The Finger Exercises of Rhetoric

August 18, 2017 Updated August 15, 2017

“If you can’t write your idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.” —David Belasco

On a September night in 1969 I discovered style while writing a social studies paper for Miss Carmeen. I’ve forgotten the exact topic, but I do remember being seated in front of a dark brown Royal typewriter trying to effect the tone of my favorite writer. As I told my mother, “I’m using my Eric Sevareid style.” That was back when television journalists were writers. My imitation was certainly overly prepositional and wordy. And Miss Carmeen must have wondered why S.E. Hinton wasn’t an 8th grader’s favorite writer? A few weeks later, having moved on to e.e. cummings, i dropped the use ofuppercaselettersspacesandpunctuation. But I distinctly recall that evening as the moment when how I wrote seemed as important as what I wrote.

If we consider the beginning reader developing phonemological awareness, grasping how sounds make sense in their native language, we can’t help but wonder about Middle school students who are also still learning their native language. Phonics, sounding out syllables and words, tactile exercises like drawing in sand to associate letter shape with sound, mnemonics, are the supports at the outset of this crucial learning curve. As middle schoolers begin to add an appreciation of style it requires finger exercises, as it would for any budding instrumentalist developing a musical ear and the nuances of interpretation. Young children are at work distinguishing the sight of letters and the sounds and sense that words make; older children are working on the effects of those sounds when strung together in the rhetoric of sentences and paragraphs. To practice 'the elements of style,' one needs to be assigned 'scales' before playing an arpeggio.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. We may be tempted to think that writing doesn't matter as much as it used to, or that the rules have changed. There is a tantalizing visual over-stimulation to our age. Still, the written word abounds. Contemporary texts may be conveyed in digital bytes rather than paper and ink—the medium is, in part, the message—but we are still writers and readers. While web-surfing we may be disguised as viewers, but we are still consumers of written language. Gargantuan book sellers market products digitally, but they are still selling paper and ink. 500 years into Gutenberg's publishing revolution, books remain the prevalent technology for random access memory! And millions of years into the rituals of adolescent development for our species, today’s teenager processes information in a profoundly different way due to the “mosaic” visual patterns of the electronic media to which they seem native. However, verbal messages still arrive in linear form, revealing meaning from left to right. Could email be stimulating the 19th century convention, letter writing? Yes, to which it adds its own conventions. Contemporary language races to conform. Brevity remains the soul of wit—and threatens to sell the soul of everything else. I don't suggest we email with the syntax of Henry James.

If the syntax and vocabulary repertoire of the next generation is truncated by this ethic of brevity, will there be a commensurate shrinking of the repertoire of meaning? Let’s hope not. The antidote is to cultivate large vocabularies and an understanding of the complex connotation of words. Here on the molecular level of written expression, we learn the potential of what Donald Hall calls the “insides of words,” their connotation, their musical sounds, their aura, their beat. We watch for the pictures in words, and strive to create something more than a mere message in our writing. W.H. Auden advised the young poet, you must love “hanging around with words”—more than having “something important to say.” How shall we, as mentors of young writers and sponsors of a life-long passion for language, hang around with words in our middle level classrooms? Don’t be ashamed of finding the lowest common denominator. For a start, less is more.

Examine the number of daily single-word writing exercises that require well-chosen words; shopping lists, recipes, menus, wish lists, guest lists, homework lists. A list may seem plain, concrete, and quotidian. We take them for granted. This may not be the language we seek out in literature; it is the language that surrounds us in daily life and the starting point of visual detail, characterization, plot, style and rhetoric. Language began with naming. The decisions made by the creator of an imaginative or accurate shopping list are not different from the decisions of a novelist. And what does a young writer learn if asked to generate an imaginative recipe, shopping list, guest list of a particular character in literature; for a particular occasion; with a particular emotional quality? For instance, what sort of nouns and modifiers would one choose to successfully convey the thoughts of a character running away from a violent father? Mark Twain did:

I took the sack of corn meal and took it to where the canoe was hid, and shoved the vines and branches apart and put it in; then I done the same with the side of bacon; then the whisky-jug. I took all the coffee and sugar there was, and all the ammunition; I took the wadding; I took the bucket and gourd; took a dipper and a tin cup, and my old saw and two blankets, and the skillet and the coffee-pot. I took fish-lines and matches and other things— everything that was worth a cent. I cleaned out the place. I wanted an ax, but there wasn’t any, only the one out at the woodpile, and I knowed why I was going to leave that. I fetched out the gun, and now I was done.

Here is Huck’s list: cornmeal, bacon, whisky, coffee, sugar, ammo, bucket, dipper, cup, saw, blankets, skillet, coffee pot. . . etc. Not much, in and of itself. But it's a start; an exercise, a finger exercise. Let’s fast forward and turn it into an assignment for a young writer/reader: “Write Harry Potter’s packing list for his first quarter at Hogwarts School. Include several objects that signify comfort and several that signify worry.” What conversations might occur in class as we consider how emotions are conveyed by things. What are the mini characterizations and plots within word choice alone? Thus, students learn the minutiae of authorial intent: How does a writer build the layers of character on the canvas of a paragraph? What are the decisions involved in every single word choice?

Where do many middle schoolers regularly encounter bursts of carefully chosen rhetoric in a medium they value? The World Wide Web. Could this be a teaching tool? Consider the accuracy crucial to the hierarchical word lists of a website, which all kids seem to navigate with some innate, congenital compass. Think of how a search engine locates information based on words. A valuable writing exercise can be made from a website creation. What would the Huck Finn links be for Chapter X of his adventures? Creating “The Harry Potter Quidditch Website” would require a great deal of careful thought and choice about the “insides of words” for it to express understanding of the character and plot, and be helpful to a viewer.

A reticent writer will have an easier time creating meaningful or imaginative lists than creating meaningful or imaginative writings of great length or complexity in a genre they do not understand. Their inability to execute a long form may stem as much from the abstractness of the genre as from lack of verbal skills. How many middle level kids with great imaginations agonize over their 5-8 paragraph essay, research project or book report? Beginning with brief writings of exacting quality will set them on the path to comfort with more complex descriptions, characterizations or interpretations because they will think about the “insides” of words. They will also think more critically of the vibrant, active, evolving language that stimulates their behavior every day; the vernacular to which they are contributing. Length will be achieved later, but it is quality and that passion for language that ought to be the highest priority at the middle level. As Eric Sevareid said: “One good word is worth a thousand pictures.”

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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