I read the twenty page introduction to Rhetoric by Karen Foss with a specific eye for a definition of rhetoric, and while the subject matter tended to meander from theoretical to the historical, the key statement seemed to be "For us, rhetoric is the human use of symbols to communicate" (1). Symbols are the expression of our reality through language.
Foss talks about two key ideas relating to symbols, the first being that "Humans construct the world in which they live through their symbolic choices" (2). While symbols could just as easily translate to a number of different modes of communication, including art or music, the most appropriate type of symbol is language and words. The idea is that words, or symbols, that we choose may contain positive or negative connotations. For example, if I am describing a new version of an intellectual work with the pejorative term "dumbed down," I am using that specific term to voice disapproval. Likewise, if I were trying to cast it in a neutral or positive light, I might choose the term "streamlined" or "simplified."
Symbols can also be a representation of physical objects. Foss uses the example of a tree. "For instance, a tree standing in the forest is not a symbol; it does not stand for something else. It is simply a tree, although the word chosen to represent the thing standing in the forest is a symbol" (3).
A rhetorician who is conscious and intentional with their use of symbols is able to craft an argument that is intended to accomplish a goal. The nature of that goal might be to convince people to adopt your way of thinking, come to a consensus on a difficult matter, or settle a dispute. Rhetoric may include writing, oration, physical, multi-media.... Being new to the world of rhetoric, I would simply interpret it as communication.
Google defines rhetoric as:
* using language effectively to please or persuade
* grandiosity: high-flown style; excessive use of verbal ornamentation; "the grandiosity of his prose"; "an excessive ornateness of language"
* palaver: loud and confused and empty talk; "mere rhetoric"
* study of the technique and rules for using language effectively (especially in public speaking)
What this means to me is that rhetoric is a way to convey meaning and expression, persuade others, raise awareness, and otherwise communicate through the use of symbols.
In the past, having never actually studied rhetoric, I have used it for a variety of purposes, including debating political issues, particularly around election time; incorporating it into my roleplaying game writings; and I have used it for the purpose of marketing the roleplaying games I have been involved with.
Currently, for those who haven't notices, the country I live in is in the final months of a presidential campaign. I have engaged in conversation with others on various messageboards where I have sought to gain information and opinions about the candidates. I have mainly been in information gathering mode up to this point, and I have only recently made a decision about which candidate best represents me and my interests. The goal of these debates has not been to inform other people's views, but rather, to try to come to a consensus among other similar-minded individuals of what the issues, strengths, and weaknesses are surrounding each candidate. Now that I have picked one, my rhetoric in these place will likely change to a stance where I will try to persuade others to vote with me.
The rhetoric in the professional writing I have done is a little harder to spot. Roleplaying game material tends to be escapist, so people don't appreciate it when it becomes too preachy. Nevertheless, there are a few jabs at modern political figures and organizations, though a person would have to read the material carefully to find the parallels, as well as the commentary I'm making. There is much to be said about understated allegory.
Finally, I have used rhetoric on this very blog to promote the book I released in June called Reign of Discordia. Unlike most of my other writings, this one was released through a much smaller publisher, so I tried to help that publisher as much as possible by promoting the book myself through my blog and messageboards. My goal was to be informative and make it sound appealing without being so assertive about it in high traffic areas as to make myself annoying in the eyes of the other people who visit these sites. Obviously, continuously bumping the same thread over and over on a messageboard and talking about it in every unrelated conversation would become irritating, while it is far more appropriate to pimp the book to a much higher degree in my own online space.
I feel that professional writers should possess an understanding of rhetoric because such knowledge helps them more effectively convey meaning and promote their message through their various works.
Foss, Karen, Sonya Foss, and Robert Trapp. "An Introduction to Rhetoric."Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric. 3rd ed. London: Waveland Press, 2003. 1-18.