What’s rhetoric got to do with technical editing?

One of the topics that we cover in our Technical Editing Fundamentals certificate course is rhetoric. My co-presenter, Linda Oestreich, humors me and lets me have 5 minutes to cover the basics of why I feel rhetoric is one of the fundamental principles of technical editing.

Here are the basics of classic rhetoric, from Aristotle:

  • It is the study of language, the art of discourse, with a focus on logic and persuasion
  • It includes the rhetorical situation, or the cause for communication
  • It includes three audience appeals: logos (reasoning), pathos (emotion), and ethos (credibility)
  • There are five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery

One of my favorite blogs, I’d Rather Be Writing by Tom Johnson, researched and wrote about how rhetoric fits within technical communication overall, and did a fabulous job explaining how rhetoric is relevant to practicing technical communicators. In our course, I refer to a now aging source (from 1989, gasp!) by Dragga and Gong, titled Editing: The Design of Rhetoric. From pages 11-15 of this book, Dragga connected the dots between the canons of rhetoric and the process of editing:

  • Invention = purpose and audience = editing for accuracy
  • Arrangement = organization, ordering, cohesion = editing for clarity
  • Style = verbal and textual style, visual style = editing for propriety
  • Delivery = document design, total presentation, verbal and visual presentation = editing for artistry

In the grammar book that I read a few months ago, in the first chapter of Teaching Grammar for Writing: Principles to Practice, of Constance Weaver’s Grammar to Enrich & Enhance Writing (Heinemann, 1996) (my notes are summarized in this previous blog post), the author ties grammar to rhetoric, which she argues involves “engaging [an audience] deeply through the use of language and a distinctive style or voice….Grammar, along with word choice, is a cornerstone of rhetoric” (p. 3).

In my mind, rhetoric has got everything to do with technical editing. We just never realized it was underneath, informing the decisions we make to ensure that the information communicates effectively with our users.

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