Everything you need to know about writing digitally was written in ancient Greece. I didn’t know this in my western philosophy course at the time, but if I did, I would have paid more attention. I was distracted by my professor, who looked just like Socrates — with a toga and everything. What I should have listened to carefully was Aristotle’s work on the art of rhetoric and the five rhetorical canons, which to this day still impacts how I write in our ever-evolving digital landscape, where writing trends change constantly.
The Five Rhetorical Canons
As a copywriter, my goal is to write usable, persuasive digital content for brands, companies and clients. Using the following canons can help any writer, from beginner to expert, with this goal.
Memory — Be as knowledgeable as you can about the subject.
Memory is often explained as the act of reciting information, but memory also reflects the writer’s credibility. Your words should indicate that you know more about your topic than what is presented in your writing. When you write about a product or brand, it’s imperative that you do your research to ensure that your credibility is evident to the reader. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should have a good grasp on the topic. And thus your reader should be satisfied that your words recall the subject with clarity.
Arrangement — Organized writing helps your reader navigate the digital experience.
Arrangement is all about organization. You should ask yourself, “Is my content logical? Where do I have the most important information? Did I bury the lead?”
With digital writing, content should be arranged to focus on user experience. Only then should you ask yourself, “Do my words fit into the responsive design? Do they fit the character count? Do they aid a user’s navigation? Do they correspond to an input/output function?” Arranging your content properly eases the task of reading and makes your words more accessible.
Invention — Your topic should arise out of an audience need.
Invention — coming up with an idea — is the most challenging aspect of writing. Thankfully, in the digital age, there are many tools to help you with the creation of ideas. Tools such as SEO keyword research can influence your topic and help you understand what users want to read. Your ideas should answer frequently searched questions. For example, when writing a how-to article, your writing should be inventive while also helping to answer a real need.
Delivery — How and when you deliver your message can impact how your content is received.
How and when you deliver your message has a big impact on its success. Keep in mind that content belongs on a multitude of diverse social platforms. Be aware that words are delivered differently on a microblog like Twitter compared to a long-form blog like Medium, for example. How you deliver that message will make your content more persuasive. Additionally, when you provide your digital content can have a major impact on how you reach users. With the internet moving at light speed, sometimes it is important to deliver your message ASAP to capitalize on a current trend or event.
Style — Personality makes your writing uniquely you.
Your personal style and voice set your writing apart and are arguably the most discernible traits of writing. The best written pieces have distinct style. Think The New Yorker, but in a way that is unique only to you. There are many pieces of content that are written on the same subject that can easily be found in a matter of seconds. So how can your style choices make your content stick out? Using unique diction, metaphors, analogies, tone or voice is a good start.
Using Aristotle’s five rhetorical cannons is a surefire way to optimize and enhance your digital content. Great ideas stand the test of time, and sometimes the best ones come from someone wearing a toga.