Style as Rhetoric

Style as Rhetoric:

How to Integrate Style in the First-Year Writing Classroom

Marie-Reine Pugh

The problem with teaching style is not limited to the method of teaching, but also includes the fact that style instruction competes with a multitude of other imperatives. As First-Year Writing instructors, we juggle teaching multiple writing genres, argumentation, analysis of arguments, and the use of sources to support the argument. We also have to spend time teaching how to write effective introductions, conclusions, body paragraphs, titles, citations, etc. All are vital writing and critical thinking skills for FYW students to learn. But there is an inherent disconnect between instruction and expectation. Our function as FYW instructors, within the context of the university, includes the ability to teach students to be visibly competent writers when they leave our classrooms. Style is eminently visible. But how do we make style meaningful for our students? And how do we fit it in the already packed curriculum of FYW courses? A solution would be to teach style in a way that is integrated.

The first obstacle to pedagogy is semantics: what is style? At times, style has been restricted to local concerns of grammar and sentence structure, thus limiting the scope of style application in the classroom (Vaught-Alexander). More recently, however, articles on practical style instruction have moved to a more inclusive definition (Ronald, Baird, Duncan and Vanguri), but their integration in the classroom is still restrictive (Ronald, Baird) and the exact definition of style varies from scholar to scholar (Duncan and Vanguri). Starting with observations on style instruction in my classroom, I intend to review some of the scholarship on grammar instruction and style as expression, the variance in definitions of style, and the restorations occurring in style theory to demonstrate the possibility of defining style as rhetoric, ending with a suggestion for integrating style as rhetoric in the classroom.

Returning to my initial questions: how do we integrate style? And what is style? Answering the second question answers the first. Integrated style instruction depends on a definition of style that is also integrated in the curriculum. By defining as style as rhetoric, I do not mean to say that style is rhetoric or a synonym for it. Style as rhetoric means that since style acts rhetorically to persuade the reader, enhancing (or detracting from) the main argument, stylistic choices made by the writer are rhetorical choices. This is a promiscuous definition, allowing for language concerns, rhetorical strategies, and expression to be taught as the components of style—a tool of rhetoric rather than an added flourish. In this manner, style is unavoidable when teaching rhetorical and writing process knowledge, adding a dimension of customization to the one and persuasive rigor to the other.

In contrast to this integrated definition of style, let me begin with the day I spent on style in my classroom. I had my students begin by imitating sentences from well-known authors, to instill in them the “feel” and versatility of language. But I felt as though I was doing them a disservice since most of them would not be writing literature in their other classes––having them imitate sentences from literature smacked of my own bias as an English major. After some discussion on the new assignment for the unit––a necessary interruption, but an interruption nonetheless––I engaged the class in a discussion of the various elements of style from our textbook, Writing and Rhetoric, which include clarity, coherence, conciseness, voice, delivery, punctuation, usage, and layout (Harrison 164–84). I reminded them of the sentences they imitated and the sentence principles they had to integrate in each paper (from BYU’s online writing and grammar tutorial website, Style Academy). After another style exercise in class (rewriting the words of a fable in a different style), I checked style off of my list of lessons and moved on. Technically, I had taught them principles of style, but I doubt what I did had any lasting impact on their writing.

To be fair, as a first-year graduate student teaching her first FYW class, I was at somewhat of a loss to explain what style was, even to myself. My own experience as a FYW student being far enough removed, I had no recollection of what style instruction was like when it was taught to me. Deborah Harrison’s definition from the course textbook is quite comprehensive, especially for a FYW student’s introduction to style and yet, as I was teaching, I still felt like my hands were tied. Other rhetorical aspects of the curriculum seem to permeate every aspect of this course, but style, though cardinal for engaging  audience and for communicating competence, is only an aside. What if, instead of just focusing on how style makes writing interesting, this comprehensive definition put forward by Harrison belied a simple truth about style? More than just correct form or refined content, more than a tool for revision or ornamentation––yet including all of these components––style acts as a rhetorical choice made by the writer. It acts to convince the reader and to express the writer’s ideas. Consequently, style can be considered rhetorical and can be defined as rhetoric. Moreover, style can become a useful tool for helping our students better understand and use rhetoric.

First, and most importantly, style cannot be defined as rhetoric if it is subordinate to grammar. Instead, grammar should be taught as a component of style. This allows style instruction to be freed from only focusing on local concerns in writing. And it avoids the trap of explicit grammar instruction. We should certainly not be ashamed of our enthusiasm, as teachers, for the art of language. After all, as Harrison describes in her chapter, usage really does matter when learning to write with style (181). But it can make the line between teaching sentence-level exercises and defaulting to straight grammar instruction quite thin. Both Roland Harris’s 1962 study and Richard Braddock, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer’s report, published by NCTE in 1963, found that explicit grammar instruction had adverse effects on students’ writing and style, and as a result, we need to make sure that we do not simply repurpose explicit grammar instruction under the guise of style (Harris 203, Braddock et al. 36). If any doubts should remain on this point, in their 2007 report to the Carnegie Corporation titled Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools, Drs. Steve Graham and Dolores Perin came to the same conclusion (21). Yet style is still overshadowed by grammar and oftentimes conflated with it.

By classifying style below grammar, we limit style’s possibility for being incorporated alongside the rhetorical concepts of our curriculum, and limit our options in teaching it to our students. In NCTE’s 2002 publication Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition, Keith Rhodes’s introduction to the chapter titled “Teaching Matters of Grammar, Usage, and Style” reinforces this need to re-hierarchize grammar’s importance. He states: “The average first-year composition course is already much more deeply mired in a grammar pit than it ought to be; thus, we ought to shift our focus openly and pointedly to other facets of writing, even to the point of eschewing public mention of things remotely like grammar lessons” (523). Yet only one article in the chapter deals explicitly with style, and the author, Karen Vaught-Alexander, does little to distinguish between style and grammar, stating that “the intentional use of style for emphasis of ideas, for readability and visual impact, and for conciseness is often a new idea for student writers who view grammar and mechanics as ‘correctness’” (546). Here again, style is only used to “dress up” grammar. Consequently, the method she proposes focuses on sentence-level grammar as the locus for idea organization, and includes explicit instruction of grammatical terminology (547–48). The problem with this method is it relies on exercises that focus on local concerns, and style becomes inextricably tied and secondary to grammar in the student’s mind. Sentence-level exercises limit instruction to sentence-level issues, obscuring the true potential of style instruction. Rather than teaching style as a tool for innovation and persuasion, this approach reduces it to a post-mortem revision tool for smoothing out writing after ideas have been drafted, or to fixing sentence-level structure. Style as rhetoric, however, has the potential to help form ideas before students put them on the page and to help them choose the best ideas to put down.

In an attempt to rescue style, some teachers have swung to the other extreme, elevating style above the rest of the curriculum and making it the sole focus. In her 1999 article “Style: The Hidden Agenda in Composition Classes,” Kate Ronald recognizes the need for more integrated style instruction. She confesses to her students, “We say we aren’t overly interested in style, that your ideas and your growth as writers is uppermost in our minds, but we are still influenced by your writing style more than we admit, or perhaps know” (170–71). Her recognition of style’s second-class-citizen status in the classroom is valuable to rehabilitating it. But her definition of style as a “distinctive voice,” as a written expression of inner passion, leads to the tender trap of expressionism, where there is no room for rhetorical concerns (171). As a consequence of this limited definition, her integration of style in the classroom more closely resembles a creative writing workshop than a composition class, with students writing on personal experiences (174). Ronald’s focus on audience does differentiate her from pure expressionism, reminding both teachers and students of their responsibilities as readers and to readers. Emphasizing audience can help students care about style in the first place. However, if we follow Ronald’s definition, students will only consider style as a means of entertaining their reader and expressing their passion rather than as a means for crafting rhetorically effective arguments.

More recently, some scholars have recognized the relationship between style and rhetorical choice, but the implementation is still restrictive. Lisa Baird, in her 2005 article titled “Balancing Thought and Expression: A Short Course in Style,” argues for style as a “conceptual stand” (168). Like Ronald, she points to audience as the prompt for style, and includes the idea that style is a matter of choice (168). But again, her conclusions center on the usefulness of style as expression, stating: “While I cannot credit a stylistic approach exclusively, I am convinced that attention to expression changes the way students approach writing assignments” (178). And she seems troubled by the difficulty that students have breaking away from the so-called traditional model of “presenting a thesis followed by support” (179). I hardly see how breaking this habit in our students will help prepare them for the kinds of writing they will be doing in other classes. What use is it to appeal to an audience or express themselves in their chemistry lab reports or business school applications if they are unable to make their points? We should not elevate style only to abandon rhetoric.

Some scholars do recognize the need for and the benefits of having an inclusive, not exclusive, definition of style. In their 2013 collection The Centrality of Style, Mike Duncan and Star Medzerian Vanguri begin with a meaningful introduction, addressing the multitude of definitions of style. They state: “We do not have a problem with this plurality.… A plurality of definitions, rather, speaks to the pervasive and qualitative centrality of style in rhetoric and composition…much like the vast array of available definitions of ‘rhetoric’ speaks to the term’s universality within language use” (5). And their collection certainly does show the variety of uses and definitions available for style, with a wide range of articles on style as figure, on the importance and variety of academic style, on rubrics and what they tell us about how we are teaching style, to name a few. However, Duncan and Vanguri’s collection stops short of actually coining a definition. They make the following claim: “The editors of this volume feel that it is no longer necessary to argue for style.…The question, then, is what to do next, now that a growing number of composition scholars and teachers recognize style’s relevance and usefulness to composition” (xi–xii). Style may no longer need defending, but we still need to decide which definitions are the most valid. The articles presented do not agree on what style actually means, only that style is important. As FYW instructors, we have a heavy teaching docket; we want to focus on teaching those skills and concepts that will be most helpful for our students. Like Duncan and Vanguri, I believe that style is one of those concepts. But with definitions of style so varied and divided, we risk hyper-focusing on just one aspect or confusing our students by presenting them pêle-mêle.

What is needed, then, is a definition that allows for varied implementations, which I believe is possible when we think of style as rhetoric. In his 2008 historical and theoretical study titled Out of Style, Paul Butler sharply criticizes the whittling down of “stylistic [teaching] practices” in the classroom (148). He argues for more inclusion, and his list is quite exhaustive. He includes “syntactically based generative rhetoric and sentence combining…sound and rhythm; vocabulary and diction; cohesion, coherence, and variation in sentence types…; questions of rhetorical usage, rhetorical grammar, and rhetorical imitation; and the given and new contract, punctuation, and spelling” (148, emphasis added). Butler’s call for the reincorporation of these “useful language resources in the teaching of writing” should be motivating and freeing (148). Though he does not peg a specific definition of style, the principles he urges us to rehabilitate open up the possibilities of what can be taught. Butler qualifies almost all of these principles as rhetorical, emphasizing the notion that style is not just concerned with language or expression, but also rhetoric.

One recent publication has taken us even farther back in its exploration of style. In her 2013 publication Figuring Style: The Legacy of Renaissance Rhetoric, Dr. Nancy Christiansen reviews rhetorical history and stylistic instruction in the Renaissance. In the Renaissance classroom, she explains, style was part of the canon of rhetoric, and rhetoric was meant to train students to be highly cultured and moral orators, ready to expound on any subject, at any time (4–5). Renaissance writers defined rhetoric as “the art of persuasion become the art of communication,” inclusive of grammar and logic (4–5). A carbon copy application of Renaissance style or rhetoric would be impractical in our modern classrooms––we do not train our students for such oratory purposes any longer. But Christiansen’s observations on Renaissance instruction work in two ways: first, she suggests that style as rhetoric is not anathema, and is not even a new idea. Second, she ties together Butler’s efforts as well as the efforts of other scholars to frame style as exhaustive. Style can work as rhetoric and include grammar, and persuasion, and expression, and language expertise.

Now what exactly does this integration of style as rhetoric in the classroom look like? As I have not yet tested this in my own classroom, I can only explain how I intend on implementing it next semester. The most natural implementation of style as rhetoric would be in an activity that gets repeated frequently, if not in every class period, throughout the semester. In my classroom, and the same is true for many of my fellow instructors, this occurs in the form of rush-writes or reflective writing exercises. In my own classroom, I have my students begin every class with a rush-write or small reflection prompted by questions that either ask them to synthesize or apply some part of the reading assignment or prompts their thinking about certain subjects. I ask my students to share their rush-writes in groups, and sometimes with the whole class; I also read all their rush-writes. Each rush-write is different, tailored to the lesson, but can provide a platform for integrating metacognition and practice of style on a regular basis in the classroom. The culmination of these should be the formal written assignments, where students should be held accountable for (i.e. graded on) their use and understanding of the principles of style practiced in these rush-writes. I hold my students accountable for the principles of rhetoric that I teach them in a certain unit; it would not be incongruous to add to that the principles of style as rhetoric.

The key to this strategy for integration is not necessarily the form. If FYW instructors do not have time or prefer not to assign in-class rush-writes, then these can just as well be done outside of class as homework assignments, as part of reading responses, or as journaling assignments. The key lies, first, in the frequency of the activity, because this gives us an opportunity as instructors to keep it foremost in our students’ minds. Second, it involves writing, which allows our students to practice their own style. Third, the writings are shared with classmates or the instructor, which means that students are held accountable for the quality of what they produce. I saw a practical example of this working in Benjamin Killgore’s classroom, another BYU graduate instructor. He has what he terms “Bias Wednesdays” when he introduces a new cognitive bias to his class, which he follows up with a quiz. The quiz requires students to come up with two pithy statements that either describe or illustrate the bias introduced. This concept of pith comes from Jay Heinrichs’s book Word Hero. A former journalist and self-professed rhetorician, Heinrichs defines pith as “the climax, the payoff, the takeaway…memorable lines that help fuel the rest of your thinking” (14–5). Obviously, this theory of pith is not equivalent to the definition of style I have set forth. But its application in Mr. Killgore’s classroom has the same intent: to help students be more conscious of their own style and how to improve it, to help them use how they write to best persuade their audience of what they mean to say, and to help them better understand other principles of rhetoric. In my observation of Mr. Killgore’s classroom, his method seemed effective in achieving these intents. The pithy statements the students came up with for that Wednesday’s cognitive bias were incisive, witty, and overall, rhetorically effective. They understood the concept he had taught them, and they had a chance to practice it in their own writing with an added stylistic requirement.

Although this example of style integration in the classroom does not directly coincide with my proposed definition, the goal is analogous and this kind of regular, written intervention in the classroom opens up a multitude of possibilities. For the implementation to work, we must establish at the beginning of the semester that style is a tool of rhetoric, and that it will be defined as such for all assignments. Then, as Butler suggested, we will not have to limit ourselves when having our students practice style in these short writing exercises, but can instead have our students do a myriad of stylistic exercises while having them reflect about rhetorical principles. On one day, following a rush-write on rhetorical appeals, we may ask them to do a sentence-combining activity on that rush-write (and we, of course, could provide examples of how to do this if students are unfamiliar). Or, instead of sentence-combination, we could ask them to do an imitation exercise or any other sentence-level exercises in combination with a rhetorical principle. On another day, we may simply ask them to reflect on how style influences their decision on the effectiveness of an argument. For example, I frequently have my students read sample papers or articles to learn new genres or rhetorical principles. I then ask my students to discuss which of the samples are the most effective. Oftentimes, students will not necessarily choose the best example of the genre or principle being taught, but will choose the sample that they most liked. This would be a perfect moment to ask them to reflect on their choice in terms of style. What was it they liked? Why, despite its being a weaker example of the genre or principle of rhetoric, did they find the style more persuasive? These types of questions will hopefully develop awareness in our students of how style influences them and how they can also use style rhetorically in their own writing. On the whole, the point is that we can use sentence-level exercises, if we wish to, but that they are not the only thing we use to teach style, and that students do not focus only on style but use it as a tool for crafting purposeful, argumentative, and persuasive thought.

What I hope this short study has shown is both the possibilities and the freedom that style as rhetoric can afford in the FYW classroom. We no longer have to choose between teaching either rhetoric or style. Teaching one can include teaching the other, making style integrated with the rest of our busy curriculum. Teaching a rhetorical principle now means that we are also teaching a stylistic consideration. Style no longer needs to be relegated to its own perfunctory lesson. Moreover, I feel that teaching style as rhetoric will help connect the various threads of the curriculum for our students. My students questioned the benefits of having to learn different genres such as the opinion editorial or the rhetorical analysis––where would they use them in their various academic or professional careers? When I told them it helped them practice the rhetorical principles we had learned in class––recognizing and making correct use of the rhetorical situation, rhetorical appeals, etc.––they seemed to sense the tautology. But there is something about style that transcends the FYW classroom. It is a topic of conversation and consideration in fields outside of the humanities and in the world beyond academia. If I tell my students that they are also practicing style, and if style is not just about grammar, not just about how they construct sentences, but also about how to make rhetorical choices to create writing that is persuasive and engaging, they may find that rhetoric is not so alien after all.



Works Cited

Baird, Lisa. “Balancing Thought and Expression: A Short Course in Style.” Refiguring Prose Style: Possibilities for Writing Pedagogy. Logan: Utah State UP, 2005. 167–80. Print.

Braddock, Richard, Richard Lloyd-Jones, and Lowell Schoer. Research in Written Composition. Champaign: NCTE, 1963. Print.

Butler, Paul. Out of Style: Reanimating Stylistic Study in Composition and Rhetoric. Logan: Utah State UP, 2008.

Christiansen, Nancy. Figuring Style: The Legacy of Renaissance Rhetoric. Columbia: U of Southern Carolina P, 2013. Print.

Duncan, Mike, and Star Medzerian Vanguri, eds. The Centrality of Style. Fort Collins: WAC Clearinghouse; Anderson: Parlor, 2013. Print.

Graham, Steve, and Dolores Perin. Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools—A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2007. Carnegie Corporation of New York. Carnegie Corporation, 2007. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Harris, Roland J. “An Experimental Inquiry into the Functions and Value of Formal Grammar in the Teaching of English, with Special Reference to the Teaching of Correct Written English to Children Aged Twelve to Fourteen.” Diss. University of London, 1962. Print.

Harrison, Deborah. “Style and Delivery: Letting the Light Shine Through.” Writing and Rhetoric. Eds. Brett C. McInelly and Brian Jackson. Plymouth: Hayden-McNeil, 2014. 163—5. Print.

Heinrichs, Jay. Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines That Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever. New York: Three Rivers, 2011. Print.

Rhodes, Keith. “A Cautionary Introduction.” Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition. Eds. Duane Roen, Veronica Pantoja, Lauren Yena, Susan K. Miller, and Eric Waggoner. Urbana: NCTE, 2002. 523-26. ERIC. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Roen, Duane, Veronica Pantoja, Lauren Yena, Susan K. Miller, and Eric Waggoner, eds. Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition. Urbana: NCTE, 2002. ERIC. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.

Ronald, Kate. “Style: The Hidden Agenda in Composition Classes.” The Subject Is Writing: Essays by Teachers and Students. Ed. Wendy Bishop. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook; Heinemann, 1999. 167-82. Print.

Vaught-Alexander, Karen. “Teaching Style.” Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition. Eds. Duane Roen, Veronica Pantoja, Lauren Yena, Susan K. Miller, and Eric Waggoner. Urbana: NCTE, 2002. 546-50. ERIC. Web. 4 Nov. 2014.