How to Improve Your Rhetoric
Rhetoric can be improved at four different levels:
- Good rhetoric starts with good word choice. Find exactly the right word for your meaning, but don’t go overboard with fancy terms! Never use a $10-million word when a 25¢ word will do. And if you’re going to use a thesaurus, make sure you just use it for inspiration and never use a thesaurus word that you aren’t familiar with.
- At the sentence level, you should make sure that your sentences are straightforward, without too many twists and turns. You can work on this by forcing yourself to write shorter sentences, but this technique is only for training! Short sentences are not necessarily better in rhetoric, and the best thing is to go for a mix of short and long sentences.
- The well-structured paragraph is also a key to good rhetoric. The first sentence or two should accurately reflect the main point of the paragraph, and should introduce the paragraph’s key terms. Then, the rest of the paragraph should follow those sentences closely, and not go off on tangents.
- Finally, you can improve the rhetoric of the whole argument. This is the most sophisticated of the four levels, and the most difficult to explain in general since each argument has its own unique structure. One trick you can use here, though, is to read your paragraph’s topic sentences in isolation. Read your thesis statement, then read each topic sentence. Does the argument still make some kind of sense? Do these sentences, by themselves, show the overall arc of your paper? If not, you may need to do some work on the structure.
When to Use Rhetoric
Rhetoric is used in arguments, so it plays a central role in formal essays and academic writing. The fact is, no matter what you do in a formal essay, it’s an example of rhetoric! The question is whether it’s good rhetoric or bad rhetoric. The difference is entirely up to the reader – if your intended audience finds the rhetoric convincing, then it’s good rhetoric. If not, then it’s bad rhetoric. Rhetoric is all about effectiveness.
There’s also a place for rhetoric in creative writing, but it’s not as prominent. Creative writing isn’t generally designed to persuade anyone of anything, so rhetoric doesn’t really apply here. However, you might have a character who is trying to be persuasive, and in this case you’ll need to create some rhetoric for the character’s dialogue. If it’s good rhetoric, it will make the character seem like a strong, intelligent leader; if it’s bad rhetoric, the character will look foolish or pathetic.