Essays Express Feelings, Explain Ideas, and Exhort Change

Every essay has a specific purpose. Sometimes the primary purpose of an essay is to entertain--to make us laugh, cry, remember the past--to stir our emotions. Sometimes the primary purpose of an essay is to explain something. Sometimes the purpose is to change our minds or behavior--to make us choose one path over another. The purpose behind an essay--its reason for being--controls the essay's approach to a topic and profoundly affects the way the essay is organized. Essays with a specific purpose and organization are said to conform to a particular rhetorical mode.

Essays aimed primarily at entertaining readers often take liberties with their organization and structure. On the other hand, essays that are aimed at explaining something to a reader tend to be much more tightly organized in order to make perfectly clear what it is the reader is supposed to understand. Essays that aim at changing behavior or a reader's thinking on some subject may combine both explanation and entertainment as means to persuasion.

Rhetorical modes are patterns of organization aimed at achieving a particular effect in the reader. Narration and Description are modes whose primary purpose is stirring the reader's emotions. Process, Cause/Effect, Comparison/Contrast, Illustration, Definition, and Classification/Division essays aim at helping readers understand a subject, exploring its functions, causes, consequences, relationships to other subjects, meaning, or nature. Argumentative and Persuasive essays seek to change readers' attitudes or actions with regard to specific subjects. Each kind of essay (or mode) has its own unique characteristics and qualities as well as characteristics and qualities which are common to a variety of kinds (modes) of writing.

Sometimes essays can use one pattern of organization to support a larger purpose. While the mode of an essay is dependent on the writer's controlling purpose, writers may use a variety of methods to achieve their purpose. An essay which has as its purpose to compare the vice-presidencies of, for instance, Al Gore and Dan Quayle could include stories about the two men (narration), physical and personal descriptions of each (description), results of their actions as each served as Vice-President (cause and effect), or examples of their leadership styles (example). However, the essay would be a Comparison/Contrast essay because its purpose remains to compare and contrast the two men.

The same essay could be re-written as a Persuasive essay. Now its purpose would be to lead us to vote for one man over the other. Perhaps the writer might favorably contrast one candidate to the other in order to secure our vote or tell humorous stories about the opposing candidate in order to suggest that that candidate is unqualified for the responsibilities of office. Even though the second essay might well use much of the same supporting material as the first, its controlling purpose--persuasion--would change how that support was delivered.

So, a rhetorical mode is the organizing principle for expressing the writer's purpose (or thesis) while rhetorical methods are strategies or techniques used within an essay for supporting that purpose. It is useful to distinguish between modes (the overall purpose of an essay) and methods (techniques used within an essay) even though most textbooks on modes do not make such fine distinctions.

©1997-2002, Bill Stifler

Rhetorical Modes

Essays that Express Feelings
Essays that Explain Ideas
Essays that Exhort Change