WEEK 5: Become the expert | WEEK 6: Make your words sing | WEEK 7: What to leave in, what to leave out
One of the points I stress from Day One of the freshman writing classes I teach is the importance of paying attention to words.
Sounds like a lesson from Captain Obvious, right?
Well, you'd be shocked at how many people write without paying attention to words. We have a knack for adding frivolous adverbs and adjectives (such as the words "very" and "really," for example. See more here.) We tend to make sentences longer to sound "smarter."
But, the truth is, the direct, efficient sentence is always the more powerful sentence. Brevity is not easy. Mark Twain (allegedly) made a crack about this when he (allegedly) said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." (More on efficient writing from Week 1.)
We can condense our writing when we pay attention to the words. For example, if I wrote the following sentence...
SALLY JENKINS WAS WRITING A COLUMN ABOUT PAT SUMMITT THAT ENDED UP BEING AN INSPIRATION TO ME.
...I would hope that I would see it in my read-through and edit it to...
SALLY JENKINS WROTE AN INSPIRATIONAL COLUMN ABOUT PAT SUMMITT.
To do this, I have to do two key things: 1.) edit myself, and 2.) try to be efficient.
Yes, this means I need to read my own writing critically and with an editor's eye. This typically takes several read-throughs and drafts. (Get that, students? Your first draft is not even close to the end of the writing process.) I also have to know what to look for -- Are my verbs strong? ("Wrote" is always stronger than "was writing," for example.) Can I use a single adjective as opposed to a phrase? Are my descriptions clear, or am I being wordy and/or vague?
This brings me to this week's readings.
OK, OK... by now you I am obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical "Hamilton." Never mind the fact that Miranda read an 832-page biography for fun when he happened upon the inspiration for this smash hit. Never mind that the music mixes hip-hop, rap and classic Broadway show tunes. Never mind that you just don't "get" musicals. (Sure, they're cheesy and, no, King George III never sang to the colonists.)
Still, bear with me as this QUReads directs you to an article from which you will examine Miranda's lyrics.
Why? Because Miranda is a genius at paying attention to his words. (The dude won the Pulitzer Prize for his musical!) And, he is so good at it that his words - literally - sing.
Poynter's Roy Peter Clark examines just one verse of "Hamilton" to prove how Miranda has mastered his words with a purpose. Let's examine the words with him.
I recommend you listen to the "Hamilton" soundtrack or read the lyrics sheet, as well. Miranda's lyrics do not simply rhyme, or employ assonance or alliteration. His lyrics also provide strong descriptions.
*How does Hamilton write, for example? Like he's running out of time, like tomorrow won't arrive, like you need it to survive?
*How do the Hamiltons feel after their son is killed? "There are moments that the words don't reach/There is suffering too terrible to name/You hold your child as tight as you can/And push away the unimaginable/The moments when you're in so deep/It feels easier just swim down."
You don't have to be a poet, a lyricist or a genius to make your stories sing. You just have to pay attention to the words you choose to use -- and to make good decisions.
STILL LOOKING FOR MORE? The story Clark picks out to showcase a news story "singing" is a 2006 New York Times piece by Robert D. McFadden. You can read it here.
What is #QUreads? Each Monday, I will tweet a link to a blog post that will include a selected reading and an explanation of why you should read and study it. You can find it using the hashtag any time. My prediction is that, if you read and study these stories, you will be a better writer by the end of the summer. Granted, if you practice in a journal, read consistently, take note of style and think about what might the writer's decision-making process be, you will improve greatly. I'm just here to help the process along for you.
Feel free to use the Comments section here or on Twitter to discuss the articles and writing techniques, to ask questions, or offer links to other great stories.
Molly Yanity, Ph.D.