Week 7 – Incorporating Rhetorical Devices into Plain Style

Whitburn, Merrill D., Marijane Davis, Sharon Higgins, Linsey Oates, and Kristene Spurgeon. “Landmark Essay: The Plain Style in Scientific and Technical Writing.” In Three Keys to the Past: The History of Technical Communication, edited by Teresa C. Kynell and Michael M Moran, 123-30. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing, 1999.

Whitburn, Davis, Higgins, Oates, and Spurgeon explore the emergence of the stylistic preference of “plainness” in “Landmark Essay:  The Plain Style in Scientific and Technical Writing.”  They begin by providing background on the history of rhetoric which emphasized a style celebrating “copiousness and ornamentation” (124).  However, the shift to the plain style emerged in the wake of post-revolutionary scientists who valued “acquisitions of  . . . knowledge though observation of nature, and words . . . to approximate mathematical symbols” (125).  According to the authors of the essay, this dramatic change in style involved focused on “what not to do [rather] than what to do in  . . . writing” (126).  Rather than sacrifice all elements of rhetoric for the sake of seeking plainness, Whitburn and her co-authors suggest that several rhetorical devices should be encouraged in technical writing in order to provide clarity and emphasize specific points within a text.  For example, Whitburn includes examples of parallelism, ellipsis, polysyndeton, parenthesis, climax, and antithesis as elements of rhetoric which technical writers can employ to enhance “clarity, emphasis, and smoothness” (128).  The whole of this essays seeks to shed light on the “dogmatism” of the technical writing field  regarding elements of style (129).  Whitburn concludes the essay by establishing the value of incorporating rhetorical devices, citing value in encouraging students to be more aggressive writers, emphasizing that writing is an art, arousing reader interest, and helping with discovery of content (129).

This essay attempts to move the field of technical writing toward the “arts” end of the arts-sciences spectrum by emphasizing the value of rhetorical devices.  I find this to be an interesting idea because most (non-English-major) people assume that rhetorical devices serve only to convolute text and provide unnecessary, figurative language.  However, I am inclined to agree with Whitburn regarding the value of incorporating some aspects of rhetoric into technical communication.  Parallelism, for example, is a device which helps to balance elements in a text and is therefore just as applicable in a passage about microbiology as it is in a passage about a modern-day rendition of Hamlet.

Though I do agree with aspects of Whitburn’s argument, I also feel that her comments could be abused in the realm of technical communication.  Depending on the audience, a detailed, sensory-filled description of a scene (as depicted in the “living history interpretation” on pg. 129) might hinder the reader’s response to the work as a whole.  Additionally, if the rhetorical devices employed serve primarily to provide flavorful word-play, the ethos of the writer could be sacrificed as well.  What types of audiences would respond positively to the incorporation of rhetorical devices into technical writing?


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