Revising for the Rhetorical Context

Learning Objectives

  • Utilize strategies for making revisions to the rhetorical context of a writing

In any writing project, three key factors create a rhetorical context for writing. There is the purpose, the author, and the audience which all work together to create a text in order to communicate to a reader. Revisiting the rhetorical context can help you as you revise your draft. By considering the rhetorical context, you can utilize strategies for making revisions to your essay.


When revising a draft, it can be helpful to ask yourself the question, “Why am I writing?” Remember that all writing, no matter the genre, has a purpose. Purpose will sometimes be given to you (by a teacher, for example), while other times, you will decide for yourself. As the author, it’s up to you to make sure that purpose is clear not only for yourself, but also–especially–for your audience. If your purpose is not clear, your audience is not likely to receive your intended message.

There are, of course, many different reasons to write (e.g., to inform, to entertain, to persuade, to ask questions), and you may find that some writing has more than one purpose. When this happens, be sure to consider any conflict between purposes, and remember that you will usually focus on one main purpose as primary.

Two teenagers sitting in a museum with their heads in their hands.

Figure 1. Just like bored teenagers who don’t understand the purpose of art in a museum, bored readers who don’t understand the purpose of your writing will become disinterested in your work.

Bottom line: Making sure your purpose is clear can help identify areas needing revision or areas for further exploration.

Why Purpose Matters

If you’ve ever listened to a lecture or read an essay and wondered “so what” or “what is this person talking about,” then you know how frustrating it can be when an author’s purpose is not clear. By clearly defining your purpose before you begin writing, it’s less likely you’ll be that author who leaves the audience wondering.

If readers cannot identify the purpose in a text, they usually quit reading. If teachers cannot identify the purpose in your text, they will likely assume you did not understand the assignment and, chances are, you will receive a good grade.

In order for your writing to be maximally effective, you have to think about the audience you’re writing for and adapt your writing approach to their needs, expectations, backgrounds, and interests. Being aware of your audience helps you make better decisions about what to say and how to say it. For example, you have a better idea if you will need to define or explain any terms, and you can make a more conscious effort not to say or do anything that would offend your audience.

Try It

Identify the purpose for the piece of writing in the following scenarios:

Sometimes you know who will read your writing. For example, if you are writing an email to your boss, you know the purpose and the audience. Other times you might have to guess who is likely to read your writing. For example, if you are writing a restaurant view for an app, you know you are writing to people who are interested in that business. You will often write with a primary audience in mind, but there may be other audiences to consider as well.

Consider the Audience

When analyzing your audience, consider these points. Doing this should make it easier to create a profile of your audience, which can help guide your writing choices.

Background Knowledge

In general, you do not want to merely repeat what your audience already knows about the topic; you want to build on their already knowledge. On the other hand, you also do not want to talk over their heads. Anticipate their amount of previous knowledge or experience based on elements like their age, profession, or level of education.

Expectations and Interests

Your audience may expect to find specific points or writing approaches, especially if you are writing for a teacher or a boss. Consider not only what they do want to read about, but also what they do not want to read about.

Attitudes and Biases

Your audience may have predetermined feelings about you or your topic, which can affect how hard you have to work to win them over or appeal to them. The audience’s attitudes and biases also affect their expectations — for example, if they expect to disagree with you, they will likely look for evidence that you have considered their side as well as your own.


Consider what else you know about your audience, such as their age, gender, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, political preferences, religious affiliations, job or professional background, and area of residence. Think about how these demographics may affect how much background your audience has about your topic, what types of expectations or interests they have, and what attitudes or biases they may have.


Scenario: You are writing an email to your Introduction to Theatre professor from last semester to propose an independent study course on stage combat with her next year.

Audience: Dr. Wilcox has a Ph.D., and her dissertation focused on American Theatre in particular. She specializes in teaching stage combat strategies–any fights or physical interaction on stage are what she is especially interested in. She often travels to teach small workshops about stage combat.

Background Knowledge Dr. Wilcox is the preeminent expert on stage combat at your university. You have to assume that she knows basically everything there is to know about it and has years of experience to back up her knowledge. Your email should demonstrate your sincere interest in this subject and explain what the independent study would mean for you.
Expectations and Interests Address why Dr. Wilcox should agree to an independent study with you.
Attitudes and Biases Demonstrate this project will not create an undue burden on her time.
Demographics Explore if Dr. Wilcox’s schedule is flexible.

Scenario: You are applying for a scholarship offer from the University of Mississippi School of Nursing for new freshmen pursuing nursing as a career choice. You’re required to write a 250-word application essay demonstrating both your need and your interest in nursing.

Audience: This is a committee of doctors and nurses at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi. They not only have medical degrees, but they also teach classes. They are especially interested in candidates who want to work in under-served communities.

Background Knowledge Your application essay should be honest and straightforward about what has drawn you to the field of nursing. You should also show passion for working in under-served communities in the future.
Expectations and Interests You have to demonstrate right away that you’re an ideal applicant. Make yourself stand out in some way that is memorable and relevant, and write concisely.
Attitudes and Biases Be concise, on-message, and proofread carefully before you submit.
Demographics You know everyone on the committee is a School of Nursing faculty member. They’re educated and experienced, and they care about under-served communities. They will probably expect competence, passion, and intellectual inquiry in these applications.