The Scientific Paper and Modes of Discourse

One strategy composition teachers have used since the earliest days of the art is to ask students to decide upon a mode of discourse. Classical rhetoricians had three: deliberative, forensic, and epideictic. In modern parlance, if you’re writing about why or how something should be done, it’s deliberative. If you’re attempting to determine whether or how an event occurred, it’s forensic. And if you are upholding or decrying a behavior, it is epideictic.

So for example in a listing petition, a government biologist might assess the status of a species, which would include a review of past actions to determine whether a species has been threatened endangered. That would be a forensic analysis. The accompanying critical habitat designation, if warranted, would be deliberative. Finally, a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act would be considered epideictic.

But of course writing is more complicated than these three categories would suggest. These are specific to the art of persuasion, with which early rhetoricians were most concerned. But what about a procedures manual? Yes, in a certain sense it’s a deliberative piece in that the procedures tell you what to do under a certain set of future circumstances, but it’s not exactly persuasive writing. And what do you do with definitions – where do they fall in the deliberative, forensic, epideictic paradigm?

So in the 19th century, a composition theorist by the name of Alexander Bain revised the modes of discourse concept for a “contemporary audience” expanding the modes to include narration, description, exposition, and argument. Based on his work as I was taught it at The Catholic University of America and through textbooks, workshops, and experience, I now teach all of the following as modes of discourse:

  • Narration
  • Description
  • Process
  • Summary
  • Definition
  • Comparison / Contrast
  • Authority
  • Example / Analogy
  • Cause / Effect

I am just finishing a class called 8 Weeks to Writing with Clarity. And I am now teaching Scientific Writing for Publication, which has me thinking: (how) do these modes of discourse translate to the scientific paper?

A scientific paper has the following sections:

  • Title
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Acknowledgments
  • Literature Cited

Some of these are fairly obvious. Others I think require discussion and perhaps even some debate. For example, I think we can agree that the Title should be summary and the methods should be process. But what about the Introduction – is it be summary, or should it be narrative?

Literature Cited isn’t exactly writing at all; it’s bibliographic exercise. But Results – is that process, or is it description? And the Discussion section: is it cause and effect? Is it comparison/contrast? Is it argument by authority? Are there circumstances under which it could be deliberative?

Finally, why does it matter? Well you see, I think it’s very difficult for writers to work effectively unless they know the mode in which they are writing. We have all read processes that are written in a fashion perhaps too wry, or narratives that are dry as dust.

If we’re writing a cause and effect argument, it helps to proceed from cause to effect, or work backwards from effect to cause. It is not useful to jumble the two together. But without knowing that’s the mode in which we’re writing, the author has no recourse.

So let’s have a discussion. Weigh in. Give us your opinion. What did you use in your most recent article? What have you seen? And what do you think is appropriate? Leave your comments here. Subscribe to my blog. And follow me on Twitter, @CorpWritingPro.

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