Hierarchy of Rhetorical Concerns

The hierarchy of rhetorical concerns is an approach to the writing process often taught in college writing classes and used in Writing Center instruction. Its goal is to organize composing issues in the order of importance:

    1. Purpose: what is the goal or objective for this piece of writing?
    2. Audience: to whom are you writing?
    3. Context: what are the current arguments and points-of-view on your topic? What format or genre does your audience expect—academic essay, business report, memo…?
    4. Development: how much evidence do you need to support your argument or to clearly communicate your message? What types of evidence are appropriate for your purpose, audience, and context?
    5. Organization: how should you organize your ideas to best meet the expectations of your audience?
    6. Style: genre conventions, vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphing
    7. Conventions: grammar, spelling, punctuation

This does not mean that conventions (grammar, spelling, punctuation) are not important. It means that if a writer doesn’t know who her audience is, her message won’t be effective even if the grammar is correct. On the flip side, a writer can have a well defined audience (e.g., Colorado legislators in favor of a dam on the Poudre River) and purpose (e.g., to convince them that the dam would ruin the ecological health of the river endangering wildlife, the water supply and outdoor tourism), but if his spelling is terrible and his argument poorly organized, his audience won’t trust him or his argument and therefore he won’t achieve his purpose.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that the hierarchy isn’t a checklist, but part of a recursive writing process. That is, throughout the process of brainstorming, researching, drafting, and revising, writers revisit the hierarchy and rethink their choices at each level. This is why it can be helpful to visit the Writing Center not just once, but several times during the writing process.