Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

The website eHow has a page on “How to Freestyle Rap” (“Difficulty: Moderately Challenging”), and I’m trying to figure out what I think about it. On one hand, it seems like it would be against the ethos of an authentic rapper to use a page like this to brush up on freestyle skills. After all, the page is hosted on a corporate website owned by Demand Media, Inc., the same people behind, among other things, a golf site.

But on the other hand, the advice seems solid. The eHow page encourages me to follow an easy, seven-step model:

  1. “Learn the basics.”
  2. “Just start flowing.”
  3. “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”
  4. “Work on your wordplay.”
  5. “Practice at home in your spare time.”
  6. “Have a rap battle.”
  7. “Rap what you know.” (“How to Freestyle Rap”)

The page treats freestyling as an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rapper is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself—i.e., to keep it real.

And here’s the thing: I think rhetoric is the same way. That is, it’s an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rhetor (the person who is communicating rhetorically) is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself.
You don’t hear me though.


That’s right: rhetoric is an art. But not necessarily art the way we think of it. The ancient Greeks called rhetoric a techne, a word they used to mean “a craft or ability to do something, a creative skill; this can be physical or mental, positive or negative, like that of metalworking or trickery” (Papillion 149).

Other examples of techne? Ship-building, for one. [1] You’d better not muddle your way through the art of building a ship, or you’ll ruddy well sink.

Rhetoric developed as an oral art, the art of knowing how to give an effective speech—say, in a court, in a law-making session, or at a funeral speech. And if you muddled your way through a speech, not convincing anyone, not moving anyone, looking like a general schmuck in a toga, you’d ruddy well sink there, too.


So rhetoric is an art. But of what? The shortest answer: it’s an art of communication, whether written, spoken, painted, streamed, or whatever.

But how do you judge when communication has worked, when it’s effective? In other words, how do you know when someone has used rhetorical skills well?

That’s easy: when an audience says it’s effective. So:

  • An anchor on a conservative news show makes a jab at President Obama. Conservative watchers thought the jab was well-deserved and well-timed; it was rhetorically effective for them. Liberal watchers thought it was a cheap shot; it wasn’t rhetorically effective for them.
  • A student writes an essay arguing that advertisements are so pervasive in the U.S. that he can’t even go to the bathroom without seeing Coke’s logo. His roommate reads it and doesn’t think advertising is a big deal; he’s not convinced, so it’s not a rhetorically effective essay for him. But his teacher reads it and thinks it’s cleverly argued and bitingly true. It works for her; it’s rhetorically effective for her.
  • Eminem ends a rap battle to raucous applause from the people in the room, but the old grandmother in the back of the club thinks it was all a lot of noise. To her, Eminem’s rapping wasn’t rhetorically effective.

So rhetoric can’t be judged completely objectively. It wouldn’t make sense to say that someone’s rhetoric was “right” or “wrong” (though it can be “better” or “worse” for specific audiences). It all comes down to the audience.

Also, notice that all of those examples describe situations where the rhetor is being persuasive in one way or another. That’s a common definition of rhetoric—that it’s the art of persuasion. And persuasion is important—we’re constantly trying to convince people, either subtly or overtly, to understand our points of view, and people are constantly trying to convince us of their points of view.

But I like to think of rhetoric as being about more than just persuasion, which starts to sound all bossy and manipulative when I think of that way. Instead, I think rhetoric is the art of making a connection with an audience. It’s a series of techniques to help me share the way I see things with someone else. And depending on who I’m sharing with, I’ll use different techniques. I wouldn’t communicate my views to my wife in the same way that I would to the U.S. president, or to Jay-Z.


The best rappers are surprising. You lean over laughing at wordplay that you didn’t expect. You smile, get into the groove, listen more carefully, and later you remember how much you enjoyed it. The communication was effective.


I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t really get it. The author kept talking about rhetoric, and even after I looked up the definition, it didn’t make any sense to me.

Looking back, I think that’s ironic: the beating, blood-pumping heart of rhetoric is a consideration of audience. Speaking or writing or composing something that works the way you want it to for the audience you want it to work for.

But I don’t think senior-year me was the intended audience of Zen. If I had been, the author was pretty lousy at being rhetorical, because he didn’t explain well enough what rhetoric even means. The concepts he wanted his audience to be convinced of after reading his book didn’t leave me convinced and riveted; instead, I was glassy-eyed and dreaming about angsty 90s rock.
He was thoroughly un-rhetorical in his discussion of rhetoric.

I read the book now and I’m moved and touched. He shared his views effectively with me. Without the text changing at all, I became his audience. I get it now.
So he was being rhetorical after all. It’s both.


Why study rhetoric? It’s the same as if you asked, “Why study freestyle rap?” Both are a set of skills and techniques that often come naturally, but which people can learn to do better by studying the methods that have proven effective in the past.

“Why study painting?” Because by studying how other people paint, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective painter.

“Why study business?” Because by studying how other people do business, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective businessperson.

Why study ship-building, or basket-weaving, or trickery, or anything else that you might be able to muddle through but which you’d be better at with some training and practice? Isn’t it obvious?

It’s the same with rhetoric, but in realm of communication. Why not learn some techniques that will increase the chance that your audience will think/feel/believe the way you want them to after hearing/reading/experiencing whatever it is that you’re throwing at them?

And that’s only thinking about you in the composer’s role. What about when you’re in the receiving end, hearing/reading/experiencing things that have been carefully crafted so that you’ll buy into them? A scary of list of rhetorically effective people: politicians, advertisers, super-villains. (You want rhetoric? Just listen to the slimy words of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or the words Voldemort beams into everyone’s brain in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two.) Studying rhetoric has the uncanny effect of opening your eyes to when people are trying to be all rhetorical on you, wielding their communication skills like an evil weapon.


My friend to me, the other day: “Ugh. Carrie just wrote something inappropriate on her fiancée’s Facebook wall again.”

Me: “What’d she say?”

My friend: “I don’t even remember. It was something all gushy and uncomfortable. I skimmed back a bit and saw she’s been doing that a lot. Doesn’t she know that she can write messages that go just to him and not the rest of us? She doesn’t have to post that stuff on his wall!”

As I thought about this conversation, I realized that Carrie (not her real name) was in some ways being a rhetorical failure. Yes, her fiancée (one person), who was certainly the primary intended recipient of her message, probably found the wall post very rhetorically effective. That is, he surely felt the gushy emotions that she meant for him to feel. Her message worked. How rhetorical!

But because a Facebook wall is to some extent public, there are others who will read her post too (hundreds of people). What is the intended message for them? If we trust and like Carrie (and if she’s lucky), then we may think, “Oh, it’s sweet when people are public about their love for each other!” If we’re kind of sick of Carrie, we might think, “She just plain doesn’t get that we don’t care about her digital smooches and hugs.” And if we’re mad at her, we might think, “She’s publicly declaring her love to him because she wants us to feel bad that we don’t have the kind of true love that she has!”
In short, the message to most of us is either A) that’s nice, B) oh, gross, or C) that hussy.

Why study rhetoric? Because so many people so often seem to have no no no idea about how to communicate well.


We’re still beating around the bush when it comes to what rhetorical skills actually look like. Up to this point, you could say, “You keep talking about all these different collections of skills, but besides freestyling, I barely have any idea how to go about being effective at this stuff.” Fine—pass the mic.

Mic passed. Among lots of other things, some of the skills practiced by rhetors (and composition students) include:

  • Basics that effective communicators keep in mind (like discovering the best time and place to communicate, clarifying what the communication is about, and learning about your audience)
  • Techniques for deciding the best kinds of ideas and evidence to use for a given audience (like freewriting, open-minded research, and other forms of what we call “invention”)
  • Techniques for deciding on the best way to organize material for a given audience (like models for organizing information into a business report, or a classical six-part speech, or a thesis-driven research essay)
  • Suggestions for how to shape your style in ways that will be both understandable and exciting for your audience (like using rhetorical figures to liven up your sentences or varying sentence length and type)
  • Considerations on the best way to get your communication to your audience (like a speech, an essay, a video, a recording, a painting, a sticky note, a letter made from words cut out of a magazine)

Yes, I keep writing the word audience over and over. That’s because it’s the core of any rhetorical endeavor. Remember? All those bullets can be summed up in one sentence: thinking rhetorically means thinking about your audience.

And that means communicating in a way that doesn’t make you look stupid, mean, or confusing.

And that means you should communicate in a way that makes you look smart, nice, and clear.

It sounds obvious, right? I think so too. But then, why are people so bad at it?


The failures of a failed rhetor are those of a failed freestyle rapper, too. He gets up to start a rap battle and seems impressive at first (i.e. he has a strong ethos—a word we use a lot when analyzing communication from a rhetorical angle), but then things go badly when he gets the mic.

He starts out blundering around, looking like he’s never done this before. (He should have followed eHow’s advice to “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”)

In desperation, he lashes out at the other guy with attacks that seem like low blows, even for a rap battle. The audience groans; he broke an unspoken rule about how mean to be. Rhetorical failure.

He can tell that he’s losing the audience, so he changes his tactics and starts blending together all kinds of words that rhyme. But he fails at this too, since nothing he says makes any sense.

Eventually, he’s booed off the stage.

Why study rhetoric? So you can succeed in rap battles. I thought that was obvious.

[1] Thanks to Dr. Debra Jacobs for pointing out this to me.

See also:

Rhetorical Appeals
Logical Fallacies