What Makes Writing Unforgettable?
When people tell me I write well, it’s because I do something extra. After I finish writing and revising a piece, I go back again to listen. I listen to the rhythm and sounds of the words. I listen and make small tweaks. It’s like being a technician at a sound board. I’m mixing the music of the language. I say that seriously.
One guy who understood what I mean, who really had it down, was Abe Lincoln, the 16th U.S. President. He understood that fewer words and more music would deliver more meaning. To me, that’s the reason his Gettysburg Address — less than 300 words — is considered the most remembered American speech in our history.
Listen to the Music of the Language
Read the first paragraph of The Gettysburg Address below. Read to see what the words say.
Now read to hear the music, don’t think about what the words mean. Read them aloud slowly, evenly. Listen to how they sound. Read the paragraph aloud two or three times this way.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. — Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
Do you hear the rhythm, the rat-tat-tat of the syllables? It’s kind of fun to say the words, especially liberty,. dedicated, and proposition. Those words seem to stand out at the right spots.
Can you hear the difference that occurs when you change that last word equal to the term the same. The sounds change too. The two syllables of equal have more stress on the first syllable — E-qual. That difference in stress doesn’t happen with the two words — the same. It doesn’t sound like an ending.
Without that ending, without the feeling of closure, the impact of the whole sentence is lost. The final word doesn’t ring and stay in our ears — or our minds if we’re reading silently. Unconsciously we’re waiting for the next word, the way we wait for the next shoe to drop. The sentence feels incomplete rhythmically.
Abe Lincoln understood how words make meaning and how they make music.You could almost sing the Gettysburg Address. It wouldn’t surprise me if folks already have.
It’s not hard to do what Abe did.
Adding Music to What you Write
Just like playing a guitar, writing musically takes practice. You can do that. Here’s how you tweak your writing to bring out the music of the language.
1. Write in your usual process. Edit and revise as always.
2. Be certain your message is clear and ready to publish.
3. Read your work aloud saying every syllable slowly, evenly, and paying attention to the sounds only. Listen for
a word or phrase that just doesn’t sound right
a word or sentence that seems too short or too long
a word or phrase that makes you lose your reading rhythm
a sentence seems to stop abruptly
an unintentional rhyme
a place that feels like something is missing
4. Edit to correct for those issues you found. This is the fun part. Choose more powerful and more precise words than those you replace.
The more you do it the better you’ll be at adding the natural music of language to what you write. Once you get used to listening for it, you’ll write more musically too. Putting meaning and musical language together is about as compelling as a writer can get. It can move a whole nation to think, as Abe did.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. — Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
Go ahead, tell me that’s not music.
I love the music of the language.
–ME “Liz” Strauss
If you think Liz can help with a problem you’re having with your writing, check out the Work with Liz!! page in the sidebar.
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