Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Saturday School: Lesson #3 – Elements of Contingency


Lesson #3 – Elements of Contingency

  1. Complete the reading assignment
  2. Complete the writing exercise
  3. Post your assignment in the comments
  4. Share the lesson with a friend


Last week we learned good writing doesn’t just tell the facts, it makes an assertion. In other words, all good writing has a compelling message–it argues a point. We further discovered the three parts of rhetoric that pertain to writing: invention, organization, and style.

  • Invention is the message you plan to argue.
  • Organization is the order in which you plan to argue your message.
  • Style is how you plan to argue your message.

This week, I want to introduce you to four elements of contingency: genre, subject, audience, purpose. 1 These four elements help the writer recognize the variables present in each circumstance so he or she can choose the best approach for making an argument. To say this another way, because the circumstances are different in every situation, good writers know which tools in the tool box to use. For example, a carpenter knows there is a tool for driving a nail, and he is not going to use the same tool to cut a board. In the same way, a good writer is going to know the differences involved in a personal letter as opposed to a persuasive essay.

  • The genre is the kind of writing (personal letter, persuasive essay, etc.) one is doing. Different genres require different resources.
  • The subject is the particular discipline in which one is writing (history, science, humanities, business, etc.). Different subjects require different appeals.
  • The audience is the person or persons to whom the compelling message is directed. Different audiences require different approaches.
  • The purpose is the reason for the compelling message. Different purposes also require different appeals.

As you can see, there are numerous considerations that need to be made before a writer even puts his pen to the page. We will not develop these elements yet. It is important, however, that you are familiar with them.

Note: In these lessons, we will be focusing on the persuasive essay to start. This is because of what we have learned about writing: if it’s good, it will have a compelling message. Later, we will discuss how that applies to fiction, for example. For now, we want to conceptualize the fundamentals of the craft, because we will utilize these tools in all of our writing projects.

Writing Exercise

Pick a genre, a subject, an audience, and a purpose. Write these down in the form of a sentence. For example: I am writing a persuasive essay about the Homeric epics for high school students so they will want to read these classics.

Do you want to touch readers with your words, learn the craft of writing, or simply improve your writing skills from a classical perspective? Join me each week for Saturday (Writing) School. Every Saturday I’ll send a lesson to your inbox you can complete in an hour, or you can work on it at your leisure. It’s free!


1Crider, Scott F. The Office of Assertion: An Art of Rhetoric for the Academic Essay. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005.

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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2 Replies

  1. Sherwood MacRae

    This is excellent material, Scott. Thank you!

    1. Thank you. I hope it’s a help.