Starting the New Year with Writing Advice THE CADENCE OF THE WRITTEN WORD

I borrowed this with permission from the Public Safety Writers Associations's December Newsletter.
The author wants to remain anonymous. I felt it needed an even bigger audience. 


I debated titling this article “The Cadence of the Written Word and the War on Adverbs.” The versatile modifier has been under fire the past few years due to an onslaught by currently preferred styles, made virtually sacrosanct by certain self-proclaimed experts, who unfortunately are the current heavyweights in the field of writing. Perhaps the most fatuous example was provided by bestselling author, Stephen King, who made the officious pronouncement that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” While I believe that Mr. King was intentionally being a bit hyperbolic in that statement, it’s certainly true that the hapless adverb has fallen out of favor with current writing stylistic preferences. This is due, in part, to how the written words sound. Nothing can ruin the cadence of a sentence faster than a misplaced or superfluous modifier. This brings us to the topic of this piece.

A lot of beginning writers overlook the fact that the written word is actually “heard” as well as seen. What I’m referring to is the cadence of your prose. How does it sound to your “writer’s ear?” Certainly, a good writer should consider this in his writing. (You’ll notice I used the masculine pronoun, his, as my standard default; I simply deplore the current trend of political correctness that is corrupting the standard reference by claiming “sexism,” and deferring to the dreaded third person plural, their. That, however, a subject for another time, but while I’m in this parenthetical break, I’d also like to point out how much those occasional adverbs in the preceding passages actually enhanced the cadence.)

I know you’re probably thinking, I wish he would get back to the primary topic, and I shall. Perhaps an illustration of the subject matter would be in order here. Let’s take a look at one of the most enduring quotes from master essayist, Henry David Thoreau.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Now Thoreau was, among his many attributes, a skilled observer of the cadence of the written word. The aforementioned sentence is a perfect example. He could have easily written it as The majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation, or Most men lead lives of … These two substandard variations illustrate perfectly the importance of choosing the right word. (You’ll note, once again, the enhancement of the previous sentence by the inclusion of still yet another adverb, Mr. King.) By using the monosyllabic mass instead of a multisyllabic word such as majority, Thoreau demonstrated his keen knowledge of the “writer’s ear.” While the two, aforementioned, substandard substitutions, majority and most, still offer the same meaning as well as the alliterative impact of mass, neither has the sibilant smoothness that allows the gliding cadence of the words as they couple with the subsequent, assonant S sounds of lives and desperation. Try reading the original sentence along with the two ersatz variants and you’ll see what I mean.

The late, great Truman Capote was another master of creating sentences that flowed with the easy cadence that was so pleasing to the writer’s ear. Take a look at these examples from his magnificent memoir, “A Christmas Memory.”

Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of a clock and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping …

The onomatopoetic chimings of the clock and the sputter of the fading fire enhance the sentence by letting the reader “hear” the imagery, even though chimings is a bit of a backformation, changing the intransitive verb into a noun for the sake of the imagery. He repeats this tendency in the following example, as well, with shrillings, but what’s a backformation here and there when it’s done for the sake of preserving the eloquent cadence?

Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south.

Observe how the sentence, which is also from “A Christmas Memory,” mimics the frenetic activity of some startled birds as the narrator and his companion walk in the woods. One can almost ”hear” the frenzied flapping of wings …

Thus, in summation, an astute writer should remember that we read not only with our eyes, but with our “ears,” as well. Additionally, please keep in mind that an occasional sprinkling of adverbs, while currently frowned upon by stylists, should be done with appropriate circumspection. After all, even a master chef knows when to toss in a little salt to flavor the soup.

Until next time, I remain basking in my anonymity.

Write well.

--Professor X


Sharon Ervin said…
A writer/critiquer friend circles the word "had" in all manuscripts, forbidding its use. Ridiculous, say I. All words have a place in literature. It's their placement that counts. Occasionally a specific word is the only one that conveys what the writer intends. Some authors I read primarily for their cadence, the lilt and rhythm of their words.

Also, I often use a salt analogy, saying romance is to writing as salt is to baking. It enhances the flavor. Of course, as you mention, one must be judicious. Overuse can ruin the mix.
GBPool said…
Listening to the rhythm of one's writing is a learning experience and all writers can benefit from it. Even if you read your own work aloud, it lets you "hear" the mistakes as well as the rhythm. I use a Word 2003 program that has a Text To Speech feature that I find invaluable. It lets me sit back and listen to my words from a very objective reader. After all, the computer isn't human... or is it? It finds errors that I skipped over because I was too close to my work because it reads what is on the page... not what I think is on the page. And I can hear the rhythm/the music... or the lack of it when this computerized voice reads my stuff. It is great for punching up dialogue. And when you hear something that even you, the writer, don't understand, you know it's time for a re-write. Listen to the rhythm.

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