How To Improve Your Writing With Simple Rhetorical Tricks
I didn’t used to be a good writer. Just read this post, this post or this one. Actually, don’t. But, you will notice that I got a lot better starting in late 2017. How did this transformation occur? Two things:
- I started using stories and analogies to explain concepts. This is one of the most effective teaching methods I know and I highly recommend it when trying to explain or discuss a complex topic.
- I started deliberately using certain rhetorical techniques to sound more eloquent.
I can’t help you think up useful analogies or find intriguing stories, but I can show you some rhetorical techniques to make you sound more eloquent. Most of these tips are taken from The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase by Mark Forsyth, which I highly recommend you buy if you want to improve your writing. The funny thing is, once you learn these rhetorical techniques you will start seeing them EVERYWHERE. So, let’s begin:
1. Remember the Rule of Three
The Three Blind Mice. The Three Little Pigs. The Three Muskateers. Why does the number three work so well in lists? I don’t know, but anytime you are making lists, if you can, go with three. Not four, not two. Three. This is why real estate agents say, “Location, location, location,” why Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography repeated the theme of Reps, Reps, Reps, and why Jim Cramer says:
It is everywhere in our society, so your best bet as a communicator is to follow suit. I have engrained this rhetorical device so deeply into my writing that I don’t even notice when I use it anymore. Check out this excerpt from one of my most popular posts:
In all the lives you could be living, in all of the worlds you could simulate, how much did luck play a role in this one? Have you gotten more than your fair share? Have you had to deal with more struggles than most?
It asked 3 questions, though I never planned on doing that. It just sounded better when I did. So, I oblige you, when making lists, use the rule of three.
2. Repeat Yourself (Kind Of)
My next favorite rhetorical technique is called anaphora or parallelism, and it is simply starting each sentence with the same word or phrase. I don’t know why it sounds so good. I don’t know why it works so well. I don’t know why, but it’s just that easy. Winston Churchill used it in his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. used it in his “I Have A Dream” speech, and I just used it in this very sentence.
However, despite the eloquence of anaphora, Forsyth warns how it can be abused:
But anaphora is dangerous. It’s almost too powerful…With anaphora people always remember the opening words, but they usually forget the rest.
And he is right, if you overuse it. By repeating the same phrase more than 3 times you put much more focus on the phrase itself instead of the content it is discussing. Therefore, I recommend sprinkling parallelism throughout your work for a touch of eloquence without distracting from your overall message.
3. Follow A Rhythm
Another easy way to keep your audience’s attention, especially when you are passionate about something, is to use isocolon. Isocolon is the repetition of grammatical structure. So instead of repeating the same word or phrase, you would repeat the same number of syllables in a phrase.
The simplest form of this is, “Roses are red. Violets are blue.” The syllable structure is 2-1-1, 2-1-1. I don’t use this technique too often, but someone that does (and better than just about anyone else) is Josh Brown. Look at his vicious isocolon game when concluding “The Year of Living Dangerously“:
This was one of Josh’s most read pieces ever (yes, I did run the numbers to verify this) and you can see why. But, you know who else used this technique marvelously? Cardi B. in the song “No Limit.” Her entire verse (more or less) repeats the same 3 syllable structure, and it works. I will admit that isocolon is not used as much in modern writing, but when the circumstances are right, use this to send a powerful message.
4. Ask Questions
Why do questions work well as rhetorical devices? Is it because you get the reader to think about something more deeply? Is it because it makes the reader come to the same conclusion that you want them to come to? Is this string of questions making my point? I actually don’t know why questions (rhetorical or otherwise) work so well, but it seems like when multiple questions are asked in succession, eloquence emerges. I most recently used this technique in this article when asking you to ponder the idea of multiple discovery:
Is it just chance that the most famous businessmen and women of the Gilded Age were born within half a decade of each other? Or did they all get swept up in an era that resulted in more income accumulation than any point in American history?
I didn’t really need to ask this question, but it sounds better than a declarative statement. A far more eloquent example of asking questions occurs at the beginning of this interview where Milton Friedman responds to whether greed is a bad foundational idea for a society to run on:
Well, first of all, tell me, is there some society that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed?
Friedman is able to simply and easily destroy the premise of the question with his own questions. This doesn’t mean that the host doesn’t have a point, only that he is asking the wrong question. “What should we do to better redistribute wealth?” is the relevant question. So, don’t always declare facts because, sometimes, it’s better to get your reader to do it for you. Don’t you think so?
5. Just Keep Writing
The most important tip I can provide to you to become more eloquent is the simplest—just keep writing. I cannot tell you how much better you get at something when you deliberately keep at it week after week. I have seen this in my own writing (it took about 11 months) and have heard similar things from other writers who have been in the game a long time. Additionally, make sure that your writing is shared with others who can judge it. When you know that other people will read your work, it forces you to think deeper and care more about how you write. This process in and of itself forces you to become better.
More Than Words
Unlike businesses where execution is more important than ideas, with writing, ideas matter just as much as execution. So while the tips discussed above (and in Eloquence) can help you, without a good idea backing your writing, it may be difficult to get people to read. This is true because writing is about more than words. It’s about capturing someone’s attention with a story, idea, or perspective that they haven’t read before. So, keep this in mind when on your writing journey.
If you are interested in hearing more about how to improve your writing, I highly recommend Morgan Housel’s and Michael Batnick’s advice on this topic. Also, big shout out to David Perell for showing me the book Eloquence which changed my writing game for the better. With that being said, happy writing from Of Dollars And Data and thank you for reading!
This is post 86. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data