I’ve no doubt said this in previous blogs somewhere but I need to repeat it to set up what this posting is about. It occurred to me as I held two workshops this week in two branches of Aberdeen libraries and gave my usual advice to people who want to write. The advice always centres on the same three things:
1. Trust your own voice. You don’t necessarily need big, fancy or poetic words, or a huge vocabulary, or a familiarity with several cultures. Your way of putting things is unique, so trust it. You can always correct things later (see 3 below).
2. Read what you’ve written aloud. This applies whether it’s a chapter, a poem or a letter of complaint to your electricity supplier. Reading aloud reveals mistakes, repetitions, places where punctuation’s absent and should be present and vice versa, and other things which just ‘don’t feel right’. It also makes you realise that your sentences are maybe all around the same length, so there’s a monotony about your delivery.
3. Make writing and editing separate exercises. Finish the writing, set it aside for as long a period as you can, then return to it as an editor. And cut, cut, cut. Almost all writing is better for being cut.
It’s the reading aloud bit that I want to pick out because, apart from the mistakes and omissions it reveals, it also brings home the importance of rhythm. Rhythm’s an obvious element in poetry but it’s just as important in stories, novels or the letter of complaint.
In more formal types of poetry, there are usually rules about where stresses should fall and different metres measured in things called feet. For example, Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is a typical iambic pentameter. An iamb is a foot made up of 2 syllables with the stress falling on the first one and there are five of them here. If you switch the stress to the second syllable, the iamb becomes a trochee, as exemplified in my own comic masterpiece beginning ‘I went down the pub on Friday .…’
You can, of course, create other effects by mixing them up, and then there are the more complicated ones whose names I’ve forgotten, such as the galloping horses rhythm of:
‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.’
The point is that, in poetry and prose, rhythm gives you another string to your writing bow. As well as conveying your thinking and your effects through what the words mean, you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her with gentler or unsettling cadences. (And that sentence is an example of how reading aloud can make things stand out. It’s poor because it sounds as if it’s both the gentler and the unsettling cadences that disturb her, whereas ‘gentler’ belongs with ‘soothing’ and ‘disturbing’ with ‘unsettling’. But then, if I try rewriting it, as in ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler or disturbing her with unsettling cadences’ it’s rubbish because there’s a sort of puzzling gap after ‘gentler’ which doesn’t get filled until the end of the sentence. And ‘… you can influence the reader by soothing her with gentler cadences or disturbing her with unsettling ones’ is even worse because it ends on that very feeble downbeat ‘ones’. So, with my habitual laziness, I’ll leave the perfect formulation of it to you.)
Anyway, if the rhythm’s not right, the words have less impact. I’m no theorist about all this but I think there must be an instinctive psychological response to rhythms at a level beyond the rational. For example, I don’t think it matters in the slightest if you don’t know the meaning of:
‘And I shall pluck ’til time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.'
The combination of images and rhythms there is enough to make you feel good.
That’s more than enough for now. I’ll try to think of some examples for part two.