So I bummed this book from a neighbor. It’s a book on classic English rhetoric. Or verbal style.
She initially pulled it off her shelf to show me because of the name of the author: Ward Farnsworth.
Not an exact rendering of my last name (it’s Farnworth, no “s”). And that’s not pretentious posturing on my part — it has been that way for generations.
But it didn’t really matter who wrote the book. I fell in love with the book and the uncommon literary devices it shared on the spot.
Each chapter is devoted to a literary device like anaphora, chiasmus, and litotes That may sound like nonsense to you, but they’re just fancy words for rhetorical devices you’ll quickly recognize.
Furthermore, each device is broken down into subspecies, complete with examples from notable sources like Shakespeare, Churchill, Chesterton, and the Bible (and I threw in a few by Tupac Shukar, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Bob Dylan).
What is a literary device?
Before diving into these uncommon literary devices, let’s take a quick detour.
Talking about literary devices, figures of speech and writing style can be intimidating for many.
After scouring the web and referring to a few additional books, I didn’t come across an agreed upon definition of literary devices. So here’s my take:
A literary device is a technique you can use to create a special effect on your writing.
Think about it this way.
When writing a story or making a point, you can just use the facts, which is totally fine for in some cases like journalism, or you can liven things up a bit with a literary device.
Here’s an example of a literary device to illustrate what I’m talking about:
- “The rain was heavy this afternoon as I walked to my car.”
- “The rain played tag with me as I ran to my car to get shelter.”
The first sentence is just a statement about the rain. It is what it is. It’s like a reporter sharing her observation about today’s weather, and it doesn’t lead the reader to think anything specific about the rain.
The second sentence basically says the same thing. To make the rain come alive (“The rain played tag”), I used a literary device known as personification to create an image in the mind of the reader. I mean, who hasn’t tried to run away from the rain?
Literary devices are tools writers can use that are similar to tactics producers can use in film, television, or theater. By adding makeup, using costumes, or utilizing computer graphics, producers can create special effects to convey a specific visual.
Here’s one example of before-and-after scenes using special effects:
Sure, the producer could have asked the actor to wear a costume or put on makeup. But you have to admit; the computer graphics really takes the look of this character to the next level.
This is really how literary devices work in their basic form. They can add special effects to your writing and transform the experience of your readers.
Why literary devices are essential to web writing
There’s a lot of good substance out there. Hardly any style, though. This isn’t an accident.
Most people who peddle content are tradespeople first, writers second. In other words, their authority rests in a discipline other than writing.
Sometimes their content feels as if it’s meant to feed a machine when the creator will tell you plainly that is not the case. They are writing for people, which is one key to writing a blog post people will actually read.
Fair enough. But technical writers also write for people.
A list of literary devices to add style to your content
I look at some pieces, though, and I think the designer probably got paid really good money. The writer, not so much.
This is not to say style should be a pretentious exercise in drawing attention to itself. It should not be a navel-gazing sentence by James Joyce or a long-winded, baroque one from Faulkner (whom I adore).
Great web writing demands the plainness of Hemingway and the clarity of Orwell and the playfulness of E. E. Cummings. And you can do it while honoring the simplicity of Strunk.
And mastering these 12 uncommon literary devices from Mr. Farnsworth’s book is a great place to start if you are a greenhorn … a great place to beef up your skill set if you are a veteran.
Here are the literary devices we’re going to cover:
Epizeuxis is a simple repetition of words and phrases. This literary device is often used for emphasis, and oftentimes, there are no additional words in between. The quick repetition of words or phrases will arrest the attention of your readers.
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
“But you never know now do you now do you now do you.”
David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Anaphora is repetition at the beginning of successive statements. In writing or speeches, you can use this literary device to create an artistic effect, or you can repeat one phrase to weave together several points together.
Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!
William Shakespeare, King John, II
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
Epistrophe is similar to anaphora, but with a twist—this literary device uses repetition of words or phrases at the end.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child.
1 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Translation)
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny compared to what lies within us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
Lyndon B. Johnson in “We Shall Overcome”
Abnadiplosis is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning and end of a sentence. This literary device creates a sweet flow in certain forms of writing.
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Yoda, Star Wars
“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.”
“The frog was a prince / The prince was a brick / The brick was an egg / The egg was a bird”
Genesis, “Supper’s Ready”
Polyptoton is unique in that it’s a repetition of the root word. For example, you can use similar words like “strength” and “strong” instead of just repeating the same word.
“It is the same with all the powerful of to-day; it is the same, for instance, with the high-placed and high-paid official. Not only is the judge not judicial, but the arbiter is not even arbitrary.”
— G.K. Chesterton, The Man on Top
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
“Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are.”
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Isocolon is a literary device you can use to create parallel structures in your length and rhythm.
“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”
“With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right…”
Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address
“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper — Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too? Dr. Pepper!”
Dr. Pepper advertising jingle
“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.”
Chiasmus is a reversal structure used for artistic effect. With this literary device, you basically criss-cross phrases to convey a similar—not identical—meaning.
“Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
John F. Kennedy
“Woe unto that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”
“They say money don’t make the man but man, I’m makin’ money.”
Tupac Shakur, “Thug Passion”
Anastrope refers to an inversion of words, which will make perfect sense in a moment (assuming your a fan of Star Wars). You can use this literary device to emphasize a word or phrase.
” Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing.”
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
“Joined the Dark Side, Dooku has. Lies, deceit, creating mistrust are his ways now.”
“I sing of arms and the man, who first from the shores of Troy.”
Virgil, the first line of Aeneid
“Never have I found the limits of the photographic potential. Every horizon, upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance”
“Her mother is the lady of the house, And a good lady, and wise and virtuous. I nursed her daughter that you talked withal. I tell you, he that can lay hold of her, Shall have the chinks.”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Polysyndeto is a literary device where you use extra conjunctions (e.g., and, but)—frequently in quick succession—to create a stylistic effect.
“And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”
“If there be cords, or knives, or poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I’ll not endure it”
“And St. Attila raised his hand grenade up on high saying ‘O Lord bless this thy hand grenade that with it thou mayest blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy. ‘and the Lord did grin and people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals and fruit bats and …'”
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
“I said, ‘Who killed him?’ and he said ‘I don’t know who killed him, but he’s dead all right,’ and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights or windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was right only she was full of water.”
Ernest Hemingway, “After the Storm.”
Asyndeton is a writing style where you leave out conjunctions to write direct statements for effect. If used correctly, this literary device can create a beautiful, memorable rhythm in your writing.
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .”
Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”
“…and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
“That we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address
“And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.”
Litotes is a figure of speech you can use to affirm something positive by making an understatement. After you take a gander at the examples below, you’ll see that this literary device is commonly used in everyday conversations and popular literature.
“Not bad” (to say something is good)
“He’s not as young as he used to be” (meaning “he’s old”)
“Keep an eye on your mother whom we both know doesn’t have both oars in the water.”
Jim Harrison, The Road Home
“I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.”
“Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?”
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
In short, hypophora is when you ask a question and then answer the question you just asked. Unlike a rhetorical question, to use this literary device, you’ll need to answer the question you pose immediately.
“What made me take this trip to Africa? There is no quick explanation. Things got worse and worse and worse and pretty soon they were too complicated.”
Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I.
1 Corinthians 11:21-22
“Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
Another warning literary devices and style
This could be an exercise in dilettantism. An argument for fashion over function. In the hard and fast competition found on a search results page, most people just want answers to their questions. They want substance over style. Function over fashion.
That, however, is only true in a market that is not saturated. If you hobnob in an industry drowning in competitors, on the other hand, then substance alone is not enough. You need style — among other things — to stand out.
So, bookmark this post, then carve out some time to study these devices.
Question: How many of these devices did I use in this article?
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2012, and it was edited to provide additional examples and writing support.