This is “Developing a Rhetorical Habit of Mind”, section 4.4 from the book Writers' Handbook (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. To download a .zip file containing this book to use offline, simply click here.

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

4.4 Developing a Rhetorical Habit of Mind

Learning Objectives

  1. Get into the habit of thinking about the all texts in rhetorical terms.
  2. Learn about the statement of purpose and how it can be used as a tool for your future academic and professional writing.
  3. Develop a rhetorical habit of mind by enhancing your awareness of how language works.

The habit of thinking rhetorically starts with being comfortable enough with the rhetorical triangle to see it in practically every form of communication you produce and consume—not only those you encounter in academic settings but also those you encounter in everyday life. In several other chapters, you will make use of the elements (corners) and relationships (sides) of the rhetorical triangle, as well as the appeals associated with it. In Chapter 5 "Planning", you’ll see how to use the triangle in more detail to build a statement of purposeA tool for developing your purposes for a writing project, specifically your message, audience, voice, attitude, reception, and tone. for specific writing projects by completing the following statements and returning to them as circumstances in your writing process change:

In Chapter 7 "Researching" and Chapter 8 "Revising", you’ll learn how to use the rhetorical triangle and the statement of purpose to plan and refine your research agenda, and in Chapter 12 "Professional Writing", you’ll even see how to apply these rhetorical tools to a job search.

Besides familiarizing yourself with the elements of the triangle and how they function, you’ll also need to consider the rhetorical movesAn array of creative, metaphorical, and humorous techniques used by writers who have developed a rhetorical habit of mind. writers make so you can begin to use language more creatively in your writing. Good writers learn to improvise with the language, to make it work both as a tool for thinking and as a vehicle for communication. Here are four categories of rhetorical moves you will encounter and begin to use as you develop a rhetorical habit of mind.

Rhetorical Move and Definition Examples

Connotative languageUsing a word in a way that suggests additional meanings and associations beyond its primary, literal definition.: Using a word beyond its denotationThe primary, literal definition of a word. (or primary definition) to suggest or incite a desired response in readers. Sometimes a connotation can be a euphemismA kind of connotative language used to describe something unpleasant in a gentler way (literally, “good speech”). designed to make something sound better than it really is; at other times, a connotation can put a negative spin on something.

“welfare” (or “entitlement”)
“economic stimulus” (or “recovery”)
“death panel” (or “managed care”)
“pro-choice” (or “pro-abortion”)
“estate tax” (or “death tax”)
“global warming” (or “greenhouse effect”)

Figurative languageThe rhetorical move of making a connection between two seemingly dissimilar things.: Using metaphors, similes, and analogies can help you and your readers uncover previously unseen connections between different categories of things (also discussed in Chapter 17 "Word Choice", Section 17.3.3 "Enhancing Writing with Figurative Language").

“That professor’s lecture was like a metronome.” (Similes use like or as.)
“That test was a bear.” (Metaphors don’t.)
“The current panic in education about students’ addiction to texting and video games is reminiscent of concerns in earlier eras about other kinds of emerging technology.” (Analogies can lead to entire essay topics.)

Humorous languageThe rhetorical move of using wit to make a connection with your readers.: Audiences who are entertained are more likely to receive your message. Within reason and boundaries of taste, there’s nothing wrong with using wit to help you make your points. Examples include plays on words (like puns, slang, neologisms, or “new words”), as well as more elaborate kinds of humor (such as parody and satire).

Recent additions to the dictionary (like “telecommuting,” “sexting,” and “crowdsourcing”) usually began as plays on words.
Parody and satire are ironic ways of imitating a subject or style through caricature and exaggeration.
Note: These kinds of humor require precise knowledge of your audience’s readiness to be entertained in this way. They can easily backfire and turn sour, but when used carefully, they can be extremely effective.

Metacognitive languageThe rhetorical move of articulating an awareness of your thinking (metacognition).: Thinking about your thinking (metacognition) can help you step outside yourself to reflect on your writing (the equivalent of “showing your work” in math).

“At this point, I’d like to be clear about my intentions for this essay…”
“Before I began this research project, I thought…but now I’ve come to believe…”

As you survey this table, remember that clear, simple, direct communication is still your primary goal, so don’t try all these techniques in the same piece of writing. Just know that you have them at your disposal and begin to develop them as part of your toolkit of rhetorical moves.

Key Takeaways

  • Developing a rhetorical habit of mind will help you consider voice, audience, message, tone, attitude, and reception in all the texts you read and write.
  • The rhetorical habit of mind will also help you recognize rhetorical moves in four categories of language use: connotative, figurative, humorous, and metacognitive.
  • In the process of developing the rhetorical habit of mind, you will also develop your creativity, sense of humor, and self-awareness.


  1. Use the chart at the end of this section to find at least one example from each of the four categories of rhetorical moves in a reading of your choice. Be prepared to present your findings in a journal entry, a blog post, or as part of a group or class-wide discussion.
  2. Take a piece of your writing in progress and try to incorporate at least one rhetorical move from each category into it, using the chart at the end of this section as a guide.
  3. As the “knowledge handbook” portion of the Flat World Knowledge Handbook for Writers comes to a close, it’s time to do an inventory of your composing habits of mind. In your writing journal or in a blog entry, list and describe at least three ways in which you have improved as a thinker, reader, or writer as a result of a concept or exercise you encountered in each of the first four chapters. Set one goal for yourself in each of these categories and outline how you intend to reach that goal by the end of your first year of college: