Though being ‘fresh’ as in “Don’t be fresh with me, young man, ‘said his mother curtly’ is perhaps a little archaic in usage, working to get your writing to be ‘fresh’ is a goal worth aspiring to and will offend no one. Our previous 3 sets of tips on writing have addressed some important and basic ways to improve the ways you present your writing, but this 4th one moves to a different but equally important level. And it has as much to do with your ear as your hand and your eye.
If you want to write really good prose, you need to think not only about clarity and correctness but about rhythm. Not only do we ‘hear’ the way sentences are constructed when they are read out loud, but we also hear them inside our head. The way we arrange words can be dull and plodding or it can lively, interesting and even musical, and, like the way we seduce our readers with conventions, we can seduce them with the rhythm of our sentences. It’s not easy, but once you acquire and internalize the habit, you will find yourself producing prose that is a pleasure to read, that examiners will admire and reward.
How do you do this? You work at it. You think in terms of phrases rather than just in terms of words. Isaac Goldberg compared it to music, thinking not just in terms of a note, but of a phrase or a melody. Specifically:
1. You vary the construction and length of your sentences. You play shorter ones against longer ones. ‘This poet uses many slight pauses to emphasize meaning. He sometimes puts these at the end of the line, or inserts them in the middle, or makes us wait, while he inserts a parenthetical remark. Aiming to control our reactions, he manipulates our responses, both intellectual and emotional.’ What do we have here? Short sentence, long sentence, inverted syntax. The writing is aiming to sing, not trudge.
2. You use punctuation to create rhythm. ‘In the first poem in the volume, what do we find: repetition of a single word, building a powerful — but nevertheless clear–argument about the destruction of the environment, about the pollution of our air, about the disappearance of the horned lark.’ Note too, the use of the repetitive phrase to hammer home the critical writer’s representation of the poet’s passion.
3. You use balance. This feature is commonly found in good speeches, but also has an important place in all writing. We can use balance for a variety of reasons: highlighting difference and similarity; playing with humor and wit, conveying or evoking emotion. You may find this the easiest way to import some rhythm into your writing and you probably already do. ‘The poet opens the poem with a friendly invitation but closes with a stern condemnation.’
These observations only skim the surface of the artistry involved in producing some freshness in your writing; good writers work at it their whole lives. The points above are just a few of the many valuable tips found in my favorite writing manual by Michael Adams, The Writer’s Mind. It was published in 1984 and revised later. There are still some copies around and it’s well worth finding if you’re really looking to take your writing to the next level, having dealt with all the more mundane matters in the first three ‘writing tips’ posted here on the blog.