The chapter on emphasis, by Williams and Bizup, reminded me of music. When someone is learning how to play music for the first time they are taught techniques. But once they get to a certain level it becomes necessary to stretch within those techniques in order to allow the interior feel of the music, as well as their own unique rhythms of playing, to come out. For example, when I used to play piano there was a piece by Lorie Line that I simply loved to play, but I could never get it to sound the way she played it. This frustrated me for a long time until one day my dad, who had been listening to me practice, told me that he had listened to her play it and enjoyed my way better. This was not only due to the fact that I would play some parts slower than she did, but also because of the different places I would stress certain notes.
Much of writing can be similar to this. As Williams and Bizup point out, “If you have managed your subjects and topics well, you will, by default, put the words you want to emphasize toward the ends of your sentences” (Williams and Bizup 2014, 84). In other words, managing the subjects and topics well are following the techniques of writing that you’ve learned. When this is done right, the emphasis follows as though you are letting your own unique interior beat take over at just the right moment to make beautiful writing in a similar way to musicians who make beautiful music. I also appreciated the method they give you to test this idea in your own writing which sounded like a musical technique as well: “To test this, read your sentence aloud, and as you reach the last three or four words, tap your finger hard as if emphasizing them in a speech. If you tap on words that do not deserve strong emphasis, look for words that do. Then put those words closer to the end” (84). This is a perfect example of checking your work in a way that is outside the comfort zone of technique.
This technique is used by musicians as well for film scores. You hear the melody at the beginning but it doesn’t get to the best part of the music right away. It slowly gets more and more intensely beautiful until near or at the end of the piece, which is when you get the climax of the same melody you heard before. Score writers do this on purpose to fit the storyline which is similar to what writers need to do for readers who “look to the last few words for emphasis” (84). I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of writing this way before but it makes sense, especially since I can look back and sometimes see when I’ve done it this way before without even realizing it. Readers are looking for the point just as film goers are, and the way they both do this is through the writers, whether writers of words or of music.
Perhaps the coolest part of this whole emphasis thing is being able to use it with entire paragraphs and not just sentences: “Put key words in the stress position of the first sentence of a passage in order to emphasize the key ideas that organize the rest of it” (89). This is a helpful tool when writing and revising and this is another good time for music to come in. I don’t know about my particular readers, but I write much better when listening to music, especially soundtracks or really any type of music that fits the tone I want to come out in my writing. During a semester course on Oscar Wilde, I would listen to the motion picture soundtrack for the movie Gladiator while I wrote my final research paper. I would listen to the entire thing from beginning to end, but then listen to whichever particular song I liked the most that day, repeating it multiple times. The next examples are from my paper, where listening to the music from this particular movie seemed to reach into my writing:
1. The characters in all of these texts experience suffering at a deep level, some more drastically than others. For some, suffering has a redemptive quality, while for others there seems to be no hope of redemption. Spiritual fragmentation produces suffering, shown in the separation of the soul from the body as well as the heart. It is when we are fragmented that we experience suffering. One other important cause of fragmentation is the loss of conscience, either by neglect or harmful influence. And yet, as we will see in these texts, reintegration of body and soul can cause yet another form of suffering. This can be either redemptive or corruptive in nature and at the same time it can be ambiguously both.
2. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s belief in the redemptive power of suffering takes a dark turn. Dorian becomes fragmented by exchanging his soul for the self-centered purpose of eternal youth. He becomes obsessed with himself and his own beauty, which consumes him to the point of corruption.
At the end of the first sentence in each paragraph, where I changed some words to bold, you can hear the emphasis in the words. It fascinates me that somehow this happened in my writing without my conscious effort at the time. It seems to me the music had something to do with it, especially as I listened to it again while reading these paragraphs. I was thrilled to find it in my writing before even taking this course and learning about how to use emphasis in writing. It was also interesting in rereading this paper, to find other spots where using emphasis would have resulted in a stronger paper:
1. The end of the story leaves us with images of redemption, not only for the fisherman but for the priest as well. This stems from the spiritual integration which is experienced by both characters. The fisherman’s soul has longed to enter back into his heart which it was deprived of in the beginning of the story when he had cut it away from himself: “Wherefore will I tempt thee no longer, but I pray thee to suffer me to enter thy heart, that I may be one with thee even as before” (173). The fisherman responds in the affirmative, and acknowledges the soul’s suffering in the world, but as he is going to allow the soul back in the soul cannot find room: “Alas!” cried his Soul, “I can find no place of entrance, so compassed about with love is this heart of thine” (173-174). At this point the mermaid finally returns to the story, but she washes up on shore, dead. We are not told how she died or even how she turned up where the fisherman was.
The first two sentences of this example did not seem to have any type of strong emphasis to guide the rest of the paragraph. After reading it and returning to the previous paragraphs I mentioned, you can see the difference emphasis can truly make.
So what exactly has to happen for writers to do this? Many seem to naturally find some sort of rhythm and it flows onto the page through their words, I’m sure without realizing it. I have encountered this in some of my siblings’ as well as my friends’ writing, when they are not able to see how much their writing flows because they are too worried about the rules. This is how writers can lose their sense of flow and rhythm. They get so wrapped up in the rules they are trying so hard to follow, that they can potentially miss out on the natural rhythms happening in their thinking. In the same way musicians need to find their natural rhythms after learning the rules, writers need to find theirs. These rhythms don’t always seem to be right, but I argue they can sometimes be a better starting point than the rules. I tend to be a rule follower so this isn’t something I would usually say either. Rules, techniques, methods, or whatever you want to call them have their crucial place in writing, as well as in playing music, but I have seen people get so lost in trying to follow them so strictly (myself included, being somewhat of a perfectionist) that the creativity gets lost. The above examples of my own writing seem to me as if they could be flukes, but really it could have simply been that for once I let go of the rules to get my ideas on paper, and chose to let the rest of it flow before using the rules to tone it. Creativity is part of being a human being and I would say is necessary even in the most formal of writing, but it does not come by thinking about rules to the point of freezing all of one’s thoughts. Even serious writing needs creativity or it will seem dead and dry. This is where I think emphasis is needed the most, to prevent this from happening.
Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. 2014. Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace. New York: Pearson.