Tips from a writing teacher who knows the techniques that work
For centuries, great writers have studied rhetoric, defined as the art of effective speaking and writing.
For those seeking to improve their craft, these techniques are of immeasurable value. They can add a three-dimensionality to language, managing to make the words used not only carry meaning, but also color them with rhythm and make them call out to the senses as well.
It’s my goal to introduce you to some of these rhetorical devices and give you real-life examples of how you can implement them in your writing.
Epistrophe is the exact opposite of anaphora. While anaphora repeats the same words or phrases at the beginning of a sentence or series of consecutive phrases, epistrophe repeats a word or phrase at the end of successive sentences or phrases.
This technique has been used in countless moving literary texts and speeches.
For example, Barack Obama used epistrophe in the speech he gave after his loss of the New Hampshire primary:
“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.”
By using this technique, Obama creates a powerful emotional message of hope and inspiration through the repetition of “Yes, we can.”
So, how can you use epistrophe in your writing to make it more lyrical and emphatic?
Let’s say you’re writing on how to embrace the courage to get more out of your life. You might write something like this:
Courage is a trait that all people must have in order to move forward in life. We often let our fears, insecurities, and the inherent risk of failure dominate our lives to the point where we become boring, stale, and unoriginal. After all, it’s safer this way. More comfortable. To put a twist on the old saying, there’s “no foul; no harm.” But we can do better. All we have to do is practice small steps of bravery that slowly work to quiet those defeatist voices inside our heads.
Now, watch as I change the paragraph and add the device of epistrophe.
Courage is a trait that all people must have in order to move forward in life. What keeps us from embracing this trait when we know it is an essential key to enhancing our prosperity and happiness? So many things. Our insecurities rule us. Our fears of failure rule us. Our past defeats and the memory of the pain and loss we have endured as a result rules us. But we don’t have to live our lives this way. All we have to do is practice small steps of bravery that slowly work to quiet those defeatist voices inside our heads.
Using epistrophe here works to create a sense of shame in the reader, perhaps allowing them to see the power they’ve sacrificed at the altar of safety and security. This realization may act as a motivating factor that encourages the reader to regain control of their life and embrace small acts of courage.
Personification is giving human qualities or traits to inhuman objects or representing abstractions in human form.
By using this technique, we make the effects of everyday objects and emotions more relatable and visual for the reader.
Here’s an example of this technique as it was used by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his televised address to the nation on the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Once again, the heart of America is heavy. The spirit of America weeps for a tragedy that denies the very meaning of our land.”
By writing about America as a human being, he creates a sense of unity among Americans, each individual forming into a collective body that’s joined in great grief at the loss of a great leader.
The most common examples of personification are found in poetry, such as this example in the poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”
by Emily Dickinson:
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility
In this poem, Dickinson allows the reader to imagine the moment of death as a serene one. She creates the image of Death as a kindly driver who takes her on a tranquil ride with another personified guest — “Immortality.”
So how can you use personification to make your own writing more visual and engaging?
Let’s go back to the paragraph that I altered previously by adding epistrophe. This time I will also embed personification.
Courage is a trait that all people must have in order to move forward in life. What keeps us from embracing this trait when we know it is an essential key to enhancing our prosperity and happiness? So many things. Our insecurities rule us. Our fears of failure rule us. Our past defeats rise up and command us to acknowledge their presence, requiring us to look them in the eyes as they give a lengthy monologue on all the embarrassment and pain that has accompanied our ineffective attempts at trying new things. But we don’t have to cower in fear at their utterings. All we have to do is practice small steps of bravery that slowly work to quiet those defeatist voices inside our heads.
See how the two techniques combined work to create a sense of the reader’s own willingness to be controlled by the pain of past defeats? Certainly, the feelings of cowardice created in the passage could serve as inspiration for the reader to rise up and master their own fear of moving forward courageously.
The use of epistrophe and personification are two rhetorical strategies that can take uninspired writing and make it come alive with enhanced emphasis and imagery.
Once you have your initial draft down, dabble with these techniques and see if they can take your writing to the next level.
I’m betting that they can.