So I bummed this book from a neighbor. It’s a book on classic English rhetoric. Or verbal style.
She initially pulled it off her shelf to show me because of the name of the author: Ward Farnsworth.
Not an exact rendering of my last name (it’s Farnworth, no “s”). And that’s not pretentious posturing on my part — it has been that way for generations.
But it didn’t really matter who wrote the book. I fell in love with it on the spot.
Each chapter is devoted to a literary device like anaphora, chiasmus, and litotes That may sound like nonsense to you, but they’re just fancy words for rhetorical devices you’ll quickly recognize.
Furthermore, each device is broken down into subspecies, complete with examples from notable sources like Shakespeare, Churchill, Chesterton, and the Bible (and I threw in a few by Tupac Shukar, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Bob Dylan).
What is a literary device?
Before diving into these uncommon literary devices, let’s take a quick detour.
Talking about literary devices, figures of speech and writing style can be intimidating for many.
After scouring the web and referring to a few additional books, I didn’t come across an agreed upon definition of literary devices. So here’s my take:
Think about it this way.
When writing a story or making a point, you can just use the facts, which is totally fine for in some cases like journalism, or you can liven things up a bit with a literary device.
Here’s an example of a literary device to illustrate what I’m talking about:
The first sentence is just a statement about the rain. It is what it is. It’s like a reporter sharing her observation about today’s weather, and it doesn’t lead the reader to think anything specific about the rain.
The second sentence basically says the same thing. To make the rain come alive (“The rain played tag”), I used a literary device known as personification to create an image in the mind of the reader. I mean, who hasn’t tried to run away from the rain?
Literary devices are tools writers can use that are similar to tactics producers can use in film, television, or theater. By adding makeup, using costumes, or utilizing computer graphics, producers can create special effects to convey a specific visual.
Here’s one example of before-and-after scenes using special effects:
Sure, the producer could have asked the actor to wear a costume or put on makeup. But you have to admit; the computer graphics really takes the look of this character to the next level.
This is really how literary devices work in their basic form. They can add special effects to your writing and transform the experience of your readers.
Why literary devices are essential to web writing
There’s a lot of good substance out there. Hardly any style, though. This isn’t an accident.
Most people who peddle content are tradespeople first, writers second. In other words, their authority rests in a discipline other than writing.
Sometimes their content feels as if it’s meant to feed a machine when the creator will tell you plainly that is not the case. They are writing for people, which is one key to writing a blog post people will actually read.
Fair enough. But technical writers also write for people.
A list of literary devices to add style to your content
I look at some pieces, though, and I think the designer probably got paid really good money. The writer, not so much.
This is not to say style should be a pretentious exercise in drawing attention to itself. It should not be a navel-gazing sentence by James Joyce or a long-winded, baroque one from Faulkner (whom I adore).
Great web writing demands the plainness of Hemingway and the clarity of Orwell and the playfulness of E. E. Cummings. And you can do it while honoring the simplicity of Strunk.
And mastering these 12 uncommon literary devices from Mr. Farnsworth’s book is a great place to start if you are a greenhorn … a great place to beef up your skill set if you are a veteran. Enjoy.
Epizeuxis is a simple repetition of words and phrases. This literary device is often used for emphasis, and oftentimes, there are no additional words in between. The quick repetition of words or phrases will arrest the attention of your readers.
Anaphora is repetition at the beginning of successive statements. In writing or speeches, you can use this literary device to create an artistic effect, or you can repeat one phrase to weave together several points together.
Epistrophe is similar to anaphora, but with a twist—this literary device uses repetition of words or phrases at the end.
Abnadiplosis is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of a sentence. This literary device creates a sweet flow in certain forms of writing.
Polyptoton is unique in that it’s a repetition of the root word. For example, you can use similar words like “strength” and “strong” instead of just repeating the same word.
Isocolon is a literary device you can use to create parallel structures in your length and rhythm.
Chiasmus is a reversal structure used for artistic effect. With this literary device, you basically criss-cross phrases to convey a similar—not identical—meaning.
Anastrope refers to an inversion of words, which will make perfect sense in a moment (assuming your a fan of Star Wars). You can use this literary device to emphasize a word or phrase.
Polysyndeto is a literary device where you use extra conjunctions (e.g., and, but)—frequently in quick succession—to create a stylistic effect.
Asyndeton is a writing style where you leave out conjunctions to write direct statements for effect. If used correctly, this literary device can create a beautiful, memorable rhythm in your writing.
Litotes is a figure of speech you can use to affirm something positive by making an understatement. After you take a gander at the examples below, you’ll see that this literary device is commonly used in everyday conversations and popular literature.
In short, hypophora is when you ask a question and then answer the question you just asked. Unlike a rhetorical question, to use this literary device, you’ll need to answer the question you pose immediately.
Another warning literary devices and style
This could be an exercise in dilettantism. An argument for fashion over function. In the hard and fast competition found on a search results page, most people just want answers to their questions. They want substance over style. Function over fashion.
That, however, is only true in a market that is not saturated. If you hobnob in an industry drowning in competitors, on the other hand, then substance alone is not enough. You need style — among other things — to stand out.
So, bookmark this post, then carve out some time to study these devices.
Question: How many of these devices did I use in this article?
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