Published: January 16, 2019
By Peter Mosley, Ph.D.
I want you to think hard about this question:
What would happen if you didn’t write?
Let’s break it down. What would happen if you didn’t type up your resume? What would be the consequences if you had decided not to write that last paper for your class, or the personal statement for entry into your program?
Yeah, sure, maybe there would be immediate consequences. If you didn’t type up your resume, you wouldn’t get the job; if you didn’t write that last paper, you would have received a failing grade; if you didn’t write the personal statement, you wouldn’t have been accepted into your program.
But there are also reasons behind those consequences. If you don’t type up your resume, you don’t get hired because potential employers don’t have a clear view of your skills and abilities. If you don’t write that paper, you’ll receive a failing grade because no one can tell how much of the information discussed and studied in the class you actually know and can use. If you don’t write the personal statement, the admissions committee can’t really figure out your motivation behind succeeding in your field.
So when you write, you’re not just filling a page. You’re trying to address real-world concerns that stand in the way of making real-world events happen – especially when you’re in one of the health professions and people’s lives are on the line.
When you’re addressing these real-world concerns through writing, you’re interacting with a concrete situation in every word. In composition studies, we call this situation the rhetorical situation. Now, the description of this rhetorical situation might be obvious, but bringing this description to the surface and making it explicit can help you become a more aware and successful writer.
The most fundamental part of this rhetorical situation is its exigence. Basically, an exigence is the need that makes your piece of writing necessary. To focus your writing on its concrete purpose, it’s a good idea to make yourself aware of your exigence by identifying a few reasons why your writing project is needed. You don’t want to stop at “I need this piece of writing to earn a good grade,” of course – you’ll want to go further and think about how a piece of writing may be needed to address a wide variety of specific concerns you have, your professor has, your peers have, the public has, and so on.
Beyond the exigence, you’ll also want to think about your constraints. Constraints are any factors that may be limiting or defining the way you can effectively meet the exigence. One constraint may be a style guide, if it’s expected that your piece of writing be written in APA format. Another constraint may be a deadline that limits how long you can work to perfect your piece. Other constraints might include previous studies on the topic you’re addressing, word count limits, your own strong beliefs or preferences, and conventions of the particular type of writing project you’re completing. If you want to effectively fulfill the practical needs of your writing, you have to thoughtfully consider these constraints.
Finally, we have to consider the people who can actually turn our goals into reality, or our audience. Usually, that audience is going to be a party that has some power to act in order to positively affect the exigence. You’re rarely writing in a vacuum – most of the time, you’re going to be writing to a party that can actually accomplish at least some of what you need accomplished. So don’t just fill a page with words – write with that audience firmly in your mind.
Writing isn’t done in a void. Every piece of writing is completed in response to a particular pre-existing rhetorical situation. This rhetorical situation consists of an exigence (a problem or need that makes the piece of writing necessary), contains constraints (limitations or guidelines that need to be followed in order to effectively address the exigence), and is written to an audience (a group of people that can act to positively address the exigence).
In short: we write in order to create a needed impact in the real world. Most of the time, we aren’t just writing in the void.
Embrace that fact all the way down to your bones, and you’ll become an awesome writer.
PS (Composition Studies Nerd Stuff): This is one of many ways to think about writing. I chose it because it seems especially relevant for the health professions, where you are going to be addressing concrete situations with preexisting guidelines and requirements for communication. However, if you go deep enough down the rabbit hole of communication studies you’ll find that there are many other ways to think about writing, and that some of them claim that writers create their rhetorical situation through the choices they make while writing – in these theories, the rhetorical situation isn’t preexisting, as it doen’t exist until the writer creates it. While this pattern of thinking might have its merits, I think that in many ways it makes a distinction without a difference – whether the actual rhetorical situation is created by the writer or exists before the writer starts typing, we can at least say that the potential for a writer’s rhetorical situation exists before the writer starts typing, and that this potential rhetorical situation, for all intents and purposes, would work in exactly the same way as an actual preexisting rhetorical situation. Basically, I’m saying that another composition expert could object to the preceding snippet of composition theory, but for our purposes that objection doesn’t really matter.