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.

Rhetorical The 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.
Mode A 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.