Adding an ‘E’ to the ABCs of writing

June 10, 2010 | Writing

Much is made of the ABCs of writing – accuracy, brevity, clarity – but there is a fourth more, advanced component to good writing. That’s “euphony,” a word many people do not know.

Euphony means agreeable sound, especially in the phonetic quality of words.

To master the ABCs of writing will certainly make you a strong and effective writer. But you can be accurate, brief and clear and pretty dull if your writing is devoid of euphony.

Creating a pleasing or musical sound between words sometimes requires adding a little extra verbiage, sometimes less verbiage. Either way the payoff is well worth it. More often it’s a matter of choosing the right words and arranging them in a lyrical order.

Take the example of music stars Darryl Hall and John Oates. When they exploded on the music scene fans quickly shortened their name to simply Hall and Oates. It was a choice that demonstrated their sense of euphony. Compare that shorthand name to the alternative: Oates and Hall. It just doesn’t flow. It lacks melody.

Similarly, the big public relations firm Hill & Knowlton would have called its sonic sensibilities into question if the partners had instead named the firm Knowlton & Hill. The latter isn’t awful, just less melodious.

Consider some other examples.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch vs. Fitch & Abercrombie
  • Baskin-Robbins vs. Robbins-Baskin
  • Black & Decker vs. Decker & Black
  • Peter, Paul and Mary vs. Mary, Paul and Peter
  • Romeo and Juliet vs. Juliet and Romeo
  • Thelma and Louise vs. Louise and Thelma
  • Peaches and cream vs. cream and peaches

In each case the former is a combination that offers more word affinity than the latter.

Let’s consider some full-length sentences.

In Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe wrote: “The clerk was a bull-necked Italian named Charles Bruzzelli.”

A lesser writer might have promulgated the same thought but settled for this less lyrical arrangement: “The clerk was an Italian named Charles Bruzzelli and he was bull-necked.”

Novelist Carl Hiaasen wrote: “As we glided through the woods to the music of birds and the splish-splash of our paddles stitching the black water, I tried to summon an image of Chapman.”

An editor with a tin ear might have drafted the thought like so: “As we glided through the woods I tried to summon an image of Chapman to the music of birds and the splish-splash of our paddles stitching the black water.”

British author Douglas Adams gave us this gem: ”The turmoil of the day stood still for a moment and kept a respectful distance.”

A sloppy spell of thinking might have instead produced this: “Keeping a respectful distance, the turmoil of the day stood still for a moment.”

We can all be pleased that the legendary John Updike wrote: ”He tries shaving without looking at his face, which is never the face he wanted. Too much nose, not enough chin,” rather than, ”He had too much nose and not enough chin, which wasn’t the face he wanted. So he tried shaving without looking at his face.”

Ditto for this Updike sentence: ”It is important to strike within the first few moments of awakening, before the dream’s delicate structure is crushed under humdrum reality’s weight,” which could have alternatively been drafted as, “Before the dream’s delicate structure is crushed under humdrum reality’s weight, it is important to strike within the first few moments of awakening.”

The quality of the authors’ thinking in every case makes even the lesser rewrites far more interesting than most English sentences. Still, the importance of nuance and arrangement in achieving the highest level of euphony is apparent.

None of this is meant to diminish the importance of the ABCs of writing. Accuracy, brevity and clarity are prerequisites to achieving euphony. You would be hard pressed to make flabby, muddled and inaccurate writing sound pleasing to the ear.

Simply put, euphony is required to take one from a good to great writer.

Comments

Susan, I’m pleased I brought back such a precious memory.

Mike Consol | June 12, 2010  9:15 AM
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