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Writers Talk About Writing

Pump Up The Rhetoric

When last we sunk premolars into chewy bagel, we talked about the "controlling idea" in composition with playwright and creative exec Clark Morgan. In this installment of our ongoing conversation about writing, we look at what happens once you nail your main theme. In a word, rhetoric. Yes, old-fashioned rhetoric. Let Clark explain:

VT: Okay, I've got my controlling idea. I've written for a while, I've generated a bunch of things I want to say. Now what?

Clark: Now you're looking at it thinking, what have I wrought? How do I make sense of this?

VT: Yes, how? It seems like you could arrange it any number of different ways. How do you know what's the right way to organize?

Clark: When we talk about organizing something for writing, I think of two parts. The first is how you might order the paragraphs within the piece, the sentences within the paragraph, the words within the sentence, and so on. Then there's a larger concern: How do you structure your ideas?

VT: Right, you can't just blurt out ideas in the order they come out of your mind. How do you make them comprehensible to a reader?

Clark: Or to yourself, for that matter. And after it's comprehensible, how do you make it compelling? How do you make it persuasive? This is actually a very old subject. The ancients called it rhetoric.

VT: You say "rhetoric" I think, hot air. I think somebody's spiel.

Clark: Well, the word has a negative flavor these days. But that's just recent. Rhetoric really is the study of using language effectively. How to be persuasive in writing and speaking. How to be articulate. For the ancients it was one of the most important "arts" of a classical education. And rhetoric has been studied for most of Western history by the great thinkers and writers. Part of the result is called "rhetorical modes."

VT: What are they?

Clark: Ways of giving your thoughts a form. A clear, compelling form.

VT: What are you talking about?

Clark: Let's say I've mixed up a bunch of plaster of Paris. What is it? It's nothing, just white ooze. If I show it to you, you say...

VT: I say so what, why are you showing me that?

Clark: Exactly. But if I have mold or a form, I can pour the plaster of Paris into it and harden it and suddenly I have a bust of Beethoven. Your first draft is like the plaster of Paris, formless indistinguishable ooze. Rhetorical modes are the molds you pour it into.

VT: Okay. What are these rhetorical modes like?

Clark: Well, there are a few. You might remember them from you freshman composition class. Some of the big ones are:

  • Narration
  • Analysis
  • Comparison and Contrast
  • Description
  • Process
  • Definition

VT: They sound kind of boring.

Clark: True. But they're just molds. Molds aren't supposed to be exciting. The excitement is in watching your ideas take shape within those molds.

VT: Alright. So you pick a rhetorical mode and try to pour your first draft into that?

Clark: Sort of. When I was an undergraduate, we wrote a whole essay in a single rhetorical form as an exercise. But in the real world, you're usually using several rhetorical modes in any one piece of writing. It's really, really useful to be aware of them and know how to use them.

VT: Alright. How do they work? Break it down.

Clark: Let's go back to my imaginary essay about why I loathe collapsible umbrellas, that we spoke about in an earlier conversation. I have lots I want to say on the subject. How do I arrange them? An obvious choice would be the "comparison and contrast" rhetorical mode. I'd contrast a collapsible umbrella with a standard umbrella. For example, a good standard umbrella keeps you dry down to the knee. A collapsible umbrella keeps you dry to about the third button of your shirt. A standard umbrella works in the wind, (which, I've noticed, often accompanies rain). A collapsible umbrella in the wind becomes either a sodden kite, or a piece of mangled garbage. And so on. Now, what's very interesting: once I start down its path, the rhetorical mode helps me think of brand new ideas I hadn't thought of before. What other ways are these umbrellas dissimilar? Or are they alike in some way that might help prove my main idea: that collapsible umbrellas are inferior?

VT: Okay. And then at some point you'd switch to another rhetorical mode?

Clark: Yes, probably several. For example it might be fun to use definition. What is an umbrella? It might seem obvious, but maybe it isn't. In fact, it might not be a bad idea to start my essay with a definition of what an umbrella is. And then show how a collapsible umbrella fails to meet most of the criteria. And I might have a paragraph or two where I describe the experience of using a collapsible umbrella: how cheap it feels in your hand, the cold trickle of rainwater running down your neck. I might describe how its shallow curve and dainty handle make you look like a circus clown. And so on. Looking at it through these various molds helps me crystallize my own distaste for the collapsible umbrella, point by point.

VT: So it's helping you generate new ideas and organize your thinking.

Clark: Exactly. Rhetorical modes get your brain to think along certain lines. Simultaneously they help you organize those thoughts. And they're also helping the reader because there's a clear order that's easy to follow. The best part is, they make your ideas more compelling. When ideas have a strong structure, they become more forceful, they have a sense of logic, inevitability even. When you read a really good piece of writing, it seems so clear. You think about the ideas, the word pictures being created. Now contrast that with a poorly written email or business letter where you can't understand what someone's trying to say.

VT: So you could apply these rhetorical modes to business writing too? An email?

Clark: Absolutely. Rhetoric forces you to look at things more precisely. And that's what good writing is, after all. It's more precise. Whether you're writing an essay, a business email, or a speech -- or whatever -- rhetorical modes force you to focus on what you actually know, what you actually have to say. So you can use rhetorical modes in all forms of business communication.

VT: How would description work for business writing? Because in business don't you usually want to get right to the point? Nobody wants to read a description of the conference room, even if it?s really good. They just want to know the upshot of the meeting, right?

Clark: Right. Remember that rhetoric is a means for organizing your writing, not the purpose of the writing. Choose the mode or modes that best suits your purpose.

VT: For example?

Clark: Well let's take description, since you brought it up. Let's say you were at a trade show and happened to see an advanced proto-type of a competitor's product, pimple cream, let's say. You couldn't really take a picture but you got to see it and handle it. Now you want to write a memo about it. Obviously description is the rhetorical mode for you. What did it look like? How big was the jar? How heavy? What color was the packaging? What color was the pimple cream? Describe its consistency, its aroma, and so on. The purpose of your writing is to give your readers all the info you have about the competitions pimple cream. So the mode you choose is description. Now, a common mistake would be to start in with narrative. "I arrived at the convention center about an hour late because our cab got caught in heavy traffic. There were already a lot of people crowding our competitors booth, so it was difficult for me to see all their new products. I came back about two hours later, the booth was still crowded, so I decided to strike up a conversation with one of the presenters, and see what she could tell me blah blah blah." That's narration.

VT: Right. It's irrelevant. Because you're talking about the sequence of events, when people want to know about the product.

Clark: That's exactly right. Think about who you're writing for and why. What do you want them to do? What's the result you want?

VT: And then pick the rhetorical modes that will help you get that result.

Clark: Now you're thinking like the ancients...

[For more information on rhetoric and rhetorical modes check out American Rhetoric, The Forest of Rhetoric and A Glossary of Rhetorical Terms and Examples.]

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 26th 2007, 12:13 PM
Comment by: V D.
I really like what Clark has to say. Let's hear more from him. I'd also like to know if what I know as "theme" is interchangeable with "controlling idea".

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