ONE OF THE GREAT paradoxes of writing is that content is inseparable from style, even if we might formally distinguish the two. There is no such thing as “pure” content, as qualitatively neutral as a string of numbers. What we say, in other words, is intimately tied to how we say it. “A crowd has a generalized stink,” said the poet W. H. Auden. “The public is odorless.” At every turn, a writer faces a dizzying array of choices about which words to use and how to use them. We may seem to be setting out on firm ground, armed with a definite message and hard and fast rules of grammar and syntax, yet we soon find ourselves relying at least as much on our own feel for how best to put that message to any given audience.
Words matter. That is why every good writer should have some understanding of how to write gracefully—and how to use rhetoric to do so. In common parlance, rhetoric means bombastic, exaggerated, or empty language. But for those who think about writing and communication, it means something more specific: the science or art of persuasion by means of stylistic or structural techniques. Rhetoric has a long and checkered history. In his satire Clouds, the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes associated rhetoric with making the weaker argument appear the stronger—an association it carries to this day. But rhetoric has also had its champions, like the ancient Roman statesman Cicero, for example, a great practitioner and theoretician of the art. Like it or not, all writers use rhetoric; given the nature of language, they have no alternative.
Even simplicity, which appears consciously nonrhetorical, is itself a rhetorical choice. In English literature, simplicity is most often associated with the so-called plain style, a style perfected in the 17th century and deployed in opposition to fancier—and by implication decadent— styles. George Orwell, a master of the 20th-century plain style, adapted this style to brilliant effect in his political journalism and novels like 1984 and Animal Farm. Orwell's bare-bone plainness gives his writing an immediacy and authenticity perfectly suited to his master theme of