The Style of Good Rhetoric

Aristotle classified five “canons” of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. Our own course of Biblical Worldview Rhetoric is also divided in the same manner.

Style arrives midway through our course with good reason. Invention–the method of discovering what to write about and how to prove our point, and Arrangement–deciding how to argue and in what order it will happen, provide us with a strong foundation. We might call it the “bones” of an argument.

Once we have 1) arrived at our arguments and 2) arranged them effectively, then we must 3) skillfully and artfully weave our words together in a pleasing, clear, compelling manner. Consider this the clothing that covers the flesh and bones of your argument.

Skillful writing:

  • Uses proper grammar.
  • Chooses the right word for the right meaning. Vague writing will inevitably confuse the audience.
  • Finds compelling ways to paint a word picture in the mind of the audience. One homeschool writing curriculum calls it “dressing up” your writing.
  • Is not redundant: it does not repeat itself retelling in a repetitious manner. (Got it?)

Aristotle uses a bit of sarcasm when discussing what seems to be common sense: if you want to persuade, do not be ambiguous “unless, indeed, you definitely desire to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something” (Rhetoric Book 3). Your audience might be momentarily charmed by clever words, but they can detect specious reasoning and a thin façade of argumentation.

Think about your favorite writers. Why do you love to read what they write? They probably weave together a great story that keeps you engaged, make characters come to life, hold you in suspense, make you love the protagonist and hate his enemy. I agree with all of that, and I’ll add another quality, because I love words: the best authors paint an engaging word picture that might make me pause and admire how that was done.

I just finished reading another book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place. Seriously, go pick up the first book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie,  and tell me what you think. Bradley goes into the mind of a genius 11-year-old girl, Flavia (rhymes with “gravy-a”, and she insists that you pronounce it correctly), in post-World War 2 Britain. She is funny, terribly clever, dreams of concocting poisons in the chemistry lab on her estate, and solves crimes.

Here are some brilliant uses of the language that continue to endear Flavia to me:

  • “I could see at a glance that sunlight was not welcome here.” Bradley could have said simply, “This was a gloomy room.” No, he wanted to use this room to create a setting for his reader.
  • “I raised an eyebrow at Dogger, who had told me that the word [‘momentarily’] meant ‘briefly’ rather than ‘soon,’ and was best avoided if one didn’t want to be mistaken for an American. But Dogger was wearing his unreadable poker face, and I was left to feel superior all by myself.” Flavia is smart and knows it. And she’s a bit disdainful about Americans. But notice how Bradley’s words don’t insult Americans outright; they are a soft nudge, tongue-in-cheek. Besides, Bradley himself is Canadian, so he doesn’t get it right every time either.
  • “When I woke up, the shadows of late afternoon had subtly rearranged my room.” Could Bradley have just said “When I awoke, I noticed that the sun was going down”? Sure, but his choice is much more evocative.
  • “The conversation was becoming like one of those absurd French dramas in which the characters stand about swapping nonsense dialogue while the audience pretend they know what’s going on.” I am certain Bradley meant Waiting for Godot. The icy, vague shadow of a nightmare rises up, along with memories of a sadistic professor who tried to convince us that it was a brilliant work of art. Bradley transported me back to a decade of frustrated reading (that was probably actually only a week long, but I can never get that time back), trying to discern any deep meaning in that play. It’s not worth your time, folks.

The third Canon of Rhetoric, Style, puts the icing on the cake, the jewels on the crown, the gold filigree on the tapestry… You see what I mean. And the more you pay attention to excellent writing, the more ways you will arrive at beautiful, compelling Style to prove your point and convince your audience.

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Filed under Education, Grammar, Literature, Rhetoric, Uncategorized

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