Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Study Poetry for Variety and Depth of Prose

When writers ask how they can improve their prose, their question often assumes there’s one specific thing they can do that will immediately make their writing better overall. A more realistic way to approach the notion of better is one piece at a time, with guidelines along the way.

The first default answer to the question of how to write better is to read more and to read better quality writing. Reading and studying poetry—good poetry—is a great approach. Why? Because poetry is all about imagery and sound, and in good poetry no words are wasted. If a word is there, it’s necessary, and it’s precise. Here’s an example from “Still I Rise”, by Maya Angelou.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

It helps to read a poem at least three times: once silently, once aloud, and then aloud again with emphases on different words. Once you’ve really heard the poem you can better analyze it. Once you analyze it you can do a better job of applying what you’ve learned to your writing.

For example, in the first line of the above stanza of “Still I Rise”, “moons” comes before “suns”, the words are plural, and the word “like” is repeated. For more than one reason, such as the night of adversity coming before the dawn of a new day, the moon reference comes first. The plural of “moons” and “suns” gives the sense of the passage of time, a lot of time, and the references are reminders that the moon and sun go through stages and mark off seasons. The word “like” is repeated for emphasis.

Why these choices? First, there is an inevitable quality to the appearance of the moon and sun, as affirmed in the second line’s reference to the “certainty of tides”, and there is the sense of a great reach up and out of the water into the sky with the comparison to “hopes springing high”. What if Angelou had used “aspirations” instead of “hopes” and “leaping” instead of “springing”? Aspirations is a longer, less accessible word that feels academic, as if it comes from the mind. Hopes come from the heart. And given the reference to water in the word “tides”, it’s more appropriate for these hopes to spring up like a fountain than to leap up, for example, like a deer from the earth.

While writers may downplay the value of a thesaurus, it’s a great way to write more precisely. Take, for example, this sentence: A bird sings joyfully in the summer sunshine. The grammar is fine and worse sentences have been written, but it’s a generic sentence that lacks a sense of place. Here’s an alternative: Perched atop the maple, the cardinal trills in the midsummer sun. In the second sentence, the details are more vivid and specific, including the type of bird, its location, its song and the time of day.

Two other elements of good poetry are theme and variation. Returning for a moment to the Angelou poem, there is a sense of both hope and adversity, as found in the refrain “Still I'll rise.” This sentence is different from the title “Still I Rise”. The sentence implies that at times it’s only by sheer force of will that I’ll get up from the place where others have relegated me. In the title, however, the rising is ongoing, like the return of the moon and sun with each day and changing seasons. The element of the eternal in the title may even result partly from that force of will. The selections of “I’ll rise” and “I Rise” are intentional, and the choices were made with the poem’s theme of overcoming in mind.

Sometimes writers think longer or more complex is better. Rather than strive merely for complexity, strive for precision in your prose and variation in sentence structure and length. Listen to how your work sounds. Use the same guidelines as you would for reading a poem. Read once silently, once aloud and then aloud again with emphases on different words. How does the writing sound? Does it have a lyrical or musical quality? Does it evoke an image? Maya Angelou’s "Still I Rise" appeared in 1978. The words mattered then because they evoked and honored history and because the words claimed a future. Choose your words wisely so that readers will remember them, too.