Does Rhetoric Have A Place In Copywriting?

With the near-death of classical education in favor of specialized instruction, it is rare to see rhetoric used, let alone used well. I used to spend hours agonizing over the use of a single word. I used to spend hours editing, striking words from the copy, I used to spend hours exploring the use of new words and murdering my darlings.

I often incorporated rhetoric to strengthen the concept I was writing about, treating even the most mundane topics like a speech I had to recite in front of the world. Now I tend to check for typos and noun/verb agreement and hit “publish’. I suppose I could blame the immediacy of the medium but what it comes down to is that I’ve gotten lazy.

The most well known orators in recent history are well known because they incorporated rhetoric in their speeches. The power and passion of their ideas were strengthened by the use of rhetoric. Does rhetoric have a place on the Web? Let’s take a look at some of the techniques.

Anaphora – This is the simple repetition of a word or group of words in consecutive sentences. Churchill, a master of rhetoric, used this technique to great effect:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

Antimetabole – The repetition of word in clauses but in reverse order. A perfect example made famous by John F. Kennedy:

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Antithesis – Contrasting ideas by using contrasting words.

Your silence speaks volumes.

Alliteration - repetition of the same sound beginning several words in sequence.

Veni, vidi, vici

That’s just four examples. Want some more?

  • Anacoluthon
  • Anadiplosis
  • Anastrophe
  • Antistrophe
  • Aporia
  • Aposiopesis
  • Apostrophe
  • Archaism
  • Assonance
  • Asyndeton
  • Brachylogy
  • Cacophony
  • Catachresis
  • Chiasmus
  • Climax
  • Euphemism
  • Hendiadys
  • Hypallage
  • Hyperbaton
  • Hyperbole
  • Hysteron-Proteron
  • Irony
  • Litotes
  • Metaphor
  • Metonymy
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Oxymoron
  • Paradox
  • Paraprosdokian
  • Paronomasia
  • Personification
  • Pleonasm
  • Polysyndeton
  • Praeteritio
  • Prolepsis
  • Simile
  • Syllepsis
  • Synchysis
  • Synecdoche
  • Synesis
  • Tautology
  • Zeugma

Taking away the obvious, how many of these techniques do you use in your copy? Does rhetoric have a place on the web?

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  1. Ummm … I just use words that a 12 year old can understand and that will encourage the reader to do what I want them to do.

  2. DG

    That’s the beauty of rhetoric, there’s no need for five dollar words, just the appreciation of those nickel words, without inflation. Reducing ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ to ‘things were so-so’ should be a crime. ; )

  3. My dictionary – the hard-backed paper one that I frequently drag out from under my desk – defines a copywriter as one who is “a writer of copy for advertisements or publicity releases”

    To write good copy you need to be able to touch ordinary people where they are and address their concerns in a way in a way that meets their needs in language they can understand and easily digest.

    That means that you speak to them in the words they can understand and you use simple words that will motivate them to do what you want them to do.

    And that’s why I made my first comment – I guess I was saying that eloquence has it’s place but perhaps not when it comes to copywriting – and perhaps not at other times either :)

    In my days of doing other things a little pain applied to a recalcitrant demonstrator’s ear lobe and a sharp “MOVE MOVE MOVE” had a far more positive effect than a polite and more eloquent (and personally more acceptable) “Come along with me sir.”

  4. of course “ear love” should read “ear lobe” – some copywriter I am :)

  5. You can never beat the power of the editors blue pencil – even here on the Internet :)

  6. I agree to what Stuart has said!
    The readers don’t have time to stop in every second line to think what the author wants to mean! Serve him straight what he wants to eat.
    Apart from that if you use something like Churchill, you may land on highlighting a different key phrase than you intended primarily!

    But I appreciate your thinking process….go on!

  7. Roy I wonder if you and I are talking about something different to what DG is talking about.

    I’ve been thinking that perhaps Dean is talking about what he writes here … and I wouldn’t call that copywriting. This is where someone who has the eloquence and patience of DG would pour over ever word – and the fact that he has attracted readers from Digg is proof that what he is doing is effective.

    On the other hand scribblers like me (and my better half) might – and do – what DG does when we are working for clients and pour over individual words. But we would never use the eloquence that DG talks about because it wouldn’t work.

    And we don’t use eloquence on our blogs either :)

  8. It is not too “simple” to be “simple”!

    I will never write this sentence in my copy!
    Rather I will write :It is not easy to be simple”

    I appreciate DG because of his thinking process – there are very few people who ‘can think’ and ‘do think’! It hardly matters if he reaches anywhere or not!

  9. Hi DG,

    You hit the nail squarely on the head. Lately I’ve started deleting blogs from my feed list, which don’t fit in to at least one of two categories:

    1. Provide useful information
    2. Are beautifully written

    Eloquence, Humor and wit will guarantee a blogger a place in my feed list (for all that its worth).

    Yoav

    P.S.

    Could you recommend a hands-on book about using rhetorics in writing?

  10. To Yoav,
    It depends on the target readers.
    As for your point no.2, I would say, it differs from man to man.
    And there may be thousands of variables on which someone may judge you at any point of time!

  11. DG

    I don’t know Roy, I think rhetoric has its place. Forcing it however, simply won’t work. Alliteration and assonance not only work on the Web, but work as a mnemonic device to aid the reader’s memory. Hyperbole, my least favorite rhetorical technique, definitely seems to have found a home on the Web, but people are calling it linkbait these days. ; )

    Stuart, ‘eloquence’ scares me. When that word crops up it just might be time to start murdering those darlings. ; )

    Yoav, I do have some books on rhetoric and practical application, unfortunately, they are still tucked away in one of those boxes in my office and have been for over a year. I’ll dig them out today, you’ve given me a perfect excuse to finish unpacking.

  12. dvg

    I think it really depends on the “goal” of your content. In most cases on the web, it doesn’t make sense. Who wants to read rhetoric in an explanation of regular expressions? Sometimes it’s fun and lovely, but generally I think it would be annoying if I wanted hard data and found myself slogging through similes or tortured tautologies.

    Now … my blog is for fun. I write not for the search engines, but for myself. I’m just trying to express my thoughts. (Lennon once said something about true artists just needing to get the sh*t out of their heads.) I write like I talk, and that includes LOTS of rhetoric. :p

  13. Rhetoric has built into it an idea of “I’m better than you,” no? I mean, even a demagogue is admired because the people place hope in him.

  14. DG

    >>Rhetoric has built into it an idea of “I’m better than you,” no?

    Not sure. What about something as simple as, Live, Learn, Love? It is obvious that we have a fascination with people that speak well, even if they don’t stack up on the Hollywood scale. Can’t remember the quipster, but the saying was, “If you’re ugly, be articulate, if you can’t be articulate, don’t be ugly”.

  15. hmm, Simple is usually better unless you can make it sound very nice and the words look like they are perfect for what you are writing.

  16. Rolf

    I see a lot of what one would call hard sell copywriters here, stating: We don’t need your fancy words – give it to’em straight!

    But the idols of these hard sell CWs use cliché expressions, such as “killer content”. I doubt the content would actually kill anyone. And! It is rhetorics.

    It doesn’t need to be any worse, nor difficult to comprehend. On the contrary: it makes text flow, brings creativity and vitality to it. Knowing the tools just gives you a better understanding of what makes text work.

    If the CW had known rhetorics, they could have invented their own metaphors, and not rely on clichés.

    Not all use of rhetorics is good. Nor is all of it bad.

  17. You made a number of fine points there. I did a search on the subject matter and found most persons will have the same opinion with your blog.

  1. 1 Quick Links 18 Feb 2007 - Affiliate Marketing Blogger

    […] Ghost asks if rhetorics have a place In copywriting and takes a look at the various techniques of […]




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