I actually wish I'd written that instead of J.D. McClatchy because it would make the perfect line for My Life in Six Words. Description can be remarkably powerful.
Want to know how to tap into that power?
1. Pay Attention. Yep. That's the not-so-secret secret to persuasive writing: Word choice. Word choice is the foundation for everything. Nuance matters and it can be most valuable when it is very, very subtle. The best, quick example of what I'm talking about is the emotional difference between the words "said" and "admits." Consider the weight (and nuance) if I only change on word in these two sentences.
"Obama says health care overhaul may fail."
"Obama admits health care overhaul may fail."
One word, but those sentences evoke very different feelings. One, "says," is straightforward, a fact, a statement. The other, "admits," carries more baggage -- it can imply guilt or regret, uncertainty or lack of resolve.
If you want a very quick primer on how subtle (and leading) language can be, study headlines on Google News. A sample from 5 minutes ago:
McCain, Facing G.O.P. Foe in Primary, Tilts to Right (from The New York Times)
Consider "tilts" -- and then consider how the feel of the sentence -- but not necessarily the meaning -- would change if that word was "moves" or "leans." Tilt, in its sound, in its meaning and associations carries concrete implications. It sounds unsteady or haphazard. One word -- almost always a verb -- can alter a reader's perceptions in very meaningful ways -- sometimes (oftentimes) without their conscious knowledge.
2. Rhythm. I know, I know, you don't want to hear (read? see?) another writer genuflect to iambic pentameter a la Shakespeare so I'll skip that (mostly). Except to say that -- especially if you write speeches -- you would do well to spend some time with the Bard and with Cicero, too. In a speech, bad sentence structure is death. A bad phrase is like an out of tune piano or that unfortunate off-key note that mars an otherwise lovely rendition of, say, the Star Spangled Banner.
The combination of rhythm and word choice are the foundations of a writer's voice. (More on that in another post). One of the reasons Obama's speeches can be so powerful? Classical rhetorical construction...okay, sorry, lapsed into grad school speak for a minute....all that means is that Obama used very classic (and effective) sentence structures in his speeches and he delivered them like spoken word poems. His speeches were as much about the rhythm of the words as they were about the words themselves.
Winston Churchill was a master of language. This thoughtful post dissecting one of his most famous speeches at The blog for WellwrittenWellsaid.com makes some very interesting points about our culture's (often) unexamined push for brevity at the expense of meaning and significance.
Okay -- running a little long:
The way you put your sentences together matters. How it sounds in your ear (and your reader's ear) matters. Structure can either strengthen or weaken your words. One of the best ways to see word choice and structure stripped bare -- to feel and study the emotional power of language -- is to read poetry. And then read it again and dissect it.
What does it make you feel? (or if the poem is not successful, what do you think the poet wanted you to feel?) Why?
Audre Lord is one of the poets I return to over and over again. Here's one passage from "Afterimages" her poem about Emmitt Till. There is not a syllable out of place.
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21-gun salute to Dixie
as a white girl passed him in the street
and he was baptized my son forever
in the midnight waters of the Pearl.
"and he was baptized my son forever in the midnight waters of the Pearl." The idea -- Audre Lord's connection to Emmett Till through race and experience, a connection everyone should feel regardless of skin color -- that idea at the end of the poem is rendered far more powerful because the words and the structure work together to magnify her point.
If you're looking for a good place to get started with poetry, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry (second edition) is an excellent place to start. It's a sampling of many different writers so you are likely to find one whose style and structure resonate with you. Or impress or intrigue you. (Looks like there may be a new one on Contemporary World Poetry now. Hope I have room in my book budget.)
Anything by William Zinnsser. On Writing Well is always an excellent choice -- focus on word choice and clarity especially -- and it looks like he may have a new hardcover out. (I'll have to check into that).
Would love other writers' and readers' tips and insights on how they use language. I'm also always looking for new tips and books to add to my shelf so send me an email or post a comment with suggestions.(Once again, image credit to my friend Jill. Go see her on flickr.)