle of context, which sets the conversation between writer and audience in the larger picture of the discourse community, including any research or articles previously written about the subject as well as the social, historical, or cultural situation the text has been written in.

The writer and the audience reside at opposite ends of the triangle; however, both writer and audience have a clear view of the subject from where they are, but they do not share the exact same view of the subject. My professor would call this difference in view a “gap in understanding,” explaining the author sees something about the subject that the audience doesn’t. Therefore, she would tell us, the writer’s job is to close this gap in understanding not by throwing information over to the audience’s side and hoping they’ll understand it, but by moving them over to the writer’s side with careful and detailed analysis and argumentation until the gap is no more.

For example, say a student is writing about the unknown costs of electric cars. The rhetorical triangle might look something like this:

With this triangle in mind, writing a paper becomes much easier since the goal is to close the gap in understanding between what the writer thinks and what the audience thinks about the cost of electric cars. While this may seem easy, closing the gap in understanding requires the writer to know who their audience is, what they already know, and what their expectations are. Getting to know our audience can be a complicated process. However, we have a few tips and tricks to help identify audience which we will talk about in the next post. Until then, try applying the rhetorical triangle to your own work and see what happens!

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