Saturday, March 15, 2014

Word Power

The Art of Rhetoric

Why don't they teach this in schools? As I was doing research for my novels, I stumbled across the subject of rhetoric: templates of speech that create resonant power and drama. I feel I've found a missing piece of myself! Turns out, the most memorable authors throughout history, the most memorable speakers are most likely using the techniques of rhetoric. It's a skill they either pick up by reading other books steeped with these patterns, or study it directly as was done in Ancient Greece and through the nineteenth century.

From Shakespeare to Dickens to Melville to Emerson and Lincoln (just to name a few), all of these authors have used rhetorical devices to communicate their ideas. And perhaps, that has made all the difference? Having a compelling idea is one thing, but having the tools to communicate that idea in a compelling way commands attention and adds undeniable style. There are these two essential factors to make something useful happen: inspiration + capability. Rhetoric provides the capability to support inspiration.
(I don't get anything for the link;
it's just for reference)

I've read several books on rhetoric by now, but the best so far has been:

Classical English Rhetoric
by Ward Farnsworth

I checked it out of the library and took so many notes that I was basically transcribing the book, so I finally just decided to buy it outright. ;p  

Aristotle is the classic source for rhetorical techniques and it looks like there are several free options to download his work on I haven't looked through them yet for the best one, but I'll update the link when there's one in particular that I end up finding most valuable.  I liked Farnsworth's book because he includes many literary examples from authors frequently studied in school, and I find his concise organization of eighteen particular rhetorical devices (with many variations) to be incredibly helpful.

So often in students are almost made to revere literary 'geniuses' of the past, to feel inferior themselves, when in fact, these authors and speech writers have become skilled in basic rhetorical patterns of speech. Not to take anything away from them, but study rhetoric for yourself so you can reap the benefits too; power to the people!

Breaking the Rules
The one comment I've received so far on my writing from professional publishers is that I 'need more sentence fragments'.  Well, as a college grad, this remark initially made me scratch my head. But, my writing was grammatically correct; but no snarky people could nitpick anything; but ... but ...  Well, I now have the sense of what that comment implied. Rhetorical devices are not something you would use to get an 'A+' in grammar school. In fact, using rhetoric would probably get you points docked off a 'perfect' sentence structure. Grammar school is one thing, true life is another; what's more important, perfect sentences, or powerful sentences?

The key with knowing rhetoric, with infusing yourself with the underlying patterns, is that you know inherently come to know when to 'break the rules' to create deliberate power and drama. Rhetoric is about learning to trust your ear, not just your mind. It's motivation to free yourself from rigid grammatical bonds. It's about staying true to the underlying purpose of the sentence, and knowing why you organized your sentence in that particular way. It's not about 'breaking the rules', but deliberately communicating more effectively. Yeah!

Mental Jujutsu
Even if you don't have aspirations to be a writer, at least take a look at these rhetorical devices since countless politicians (or their speech writers) employ these techniques. If nothing else, use it to immunize yourself from the emotional pull evoked by these rhetorical patterns; it's mental jujutsu! Politicians can use it to incite people to 'join the cause', to pull the population this way or that. At by studying rhetoric yourself, you can separate the technique from the actual idea itself to gain better perspective.

I was so relived to discover the art of rhetoric for myself. It really does imbue prose with a kind of poetry. I have a long way to go to decondition myself from rigid grammatical dogma and instead absorb these underlying rhetorical patterns into my very bones. I'm excited to do it though because I can see it's the path to true creative freedom. Hope exploring rhetoric helps you too!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

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