Introduction to Rhetorical Modes

Introduction to Rhetorical Modes

The judicious use of rhetorical modes in oral and written communication can strategically strengthen the message being delivered.

Learning Objectives

Explain the meaning of “rhetoric” as it relates to written communication strategies.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The term ” rhetoric ” refers to the art and study of the effective use of language to communicate a message.
  • Writers and speakers employ specific techniques in order to effectively persuade or affect an audience.
  • Rhetorical devices are applicable to both expository and creative writing.
  • When the technique overpowers the message, the term “rhetoric” can become derogatory.

Key Terms

  • narrative: Narrative writing is the telling of a story; reporting connected events, whether real or imagined.
  • rhetorical modes: Conventions of writing and speaking used strategically to present a subject in a particular manner to an audience
  • expository: Writing is termed “expository” when it is intended to inform and instruct; presenting reasons, explanations, or step in a process. Expository writing should contain a main idea, supporting details, and a conclusion.
  • creative: Creative writing is the imaginative use of words to convey meaning, whether through narrative, poetry, or imagery, with the intent to elicit an emotional response (rather than to inform).
  • rhetoric: The strategic art of informing or persuading an audience with the written or spoken word; the study of the design, organization, and techniques associated with effective written and oral communication

The Power of Rhetoric

We’ve all had the dual experiences of sitting spellbound, listening to a master storyteller weave a tale that leaves us breathless, and of enduring a speech that seemed too long from the first sentence. When we write, we naturally hope to emulate the former, rather than the latter. We want our words to spark the reader’s imagination and deeply engage them in our topic of choice. No one wants to be a bore.

The art of rhetoric began in ancient civilizations around the world as both an art and a tool. Captivating audiences is both politically expedient and socially desirable, and from antiquity to present day, those who hold the people in the palm of their hand also hold the power.

In examining rhetorical modes, we’ll be tapping the same collective wisdom used by Aristotle, Confucious, Demosthenes, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and yes, even Adolf Hitler, to bring an audience to its feet. Whether your intention is to write a stirring speech or compose a moving piece of prose, familiarizing yourself with these techniques will give you the tools you need to move and inspire. 

But please, before we begin, promise that you’ll use your newfound power for good.

Two Types of Writing

There are two writing environments in which you’ll use rhetoric: expository writing and creative (or narrative ) writing. The difference lies in the purpose of the piece. An expository essay aims to inform and instruct, while a narrative essay is a story meant to entertain. 

Differences in form arise from these differences in purpose. Guidelines for expository writing emphasize clarity and brevity in order to make an emphatic point. Narratives, on the other hand, can wander or get to the point, depending on the type of story being told and the intention of the storyteller.  

A reliance on fact necessitates evidence to back up assertions, whereas a reliance on story requires faithfulness to the spirit of the event or memory being relayed. Both types of writing can be riveting, but they require different approaches and tools.

Rhetorical Modes

Here is a list of common rhetorical modes along with brief definitions. As you read through them, see if you can imagine an example of each. Which do you think might likely show up in an expository essay, and which would seem natural for creative writing?

Argumentation and Persuasion – making a case for your opinion or the perspective you wish your audience to take by offering supporting ideas or facts

Classification – breaking a subject into its separate parts and grouping these based on common traits

Cause and Effect – connecting events by showing how a given stimulus created a particular response

Comparison and Contrast – illustrating the ways in which the subject of choice is like or different from something else

Definition – a precise explanation of a term given in enough detail that one who is not at all familiar with it will understand it

Description – capturing in words a concept, character, setting, idea, person, or object so that the reader or listener can visualize the subject

Illustration and Exemplification – offering the reader/listener examples in order to clarify a concept or idea, “showing” what is meant through instances of use

Narration – sequencing events in order of time, often using sensory elements to help the reader or listener identify with the story

Process Analysis – breaking an event or action into smaller parts and explaining its steps from beginning to end, often offering reasons for each step

The Judicious Use of Rhetoric

The one caution with using rhetorical devices in written or spoken communication is that too much “technique” makes a speech, an essay, or a story tedious, at best, and manipulative, at worst. 

You’ll need to study the techniques enough to use them skillfully, so as not to sound inauthentic. Sincerity always makes for the best writing, so while the techniques you’ll learn about here are invaluable when used wisely, they become distasteful when overused.