How to Read: Part 4 – The Rhetoric Stage

Rhetoric is the third part of the trivium, and it is basically the art of persuasion.

In his introduction Write Like the Masters, William Cane writes:

[Rhetoric is] much more than verbal volleyball and pontificating propagandism. Rhetoric also encompasses methods of being felicitous with words as well as techniques for mastering style. Rhetoric, among other things, teaches how to contrive an introduction that will seduce a reader, take him by the nose, and never let him go until he reaches the last paragraph. You want to do that don’t you? Of course you do!

Allow me, then, to introduce you to one aspect of rhetoric, one teensy-weensy aspect of it that can literally salvage your writing career, infuse your style with new vim and vigor, and give you a voice equal to the voices of the best and brightest who came before you. It’s all […] about the classical rhetorical technique of imitation.

Yes, you heard that right: imitation. Imitation is a right of passage that all writers and artists go through. It is the process of learning what came before, so that you can incorporate it in your own work.

I can hear the whiney protests already. Won’t imitation stunt my originality? Hell, no!

Think of all the hours classical musicians spend practicing songs by Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Think of all the years the Beatles spent doing covers of Chuck Berry and Smokey Robinson. Think of Tony Hawk practicing half-pipe moves that had been introduced by the Zephyr skateboard team a generation earlier. Think of Picasso, as a child, painting still-lifes and portraits in the vein of the realists who came before him. While you’re at it, think of every great technological and scientific discovery dating back to the invention of the wheel.

Every great human accomplishment is built on the shoulders of those who come before. Why would writing be any different?

Imitation, in one’s writing, is both inspiration and participation in the great human conversation that transcends nationality and time. As Stephen King writes in his memoir, On Writing, “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

Here is how imitation can transform your writing and help you get to the next level.

Step 1: Pick a technique you want to practice.

This may be showing vs telling, characterization, cliff-hangers, transitions, psychic distance, or using more sensory and significant details. You probably have a good sense of what your weaknesses are. If you don’t, I recommend starting with one of the basic techniques I outline in the Logic blog post.

Note: It’s important to focus on only one technique at a time. Any more than one and you will probably get overloaded. For super newbie writers, just finishing a story might be hard enough.

Step 2: Find an author who uses that technique well: read, analyze.

At this point you will probably read over some of your craft essays or write a new one. (If you need some help, Write Like the Masters is basically a collection of William Cane’s craft essays about Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Hemingway, and many others.)

If you really want to get nerdy, you’ll also write some step-by-step instructions for how you can do the technique yourself.

If the technique is a short one, you might try practicing it by following those step-by-step instructions in a brief exercise, as I did in my blog post on August Rodin’s sculpture, The Danaide. I recommend using a character you are already familiar with, one you are currently writing about or one you intend to write.

After you’ve written that short exercise, check your work by reading your instructions and the original example you used for your craft essay. Did you accomplish what you set out to do? Better still, get an impartial opinion by having a buddy check your work.

Step 3: Put that technique into practice in your next story.

As John Gardner says in his wonderful book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, “exercises should not be substituted for the writing of actual short stories, [essays], or novels.”

This is where the rubber meets the road. Get out there, tiger, and write, Write, WRITE!

Common concerns about imitation:

It will ruin my “voice.”

I knew a young woman who was resentful of her creative writing teachers giving her writing exercises she felt she had spent her high school years “carefully cultivating her voice.” This is like a grown person saying they weren’t interested in dating because they have carefully cultivated their virginity.

Why would you rob yourself of the experience and variety of seeing how other people do things?

When you are young and just starting out, you should drink in as much experience as you can. Have an exciting life. Read widely and deeply. Anyone who has been writing for less than ten years has not yet earned the right to claim they have “a voice.”

But I don’t want to be influenced.

Whenever I read writers I admire, I pray that some of their genius will rub off on me. However, it’s legitimate to be worried about accidentally lifting something that isn’t yours. Some writers are so worried about accidentally plagiarizing something they read that, while they are writing, they read in a different genre (or even in a different language) from the one they are working in.

For starters, it’s important to know what is and isn’t plagiarism. Plagiarism is a topic too large and complicated to be covered here, but here’s the gist: lifting a joke or a clever phrase from an author you’ve read—that is plagiarism; practicing a technique you’ve read using your own characters, dialogue, setting, plot events, and details—that’s writing.

When you are editing a story you’ve written, keep an eye out for any clever phrases that sound like something you’ve read or heard before. If it even smells like something you’ve read before, than it’s a clue that you haven’t been original enough. See this as an opportunity to go deeper into your rewrite. Don’t waste time with cliches or surface-level creativity. Try to capture who your characters really are.

If I don’t research the field, then I won’t be accused of copying.

This was another thing I once heard in workshop, where a writer was working on a novel set in a post-apocalyptic setting after a global pandemic killed most of the human population—a very popular genre that has already been covered by such titans as Stephen King’s The Stand and George R. Stewart’s The Earth Abides.

The novel chapters I read in workshop were really good and they showed a lot of promise; however, the writer didn’t want to read any other post-apocalyptic pandemic novels until she had finished hers.

While I understand wanting to restrict one’s reading until a first draft is done, I think this writer was trying to avoid one trap by falling into another one: the trap of wasting your time because you’re marching down well-trodden territory. I think that by knowing what came before you, it puts you in the powerful position of being able to add something new to the conversation.

But I want to be “original”.

Every story has already been told before. Uniqueness is in the execution, and in your vision.

Your morals, your thoughts, your sensibilities, your fears, your dreams, your visceral experiences—those are what will make your story unique.

But I’m a (freewriter, seat-of-the-pants writer, discovery-writer, etc.) I write from the gut. I write on instinct. Won’t focusing too much on craft ruin that?

For some of you, focusing too much on craft during your first draft might cause you to seize-up and freeze. If this sounds like you, just write your first draft and put that critical eye aside until your second draft.

It’s still important to learn these craft techniques because there may come a day when your “gut instinct” abandons you. When that day comes, you’ll have these craft tools to fall back on.

But won’t understanding how stories are put together ruin the “magic”?

The paradox in becoming a magician is that you realize “magic” is just an illusion that was accomplished after many hours of tedious practice. For writers (and magicians), your motivation must change from wanting to be passively entertained to wanting to entertain others, bring joy to others. You must make the shift from audience, to craftsman.

But, if you start feeling burnt out by all this craft stuff, I recommend taking a break. Read an author you love, or listen to audiobooks for a while. Try to remember the joy you felt in being totally sucked into a story.

Ask yourself if you really want to be a writer. I know a number of people who always thought they wanted to be writers, but once they got down to it, they realized they didn’t enjoy writing.

Life is too short to spend a significant portion of it doing something you hate.

There is no shame in realizing who you are and who you aren’t. If what you really love is reading, why not do that? I would argue that the world needs more well-informed readers—especially in the book industry. You may not be Don Quixote, but you might have the makings of one hell of a Sancho Panza.


Suggested reading:

  • The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer
  • Write Like the Masters by William Cane
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Series Navigation<< How to Read: Part 3 – The Logic StageHow to Read: Part 5 – John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism >>

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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