Overview of Rhetorical Styles

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how and why to use various rhetorical styles

What are Rhetorical Styles?

Non-fiction writing can be defined by sub-genres, sometimes referred to as the rhetorical styles, modes, or patterns, of communication. These are categories of types of writing, and they help us to anticipate the structure and purpose of the text itself. There are four main types of writing and (at least) nine different rhetorical modes.

A woman holding a stack of different books.

Figure 1. Just as books are categorized into different genres, your essays can also be classified into different types and/or styles of writing.

Types of Writing

There are four main types of writing: expository, persuasive, narrative, and descriptive. Each of these writing styles is used for a specific purpose, but a single text or essay typically employs more than one writing style. Below, we are going to discuss these four general categories of writing.

Of course there are more than four types of writing, however! For example, you may have written a process essay or a cause-and-effect essay, which can be considered sub-genres of the four main types of writing. Also, you may have encountered different names for some of the types of writing we will discuss below. Don’t worry! The goal isn’t to identify writing by a type but to learn the different styles and techniques associated with each type in order to be a skilled writer with a range of options at your disposal. After we discuss the four main types of writing, we will turn to some of the common rhetorical modes (like the argumentative essay) and discuss ways to approach these different types of writing tasks.

Key Takeaways

The goal is to be an organic writer, employing multiple styles and rhetorical modes to suit your writing purpose and audience. But sometimes it helps to see some examples and templates to understand how to get started.

Expository

Expository writing is one of the most common types of writing. When an author writes in an expository style, they are trying to explain a concept, imparting information from themselves to a wider audience. Expository writing does not include the author’s opinion but focuses on accepted ideas or facts about a topic, including statistics or other evidence. Examples of expository writing include:

  • Textbooks
  • How-to articles
  • Recipes
  • News stories (not editorials or Op-Eds)
  • Business, technical, or scientific writing

Persuasive

Persuasive writing is the main style of writing you will use in academic papers. When an author writes in a persuasive style, they are trying to convince the audience of their positions or beliefs. Persuasive writing contains the author’s opinions and biases, as well as justifications and reasons given by the authors as evidence of the correctness of their positions. Any “argumentative” essay you write in school will be in the persuasive style of writing. Examples of persuasive writing include:

  • Argumentative essays
  • Cover letters
  • Op-Eds and Editorial newspaper articles
  • Reviews of items
  • Letters of complaint
  • Advertisements
  • Letters of recommendation

Narrative

Narrative writing is used in almost every longer piece of writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. When an author writes in a narrative style, they are not just trying to impart information, they are trying to construct and communicate a story, complete with characters, conflict, and settings. Examples of narrative writing include:

  • Oral histories
  • Novels/Novellas
  • Poetry (especially epic sagas or poems)
  • Short Stories
  • Anecdotes

Descriptive

Descriptive writing is often found in fiction, though it can make an appearance in nonfiction as well (for example, memoirs, first-hand accounts of events, or travel guides). When an author writes in a descriptive style, they are painting a picture in words of a person, place, or thing for their audience. The author might employ metaphor or other literary devices in order to describe the author’s impressions via their five senses (what they hear, see, smell, taste, or touch). But the author is not trying to convince the audience of anything or explain the scene – merely describe things as they are. Examples of descriptive writing include:

  • Poetry
  • Journal/diary writing
  • Descriptions of Nature
  • Fictional novels or plays

Again, it’s important to keep in mind that the essays you write in college may incorporate more than one of the types of writing. For example, in a research paper, you will probably include description of the events or ideas under consideration, and you may even employ narrative as you describe those events or ideas to your reader. You are likely going to be using expository writing to explain the concepts and events you are discussing to your reader. And finally, you are likely to employ some elements of persuasion in order to make the case to your reader about why the events or ideas under consideration in your essay matter or what takeaways you suggest.

Rhetorical Styles

Keeping these four main writing styles in mind, we can break down types of writing assignments even further and consider the types of rhetorical modes, or patterns, needed to be successful within the various types of writing. For example, expository writing may rely on the rhetorical styles of comparison, classification, definition, illustration, or process. Persuasive writing will use an argumentative style, but may also still involve cause and effect rhetorical patterns, illustration, or others.

Some generally recognized rhetorical patterns include:

  • argumentative/persuasive: defending a certain point of view; writing that persuades
  • comparison (compare and contrast): a rhetorical style that discusses the similarities and differences of two or more things
  • cause and effect: a rhetorical style that discusses which events lead to specific results
  • illustration: writing that gives examples
  • narration: writing that tells stories
  • personal essay: a kind of writing often used for college, graduate school, and scholarship applications but also to tell a personal story about oneself
  • description: a rhetorical style that uses the five senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell) and other details to provide the reader with a vivid idea or picture of what is being represented
  • definition: structured around the goal of defining a term, concept, or idea; writing that tells what something means
  • classification and division: a rhetorical style that, in essay format, takes a whole and splits it up into parts and then places the divided information into various categories; writing that sorts things into groups
  • process: a rhetorical style that provides step-by-step directions or guidance; writing that explains how things happen

You probably have some experience with rhetorical styles. Maybe you have had to write a compare and contrast essay, or perhaps you learned about using a descriptive style in a narrative essay. Remember, most essays contain more than one rhetorical style, but some essay assignments will follow one particular style more than others.

For example, an essay that discusses the various means of taking courses may give examples of how each student would manage his or her time while taking a specific course. The writer may use the illustration rhetorical style to give examples of time management techniques in one of the paragraphs in a classification and division essay. In this case, since the essay categorizes the various means of taking courses, the essay may be called a classification and division essay—even though the illustration rhetorical style is present.

Once you learn the various rhetorical styles, you’ll have a variety of tools to help you as you develop your writing assignments.

Again, most writing will use a variety of strategies in a single essay. Practicing each separately, however, helps in learning the techniques of organization distinct to the individual strategy. Students then learn to draw from a full palette of techniques to paint your ideas in writing. For example, you can’t tell a good story (narration), without description, you might provide examples when comparing items, and you will present causes and effects as part of logical reasoning in an argument.

We will take a look at seven types of rhetorical styles on the coming pages. If you’re interested in learning more and seeing examples of the other types, visit the Excelsior OWL website on rhetorical styles.

Glossary

expository: writing that aims to explain or describe something

genre: a category of composition characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter

rhetorical style: common patterns and characteristics in effective and persuasive communication shared by certain types of writing

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