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The art of Rhetoric for the Aspiring Author

What am I like, writing a blog on rhetoric?

Don’t worry, that is a rhetorical question. As is your possible answer to the question (if you could be bothered to provide one) – ‘who cares?’

Rhetoric has its origins in Mesopotamia, but is largely associated with the ancient Greeks. Aristotle described it as the art of persuasion and, alongside grammar and logic, one of the three ancient arts of discourse. Rhetor is the ancient Greek for a public speaker.

Rhetoric was part of a scholar’s education from the time of the ancient Greeks, through to ancient Rome (Cicero being perhaps the most famous of the Roman practitioners) and into the twentieth century. One could argue that modern university courses in ‘communication studies’ are continuing the art.


Rhetoric, the fine art of constructing sound arguments according to Aristotle, has largely been seen as a good subject to teach.

However, even centuries ago, Plato could see that, in the wrong hands, it could be used to justify bad actions. He likened specious rhetoric, as used by the Sophists to justify murdering Socrates, to cooking – which he saw as the means of masking unhealthy food by making it taste good.

A Parliament, or Senate House, should be where we witness shining examples of rhetoric in practice. They are, after all, ‘debating chambers’ – with speakers attempting to persuade their own side, if not the opposition, of the merits of their argument. Maybe it is a sign of getting old, but the quality of debate – the rhetoric – doesn’t seem as good as it used to be. Indeed the word itself in this context sounds old fashioned, and likely to be associated it with the more bombastic and evasive speakers delivering empty arguments. The more emphatic the tub thumping it seems, the more one distrusts what the speaker has to say. And the less likely you are to want to emulate their rhetoric.

But the Collins dictionary explains rhetoric as:

The study of the technique of using language effectivelyThe art of using speech to persuade, influence, or please

Isn’t this what an author tries to do when sitting down to write a story that they want someone to read, be moved by, and sufficiently motivated to go out and buy your next book?

PS: in case you are still wondering what, exactly, a rhetorical question is, it is a question to which no answer is required.

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