Persuasive Writing and the Elements of Eloquence

If someone asked you what the purpose of blogging was, what would you say? If you’re an education blogger, what label would you pick as the purpose of your craft? Is it writing to argue? Writing to persuade? Or, does it also contain information? Perhaps even, a little advice? Or, am I asking you to place an arbitrary label on something much more complex?

Unless my teacher training and first few years in the profession have misled me, these sorts of labels are pretty common for English teachers, and they tend to come in triplets. And, given that most English Language courses require an exam based writing component, with a specific writing style, maybe it’s unsurprising that these labels have become so widely used. But, as Chris Curtis argues (advises?) brilliantly here, these triplets are often used badly, as they don’t encourage students to have a desired effect in mind when writing.

I also find the division into triplets a little false and arbitrary. Take the argue/advise/persuade triplet. How can you give great advice if you don’t to some extent persuade the recipient to heed your advice? If you’re engaged in an argument, isn’t the ultimate goal to persuade your opposite party to alter their stance?

Alongside this strange demarcation of writing into dubious triplets, is the idea that there is a corresponding list of features which students should learn in order to be successful at each ‘style’ of writing. Some even have handy acronyms to help memorise these features.  For persuasive writing, there’s AFOREST. I’ve seen AGONY AUNT for writing to advise too, and I’m sure there are many more. Now I don’t doubt that these acronyms have been useful to some. I’m sure they were created with good intentions to help students prepare for exams. After all, Dylan Willingham suggests acronyms can be a powerful way to aid memory. But, if pupils (or even worse teachers) look at the features in these acronyms as sufficient conditions for successful writing, then there’s something wrong. Simply including facts, opinions and rhetorical questions does not make your writing persuasive.

Not only, as Chris Curtis argues, does this view undermine the role of tone and intended effect, I think it also undermines the role or crafting your writing. If all you need to do is include ‘x’ to achieve a successful piece of writing, you probably won’t spend enough time questioning whether is particular well designed. Here, I believe, is where the elements of eloquence might come in handy.


Recently, I’ve been blogging about my students study of rhetoric, in terms of their reading and writing. Alongside this, I’ve also been reading Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence, a book which I think could be really useful for teachers of writing. In this brilliantly entertaining book, Forsyth introduces 39 rhetorical figures, explaining what they mean and giving examples of their use, from Cicero to Pulp Fiction, with John Lennon in between. For the rest of this post, I’ll try to explain why I think these rhetorical figures could be useful for teachers, more so than the feature-based acronyms which are commonly used.

The elements in context

In his recent blog on persuasive writing, Mark Miller emphasised the need to study persuasive writing techniques in context:

To explore persuasive techniques, I think it’s much more interesting to look at them in context, exploring the nuances of different techniques. Students need to spend longer exploring each one, how they work differently in a range of contexts and how they only make sense as part of a design by the writer. 

One problem with the ‘feature lists’ described above, is the difficulty in finding good examples or models to use with students. But, if you intend on introducing a rhetorical technique to your students, you can guarantee there will be a range of fantastic examples you can select, from a range of contexts. Take anaphora for example, the repetition of words at the start of sentences or phrases. You could focus on Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech, or Churchill’s repetition of We Shall Fight. But what about Dickens’ opening to Bleak house and the repetition of ‘fog’? Or, if you’d prefer an example from poetry and William Blake:

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Because these figures are part of a body of knowledge, there are superb examples ready to be explored.

Enriching our understanding of other texts

Towards the end of the book, Forsyth explains how the figures of rhetoric are widely used, even if unintentionally. Did the Beatles know they were using anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word of a clause at the start of the next clause, when they wrote ‘Here, There and Everywhere’?

They probably didn’t, and even though I’ve listened to this song dozens of times, I’ve never spotted it either. Now I listen with a new sense of admiration at their skillful anadiplosis.

One further example from Shakespeare. If, like me, you’ve taught Romeo and Juliet before, you’re probably familiar with Juliet’s line:

“I’ll look to like, if looking liking move”

I’ve used this line in class many times, discussing how Juliet seems to be avoiding her mother’s direct question about her disposition to marriage, yet somehow appeasing her mother at the same time. Students have noticed the repetition of the words and how this obscures her meaning somewhat. What I now notice, but hadn’t previously, is that this is a specific rhetorical technique. It’s ‘polyptoton’, the repetition of one word with a different grammatical form or meaning. Now I know this, I feel I have a greater understanding of Juliet’s skill with language and her deployment of this device to influence her mother.

Desirable Difficulties

Like the infamous ‘PEE’ acronym, I’m sure that the writing styles acronyms might help some weaker students get through their exams, which is a worthwhile goal. But, the drive to provide a list of simple techniques might be at the expense of exploring a more subtle range of interesting elements of language.

Let’s look at repetition, the ‘R’ of AFOREST. When you break it down, it’s really quite a fascinating area of rhetoric. Firstly, there’s anaphora and anadiplosis, which have already been discussed.

There’s also epizuexis like Blair’s ‘Education. Education. Education’ where words are repeated in exactly the same sense. (What are the first two rules of Fight Club?)

There’s also epistrophe, where words are repeated at the end of sentences, clauses or paragraphs. So when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s epistrophe, not just amore.

There’s also diacope, a bit of a repetition sandwich such as: ‘Bond, James Bond’ or ‘Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead.’

So, if we are asking students to use repetition, couldn’t we increase the challenge (and the interest) by exploring these different devices?

Aiming for eloquence

I think the problem most people have with the ‘feature list’ approach to writing, is that it doesn’t actually take much thought to drop in any of these features. You don’t necessarily have to think about your vocabulary choices, sentence structures, or the effects you intend if writing is about including a prescribed list of techniques.

In my opinion, rhetorical devices are not just another list of techniques to use instead, for three reasons I’ve stated above. They are part of our literary heritage, having been used in a variety of fascinating contexts and can enrich our understanding of other texts. Also, they require much more thought and much more crafting than a simple feature-list. You cannot simply ‘feature drop’ epistrophe into your writing, like you can a poor rhetorical question or a lazy statistic. It requires thought, experimentation and risk taking.

The elements of eloquence have eloquence as their goal. On their own, they can’t make writing more persuasive, or give more credence to advice. But, they can make writing more beautiful and more memorable, something which is important no matter what ‘style’ of writing a student might be attempting.

I’ll finish with a quote from Mark Forsyth:

Any figure overused, or used in the wrong place at the wrong time, will be a fault. But a figure used and used well, is the beauty of the English Language.


3 thoughts on “Persuasive Writing and the Elements of Eloquence

  1. Pingback: How we read each other’s minds | Psychology Videos

  2. Pingback: What do we want from the KS3 Curriculum? | mrbunkeredu

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