Have we forgotten Rhetoric? (Not a rhetorical question..)


I recently encountered a conversation asking if there is such a thing as an objective measurement of good writing. I’m all about subjectivity, writing – entertainment – self expression –  should –  must –  be about one person reaching out and saying something to another. I believe that to write from your own passion will produce something of far greater worth than to simply write from some sense of ‘this is how it should be’, to write from a place of formula is to border far too close to plagiarism. It might pass the legal test but for my money its lazier than its criminal neighbour.

But to be so arrogant as to presume that you can simply ignore the many greats who ploughed the road before you and ignore everything they might teach you? To take nothing from the giants? I’m sure even Newton, at least in his most private moments, knew he stood taller for those who had gone before.

Beyond the notion of even a standard that we have agreed upon as the current desired form, which you might call simply a fad or style of its time, we recognise in virtually every field that there are techniques, skills that, if your wish is to be recognised as a competent practitioner, must be mastered.

Take figure skating vs the Ice Capades, a show I’ve never sadly never seen, but so wish I had..

You may like the guy who pratfalls and sings loudly out of key as he skates, or wears the really tight pants.. you might like the way he swings his hips and not notice that he does a two and a half turn instead of three. We don’t seem to need the level of precision they demand in competition, but most of these skaters have paid their dues, they’re former competitors, champions, people who have studied the art for decades, all so they can put on leiderhosen and make you giggle and gasp. Do you want to pay to watch this instead?

The closer to proficient, the higher the basic standard in play, the question becomes is it something that only someone equally skilled, or versed in the skill, if not master of it, can recognise? And when we are talking about something as everyday, as everyman, as writing, how does that affect our judgement?

Honestly I’m not sure I can answer that. I have never studied writing in a formal sense beyond the English classes we all had in school. And no one taught me how to write, they taught me to think about what I read. However, surely those of us wishing to become writers should be, if not master of, at least aware of the relevant skills in play?

Finding myself needing to look something up one long boring afternoon I stumbled across this site. A glossary of literary terms. Awash with – anastrophe, alliteration, anadiplosis, parallelism, hyperbaton – absurd, unpronounceable words, I perused out of curiosity and realised most I was more than familiar with, I simply hadn’t realised there was a name for those tricks. Hadn’t really thought of them beyond yet another way to put a sentence together.

Some might argue pretty writing is not effective writing. That prose, especially in the long form is about creating interest through substance, holding the audiences attention for such a period of time as a novel might demand, means conveying information in a simple manner that allows it to be taken in quickly and easily without slowing the readers flow or forcing them out of the story. And I personally wouldn’t be too quick to disagree. I’d also agree that overly quirky prose can very quickly grate on the nerves. The skater with his technically perfect three turns and neat landing, isn’t going to fare better than the guy with his tight pants and wayward feet if he can’t hold your attention.

Aristotle said that rhetoric was.. ‘the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion’

And I wonder, what is a story, a novel but an act of persuasion.? It asks you to invest in a world that doesn’t exist, care about characters a stranger made up, not even someone they can see and hear, as in a film, but simply words describing this imaginary person.

Nothing like this man had ever ben seen in Privet Drive. He was tall, thin and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. he was wering long robes, a pruple cloak which swept te ground and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles and his nose was very long and crooked, as thought it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.

Behind the exhaustive list of particular configurations are broader techniques that I would struggle to find an argument against mastering. Tone, metaphor, cadence, contrast, repetition. This last is so powerful, I would wager a good half of the literary devices named utilise it in some way yet its one of the most common ‘don’t’s’ you’ll encounter on the internet. Across blogs, critique sites, magazine articles, it pops up time and time again as a common sin of poor writing, highlighting repetitive instances of ‘that’ or ‘the’ .. in one bewildering case. And absolutely repeating the wrong words in the wrong places can drag, but this is something we are taught in primary school. Repetition is so much more than simply repeated words, it’s about phrases, form,  sounds, images. If we haven’t graduated beyond that before we’re let loose on social media ought we to be even attempting to write a novel? It certainly suggests that something is moving backwards – is it writing or its teachers?

In the continually growing and increasingly adult YA paranormal genre, I have encountered the grand, the gothic, the chilling and horrific – at least I am presuming from the ‘soulmates across time, bound in blood, doomed to eternal hell‘ taglines and the moody pouts on the cover that’s what I am encountering, but since they are all delivered in the typical teen whine – transported I am not. Not even persuaded out of my tartan slippers..


There are frequent arguments against, or for, the use of what are commonly termed fifty dollar words, or five dollar words, or anything that apparently is more than a nickel (which I think is about ten pence). But the argument is always not that you know a big word, nor is it that you must demonstrate, like a figure skater, than you can master any given skill recognised within literature, its that you know the right tool for the job at hand. The right word. The right configuration, the best means to persuade your reader out of their typical teen world and tartan slippers, into something a bit more extraordinary.

I am a frequent advocate for the storyteller to be dominant over the wordsmith, time and time again its a matter of what you say that wins over how you say it, or so it seems. But often when you boil it right down, the what doesn’t change that much. At least in the bigger picture sense. Its the how in the sense of the details given, the tiny decisions, sentence by sentence, scene by scene, that every writer has to make to bring their vision – their WHAT – to life that differentiates them. This is the art of storytelling. And it has skills that need to be mastered too and many of them are simply the art of rhetoric, of persuading your reader that they need to read one more page..



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