Why Writers Use Description As A Rhetorical Strategy Essay

Rhetorical Strategies

Rhetorical strategies are also called rhetorical modes. These strategies or modes provide writers with a way to structure or analyze essays and paragraphs. This section will focus on the use of rhetorical modes to build paragraphs and essays.

Let's take a look at the term "rhetorical mode" and define each word.

RhetoricalThe word rhetorical is the adjective form of rhetoric. Remember that an adjective describes a noun or a pronoun. The adjective rhetorical describes or modifies the noun mode. The root word of "rhetorical" is "rhetoric." Rhetoric is the art or technique of speaking and writing effectively.
ModeA mode is a way of doing something, a pattern or model.

Rhetorical modes give writers models or patterns for expressing their ideas effectively. What are the rhetorical modes or strategies that are traditionally taught in college composition classes?


Good description creates vivid images in the mind of a reader. A writer may be asked to do objective description, where he or she must relate the physical appearance of a person or place without suggesting any feeling or emotion. Most likely, however, writers will be called upon to write subjective description, where the feelings of the writer are made obvious by the word choices in the description. Think of description as taking a picture. In a picture, the objects are static (they do not move), but the picture itself tells a story.


A narrative tells a story. Obviously, stories take place somewhere, and there are things and people in most stories. Therefore, most narratives will include some description. Narratives focus on action. What happens? The answer to this question is what narration is all about. Narratives have a point, the main idea, the theme. If you think of description as a static picture, then think of narration as a movie, a film. The different sections of the narrative can be considered "scenes" in a film.

For an example of a short essay that combines description and narration please read "Salvation" by Langston Hughes.

Click here to read "Salvation" by Langston Hughes. You will have to scroll down a bit, but the complete essay is there.

Exemplification (Example)

We learn by example, and when we read, examples allow us to learn more quickly than if we do not have examples. An example usually describes a real-life situation about the idea that you, the writer, are trying to convey. For example (see, I am using an example here), if the topic sentence of a paragraph is that "Traffic in Miami is horrible," then you might want to describe a situation of stalled traffic on the Palmetto Expressway at 5:10 PM on a Tuesday afternoon, with slowdowns and cars honking. You might want to let the reader know the time it takes to drive from West Kendall to Coral Gables at 8:00 AM on a Monday morning. You might want to describe the construction work on US 1 in Naranja and Goulds and how that construction restricts traffic to a single lane. Examples clarify your general point, whether you write a paragraph or an essay.

The University of North Carolina has an excellent web page on developing a paragraph using examples.

Click here for UNC web page on developing a paragraph using examples.

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect, as the name implies, examines the causes of a certain condition or event. It may also examine the results (or effects) of that same event. But before we can ever talk about causes or effects, there must be an event, the thing itself. Let's take as an example, World War I. If we write an essay where we discuss the events that led up to World War I (or The "Great War"), then we are examining the causes of World War I. If we write an essay where we discuss things that happened after World War I, or because of World War I, then we are examining the effects of World War I. Let's look at another example, violence on television. Many students want to write about the effects of violence on television, but before they discuss the effects, they should tell their readers what exactly IS violence on television. In other words, describe the thing itself before discussing the causes or the effects.

Slate magazine publishes some of the best contemporary essays, and, not coincidentally, these essays illustrate the many rhetorical modes discussed here. Take a look at the following essay, which attempts to explain why professional cyclists use performance enhancing drugs.

Lance Armstrong Charged: Why is There So Much Doping in Professional Cycling?

Comparison and Contrast

We use comparison to show how two things are alike or similar; we use contrast to show how two things are different. Typically, we compare things that differ from each other. I n other words, there has to be sufficient differences between them to make it interesting or worth our while to compare. Take, for example, the difference between grocery shopping at a supermarket, like Publix, and registering for classes at a university. These activities differ substantially, but they are alike in some ways. If you discuss their similarities, you are using comparison.

Contrast, on the other hand, focuses on the differences between two things. This observation suggests that those two things should be so alike that discussing their differences is interesting or relevant. Take, for example, two computer operating systems, Microsoft Windows and Linux. Operating systems perform the similar functions on a computer. If you discuss the differences between Windows and Linux, you are using contrast.

Remember that there must be a purpose to your comparison or contrast. Are you comparing Windows and Linux to make a recommendation for installing them at a workplace? Are you contrasting grocery shopping and registering for classes at a university to reduce the anxiety that students may have about registering for classes? There must be a purpose or a point for your writing. Otherwise, comparison and contrast becomes an empty exercise, a simple drill.

A blogger who calls himself "The Baseball Crank" writes an excellent comparison between two great pitchers, Bob Gibson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, and while I might disagree with his conclusion, his essay demonstrates comparison and contrast extremely well.

Click here for the essay comparing and contrasting Bob Gibson with Grover Cleveland Alexander.

Process Analysis

Process analysis asks the question "How?" Specifically, a process analysis paragraph or essay answers the question, "How does this process occur?" Process analysis is different from giving instructions; in instructions, the purpose is to guide someone through a procedure. In process analysis, the purpose is to explain that procedure. Some examples of process analysis would be to explain how a volcano erupts, how blood flows through the body, how a seed germinates, how a device moves through a factory, how children are tested for autism. But be careful. If you answer the question, "How do you study for a test?" you are giving instructions, not explaining a process.

Slate magazine has some excellent process analysis articles. Take a look at this one, about making vinaigrette:

You're Doing It Wrong: Vinaigrette

Here is one on making humus:

A Hummus Recipe That's Way Better Than Store-Bought


Classification looks at a diverse group of objects (a heterogeneous group) and looks for similarities. The writer then creates categories based on those similarities and labels each category. Humor is often, but not always, the intent of writing a classification essay. For example, a student may choose to write an essay classifying students at her school. Such categories may include any of the following: the overachievers, the techies, the jocks, and the club rats. The writer would describe each of these categories in a paragraph, using humorous language and giving examples.


Division takes one item and breaks it up into its constituent parts. The purpose of a division paragraph or essay is usually for the reader to understand the item in question. Whereas classification looks at a heterogeneous (different) group of objects, division looks at ONE object, or system, only. The writer then takes that one object, describes its different components, and shows how those components interact as a part of the whole.


When we use the term "definition" in rhetorical modes, we usually have two types in mind, sentence definitions and extended definitions.

Sentence Definition

A sentence definition usually sits in apposition to the term that is defined. The definition is usually right next to the term, set off within commas. This technique is called apposition, when a writer defines a term within a sentence by explaining what the term is in a short phrase that is set off in commas. Take a look at the following example.

Sentence Definition: The Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico, along the east coast of the U.S, was mainly responsible for the deserted raft landing so far north of Florida.

Extended Definition

An extended definition, on the other hand, uses sentence definition along with other rhetorical modes, to communicate to a reader the essence of a term.

David Foster Wallace gives us a great example of definition used within a larger essay (click here) in his famous piece, 'Consider the Lobster.' Paragraphs 2 - 5 define the term lobster explicitly, but Wallace goes on to add additional bits of information about the lobster throughout the article."

These rhetorical modes or rhetorical strategies are useful in writing paragraphs, short essays, and research papers.

Links for the Use of Rhetorical Modes

The sites listed below give you additional information about the rhetorical modes.

  • Bill Stifler

    Don't let the text-heavy first page of this link dissuade you. Bill Stifler provides an excellent discussion of the rhetorical modes. He writes well. Students who want to learn the rhetorical modes well would do well to visit this site.

  • Richard Jewell, University of Minnesota

    Chapter A5 of Dr. Jewell's online handbook provides a thorough discussion of the rhetorical modes.

Using Rhetorical Strategies for Persuasion


These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.

Contributors: Stacy Weida, Karl Stolley
Last Edited: 2013-03-11 12:56:30

There are three types of rhetorical appeals, or persuasive strategies, used in arguments to support claims and respond to opposing arguments. A good argument will generally use a combination of all three appeals to make its case.


Logos or the appeal to reason relies on logic or reason. Logos often depends on the use of inductive or deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning takes a specific representative case or facts and then draws generalizations or conclusions from them. Inductive reasoning must be based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence. In other words, the facts you draw on must fairly represent the larger situation or population. Example:

Fair trade agreements have raised the quality of life for coffee producers, so fair trade agreements could be used to help other farmers as well.

In this example the specific case of fair trade agreements with coffee producers is being used as the starting point for the claim. Because these agreements have worked the author concludes that it could work for other farmers as well.

Deductive reasoning begins with a generalization and then applies it to a specific case. The generalization you start with must have been based on a sufficient amount of reliable evidence.Example:

Genetically modified seeds have caused poverty, hunger, and a decline in bio-diversity everywhere they have been introduced, so there is no reason the same thing will not occur when genetically modified corn seeds are introduced in Mexico.

In this example the author starts with a large claim, that genetically modified seeds have been problematic everywhere, and from this draws the more localized or specific conclusion that Mexico will be affected in the same way.

Avoid Logical Fallacies

These are some common errors in reasoning that will undermine the logic of your argument. Also, watch out for these slips in other people's arguments.

Slippery slope: This is a conclusion based on the premise that if A happens, then eventually through a series of small steps, through B, C,..., X, Y, Z will happen, too, basically equating A and Z. So, if we don't want Z to occur A must not be allowed to occur either. Example:

If we ban Hummers because they are bad for the environment eventually the government will ban all cars, so we should not ban Hummers.

In this example the author is equating banning Hummers with banning all cars, which is not the same thing.

Hasty Generalization: This is a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence. In other words, you are rushing to a conclusion before you have all the relevant facts. Example:

Even though it's only the first day, I can tell this is going to be a boring course.

In this example the author is basing their evaluation of the entire course on only one class, and on the first day which is notoriously boring and full of housekeeping tasks for most courses. To make a fair and reasonable evaluation the author must attend several classes, and possibly even examine the textbook, talk to the professor, or talk to others who have previously finished the course in order to have sufficient evidence to base a conclusion on.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: This is a conclusion that assumes that if 'A' occurred after 'B' then 'B' must have caused 'A.' Example:

I drank bottled water and now I am sick, so the water must have made me sick.

In this example the author assumes that if one event chronologically follows another the first event must have caused the second. But the illness could have been caused by the burrito the night before, a flu bug that had been working on the body for days, or a chemical spill across campus. There is no reason, without more evidence, to assume the water caused the person to be sick.

Genetic Fallacy: A conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth. Example:

The Volkswagen Beetle is an evil car because it was originally designed by Hitler's army.

In this example the author is equating the character of a car with the character of the people who built the car.

Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the writer should prove is validated within the claim. Example:

Filthy and polluting coal should be banned.

Arguing that coal pollutes the earth and thus should be banned would be logical. But the very conclusion that should be proved, that coal causes enough pollution to warrant banning its use, is already assumed in the claim by referring to it as "filthy and polluting."

Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example:

George Bush is a good communicator because he speaks effectively.

In this example the conclusion that Bush is a "good communicator" and the evidence used to prove it "he speaks effectively" are basically the same idea. Specific evidence such as using everyday language, breaking down complex problems, or illustrating his points with humorous stories would be needed to prove either half of the sentence.

Either/or: This is a conclusion that oversimplifies the argument by reducing it to only two sides or choices. Example:

We can either stop using cars or destroy the earth.

In this example where two choices are presented as the only options, yet the author ignores a range of choices in between such as developing cleaner technology, car sharing systems for necessities and emergencies, or better community planning to discourage daily driving.

Ad hominem: This is an attack on the character of a person rather than their opinions or arguments. Example:

Green Peace's strategies aren't effective because they are all dirty, lazy hippies.

In this example the author doesn't even name particular strategies Green Peace has suggested, much less evaluate those strategies on their merits. Instead, the author attacks the characters of the individuals in the group.

Ad populum: This is an emotional appeal that speaks to positive (such as patriotism, religion, democracy) or negative (such as terrorism or fascism) concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Example:

If you were a true American you would support the rights of people to choose whatever vehicle they want.

In this example the author equates being a "true American," a concept that people want to be associated with, particularly in a time of war, with allowing people to buy any vehicle they want even though there is no inherent connection between the two.

Red Herring: This is a diversionary tactic that avoids the key issues, often by avoiding opposing arguments rather than addressing them. Example:

The level of mercury in seafood may be unsafe, but what will fishers do to support their families.

In this example the author switches the discussion away from the safety of the food and talks instead about an economic issue, the livelihood of those catching fish. While one issue may effect the other, it does not mean we should ignore possible safety issues because of possible economic consequences to a few individuals.


Ethos or the ethical appeal is based on the character, credibility, or reliability of the writer. There are many ways to establish good character and credibility as an author:

  • Use only credible, reliable sources to build your argument and cite those sources properly.
  • Respect the reader by stating the opposing position accurately.
  • Establish common ground with your audience. Most of the time, this can be done by acknowledging values and beliefs shared by those on both sides of the argument.
  • If appropriate for the assignment, disclose why you are interested in this topic or what personal experiences you have had with the topic.
  • Organize your argument in a logical, easy to follow manner. You can use the Toulmin method of logic or a simple pattern such as chronological order, most general to most detailed example, earliest to most recent example, etc.
  • Proofread the argument. Too many careless grammar mistakes cast doubt on your character as a writer.


Pathos, or emotional appeal, appeals to an audience's needs, values, and emotional sensibilities.

Argument emphasizes reason, but used properly there is often a place for emotion as well. Emotional appeals can use sources such as interviews and individual stories to paint a more legitimate and moving picture of reality or illuminate the truth. For example, telling the story of a single child who has been abused may make for a more persuasive argument than simply the number of children abused each year because it would give a human face to the numbers.

Only use an emotional appeal if it truly supports the claim you are making, not as a way to distract from the real issues of debate. An argument should never use emotion to misrepresent the topic or frighten people.

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