Rhetorical Devices: Finishing Touches to Make Your Writing Sing

Assorted toolsMark Twain is famous for this quote about writing: “Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.”

We often think that in longer works such as novels that we don’t necessarily have to worry about the succinctness or tightness of our writing. We have a large word count to work with. And yet, even in a novel, tight writing can create a better craft, can create art. Rhetorical devices can help your writing pack a punch with fewer words. These techniques have stood the test of time because they work on a psychological level for your readers.

Once you get the framework of your story down, it’s time to add the decorative touches that make your writing sing. These are devices that amplify emotion, carry a weight of meaning. These work not only for fiction but nonfiction as well. In fact, using creative writing techniques in nonfiction will help bring it to life and keep it from sounding boring and flat.

For all of us Pencildancers, we love Margie Lawson’s classes on adding these finishing touches to your writing. She has a great system for going through your WIP and highlighting different sections to work on. It’s called Deep Editing. We all would highly recommend her course.

At the end, I’ll list all the rhetorical devices. I’m sure you can Google them and discover more. But there is no need to memorize them or use all of them in your work. Develop a handful, like your favorite tools, that you use skillfully in your work.

Diana talked about three last week : allusion, conduplicatio, and epizeuxis. I’m going to discuss four more: anaphora, asyndeton, polysyndeton, and understatement.


Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three or four successive clauses or sentences. Sometimes there is a fourth repetition later, usually as the last line or a stand-alone sentence in its own paragraph.

I’m going to be trying out these devices for my WIP, tentatively titled Promise Me, releasing May 2017. Let’s see how this first one works.

“Promise me you won’t forget to check on the cake.” Grandma bent over to look Cait in the eye.

Cait nodded.

Grandma gave her a small smile and grasped Cait’s chin. “Promise me you’ll read your Bible every day. Promise me you’ll check on the garden, even in the winter. Promise me you’ll teach someone else all that I’ve taught you.”

Cait nodded. “I promise.” She’d do whatever Grandma said. She knew so much. But why was she being so serious today?

The repetition creates a rhythm. And when something is repeated, we pay attention, we know it’s important. It pulls out the emotion. We know there is a reason Grandma wants Cait to make those promises. There is something serious and important going on here.


Omitting conjunctions between words and phrases in a list of three or more.

Cait had her routine. Every morning, steaming cup of tea in hand, she stepped into the garden behind her renovation-in-process farmhouse. Walking between the raised beds, she touched the leaves, felt the soil, gauged their growth, looked for pests. She could nearly do it in her sleep.

It’s a subtle difference, but the lack of the pause the conjunction gives us deepens the emotion. In this case, we get the sense of habit, routine, almost ritual like (see what I did there?). It’s an easy device to use. Most likely you already do.


This is almost the opposite of the device above. The “a” in Greek means without. Here we have “poly” which means many. So as you might guess, instead of having no conjunctions, you would have many. You probably already use this one as well.

Cait looked out over the strawberry fields, emerald rows and rows and rows stretching back to the foothills.

Again, we get the rhythm and repetition that tells our brain to sit up and notice. Something important is happening here.


Shares an idea in a way that makes is sound less important than it is.

Grayson stepped into his office. A pile of papers had grown on his desk overnight, thanks to his too-efficient admin. He flipped through them. Contracts, legal descriptions, owners’ rolls. He peered into the mug he held.

He was going to need more coffee.

It often works great as a stand-alone sentence in a paragraph. Or the ending chapter/scene hook.

Combining Devices

Think about how each of these examples above (or in your own writing) might be punched up even more if combined with alliteration or onomatopoeia. You have rhythm from repetition and then adding sounds to that can pack a punch. Instead of “emerald rows,” I could have written “rippling rows.” I could have had Cait “touched the leaves, tap the soil, gauged their growth, grasp (ick!) for pests.” It adds another layer.

Have fun with these. See where you can use them in your work. If you have a scene that’s not working, try some of these out to see if you can pack that extra punch!


  1. Alliteration — repeating initial consonant sounds. They may be juxtaposed, adjacent to each other, or they may be spread out in a sentence or across several sentences.
  2.  Allusion — a quick reference to a famous person or event.
  3.  Amplification — repeating a word or phrase and adding more detail in order to emphasize a point.
  4.  Anadiplosis –- repeating the last word of one sentence at the beginning of the next sentence, or very near the beginning of the next sentence.
  5.  Analogy — comparing two things that are alike in several ways.
  6.  Anaphora –- repeating a word or phrase at beginning of three (or four) successive phrases or sentences.
  7.  Antithesis — contrasting two ideas, often juxtaposing them in a parallel structure.
  8.  Asyndeton –- omitting conjunctions between words and phrases in a list of three or more.
  9.  Conduplicatio — starting a sentence with a keyword from a previous sentence. Think duplicate word.
  10.  Epistrophe — the counterpart to anaphora. Repeating the last word or final phrase in three (or four) subsequent phrases or sentences.
  11.  Epizeuxis — the repetition of a word for emphasis.
  12.  Eponym — referring to a famous person who is recognized for an attribute and substituting their name for that attribute–not mentioning the attribute, as in, “He’s such an Einstein.”
  13.  Hyperbole — a deliberate exaggeration.
  14.  Hypophora — similar to a rhetorical question—only the question is answered.  Usually, the explanation is lengthy.
  15.  Litote — a form of understatement where the words deny the opposite of the word expected to be used. It frequently uses the word NOT.
  16.  Metabasis –- a quick summary, a brief statement, of what has happened and what will happen.  A transitional summary.
  17.  Metaphor — comparing two different things by asserting that one thing is the other or has properties of the other.
  18.  Onomatopoeia — using words that imitate the sound the word describes.
  19.  Oxymoron — a two-word paradox.  An ironic contrast.
  20.  Parallelism — refers to recurrent syntactical similarity.  Parts of sentences are parallel in structure.
  21.  Personification — metaphorically attributing animal or inanimate objects with human attributes.
  22.  Polysyndeton — using a conjunction (usually AND or OR) between a series of words in a list of three or more. Think many conjunctions.
  23.  Rhetorical Question — raising a question that is not answered.
  24.  Simile — comparing two different things that resemble each other.  LIKE and AS usually introduce similes.
  25.  Symploce — using ANAPHORA and EPISTROPHE in the same sentence.
  26.  Understatement — sharing an idea as less important than it is.

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