Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Lesson in Fluency from Alexander Pope (re-post)

D.L. Hammons is recycling blogposts right now. Check it out here. I included a different post at DL's, but it got me thinking. This is another of my favorite posts and one I thought was worthy of a little recycling. I hope you enjoy it!

Sorry: longer than normal post

One of my favorite writing lessons actually comes from a poem. Alexander Pope, in his poem "Sound and Sense", offers insight and instruction for better writing. It is some of the best and toughest writing advice I've ever discovered. In it, he begins by reminding us that writing is a skill, one requiring learning and practice - truly great writing is not accidental. But he takes it even further, which I love.

Pope asserts that the best writing is accomplished when we are able to echo our content's meaning in the sound and quality of our words.

For example, if our MC is struggling with a mighty task, the reading should require more effort as well:

"But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar."


"When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;"
Pay attention to the effort required by your mouth and tongue to speak those lines. Try to say them quickly, without dropping any letter sounds. They MUST be read slowly. His letter and syllable combinations require more effort, resulting in slower pronunciation.

But if things are moving along smoothly and life is wonderful, Pope says our writing fluency should also flow smoothly and easily:
"Soft is the strain, when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;"


"Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn and skims along the main.

Now pay attention to the effort required to speak those lines. Try to say them quickly. No problem, right? Genius!

What impresses me most about Pope's message is not the value of his lesson (which I find priceless). I am most impressed by the way he manages to not only teach us what we should do, but also show us what he means, simultaneously. It blows. my. mind.

To actually apply the skills Pope shows us is far easier said than done. Specificity of word choice and a deliberate awareness of rhythmic fluency are required. Both take time and practice. The payoff in our craft, however, could not be measured.

A modern example can be found in the first few pages of What Jamie Saw, by Carolyn Coman. She uses fluency and words to create a powerful feeling of anxiety in the reader, one so strong we can't help but turn the page. William Steig does it in his picture book Shrek, to both advance and slow the reader. I've discovered this technique in many books, and I am awed by it every time.

For your edification and reading pleasure, here is the complete poem:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus' varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!

What do you think? Can you think of any examples when you may have seen this technique?


Robyn Campbell said...

Great advice. I'd never heard that before, but it works. And writing does take hard work. It is not so much an art, but a craft. Where we hone our skills every time we pick up our pens. Or in my case tap the key. I think I forgot how to write. :0)

I will use this technique as I copied and pasted. Is that okay? I just don't want to forget it. Have a great weekend Shannon. :-)

Roxane B. Salonen said...

I love how you revealed this wisdom to us in steps, like any good teacher would. :) Wow! The ending result is powerful. Something to really chew on. I suspect some of us have intuitively known a bit of this before, but had we really paid close attention? You can bet I will now.

Simon C. Larter said...

I've never heard of this technique, good lady. Thanks for bringing it to my attention so lucidly!

Catherine Denton said...

Really love this wisdom. But man, it's hard to do. I'll be mulling this over for awhile...

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Genius, indeed. Thank you so much for a really good post, Shannon. You did a great job of taking us into this poem. I'll be more aware now of how word choice echoes meaning. Superb!

Jennie Englund said...

Tone, right?

It's challenging. The last stylistic device I teach my writing students.

Shows content through format, voice, and sentence fluency.

Do you have any teaching tricks for it?

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Robyn - Of course it's okay to copy and paste, silly. I think we all take that as a high compliment.

Roxane - Thanks, Roxane. I guess I can't get around the teacher me. :)

Simon - Yay! You're welcome.

Catherine - It is very difficult to do. But oh-so-impressive when it is.

Tricia - Thanks, Tricia. I appreciate your kind comment.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Jennie - give me your email and I'd be happy to share what I like to use.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Wow, that's definitely something I aspire to. I'd love for my sound to echo its written appearance and meaning.

Sliding on the Edge said...

My copy of Sound and Sense looks like it went to through two tours in Iraq. I love that book.

Jemi Fraser said...

Excellent advice! Pope was quite the writer. Lovely word choice.

VR Barkowski said...

Outstanding post, and what gorgeous use of language! Not only is Pope's poem magic, it perfectly illustrates why it's so important we read our work aloud and listen to how the words sound.

Mary Aalgaard said...

This reminds me of being in plays. At first, you read the lines and you're all jerky and unnatural. You rehearse and rehearse and rehearse until it becomes part of you and flows out as if it is totally natural, your own words, fluid and spontaneous.

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

This is the ultimate lesson in showing not telling.

Thanks. I'm in editing mode these days, so it's particularly timely.

Hardygirl said...

This is really great, and I'll admit, I've never thought of this before . . . but of course!!!

I'm bookmarking this one!!


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Kristen - Yeah, me too. I'm still working on the "practice what you preach" thing. :)

Sliding - Oh, I love the anthology text. Mine is pretty worn too.

Jemi - Thank you.

VR - Yes! That's it exactly! :-)

Mary - It's a lot like that. You're right.

Meredith - Thank you. Good luck with editing.

SF - OMG! You are bookmarking something I wrote?! That is a huge compliment - thank you!

Laura Martone said...

Terrific advice, Shannon (and Mr. Pope). If only my brain were functioning right now - and not hazy from sickness - I might be able to think of an example or two.

Bethany Mattingly said...

Great post and well worth the length!! This seems so challenging, hopefully I can do some of this with my books. I can't imagine the affects, astronomical!

Bane of Anubis said...

Though I've never been a huge fan of poetry, I'm amazed by poets' ability to weave words together in such an effective way.

Tabitha Bird said...

Good food for thought. I must say, if I come across something that slows me down too much I am apt to skip it and read on. I wonder if that would be the down side of this?

storyqueen said...

I was reading William Steig's Shrek just yesterday.

Steig is a master of voice and word choice. I do not think most children's writers of today offer such richness of language in their stories.

Love him!


Cleverly Inked said...

*Scratches Head*

Christina Lee said...

Very interesting!! I hadn't quite considered this and now I will!

Eric W. Trant said...

!Mucho awesome-oh!

When you're writing in deep 3rd POV (or 1st), this should come naturally.

I wrote a story about a teenage girl and the sentences were flighty and sometimes scatterbrained -- because all women, especially young ones, are flighty and scatterbrained.


Another was about a young boy who was numb inside, and the prose came out numb and unfeeling.

Another was an old man hobbling through a graveyard, and the sentences (I hope) hobbled with him and this turtle that was also there.

I love this technique -- using structure and prose to make the reader ~FEEL~ the story -- and it's one I try very hard to employ.

Love love LOVE the poem. I can't believe I've never read it.

- Eric

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