Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie – part one

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.


  1. Absolutely splendid post.

    'you can influence the reader by soothing or disturbing her with gentler or unsettling cadences.' Interesting that you use the feminine form to make a point. That allows the use of 'soothing', 'gentler', even 'cadence' - terms which would speak to female sensibilities. 'Unsettling' is also a term one associates with a kinder, gentler disposition. It even gives the more generic term 'influence' a softer feel, a nudge, sweet guidance, an intangible bribe.

    Now I suppose I should feel obliged to deconstruct and rebuild, keeping the feminine 'feel'. Okey dokey:

    A gentle cadence soothes the spirit, freeing flights of fancy on gossamer wings, words flow on the page, ganache slick. But a cadence in discord unsettles, palpitations and frenzied breaths clutch at the bosom, as eyes strain in halting distress.

    Hmmm, kinda like that. Avoided the 'heaving bosom' cliche, though I'm still rather fond of it.

    So now, what would you do with a more 'masculine' feel to the above statement?

  2. Listen, Diane. It's bad enough having to write these things, without then being tested on them. But, noblesse oblige, and so ...

    A steady beat energises repose itself, grounding it, unfolding its leather wings to suck up the sunlight as the sounds stride together, clumping proprietorially into preternaturally pulsed paragraphs. But contrapuntal clashes wreck the thrusting insistence of the central imperative to unleash chaos. Pressured adrenaline pumps its pulses through the organism, the throat burns with the harshness of the word-storms and the vanguards of destruction boil and surge over the horizons.

  3. 1 and 2 are very true. It seems strange to read aloud to yourself, but it works very well. As for 3, also a good point. However, for me it's often a combination. Re-writing and editing, it's part of my writing process. I usually start doing it halfway. While doing it I ask myself questions about the story and the characters. I realise that this is personal though, it's my working style.
    However, editing in the end is always needed. I'm often astonished about the number of 'mistakes' I missed before.

  4. Yes Anneke, you're right. Number 3 does seem a bit autocratic but, as you say, different writers have different editing techniques, so I still think it makes sense to treat the two processes as separate, even though the editing obviously may involve lots of actual writing or rewriting. (And what a good example of bad writing the previous sentence was - far too long, far too many subordinate clauses. I need help.)

  5. Excellent post, Bill. As a non-native, I often struggle to get the rhythm of my writing to flow free, and the trick really is to read it aloud. One thing that helps me getting it better is the fact that as a translator I am used to going through a number of suitable words fast, and seeing how the word selection affects the whole.

    Still, this is one area of writing one can never get just perfect; that's also the enjoyment of writing.

  6. As you know, Heikki, I'm a great admirer of your facility with English. I said so in my review of Tulagi and there's no doubt that you got the rhythms not only of the prose narrative but also of the dialogues between the various characters exactly right.

    You're right, perfection is difficult, but on those rare occasions when we sense we have precisely the right turn of phrase, it's a great feeling.

  7. Great advice, Bill, thanks. I've been aware of rhythm in writing ever since reading the Just So stories by Rudyard Kipling - 'Yellow Dog Dingo' is a mastery of poetic, rhythmic prose. I've been complimented on my rhythm, but I do tend to fall into the trap of same-length sentences. I get rather self-conscious about the sound of my own voice but perhaps I should start chanting away in my study.

  8. I think the 'same length sentences' problem is an interesting one, Fiona. It's quite subtle but it does show up when you hear a sequence of them. They may all be perfectly modulated, rhythmic constructions but, in the end, they have a metronomic effect which draws attention away from the substance of what's being said.

    Chant away, it'll soon feel completely normal.

  9. Good advice, Bill, as always. I certainly agree about rhythm. Although I've written little poetry, I've always been drawn to writing that flows nicely without abrupt endings. Peggy Simson Curry's work is a great example of good rhythm and poetic delivery. I used to record my own second draft to determine whether it flowed.

  10. Yes, Jean, it's that last point you make - about checking whether it flows - that's the important one. Once you're confident of that, you can start manipulating it to create specific effects.

  11. Great one, thanks for this. Have to admit, this is my favourite kind of blog topic on this blog.

  12. Aaaaw, Scary. There was me thinking you came here for my charm and personality. Ah well ... (Glad you liked it, though.)

  13. Bill, I'm here for your charm and personality. Honest. For real.

    That said; a great post. They should make you the laureate of something.

  14. Thanks Michael. But can I choose what to be laureate of? Because there's a certain posting of mine which was inspired by a photo on your blog which sort of maps out my preference.

  15. Bill, I'm jumping on the bandwagon: kudos to you. Gabriele Rico talks about everything you mentioned on her book WRITING THE NATURAL WAY, which helps writers tap into their creativity. Sounds, rhythms, recurrences, and reptitions are important elements of writing and are often overlooked.

    As an auditory learner/communicator, I tend to overlook the visual in favor of rhythms. So next time around, if you don't mind, tell me how to create visual images for my readers!

  16. I don't know Gabriele's book but the title sounds right. The feel and sound of words and their combinations is as important as their grammatical and semantic framework.

    I write lots of videos and DVDs so I frequently have to acknowledge (and even let the words bow to) the power of visuals. I'll have a think about your 'request' and see whether I have any real thoughts on it. The problem is that doing something is so different from analysing and explaining what you do. If I do write such a blog, there will of course be a fee.