17 Rhetorical Modes for Paragraphs & Essays

Questions to Ponder

Before you read this chapter, discuss with partners:

  1. What are rhetorical modes (also called “patterns of organization” and “methods of development”)? Can you list some examples?
  2. Why are rhetorical modes important in writing? Jot down your ideas.


purple flowers in pattern
Purple flowers” by Hanne Hoogendam from Unsplash is in the Public Domain

Now read the graphic below. Can you add to the list of rhetorical modes that you created with your partners?

Flow Chart. Central idea: Choosing Paragraph Patterns. Radiating from top right: Narration - introduction, to tell a story that makes a point, to give background on people or event, to show sequence of events. Process - to show steps of action, to explain how to do something. Example/Illustration - to clarify a point or concept, to give a picture or specific instance, to make the abstract real. Analogy - to compare scenarios, to compare to a settled outcome, to compare one event to another very different one. Definition - to clarify meaning, to set foundation of argument, to give background. Comparison/contrast - to draw distinction between items, to find common ground. Description - to give details, to create a picture. Cause/effect - to lead from one item to another, to argue logic of evidence of action. Classification/Division - to put items in categories, to clarify comparison of items in a category, to divide items by characteristics.
Image of “Choosing Paragraph Patterns.”  Authored by: GrinnPidgeon. Located at: https://flic.kr/p/a9oiLS and reproduced in Lumen’s Englsih Composition I. License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

Rhetorical Modes

Rhetorical modes are also called patterns of organization or methods of development; they are the ways that authors and speakers organize their ideas to communicate effectively. The rhetorical modes that are covered here are best used as ways to look at what’s already happening in your draft and to consider how you might emphasize or expand on any existing patterns. You might already be familiar with some of these patterns because instructors will sometimes assign them as the purpose for writing an essay. For example, you might have been asked to write a cause and effect essay or a comparison and contrast essay.

Patterns of organization or methods of developing content usually happen naturally as a consequence of the way the writer engages with and organizes information while writing. That is to say, most writers don’t sit down and say, “I think I’ll write a cause and effect essay today.”  Instead, a writer might be more likely to be interested in a topic, say, the state of drinking water in the local community, and as the writer begins to explore the topic, certain cause and effect relationships between environmental pollutants and the community water supply may begin to emerge. And in fact, many times, one essay may incorporate two or more rhetorical modes, as the author makes an argument for their point of view.


Activity A ~ Brainstorming Rhetorical Modes

Pause here to brainstorm ideas with your partner. Using the chart above (“Choosing Paragraph Patterns“), discuss some of the topics below. Which mode(s) might you use in an essay about these topics? Would you need to explore more than one rhetorical mode for each topic?

  1. Gender roles
  2. Race in America
  3. The value of art in society
  4. Travel as part of a well-rounded education
  5. Drugs and alcohol
  6. Advice to new parents
  7. Advice to teachers
  8. The value of making mistakes
  9. How you’d spend a million dollars
  10. What a tough day at work taught you about yourself or others
  11. My family history
  12. Your idea: ___________

Keep reading to consider some of the ways that these strategies can help you as you revise a draft.


Do you see a potential cause-and-effect relationship developing in your draft?  The cause/effect pattern may be used to identify one or more causes followed by one or more effects or results. Or you may reverse this sequence and describe effects first and then the cause or causes. For example, the causes of water pollution might be followed by its effects on both humans and animals. Use the signal words causeeffect, and result, to cue the reader about your about the relationships that you’re establishing.

Here’s an example article from The New York Times, “Rough Times Take Bloom Off a New Year’s Rite, the Rose Parade,” that explores the cause and effect relationship (from 2011) between Pasadena’s budgetary challenges and the ability of their Rose Parade floats to deck themselves out in full bloom.


At some point does your essay explore a problem or suggest a solution? The problem/solution pattern is commonly used in identifying something that’s wrong and in contemplating what might be done to remedy the situation. For example, the problem of water pollution could be described, followed by ideas of new ways to solve the problem. There are probably more ways to organize a problem/solution approach, but here are three possibilities:

  • Describe the problem, followed by the solution
  • Propose the solution first and then describe the problems that motivated it
  • Explain a problem, followed by several solutions, and select one solution as the best

Emphasize the words problem and solution to signal these sections of your paper for your reader.

Here’s an example article from The New York Times, “Monks Embrace Web to Reach Recruits,” that highlights an unexpected approach by a group of Benedictine monks in Rhode Island; they’ve turned to social media to grow their dwindling membership.


Are you trying to define something? Do you need your readers to understand what something is and what it is not? The compare-and-contrast method of development is particularly useful in extending a definition, or anywhere you need to show how a subject is like or unlike another subject. For example, the statement is often made that drug abuse is a medical problem instead of a criminal justice issue. An author might attempt to prove this point by comparing drug addiction to AIDS, cancer, or heart disease to redefine the term “addiction” as a medical problem. A statement in opposition to this idea could just as easily establish contrast by explaining all the ways that addiction is different from what we traditionally understand as an illness. In seeking to establish comparison or contrast in your writing, some words or terms that might be useful are by contrastin comparisonwhilesome, and others.

Here’s an example article from The New York TimesWho Wants to Shop in a Big Box Store, Anyway?” The author explores some interesting differences between the average American and average Indian consumer to contemplate the potential success of big box stores in India and also to contemplate why these giant big box corporations, like Walmart or Target, might have to rethink their business model.


yellow umbrella on surface of water at daytime
Umbrella by Saffu on Unsplash

These three methods of development—cause/effect, problem/solution, and compare/contrast—are just a few ways to organize and develop ideas and content in your essays. It’s important to note that they should not be a starting point for writers who want to write something authentic, to discuss something that they care deeply about. Instead, they can be a great way to help you look for what’s already happening with your topic or in a draft, to help you to write more, or to help you reorganize some parts of an essay that seem to lack connection or feel disjointed.

Sometimes writers incorporate a variety of modes in any one essay. For example, under the umbrella of an argument essay, and author might choose to write 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 give you greater flexibility and effectiveness in communicating with your audience and expressing ideas.

In addition to cause/effect, problem/solution, and compare/contrast, there are many other types of rhetorical modes:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Assignment prompts for college essays may require a specific rhetorical mode, or you may be able to choose the best mode(s) to express your ideas clearly. Either way, be sure to ask your instructor if you are not sure which rhetorical mode(s) to use.


Key Takeaways

Why are rhetorical modes important?

  1. As readers, understanding an author’s rhetorical mode helps us to understand the text, and to read and think critically.
  2. Knowing the rhetorical mode helps us to identify the author’s main ideas, which helps us to summarize the author’s work.
  3. As writers, we use rhetorical modes to make our writing clearer; they help us signal our topic and direction to our readers.
  4. Rhetorical modes also help us to develop support and keep our readers interested.


Activity B ~ Identifying Rhetorical Modes

  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 article. (Use the lists above to help.) Analyze the different choices the writer has made about language and organization to express a point of view. Notice how the author may combine rhetorical modes (for example, a problem-solution article that uses cause-and-effect organization in some paragraphs, or a definition pattern that uses narrative or compare and contrast paragraphs to develop similarities or differences).
  2. Select, read, and annotate a sample student essay in a specific style as provided in Readings: Examples of Essays” from Saylor Academy. 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 small groups and summarize your findings to report to the rest of the class.


Is this section:
…too easy, or you would like more information? Read “Rhetorical Modes” from Lumen’s English Composition course.
…too general? Scroll through Thought Co.’s pages on writing particular types of essays.

If you want to learn more about three common rhetorical modes, read what the New York Times has to say in their learning blog article, “Compare-Contrast, Cause-Effect, Problem Solution: Common ‘Text Types’ in The Times.”

Note: links open in new tabs.


This chapter was modified from the following Open Educational Resources:

“Patterns of Organization and Methods of Development” from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Introduction” from English Composition by Karyl Garland, Ann Inoshita, Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma, Kate Sims, and Tasha Williams, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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Chapter 10: The Rhetorical Modes” and “Chapter 15: Readings: Examples of Essays,” from  Writing for Success from Saylor Academy, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0.




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ENGLISH 087: Academic Advanced Writing Copyright © 2020 by Nancy Hutchison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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