3 Rhetorical Devices That Will Breathe New Life into Your Writing

We’ve all heard of similes, metaphors, and personification. If you’ve taken any English class ever, you’ve probably learned about them and possibly been forced to use them in your writing.

These rhetorical devices obviously hold their very prominent place in the English curriculum and writing in general for a very good reason. They give us something to connect with, they create and image, and they spark emotions.

But there is so much more. When I was in college, I took a class that dove into rhetorical devices that are lesser known and underutilized. I loved it.

So, if you’re feeling that your writing is becoming stagnant, boring, or just slowing down, these rhetorical devices that hide in the shadows can breathe new life into your writing when brought into the light.

They can create an experience that will stay with your readers long after they’ve closed the book, inspiring them to action or leaving them feeling some kind of way. *I teach middle school, so I’m pretty hip to what the cool kids are saying these days. Don’t be intimidated*

Anaphora

the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive phrases

Anaphora is used to create a sense of urgency and action in the reader.

It can be a call to action, as in Winston Churchill’s speech given during WWII:

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.”

Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 1940

In 1940, Churchill stood at the House of Commons and delivered a rallying cry to his country. Even now, 79 years after they were initially spoken, they’re stirring. Now, I want to go fight!

It can pull a reader into a passage, as in the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Whether you’ve read the novel or not, you likely know this passage. Think about that! For all the opening passages that have ever been written, this is one of them that stands out and is so common that even people who have never even heard of Charles Dickens would probably be able to finish this passage or at least the first two phrases. Now that’s power!

Anaphora pulls the reader through the passage, making it nearly impossible to just stop. You need to know what else is coming!

It can create power and highlight an important image, as in Lucille Clifton’s poem “the earth is a living thing”:

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

Lucille Clifton, “the earth is a living thing” (Source)

I love this poem. I’ve read it in some of my classes and some of the analysis and insights the kids provided floored me. If you’re into analysis, you should read The Earth: Black Blind, a very short interpretation of the poem from the African American Nature Poetry blog from Young Harris College (Which is in Georgia in case you were wondering. I was.). It blew my mind.

If you’re looking to create a sense of action in your readers, including anaphora just might be the way to accomplish it!

*Bonus points if you noticed that I used anaphora in introducing each quote.

Epizeuxis

a repetition of a word or phrase in quick succession with no words in between, used for emphasis.

I mostly included this one because I like how the word looks, but it is very effective in creating emphasis and highlighting an idea.

Winston Churchill, master of the rhetorical device, utilized epizeuxis in his October 1941 speech at Harrow School in London, England:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

If you haven’t read this speech, I recommend you do so right now. You can find it at the National Churchill Museum site. It had me crying into my coffee at 5:20 am from the sheer power and conviction of Churchill. Think about that. These words, initially spoken to a group of students in 1941, had the power to move a woman in rural Wisconsin writing a blog post about rhetorical devices to tears 78 years later.

Some added Churchill advice from the speech: “we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough.” I am now obsessed with Churchill and will add all of the books about him to the A Book a Week 2019 list. All of them!

For all the hyperbole in “A Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe also slipped in a little epizeuxis for emphasis:

“I undid the lantern cautiously–oh, so cautiously–cautiously.”

Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart”

As the narrator works so hard to convince us that he is totally fine and brags about his forethought and planning, every exaggeration helps us to see that he has, in fact, straight up lost it. His emphasis on “cautiously” only serves to increase the degree to which his plan comes off as crazy.

And for the less literary, Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman uses epizeuxis to convey just how much he loves scotch:

“I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch. Here it goes down, down into my belly.”

Will Ferrell, Anchorman

Ron Burgundy really loves scotch and uses epizeuxis to make sure we understand just how much.

So, if you’re in need of emphasis, add some epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis.

*See how it doesn’t really work if it’s just stuck in there?

Metanoia

This device is a little more complicated than the others, so let’s dig in a little.

Metanoia comes from the Greek and means “change of mind”. The dictionary definition is to “change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion.” Metanoia is sometimes referred to as “repentance.”

Source

This graph from Google Books shows the rate that the n-gram (or specified term to generate a data set) shows up in their corpus of books (selected texts) for the specified years. Digging into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, is pretty nerdy but really interesting. I wonder why there’s been such a spike?

As a rhetorical device, metanoia refers to making a statement and then immediately replacing it with another phrase. It “is a self-correction. It’s when a writer or speaker deliberately goes back and modifies a statement that they just made, usually either to strengthen it or soften it in some way” (Source).

Metanoia provides purposeful emphasis on the part of the writer or speaker, and because it’s a correction of something previously stated, the first statement stays in the mind of the audience.

It’s kind of like in a courtroom scene in your favorite t.v. courtroom drama (and probably in real life as well), when a lawyer asks for something to be stricken from the record and the jury is instructed to disregard the statement.

Pfff. The damage is done. The information is out there. No matter how hard the jury tries, whether consciously or unconsciously, the damage is done. The stricken information may even be more solidified in their minds because it’s been highlighted as something they should forget.

It’s like telling someone there are cookies in the cupboard, but they should just forget that you said that. Yeah right.

And that’s your dose of completely unqualified psychoanalysis for the day. You’re welcome.

According to Literaryterms.net, metanoia can be used to strengthen, soften, or make more precise. It can also be used to draw comparisons and make connections that can appear “accidental”.

Advertisers use metanoia to strengthen the qualities of their product, as in:

“Kreuz Market is the ultimate barbecue restaurant—no, scratch that—barbecue experience in Central Texas (and therefore the world).”

Source; source

This is not a restaurant, this is an experience. Now I want barbecue.

Using metanoia to strengthen means that the initial statement is overridden by a stronger statement, leading the reader to the intended meaning and message of the statement and also highlighting how it’s so much better than initially thought.

Conversely, metanoia can have a softening effect as well, as in the children’s story The Dot and the Line:

“And they lived, if not happily ever after, then at least reasonably so.”

The Dot and the Line Source

This serves to soften the much used statement “and they lived happily ever after,” stating it for effect and then retracting it in favor of the less intense, more humorous, and likely more realistic version.

Using metanoia to soften, allows the initial stronger statement to linger in the minds of the audience. As in the courtroom example, if a lawyer makes a statement that he then withdraws, the effect remains.

F. Scott Fitzgerald used metanoia in The Great Gatsby for precision and to create anticipation when Nick states:

“It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or rather, as I did not yet know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Upon first explaining his neighbor’s home, Nick initially says that it’s Gatsby’s mansion but then takes it back saying that, at that moment, it was just a mansion owned by a man named Gatsby. This retraction and subsequent qualification lets the reader in on the fact that their relationship, while nonexistent at the start, will grow throughout the book.

Using metanoia to be more precise gives you ways to inject foreshadowing or simply give specifics to the reader, setting them up to understand how it could have been versus how it is now or how it will be later.

Joe Biden used metanoia in a 2008 speech as he campaigned as Barak Obama’s running mate:

“You know, folks, that’s the America that George Bush has left us. And that’s the America we’ll continue to get if George – excuse me, if John McCain is elected president of the United States of America. Freudian slip. Freudian slip.”

Source

Yeah, Joe, Freudian slip. Definitely not a carefully chosen utilization of a little known rhetorical device used to draw comparisons and highlight differences drafted and re-drafted by your speech writers. Good one.

I was surprised to see that there is actually an organization called Metanoia (metanoia.org) that specializes in removing the barriers that people face when seeking mental health help. At the top of their homepage, they offer the following:

“Metanoia means: “a change of mind”… turning around, to face a new direction… to turn toward the light. Because when you face the light, shadow is behind you.”

Source

This definition also clarifies its role in writing and rhetoric. By stating what is not his intention, the writer can then emphasize the message and highlight his actual intention, turning towards the light of his intention and leaving the old ideas in the shadows.

So, if you use metanoia you will be one of the great-nay, the greatest writer in the history of all writers.

Let’s wrap this up, shall we?

Initially, this post was going to include 4 rhetorical devices, but metanoia took a lot out of me, and I expect you too.

So in conclusion (a thing I tell my students never to say), when overdone or done only for the sake of including them, rhetorical devices can render a text nearly unreadable.

But.

If they are used effectively, they can create an experience that a reader will never forget, spur them to action, or change their lives.

They could even cause someone 78 years from now to cry as she reads your words, spilling tears into her quickly cooling coffee at an ungodly hour in the morning.

Happy writing!

P.S. If you are now obsessed with Winston Churchill, as I am, definitely check out To Jaw-Jaw: Rhetorical Techniques used by Winston Churchill on the Turner Ink blog!

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