5 reasons why writers should explore rhetoric
I never studied rhetoric at school.
There were no doubt a few courses on rhetoric in my university syllabus.
But I flipped right past them.
At the time, I considered the topic old-fashioned, boring, and useless.
Oh, the folly of youth!
Today, I dearly wish I had taken those courses.
I’ve come to see rhetoric as a practical skill that all white paper writers need. Here’s why.
Let’s start with a clear definition
In recent years, rhetoric has earned a bad name, mainly because it’s constantly abused by politicians and media blowhards.
“Moderns maintain a peculiar relationship with rhetoric,” writes Ryan Topping in his wonderful book The Elements of Rhetoric. “We no longer teach it to our young, nor demand it of our wise.
“What since ancient Athens was considered an essential skill for a free citizen has now largely been consigned to hucksters and to the tarmacs of used car dealerships.” (pp 91-92)
So let’s go back to what it’s all about.
Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth defines rhetoric as “the use of language to persuade or otherwise affect an audience.” (p.vii)
Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith says something very similar. Rhetoric is “the art of persuasion: the attempt of one human being to influence another in words.” (p.1)
To persuade, to affect, to influence… isn’t that what writing B2B copy or content is all about?
So I see writing B2B content as a contemporary, practical application of rhetoric.
And here are five reasons why every writer should learn more about rhetoric.
Why study rhetoric #1: To fill a gap in your education
Rhetoric was a cornerstone of every education for at least 1,500 years.
The field of rhetoric started with the ancient Greeks and developed over the centuries.
But over the past 200 years or so, rhetoric gradually slipped out of fashion.
It’s been displaced, Leith says, “by more modern, more scientific-seeming disciplines such as linguistics, psychology, and literary criticism.” (Leith, p.41)
This has, I believe, contributed to a dumbing-down of our world. To the point where many “debates” devolve into name-calling.
But of course, the use of rhetoric is still alive and kicking.
You could say that almost any course in communication, teaching, or marketing draws on rhetoric, whether the teacher realizes it or not.
Understanding rhetoric fills in this gap in our education.
Why study rhetoric #2: To be a more critical thinker
If you understand rhetoric, of course, you can tell when others are trying to use it on you.
This makes you more analytical and more capable of resisting unfounded ideas and empty arguments.
This is the core of critical thinking, which is supposed to be a goal of our education system.
Being able to think for yourself will help you in every area of life.
Not by winning more arguments. That’s not the point.
The point is to resist attempts at manipulation.
And we’re surrounded all day long by attempts to manipulate us, such as:
• Advertising of every type
• Marketing in general
• Mass media
• Social media even more so
• Politicians from POTUS down to anyone with a tiny speck of power
Here’s an interesting result: This New Yorker article describes a murder that six different people confessed to!
All six had been manipulated with self-doubt and false memories by a psychotherapist working for the police.
If we can’t think for ourselves, we’re doomed.
Why study rhetoric #3: To be a better consumer, a better citizen, and a better person
Like most people, I have opinions about things I know nothing about.
Where do those come from?
Most likely I heard something that fit one of my cognitive biases. By the way, we have many of these biases: 151 have been identified so far.
I’ve learned it’s helpful from time to time to re-examine the things I believe. And to question new things before I accept them.
And knowing enough rhetoric to re-examine and question things will make you a better consumer, a better citizen, and an all-around better person. Here’s how…
As a consumer, you’ll more likely resist scams, frauds, and shady operators of every description.
That way, you can make wiser use of your budget, buy better products and services, and more effectively feed and shelter your family.
As a citizen, you’ll more likely spot liars, schemers, and shady politicians of every description.
That way, you can make wiser use of your vote, support better policies, and take considered action to further worthy goals.
As a person, you’ll be better equipped to call out blowhards, charlatans, and conspiracy theorists of every description.
That way, you can make wiser use of all your resources and be a better partner, parent, or family member.
If you can see through inflated hyperbole and unsupported claims, perhaps you can help the people around you avoid getting sucked down some rabbit hole.
You might even save their careers, their health, or their lives.
Those are big, bold benefits. Who wouldn’t want to be a better consumer, citizen, and all-around person?
Why study rhetoric #4: To appreciate the English language
In my university years, rhetoric was tucked away with some other courses I never considered taking, like Latin and Greek.
Today I wish I knew a lot more Latin and Greek.
I would understand many English words and where they come from.
That would help me decode medical terms and the scientific names of plants and animals.
That would give me more knowledge about the evolution of our language.
After all, words are the raw material of any writer. The better we understand them, the more skillfully we can use them.
Why study rhetoric #5: To write better white papers
A white paper must build a strong argument.
The process of building an argument has a name, and that name is rhetoric.
So every white paper we write is an exercise in applied rhetoric.
And I’m sure you agree it’s better to control our argument rather than simply jot down the first thing that pops into our minds.
That’s the way I used to write my essays in college, and the first few white papers I did.
But after I’d written 100+ white papers, I realized these documents would work better if I took charge of the argument.
To be as persuasive as possible, I want to plan out the argument, control what I say and when, and consciously arrange all the elements.
That led me to Aristotle and his three main elements of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.
As this article describes, I find it very useful to know how to arrange and sequence these elements in a white paper.
So there are five ways in which learning more about rhetoric will help you to:
- Fill a gap in your education
- Make you a more critical thinker
- Make you a better consumer, a better citizen, and a better person
- Appreciate the English language
- Write better white papers
Aren’t those some fabulous benefits?
Perhaps the next question is simply: How do we learn more?
Some resources on rhetoric
Two ways to learn more about rhetoric are websites and books. Here’s just the start of a list of resources.
The Forest of Rhetoric is a free guide to rhetorical devices by Dr. Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University.
And here’s a free course in rhetoric from James Engell from Harvard University.
There are many other sources online, but I haven’t plowed through them yet.
So far, I’ve reviewed one great book on this topic here:
Classical English Rhetoric by Ward Farnsworth
I’ll be filling in more as I go.
And I’m happy to hear your suggestions on further titles to add to this list.
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