Occasion is the occurrence that prompts you to write. You may need to answer a letter from a friend. Or you may need to send a complaint to the telephone company, whose computer cannot seem to learn that you have paid your bill. Obviously these two occasions would lead you to quite different decisions about a number of matters for instance, the length of the letter and the formality of tone. A frequent occasion for many users of this book will be a writing assignment by the instructor in a college course.
Just as you speak in different ways to different people every day-friends and strangers, adults and children, family members and colleagues at school or work your audience also affects how you write and what you write. For instance, terms that would be clear to one audience would need to be defined for another. Moreover, a writing course presents a special audience problem: Your instructor is part of your audience, but no writing instructor wants you to write just for him or her. Instead, your instructor probably wants you to write for a more general audience imagined by you, consisting of intelligent, well- intentioned adult readers. A useful technique for doing so is to imagine one specific reader who is typical of the audience and write to that person. If your course includes collaborative activities in which students read and comment on one another’s drafts, you may know your readers personally and be able to write for them, as well as have the benefit of their reactions (see peer response).
In a writing course, your instructor may assign a topic or allow you to choose your own. If the topic is assigned, unless it is one that already interests you, your challenge is to discover some aspect of it, some way of focusing it, that does interest you. Even when you have the luxury of picking a topic, you may still have the problem of focusing, or narrowing, it so that you can do justice to it in a paper of the expected length. Choosing and narrowing a topic both require careful consideration of audience and purpose.
At the outset or in the course of the writing process, you need to decide on your purpose and then make sure as you draft, revise, and edit your paper that everything works toward accomplishing that goal. Depending on your purpose, some elements of the rhetorical situation will be emphasized more than others. Some writing—usually called expressive emphasizes the writer almost to the exclusion of the other elements. An example is a diary intended strictly for the writers own use, to record feelings, ideas, and experiences. Other writing—certainly most writing done for college courses—emphasizes the topic. What the writer knows about a topic is far more important in such expository writing than what the writer feels. Still other writing, such as newspaper editorials, aims to be persuasive, to move the reader to some belief or course of action. (For more on persuasive writing, see the entries about argument and logic.) Finally some writing is done for its own sake, as art. The writing itself, rather than the writer, topic, or reader, is foremost in the writer’s mind. Most poems, stories, and plays, as well as many essays, fall into this category.