Rhetorical Surrender

A common practice of developing writers is to open an essay with a Rhetorical Question, the purpose of which, supposedly, is to pique the reader’s interest and get her to start expressing an opinion on the author’s topic. To prime the pump, so to speak.

It’s a terrible strategy that gives all the power and momentum to the reader before the writer—that’s YOU—even gets started. For chess players, the equivalent would be choosing to play the black pieces, on the defense from the start.

You’re the author. The chessboard is yours. Play white. Start first. Let’s look at an example.


Rhetorical questions are a red flag that something is wrong with your argument, Username. But they are also white flags of surrender. Readers see them as an opportunity to make up their own minds. You want to make up their minds for them.

Let’s look at your whole paragraph:

Staying or keeping someone alive only to suffer seems rather counterintuitive. There’s a conflict when it comes to the elderly—whether they’re human relatives or animal companions—and that is at what point is life too burdensome to continue? At what point does caring and showing compassion towards a dying creature become counterintuitive and shift from care and compassion to selfishness and cruelty? When photographing elderly animals after caring for her own aging parents, photographer Isa Leshko acknowledges the importance of accepting that they are mortal. After making the conscious decision to not photograph her own aging and dying family, Leshko expresses and emphasizes the importance of remaining respectful to the memory of the elderly by displaying who they truly are as beings through pictures rather than ignoring their mortality, and it is clear that she regrets making her decision about her parents.

You start with a straightforward claim.

Staying or keeping someone alive only to suffer seems rather counterintuitive.

Then immediately lose control of your own argument.

There’s a conflict when it comes to the elderly—whether they’re human relatives or animal companions—and that is at what point is life too burdensome to continue?

Half of your readers will silently respond: Never. Now you’re playing defense.

At what point does caring and showing compassion towards a dying creature become counterintuitive and shift from care and compassion to selfishness and cruelty?

At which point that same half, perhaps joined by others, respond: How dare you!

If your Summary has a Purpose, be clear from the start what it is. Here you appear merely to want to inform readers of the conflict Isa Leshko experienced. That’s a pretty narrow purpose, and it’s hard to imagine the paper to which this paragraph would make a strong contribution.

Your opening claim is twofold where one fold would suffice. The “staying” alive part disappears immediately. You develop only the “keeping someone alive” part. Now imagine the thesis to which it would make the biggest contribution. Revise without rhetorical questions:

Keeping someone alive only for them to suffer is savagely counterintuitive. Human relatives—or our animal companions—deserve the right to decide when their lives have become too burdensome to continue. Beyond that point, our caring and compassion towards a dear dying creature, however well-intentioned, become selfishness and cruelty.

Same material, same claims, ambiguity removed. Your readers may still resist, but the pressure is on them to refute your clearly-stated position. You’re playing offense.

IN-CLASS NOTES

In the Reply field below, leave your impressions. Does the example demonstrate the weakness of Rhetorical Questions vs. the power of bold claims? Are you always tempted to use Rhetorical Questions to introduce your Big Premise? Do you see how they invite your readers to reject your ideas before you present them?

20 Responses to Rhetorical Surrender

  1. carsonwentz1186 says:

    This example successfully demonstrates the weakness of rhetorical questions compared to bold claims with the examples and explanations shown. I am ALWAYS tempted o use rhetorical questions to introduce my topic, but now I see how that would be counterintuitive to the idea of a PERSUASIVE piece of writing.

    Like

  2. This example does good to explain why you shouldn’t use rhetorical questions. Despite that I am often tempted to use them, I now understand why they are weak. This is because it gives your reader a chance to respond with an answer before you can get your argument or point across to them. This means that they will have no reason to continue reading your essay if they can answer your question so easily.

    Like

  3. christianity19 says:

    It demonstrates the weakness of Rhetorical Questions vs. the power of bold claims. Are you always tempted to use Rhetorical Questions to introduce your Big Premise? Do you see how they invite your readers to reject your ideas before you present them?? Sometimes I use it in my writing and sometimes it allows my reader to dig deep into the essay or reply to it in some way. Yes I see how they invite your readers to reject your ideas before you present them.

    Like

  4. mrmba1 says:

    It’s important to change minds through claims, not questions. This was a good example, especially with the rewrite, displaying the importance of not putting your audience on the defensive. Tell your reader what is true rather than asking them what they think the truth is. If used, rhetorical questions should be answered right away, leaving the audience slightly more open to the claim being made through the question.

    Like

  5. rosekyd says:

    I was never aware the rhetorical questions could actually be turned against you in a very detrimental way. Reading this example made me painfully aware that I could have done something like this in the past and have not been aware of this at all. Although I don’t recall actually making these kind of questions in my past writings

    Like

  6. justheretopass says:

    This demonstration has opened my eyes to rhetorical questions and how much they can hurt you sometimes. Usually in the past I was always tempted to use rhetorical questions because I thought it was an easy gate way to start my main topic. But this demonstration has showed me that you will just be playing defense in your own writing.

    Like

    • davidbdale says:

      I’m not surprised to hear that you’re comfortable with them, or that you’ve been trained or encouraged to use them to, as you say, quick-start an argument. I’ve always thought it was terrible advice, but it’s quite common.

      Like

  7. thecommoncase says:

    Yes, it shows how weak rhetorical questions are and how strong claims are. There are still times when I am tempted to use rhetorical questions, but I do not think I have ever actually used a rhetorical question in a writing assignment. Yes I definitely see how it exposes us as writers, and makes us subject to rejection before the reader even finishes reading your argument.

    Like

  8. icedcoffeeislife says:

    This is a good example in explaining how to use rhetorical questions in the right way. When using rhetorical questions I have a better chance of repeating the mistakes that likely to happen when writing a rhetorical question. This gives an understanding that if you do not answer the question, then there is no point to keep writing your essay.

    Like

  9. person345 says:

    This example shows us the weakness of rhetorical questions. It stops your argument and it can make readers reject your claims way before you start making your argument. I am sometimes tempted to use rhetorical questions in an introduction paragraph. But, now I know they aren’t the best strategy in an intro.

    Like

  10. johnwick66 says:

    Yes the example did show me the weakness of a rhetorical question. I wouldn’t say I’m tempted to use them in order but rather in the past I’ve tried to implement them into my writing when I thought they would fit. But after reading this, I realize that rhetorical questions invite more challenge to my idea than agreement.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s