4.1 Introduction

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Learning Objectives

Student will be able to do the following after reading this chapter:

  • Apply essay structure to various rhetorical modes.
  • Provide the required components of a specific essay assignment.

A Student’s Story

David asked his instructor why students were required to write different types of essays. Instructor Kahaialiʻi explained that learning to do a variety of types of writing allows students to determine the best way to approach a range of writing situations in the future.

“In life, an essay you might write to the newspaper arguing against building a light rail system in Honolulu might be argumentative, while a report written for a boss that is meant to inform her about a problem in a factory would use an entirely different tone and structure. The ability to be flexible about one’s mode, based on circumstances, is useful in the real world.

“For this class, we will learn how to write a variety of types of essays by using mode guidelines. These guidelines provide a clearer idea of expectations for each essay, but you will also learn to be flexible and to experience many types of writing so that you can apply a range of skills to future writing you’ll need to do. While we explore four modes of writing in this class, you will discover that the toolkit of writing skills you’ll build will allow you to use many modes, as needed, in the future.”

David nodded. Although he appreciated that this course was going to be challenging, he knew that he was improving his skills for the job market. Since written communication skills are in demand, he realized the importance of learning these skills.

The Rhetorical Modes

Rhetorical modes, also known as patterns of development or genres, are simply the ways in which people effectively communicate through language. Sometimes writers incorporate a variety of modes in any one essay. For example, a persuasive essay may include paragraphs showing cause and effect, description, and narrative. The rhetorical mode writers choose depends on the purpose for writing. Rhetorical modes are a set of tools that will allow students greater flexibility and effectiveness in communicating with their audience and expressing ideas.

Here are typical modes of essays taught in first-year writing courses:

  • Cause and effect discusses the relationship between causes and effects, starting either with causes or effects, and using facts to explain how they are linked.
  • Classification and division, often used in science, takes large ideas and divides them into manageable chunks of information, classifying and organizing them into types and parts.
  • Comparison and contrast analyzes the similarities and/or differences between two subjects to learn or discuss them more deeply.
  • Definition clarifies the meaning of terms and concepts, providing context and description for deeper understanding of those ideas.
  • Description provides detailed information using adjectives that appeal to the five senses (what people see, hear, smell, taste, and touch) as well as other vivid details that help readers visualize or understand an item or concept.
  • Evaluation analyzes and judges the value and merit of an essay, a concept, or topic.
  • Illustration provides examples and evidence in detail to support, explain, and analyze a main point or idea.
  • Narrative uses fictional or nonfictional stories in a chronological sequence of events, often including detailed descriptions and appeals to the senses and emotions of readers while storytelling to reveal a theme or moment.
  • Persuasion (i.e., argumentation) logically attempts to convince readers to agree with an opinion or take an action; the argument also acknowledges opposing viewpoints and accommodates and/or refutes them with diplomatic and respectful language, as well as provides precise and accurate evidence and other expert supporting details.
  • Process analysis describes and explains, step by step, chronologically, in detail, and with precision and accuracy, how to do something or how something works.

This chapter will focus on the narrative, evaluative, process analysis, and persuasive rhetorical modes.

An introduction to college writing is based on the understanding that the primary underlying skills needed for academic writing involve summary, analysis, and synthesis of information into one’s own words, citing sources as needed, and analyzing and evaluating ideas with the confidence of one who feels part of a given community. The skills needed for good writing do not just consist of memorizing rules. Instead, they come from a skills-based approach through reading analytically the work of others and discussing and writing to learn concepts thoroughly and deeply. The writing skills come from mirroring the writing elements that suit each individual student with support from well-researched material. Then students show their growth by embracing these skills in writing.

Each of the following sections provides links to real student essays to help students conceptualize and produce essays in various modes. These samples should be used as guidelines to help meet essay expectations, and should not be substituted for students’ original ideas.



  1. Read a printed or online essay or article. A letter to the editor or an editorial from a newspaper would be perfect. Then, with a partner, identify the modes of writing found in the essay. Analyze the different choices the writer has made about language and organization to express a point of view.
  2. Select, read, and annotate a sample student essay in a specific style as provided in this link. Note in the margins or on another sheet of paper what rhetorical mode each paragraph uses, how those modes and paragraphs support the overall rhetorical mode of the essay, and whether each paragraph does so successfully or not. Discuss in teams of four and summarize findings to report to the rest of the class.


Parts of this section are adapted from OER material from Writing for Success, “Chapter 10: The Rhetorical Modes” and “Chapter 15: Readings: Examples of Essays,” Saylor Academy, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 except for any elements that may be licensed differently.


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English Composition Copyright © 2019 by Contributing Authors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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