Forensic Composition

It’s important to understand how effective composition works–or doesn’t.

A primary objective of this course if for you to recognize the components of successful composition and to understand how the fundamentals of oral communications relate to composition. Essentially, oral and written compositions are different modes of the same process.

Oral communications must impart meaning to an audience solely through audible or visual representation. Nonetheless, the same rules of logic and composition underlie the process, although the level of complexity of oral communications is necessarily limited by the audience’s memory: unlike written communication, there’s nothing for an audience to refer back to–all information must be kept in the audience’s mind.

For that reason, we can learn a lot about effective composition by analyzing good oral communications. An excellent example of effective oral communication is–when you find it–decent video editorials.

That can include commentary of many sorts: news, sports, the arts, politics and business. The sources are endless but the crucial element, as in our selection of written resources, is to find credible, mediated and accredited source.

Perhaps the strongest advantage oral communications, particularly in the media of television and video, is the ability to use visual images to explain events or to create meaning. Along with a speaker’s words, carefully selected images can intensify and clarify meaning.

From an opinion piece advocating restrictions on VFR flights.

(To read the essay and see how the picture, video and text work together, click here)

The blogs that you’ve created offer a unique opportunity to combine all of the modes of communications–oral, written, visual (both photos and video) and audible–into one rhetorical effort. Aiming towards a final project, we’ll begin to analyze these elements one at a time.

We’ll start with oral commentary.

Your assignment for this week is to choose a contemporary and controversial topic about which there exists both written and video commentary. The topic can be in the realms of news, entertainment, sports, politics, science or any other approved subject area.

Once you have chosen a topic, begin searching for commentary, both oral and written, that can be included in a blog entry. Preliminary sources can include all of the normal information sources but in order to find an oral presentation, you’ll need to search audio and video sources (e.x., YouTube, network sources).

For next week, find two opposing oral presentations (i.e., videos, max time: 5 minutes each). Embed each into your blog. Embed also a couple photos and/or graphics related to your subject matter.

Next week, we will do oral presentations: you will present your topic verbally, show your opposing commentaries (and the photos associated with them) and answer these questions about each commentary:

1. What is the authority of the commentary?

2. What type of argument is attempted (definition, evaluative, other)?

3. What evidence is cited? Is the evidence convincing? Valid? Verifiable?

4. Where do the two viewpoints conflict? How and why?

5. Which do you judge to be the most convincing? Why?


Watch these two opposing viewpoints and answer the above questions:

This blog essay will rely on everything except narrative text: video, photo, audio and minimal bullet points.

You should use all of the techniques we’ve developed so far for our objective and subjective essays to make your oral presentation as effective as possible.

For next week, April 27th:

1. Have your two commentaries embedded on your blog in a new blog entry entitled “Oral Composition.” By the end of class today, you should have your topic selected and preliminary work done collecting supporting material.

2. In class next week, present your two videos and the answers to the five questions.

Evaluative Arguments

An evaluative argument is another form of a definition argument. The difference is, the evaluative argument is based upon the writer’s choice of criteria. Read our text’s discussion of the evaluative argument on page 156.


Essentially, the writer is creating an argumentative structure that says “A” is “[qualitative judgment such as good, bad, helpful, necessary, etc]” due to certain criteria.

The criteria, or conditions are whatever it takes for you to prove your qualitative judgment. For example, in a movie review, the film will be judged on the criteria of quality, believability, cinematic achievement, and artistic value.

The writer–or really, the critic–will compare what the film has accomplished with various standards of evaluation such as the criteria above.

Read this movie review, then answer the following questions in the “comment” block:

1. What does the critic say are qualities that determine a good movie?

2. What does the critic say about the believability of the characters?

3. From what does comedy extend, according to the critic?

4. Why does the critic find Date Night to be funny? What is the key quality?

5. Why is or isn’t the critic’s review believable?

In the last unit, we worked on similes as a way to create meaning. This week, we work on the metaphor as yet another way to create a visual image for the text we’re writing.

The simplest way to understand the concept of metaphor is to think of it as a way to create a word picture by making an analogy. In other words, what is the experience like?

Play that experience out for readers with an example. Here are some sentences for you to test out the concept:

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car seemed___________________________.
  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.
  5. Nothing was the same, now that it was___________________________.
  6. The dice rolled out of the cup toward Veronicalike___________________________.
  7. A child in _________________ is like a _______________ in_____________________.
  8. _________________is like muscles stretched taut over bone.
  9. The fog plumed through gunshot holes in the car windows like ___________________________.
  10. She held her life in her own hands as if it were___________________________.
  11. Lacey poured coffee down her throat as if ___________________________.
  12. If I should wake before I die,___________________________.
  13. The security guard walks the lobby as if___________________________.
  14. The library books left in the rain like___________________________.
  15. Music in the hallway like___________________________.

If you can use these sentences to create a visual–you are using metaphor to impart meaning.

Try your hand at theses, then email them to me at:

1. The Objective Argument: Using the guidelines in your text (see page 156), develop your own objective Evaluation Argument. The first step is to make a claim, and you may use any of the examples on page 174.

Consider what criteria are relevant to the evaluation of your topic. Use at least two cited sources for your objective essay. Create a new blog entry titled “Evaluation Argument” and post it to your blog. First draft due Saturday, 17 April. Final draft, Monday 19 April.

2. The Subjective Essay:

Choose one of the writing prompts below the instructions. Use at least 3 metaphors in order to transfer a visual image to readers.

Standard essay requirements:

Length: 500 words minimum, 750 maximum.

At least two cited sources for the objective essay.

Writing Prompts for your Subjective Essay:

1. [Lightbulb Moment] Think of an experience when you realized that you suddenly understood an idea, a skill, or a concept you had been struggling with — it might be something related to a class that you took or a specific athletic skill you were trying to perfect. For instance, you might think about trying to understand how to identify iambic pentameter in a poem or how to complete a Taylor Series problem in your Calculus class.  Or you might consider trying to perfect your free throws and suddenly understanding how your follow-through was affecting your success.  Write a narrative that tells the story of your movement toward understanding. How did you finally come to understand?  What changed your perceptions and gave you a new understanding?  Your paper should help readers understand how you felt to struggle with the idea or skill and then to understand.

2. [Childhood Event] Choose a vivid time from your childhood — You might think of the first time that you rode a school bus, of a time when you went to the principal’s office, the first A you earned on a test or paper, earning money to buy something that you really wanted, and so on.  Narrate the events related to the childhood memory that you’ve chosen so that your readers will understand why the event was important and memorable.

3. The Good and the Bad]  Think about an event in your life that seemed bad but turned out to be good.  Maybe you got injured and while you were waiting for your broken leg to heal, you learned how to use a computer.  What makes the event change from bad to good may be something that you learned as a result, something that you did differently as a result, or something that happened that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.  Tell the story of the event that you experienced and help your readers understand how an event that seemed negative turned out to have valuable consequences.

4. [Being a Teacher]  Teaching someone else how to do something can be rewarding.  Think of a skill that you’ve taught someone else how to do. Perhaps you taught someone else how to swim, showed someone how to bake a souffle, or helped someone learn how to study more effectively.  Think about the events that made up the process of teaching the skill, and narrate the story for your readers.

5. [Changing Places]  Every place has things that change — sometimes as the result of economics, sometimes because different people are involved, and sometimes for no clear reason that you know about.  Think of a change to a place that you know well.  Perhaps the local grocery store you grew up with as Smith and Bros. Grocery was bought out by a regional chain like Food Lion or Winn Dixie.  Maybe the First National Bank of Smithburg suddenly becomes NationsBank.  Perhaps the change was more personal — an older sibling moves out of the house and your family changes the room to a guest room or an office.  Think of a specific change and narrate the events that occurred.  Readers should know the details of the change, and they should know how you feel about the changes that occurred.

6. [Personal Rituals]  Describe a personal ritual that you, your friends, or your family have.  Think about the personal steps that you always go through when you prepare for an exam.  Do you sit at a desk, spread books and notes across your bed, or use the kitchen table?  Do you have to have something to drink…soda, water, jolt?  There are numerous things that we do for which we create our own personal rituals.  Choose one event — studying for a test, writing a paper, dressing and warming up before a game, or preparing and having a special family meal.  Narrate the events that take place when you complete your ritual so that your readers understand the steps that the ritual includes and why you complete them.

7. [Standing Up]  Choose a time when you did something that took a lot of nerve, a time when you didn’t follow the crowd or a time when you stood up for your beliefs.  Perhaps your friends were urging you to do something that you were uncomfortable with and you chose not to cave into peer pressure.  Maybe you took a stance on a political issue that was important in your community, or you might have  Whatever you choose, think about the details of the event and write a story that tells about what happened. Your narrative should show your readers why you decided to make a stand or try something that took nerve, give specifics on the events, and share how you felt after the event.


You can do citations in-text by putting your source in a hyperlink.

First, when in the edit mode for your blog, highlight the reference that requires citation and click the “link” icon.

Second, paste in your link in the window with an already highlighted “http://” prefix.

Third,  click on the “Target” drop-down box and select “open target in a new window.” This will keep readers from being moved from your blog address.

Finally, click “Insert.” You will need to add your source to the “Works Cited” list after your essay, but this hyperlink method will be acceptable for an in-text reference.


Guest Exercises:

Click here for an in-class exercise in composition.

Causal Arguments: Examining the Chain

Cause and effect are examined in what Faigley and Selzer formulate as “Causal Arguments:” (page 137)

Cause “A” leads to Cause “B” to Cause “C” and ultimately, to a certain Effect.

But the formula works in both directions–a reader (or a writer) can take an effect and work backwards, sorting out the causes and examining them with an eye toward the effect, asking the question, “is this really the cause?”

Read this essay from the April 1, 2010 Chicago Tribune, then answer the following questions (use the Leave a Reply block):

1. What “effect” are we trying to find the cause of?

2. What “causes” does the author focus on?

3. What visualizations does the author create in your mind?

4. Where does the author attempt to break the link in the chain of causes?

5. What parallel argument does the author use?

Note: you may want to write your answers in MS-Word, then paste them into the “Leave a reply” block and click “Submit Comment” when you’re finished.

1. Subjective essay: write your own epitaph (look it up), using as much simile and metaphor as possible. Use these literary devices to conjure both an image (physical senses) and a feeling (emotional and intellectual perception) in readers. See the section below “Developing Powerful Prose with Similes.”

2. Objective essay: using any of the 5 prompts under “Examples” on page 153 (“Steps to Writing a Causal Argument”), write a causal essay.

Essay Specifications:

1. Create EACH essay as a new blog entry in YOUR blog.

2. All sources must be properly cited at the end of the essay.

3. The objective essay must have at least 2 sources.

4. Essay length: not less than 2 pages (500 words on your blog word count) but no larger than 800 words.

5. First draft is due by midnight Thursday, April 8th. Final draft will be graded on April 12th.

Developing Powerful Prose with Similes:

One of the most colorful descriptive devices that can be useful in both subjective and objective essays is the simile.

An easy way to create similes is to collect a list of concrete objects (see below) juxtaposed with abstract things. Then, create a relationship between them. For example, #1 and #6:

Creating Similes

Abstract Concept            Concrete Object

1. Life 1. Tree
2. Anger 2. Sunset
3. Happiness 3. Race horse
4. Friendship 4. Gold mine
5. Justice 5. Puppy
6. Beauty 6. Mailbox
7. Jealousy 7. Water
8. Honesty 8. Sand
9. Faith 9. Fire
10. Courage 10. Fresh air

If I were trying to say something about life–say the surprises in it–I might pair them up like this:

“Life is like a mailbox–there’s something new in it every day.”

That’s a positive connection. A negative connection might be:

“Life is just one big mailbox–full of bills and obligation that will overflow if you don’t keep up daily.”

Now you try. Pick any five concrete objects and match them up one by one with the abstract ideas. If you can’t decide which to match up, pick the first five with the last five. Then decide if you want to express positive, negative or neutral relationships–and go for it.

For your epitaph:

Decide on the abstract descriptors that you feel describe you (e.g., faithful, funny). Then think of concrete nouns that have those characteristics (e.g., “faithful as the the sunrise;” “funny as a Volkswagen filled with clowns”).

Use a table (copy and paste or just use two lists) to create five potential relationships. Don’t be afraid to mix and match!

1. 1.
2. 2.
3. 3.
4. 4.
5. 5.

You probably won’t need all of the similes in one essay–but you might. Also, a simile is a great device to introduce a topic in a subjective paper as well.

Write your five similes and email them to: