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I am a new writer learning to write. Before I can write, I am learning how to read critically and analytically. Recently, I read a book on style, which gives good analyses on the rhetoric of a few excerpts of other people's writings. But the book is mainly on style and these examples are few and sparing.

One example that I find fascinating is its analysis of a short excerpt of Joan Didion's "The White Album."

On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law's swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski's house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day's misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.

The book pointed out that the author deliberately put what would otherwise be shocking facts in the least emphatic places of the sentences to make them feel mundane, because evil was familiar and inevitable and it was just a matter of when and how.

This is something I would never have figured out on my own. My question then is how I can get more "worked" examples like this. I wonder if there exist books and resources that analyze and critique other people's writings like this example, both at the sentence level and at higher levels.

  • Tom, if my answer below correctly identifies your interest as being more narrowly focused on rhetoric rather than general style, might I suggest editing the question title or details to help other contributors address your true area of interest? – wordsworth Jul 27 at 8:24
  • Hi Wordsworth, thanks for the suggestion and sorry in advance for my ignorance. In this particular example, the effect is achieved by putting shocking information in the middle of the sentences. For example, it says "when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski's house on Cielo Drive" instead of ""she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard that over on Cielo drive, at Roman Polanski's house, Sharon Tate and others had been murdered." Is this a rhetorical device? – Tom Bennett Jul 27 at 9:43
  • You're welcome. I would say absolutely this is a deliberate rhetorical choice, and therefore the method through which it was achieved is a rhetorical device. That analysis identified a specific framework of the language that accomplishes the emotional or persuasive effect of downplaying the shock value. I don't happen to know if this one has an accepted name or is a particularly prominent one, but you may be able to figure that out as you read up on rhetoric! – wordsworth Jul 27 at 10:04
  • I added a new resource to my answer below, looks like a great place to go after getting a summary intro! – wordsworth Jul 27 at 18:51
  • It feels to me hat the author also purposefully wrote that to made the atrocity feel mundane. IOW, you can imagine many ways to write the excerpt that tries to build up to that zinger at the end. But the author either never wrote those bits or, my bet, pruned them out, judiciously. Don't try to write a perfect draft first, but do keep 'killing darlings' and so on as fantastic tools to employ. – DPT Jul 27 at 23:02
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What you are looking for are resources on rhetorical analysis and/or rhetorical criticism. These are critical works that study a work of writing (written or orally delivered) not for its content but its structure, in order to elucidate how the author makes their argument compelling.

Rhetorical criticism is an ancient art, and the modern practices trace their roots to classical Greece and particularly to Plato. You'll find that summaries of the field often start here and then add in more modern approaches. It's also the reason most rhetorical devices have unnecessarily difficult Greek names, even in English discussions of literature.

I'm afraid I don't have firsthand experience with any significant teaching resources directly on the topic, but I did pick up some basics in many courses on ancient literature*, enough to point you in the right direction. Here are a few places I would recommend starting a search, especially since this seems to be a new discipline for you:

The Wikipedia page on Rhetorical Criticism gives a brief, basic overview of the different approaches to modern rhetorical criticism.

This Questia page on Rhetorical Criticism has a great summary of the discipline and its history, and it also also lists about 15 books and articles on the topic.

(If you want to compare books on the list, I'd recommend looking for book reviews. Here's a great resource on finding quality reviews of scholarly works: How do I find reviews? -- University of Chicago Library)

Brigham Young University has a nice website on rhetoric, Silva Rhetoricae (Latin for "the Forest of Rhetoric"), which has a couple dozen pages introducing various concepts of rhetoric, and a long dictionary of rhetorical devices with examples.

You may be more interested in starting out with some basic lists or glossaries of rhetorical devices, which can help you get a good grasp on analytical definition and classification, and which are easier to navigate than a comprehensive dictionary full of unfamiliar terms. Rhetorical devices include structural devices, figures of speech, types of wordplay, different methods of exaggeration and repetition, and miscellaneous violations of logical grammar for effect. Once you know these terms and what they mean it will be much easier for you to seek out specific examples of each.

A few lists that include examples:

50 Rhetorical Devices for Rational Writing, By Mark Nichol

21 Rhetorical Devices Explained, BY PAUL ANTHONY JONES (Mental Floss)

30 Rhetorical Devices — And How to Use Them, Reedsy

*Classics programs embed some amount of rhetorical criticism in most courses because rhetorically rich, persuasive texts tend to survive better than others, and many of those that aren't Plato himself were involved in intertextual discourse with Plato and the Greek philosophers--even from centuries later and hundreds of miles away. Rhetorical training was also considered a significant part of a good education (for men, who were encouraged to be involved in the public and political spheres, and up until the 20th century, at least), so many artful political speeches, ancient and modern, display quite a bit of rhetorical skill. Any stylistic analysis of ancient writers will probably hold some interest for you, but that's not the first place I'd recommend you look.

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