Heuristics in Rhetoric and Composition

heuristics in composition

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In rhetoric and composition studies, a heuristic is a strategy or set of strategies for exploring topics, constructing arguments, and discovering solutions to problems.

Common discovery strategies include freewriting, listing, probing, brainstorming, clustering, and outlining. Other methods of discovery include research, the journalists' questions, the interview, and the pentad.

In Latin, the equivalent of heuristic is inventio, the first of the five canons of rhetoric.

Etymology: From the Greek, "to find out."

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]he heuristic function of discourse is that of discovery, whether of facts, insights, or even of 'self-awareness.' The heuristic function of discourse is essential to 'the inventive processes,' that is the ability to discover the means of expressing our thoughts and sentiments effectively to others."
    (James A. Herrick, The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2005)
  • "A heuristic is a set of discovery procedures for systematic application or a set of topics for systematic consideration. Unlike the procedures in a set of instructions, the procedures of a heuristic do not need to be followed in any particular order, and there is no guarantee that using it will result in a single definitive explanation. A good heuristic draws on multiple theories rather than just one."
    (Christopher Eisenhart and Barbara Johnstone, "Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Studies." Rhetoric in Detail: Discourse Analyses of Rhetorical Talk and Text, ed. by B. Johnstone and C. Eisenhart. John Benjamins, 2008)
  • "Reconsideration of Aristotle's notion of heuristic reveals both another dimension of classical invention and an important feature of Aristotle's Rhetoric. Heuristic is not only an instrument for inventing techniques to articulate to others but is also a techne enabling the rhetor and audience to cocreate meaning."
    (Richard Leo Enos and Janice M. Lauer, "The Meaning of Heuristic in Aristotle's Rhetoric and Its Implications for Contemporary Rhetorical Theory." Landmark Essays on Aristotelian Rhetoric, ed. by Richard Leo Enos and Lois Peters Agnew. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1998)

Teaching Heuristics

  • "[I]nstruction in heuristic strategies has been controversial. . . . Some have feared that heuristics will turn into rules or formulas, thereby overdetermining or mechanizing the rhetorical process. This danger was realized at times in rhetorical history when the arts of discourse were taught as inflexible steps for carrying out rhetorical acts rather than as arbitrary but effective guides. Another controversy has stemmed from false expectations about the efficacy of teaching heuristics as a panacea for all rhetorical problems. But they do not supply motivation or subject knowledge but rather depend upon them. Nor do they remedy grammatical problems or provide genre knowledge or syntactic fluency. Advocates of heuristics see them as part of a larger repertoire of rhetorical resources and argue that teaching heuristics shares with students insider knowledge of discourse strategies that can empower them in genuine, compelling rhetorical situations."
    (Janice M. Lauer, "Heuristics." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication From Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Routledge, 1996)

Heuristic Procedures and Generative Rhetoric

  • "[H]euristic procedures can guide inquiry and stimulate memory and intuition. The imaginative act is not absolutely beyond the writer's control; it can be nourished and encouraged.
    "These generalizations about heuristics and the technical theory of art become clearer if we recall Francis Christensen's generative rhetoric of the sentence, a technique that uses form to produce ideas. After a close examination of the practice of modern writers who have a knack for good prose--Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and others--Christensen identified four principles operating in the production of what he called 'cumulative sentences.' . . .
    "Heuristic procedures enable the writer to bring principles such as these to bear in composing by translating them into questions or operations to be performed. If we were to invent a procedure based on these principles, it might look something like this: study what is being observed, write a base clause about it, and then try piling up at the end of the clause analogies, details, and qualities that serve to refine the original observation."
    (Richard E. Young, "Concepts of Art and the Teaching of Writing." Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Invention in Writing, ed. by Richard E. Young and Yameng Liu. Hermagoras Press, 1994)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Heuristics in Rhetoric and Composition." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/heuristic-rhetoric-and-composition-1690833. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Heuristics in Rhetoric and Composition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/heuristic-rhetoric-and-composition-1690833 Nordquist, Richard. "Heuristics in Rhetoric and Composition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/heuristic-rhetoric-and-composition-1690833 (accessed June 8, 2023).