Writing With Feeling
I assumed my thoughts were logical. After all, they make so much sense (to me at least). I was distraught to learn that my logic is dictated more by my emotion than I knew. Physicist Richard Feynman was right when he said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” As a lover of logic, especially my own, the realisation of my logical infallibility was a personal crisis.
I was glad to recall the words of John F. Kennedy, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger—but recognize the opportunity.”
The danger of course is that I am irrational and am frequently fooling myself. However, thanks to the wisdom of the Chinese meaning of crisis, we can recognise an opportunity: our readers are irrational.
Like me, our readers are dictated more by their emotions than they realise. Because like me, they prefer to believe their decisions and actions are completely within their conscious control.
We have an opportunity to engage our reader’s emotions—and influence them.
Our arguments can have much more persuasive power by combining our logical arguments with the feeling of words and sentences. We can leverage our logic with feeling.
The Feeling of Words
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — Mark Twain.
Words are more than their Oxford dictionary definition. They have a sound, an articulation, that also conveys meaning. The feeling of sounds. Or as linguists say: phonaesthetics (“phonaesthetics” makes the linguists sound smarter, doesn’t it?).
For example, consider the articulation of unfunny and funny words. Tomato, Swan, and Adelaide are not funny. But Cucumber, Cockatoo, and Timbuktu are. Words with a “k” sound in them are funnier. (Incidentally, research shows babies associate the “k” sound with comfort and joy). It’s not the meaning that makes them funny, it’s simply the sound you make when you say them.
As your tone and body language communicate meaning when you talk, the sound and articulation of your words communicates meaning when you write.
Other words have a feeling because they are associated with an experience or concept that affects us. This can be demonstrated with our feeling towards certain numbers. For example, we have positive emotions towards our loved one’s birthdays and the lottery numbers before the lotto draw. In contrast, we have negative emotions towards 9/11 and our lottery numbers after the lotto draw. Words can be loaded like a gun—producing negative or positive emotion. It’s the work of a judicious writer to determine when to pull the trigger.
The feeling of words can do more than improve our writing.They have the power to influence public perception. In 1947, The United States of America changed the name of their military from the Department of War to the Department of Defense. Regardless of their military actions, their name change helps them sound less like an aggressor and more like a protector.
The feeling of words changes their meanings, as do the feeling of sentences.
The Feeling of Sentences
“To cut and tighten sentences is the secret of mastery.” ― Dejan Stojanovic.
As individual words affect readers emotions, sentences can create a beat and cadence—a rhythm—that is engaging and pleasant to read. Much like listening to music (jazz not heavy metal).
Here are two examples from literature, and one example from the antithesis of literature—Twitter:
- “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore.” —Ernest Hemingway, from ‘In Another Country’.
The one-syllable words and limited punctuation make it flow.
- “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”—Scott F. Fitzgerald, the final sentence in ‘The Great Gatsby’:
The ‘b’ sound emphasises the ‘beat on’ metaphor with the rhythmic beating style.
- “Repurpose the shattered pieces of your past. That stuff is useful.”—That was a tweet by (Dilbert creator) Scott Adams.
In his blog, Scott Adams writes, “I used a beat in the first sentence and none in the second, for the musicality.” Contrasting a rhythmic sentence with a sentence that breaks the rhythm, it captures readers attention to give a point more impact.
Rhythm is not the lead singer belting out a soul-grabbing anthem. Rhythm is the forgotten drummer—Ringo Starr. And while we don’t pay conscious attention to the drummer, we notice when they stop playing. Without a beat your writing begins to sound out of tune and readers will stop reading.
The Micro Builds the Macro
When learning to read, we begin with individual letters. Then we leverage our knowledge of letters into learning words. We leverage words into understanding sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into books. We learn the macro from the micro.
Learning to write with feeling is like learning to read. By learning to use words with emotions, we have the building blocks to create emotive sentences. With emotive sentences we can write paragraphs with feeling. From paragraphs with feeling we can develop a writing that evokes sensation. Ultimately, by leveraging emotive words (the micro), we can embed feeling into our themes (the macro).