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WordWayv: The Wave/Particle Theory of Rhythmic Writing (draft)

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© Scott Keyser 2019

WordWayvTM is a new way of representing the natural rhythms of the written and spoken word in English. The purpose of this blog is to introduce the concept and establish my IP/copyright in WordWayvTM.

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Everything is energy.

The air you breathe, the water you drink, you ground you walk on, the chair you’re sitting on, the shoes you’re standing in. That chair may feel solid to you, but in reality it’s a universe of electrons whizzing around nuclei so fast that it feels solid. But if you could peer into one of those plastic, leather or wood molecules in your chair, you’d see largely empty space.

There is no such thing as matter.

Isaac Newton posited the theory of stable, unchanging ‘building blocks’ of matter, that create unending chain reactions of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics and sub-atomic physics tell us he was wrong. There’s only energy.

And energy — eg radiation (the electro-magnetic spectrum, including visible and ultra-violet light), sound, wind, electricity, water — has two properties: it consists of particles and it travels in waves.

In terms of particles, think photons (light), air molecules (sound, wind), electrons (electricity), water molecules (water).

If everything is energy and energy comprises particles and moves in waves, it follows that language shares the same properties. It, too, must consist of particles and move in waves.

The particles are the individual letters and words (interestingly, grammarians refer to monosyllabic words like prepositions, pronouns, articles and conjunctions as ‘particles’). They make up the words we speak and write.

And when they combine in sentences or stanzas, they move in waves.

We hear this most easily in speech, in the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables. (A syllable is a unit of sound within a word.) A stressed syllable is one we emphasise, and an unstressed syllable is one we don’t.

Take the words continue, discuss, reduce, betray, catholic andperform. Here are the stressed syllables CAPITALISED:

conTINue

diSCUSS

reDUCE

beTRAY

CATHolic

perFORM

This tendency of English to vary the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is known as ‘accentuation’, ie when we speak, we give our words a particular weight, push, emphasis or accent. It’s why English is known as a ‘stress-timed’ language. This gives it its familiar rise and fall, its unmistakable rhythm.

But not all languages are the same. In the Chinese languages and in Thai, for example, all the words are of one syllable (‘monosyllabic’) and variety in speech is achieved by varying pitch, ie the speaker’s voice goes up or down.

Here are two sentences, with the stressed syllables capitalised:

EVery TIME we TALK, we STRING toGETHer a SERies of STRESSED and UNstressed SYLLables withOUT even THINKing aBOUT it. THIS gives our LANGuage its RHYthm.

Do you see how the particles — the smaller words, like we, a, of, and, even, our, its — are typically unstressed? The stress falls on the words, and the parts of the words, that carry the most meaning. So sound and stress collaborate to convey meaning.

When you say those two sentences out loud, you can hear how the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables makes the sound rise and fall, like a wave. This is the wave-like rhythm of our spoken language.

The same goes for our written language. Speech and writing are intimately connected: humans spoke (and sang) before they wrote; speech gave birth to writing. And the most obvious type of rhythmic writing is poetry.

The following satirical ditty — written in the 18thcentury by Samuel Johnson — uses a simple, regular pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables:

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Here are the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my HAT upON my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I MET anOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his HAND.

(If you’re unsure, try saying it out loud but this time stressing the lower case, unstressed syllables; it sounds absurd and unnatural.)

When we learn ‘prosody’ (the study of poetic meter and versification) at school, however, we’re taught that ditties like this are in ‘iambic trimeter’ and ‘tetrameter’, that lines 1 and 3 have four ‘metrical feet’, while lines 2 and 4 have three.

How off-putting is that lingo? The technical jargon of prosody makes it sound complicated, difficult and dull. But it’s profoundly simple, because we naturally use these rhythms; they’re in our DNA.

So, we can hear the rise and fall of this poem’s basic rhythm — especially when we say it out loud or hear someone else reciting it. But what if we could see it, graphically, as a picture?

Now we can, using WordWayvTM, my wave/particle theory of rhythmic writing.

First, let’s map the stressed and unstressed syllables in the above poem, using graph paper, so the syllables are evenly spaced. As you can see in the image below, each syllable on each line gets its own mini-box, with a dot placed above the stressed syllables and a dot beneath the unstressed ones, reflecting the capitalised syllables in the version of the poem above:

20190601_ditty in dots

Next, if we join the dots on each line, we see the wave shape, the rise and fall, of the iambic rhythm emerging:

20190601_ditty pink lines

Of course, representing it like this doesn’t do justice to the fluidity of the poetry; the graphic style is linear and angular. Nonetheless, the regularity of the rhythm/wave is clear to see: lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 are rhythmically identical.

When we turn it into a WordWayvTM, though, we get something more fluid:

ditty as WordWayv

You can see (I hope!) that the stressed syllables sit in the crest of the wave, and the unstressed ones in the trough or dip. The particles (the individual words) constitute the wave; the wave unites the particles. And the rhythm — or flow — gives it energy.

This poetic meter or rhythm is technically known as ‘iambic trimeter/tetrameter’, but I prefer to call it the ‘3- and 4-crested wave’. I’m sure most school children would prefer that, too!

Now, let’s see what happens to the rhythm when we effectively bastardise it by changing a few words:

I put my fedora upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I encountered another man
Whose hat was in his suitcase.

And now with the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my feDORa upon my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I enCOUNTered aNOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his SUITcase.

The loss of rhythm is clear to the ear, but how about to the eye? When we join the dots and show it graphically, how does it look? [WordWayvTMversion pending].

20190603_ditty bastardised

The extra syllables in the words fedora and encountered have spoilt the rhythm of lines 1 and 3; they now sound almost ridiculous. And losing the alliteration of the ‘h’ of hat and hand in line 4, the loss of the rhyme of Strand with hand, and with the poem ending on the falling note of the unstressed syllable case — all of this has destroyed the rhythm.

It’s arrythmic. And now we can both hear and see it.

In my next blog, I’ll WordWayvTM more complex poetry and prose, and show you how establishing rhythm in any form of writing gives it clarity, conciseness and power.

Till then.

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words…”
Virginia Woolf

Dancing with words

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13477038-dancer-silhouette-abstract

Yesterday I had a NeuroKinetic Therapy™ (NKT) session with a therapist called Sue (for a sports-related knee injury). NKT addresses musculoskeletal problems by getting the whole body working and moving in balance and harmony.

I always come out of Sue’s sessions feeling and moving better than when I went in; I literally skip home. That got me thinking about fluidity, fluency and flow, both physical and mental. When we see somebody walking, running or dancing — activities demanding physical co-ordination — we can see at a glance whether they’re moving well, with grace, elegance and ease, or whether they’re moving badly or with difficulty.

It’s the same with writing.

Within a few moments we know if we’re in the hands of an artist or an amateur. If it’s well written, our eyes flow across the lines and down the page, assimilating the meaning of the well-chosen words and merging with the rhythm set by the writer. Fluency and flow make it easier to decode and process the words, influencing our perception not only of the message, but also of the messenger. Studies show that fluency in processing text raises our perception of the author’s intelligence.

On the other hand, if the writing is clunky, clumsy and hard to process — all too common in B2B writing — the reader won’t hang around for long. Most business readers are unforgiving, abandoning this type of writing sooner than you can say ‘plain English’. Losing your reader = communications failure.

And it’s not just about the language.

A 2005 study conducted by Daniel Oppenheimer among Stanford University graduates found that visual disfluency caused by poor choice of font or typographic style lowered their perception of the author’s intelligence. So the content of your writing is just one of a kaleidoscope of elements — including font, point size, leading (line spacing), page grid, line length and graphics — that need to function in concert to move the reader both intellectually and emotionally.

This doesn’t happen by chance. Though writing well is neither an innate gift nor a Ninja-style black art, but a learnable skill…it still has to be learnt. The craft has to be mastered.

As I skipped home from my therapy session thinking about the connection between writing and movement, I recalled the words of one of the greatest writers ever to grace the English language:

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Knowledge Unchained

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20181219_102457 

The week before Xmas my wife and I saw Ian Anderson, rock flautist of Jethro Tull fame, perform a concert in Hereford Cathedral, to raise money for the Cathedral’s Perpetual Trust. Alongside the unlikely Lloyd Grossman, gastronome and musician, Anderson cavorted beneath the high altar like a sprite, the red, gold and violet lights glinting on his silver flute (and his bald head).

The next morning — before tackling the drive back to London — I visited the Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi and adjoining library. A national treasure inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the 1300 Mappa Mundi (Latin for ‘map of the world’) is the largest surviving medieval map of the world.

Featuring 420 cities and towns, biblical events, plants, animals, birds and mythological creatures (including ‘blemmyes’, headless men with faces on their chest), it shows how 13th-century scholars interpreted the world spiritually and geographically.

I then crossed the threshold into the adjoining library…and entered yet another world. Awe-struck, I contemplated row upon row of ancient manuscripts in open, wooden cabinets, with every volume listed on fading sheets at the end of each row. The sheets were a roll call of seminal writing, including 16th century editions of Tertullian and 14th century editions of Augustine’s AD 400 De Trinitate (On the Trinity). What struck me, though, was the sight of iron chains hanging from each book.

The famous Chained Library.

20181219_114314The books it houses — formative of our civilisation, culture and ideas — are of such rare and exquisite beauty that, from birth, they have been tethered to the wooden shelves on which they sit. The chains are attached to the front of the book, not the spine, allowing the reader to simply take it off the shelf and open it, without having to turn it around from spine to front. This stops the chains twisting and tangling, and damaging the book.

I found this ironic.

That we can free ourselves through the knowledge and wisdom contained in books, yet here they’re shackled. Of course I understood why, but I was intrigued by this visual irony.

And that got me thinking about books in general.

Where would we be without them? Without books, human civilisation would be very different, if it could exist at all. They help us to map our own world and travel in other people’s. Imagine a school or university without books. How would we educate ourselves, pass human wisdom from one generation to the next? Granted, online learning is available to all, but the source material still needs to be written. A 2014 study into the correlation between exposure to books and academic achievement in 42 nations found that the number of books in the family home exerts a strong influence on a child’s academic performance and, ultimately, their life chances. (I recall staying in a trailer home in California where, scarily, the only written literature was the TV guide.)

As Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, says in his wonderful book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, ‘Of all mankind’s great advances, the development of writing is surely the giant: it could be argued that it has had more impact on the evolution of human society than any other single invention.’

Having written something, however, how do we share it with the world? That’s where Herr Gutenberg comes in.

Johannes Gutenberg was a 15th century German blacksmith and goldsmith who introduced printing to Europe with the printing press, inspired by the traditional wine press. His invention of mechanical movable type started the Printing Revolution in Europe and is considered a milestone of the second millennium, ushering in the modern period. It played a huge role in the development of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution, laying the basis for our modern, knowledge-based economy. 

(As an aside, movable type was first invented in the Far East, as was paper. In around 1450, completely independently, Gutenberg invented movable type in Europe. This is a fascinating example of what scientists call ‘multiple discovery’ — where two or more people in different parts of the world hit upon the same idea at the same time, eg calculus, oxygen, black holes and the theory of evolution, to name a few.)

Gutenberg’s technology accelerated mass printing to warp-speed. An estimated 8m books were printed between 1450 and 1500 — more than all the scribes of Europe had produced in the previous 1200 years.

Fast forward to the 21stcentury, and more books have been published in the last 50 years than in the previous 500, a trend that looks set to continue.

And in the UK — despite chaining some of them up — we love our books. The UK publishes more books per capita than any other country, releasing more than 20 new titles every hour.

How far we’ve come, yet the basic technology of the book hasn’t changed a jot: think black words in straight lines on white paper bound inside a jacket of either leather or card. Sometimes there’s magic in the simplest, most humble ideas.

Books are a form of time (tome?) travel: they allow us to hear an author’s voice across the vastness of time, space, culture and language, shrinking the millennia between the birth of an idea and our consumption of it and eternalising thoughts from humans long-dead.

If that’s not Magick, frankly, I don’t know what is.

© Scott Keyser 2019

Want more confidence, clarity and certainty? Then nail your value proposition

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value proposition
Just got off the ‘phone from a client called Andrew, who runs a small (but ambitious) life sciences consultancy helping strategic functions in large pharma co’s add more value to the business. It was a ‘it’s-been-a-while-how-are-you-just-calling-to-check-in’ call. In the summer I worked with Andrew and his team on their ‘value proposition’ (VP), their offer of value to their market.

Despite some heavyweight experience and a track record in the sector, their ‘overview’ slide deck to attract potential clients hadn’t been getting traction. They knew they needed a more compelling proposition to scale the business.

In a half-day workshop I challenged every word of the slide deck and we stripped their offer back to the basics:

  • Who’s your ideal client and why?
  • What’s their major headache/challenge/problem?
  • What would the benefits be to them of removing that headache?
  • What qualifies you to be able to help them?
  • What’s unique/special about you/your approach?

As a result of their new-found clarity on what they offer the market, Andrew’s refined their ‘parent’ VP to produce a family of ‘child’ VPs for each specific business function in their clients’ organisations, reflecting the varying needs of each function. It’s also unlocked for him a whole new revenue stream that could be his path to hypergrowth.

He and his team are now super-clear about the value they offer to whom, how and why. Clarity brings higher levels of certainty, market engagement and, ultimately, business.

Confidence is another by-product of clarity. A joy in the VP workshop was seeing them uncover confidence — to approach new markets and give their clients confidence in their analysis-led decisions —  as a core value and potential differentiator from the competition. They’re now building on this in their branding and marketing.

And all in one day’s work, with a client who had the courage to commit to nailing their value proposition.

I turn 60 next year. Surveying my 38 years’ experience in B2B comms in one form or another, in my view the single biggest challenge facing UK SMEs — the engine room of the economy — is expressing their offer of value to their market in a clear, concise and compelling way. Think of it as sequencing your business DNA.

Contact me if you’d like to know more.

Why my writing workshop scored 100%

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gilgamesh book
Yesterday I ran a rhetorica® writing workshop for the comms team of a British property business that has a presence in 60 cities and ten countries around the world. The delegates gave the day an overall rating of 5 out of 5, ie ‘Excellent’, or 100% satisfaction, with some flattering comments on the evaluation forms. 

What resonated with them to give the day that accolade?

It’s because we emphasised story telling. Not only how to tell a compelling story, but also how to unearth stories in the business — like ear-wigging canteen conversations where someone mentions what they’ve done in their day job that to them is prosaic, but to a writer is gold dust. We don’t tell enough stories in business, which is why most business writing is dull. Yet what better way is there to inform, evoke, entertain and persuade, all at once? From camp-fire to dinner table, humans are hard-wired to respond to good stories well told. We neglect them at our peril. 

In yesterday’s workshop I referred to chapter 9 of my book (rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques), ‘Tell Your Reader A Story’. In it I refer to the four elements of any story:

1) Protagonist (from ancient Greek theatre meaning ‘first actor’) or hero;

2) Predicament or challenge (that tests the hero and creates the drama);

3) Narrative, ie the plot, context and setting;

4) Resolution, ie how the hero overcomes their challenge, revealing their strengths and weaknesses.

From Gilgamesh — written on clay tablets in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC — to the latest TV soap, business case study or pitch, all good stories embody these four elements.

At the end of the workshop — despite some initial resistance from them — I gave the delegates a broad brief: to find and write a story about something of interest in their business. And they had less than an hour to do it.

What came back was remarkable: a fairy story about a refurbished church that blended magic with realism; a description of a hilarious but high-risk April Fool’s Day prank played on the CEO and chairman; a content-rich piece on the challenges of place-making with garden villages; a historical take on the business coming of age in terms of its culture, style and place in the world.

Where the writing samples they’d sent me before the workshop had been dry and lifeless, these stories leapt off the page — vivid, vibrant, confident, authentic and powerful. In one day, in a small way, I’d helped them find their voice.

‘Cos that’s what I do: I help organisations, teams and individuals find their writing voice.

Let me know if you’d like the same for you or your team: scott@writeforresults.com.

9/11 poem

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A strange thing happened today.

 

Out of the blue

A ladder of light came down from Heaven

And with it a firefighter from 9/11.

The new day was dawning

— sunlight glinting on his helmet and boots, fresh with Heaven’s dew —

Just as it did that perfect, Eden morning.

His face was old but his eyes sparkled, like a new sun.

He brought us news.

 

“Down by the Hudson did I weep

At the slurry wall that stops the river’s seep,

My pain as wide as it was deep.

 

At our twin temples we fed Mammon, fast and loud

Capitalism unfettered, unshackled, unbowed.

Everything made by man that had been made,

Vaulting ambition, two soaring towers of trade.

 

Suddenly, from that perfect sky, silver birds flew into our temples

And threw them to the ground.

A wound so deep, so profound

That our nation shook.

Terror clamped our hearts, like a mortal mist

As the towers sheared off from the Manhattan schist.

 

All in Ladder 3 were killed,

Our bodies crushed, our hearts stilled.

We were crushed, reduced, pulverised

Scattered, splintered, a.t.o.m.i.s.e.d.

Jumpers shattering on the sidewalk — that terrible sound —

Rang like a rattle through my soul.

 

Then silence.

 

A gentle cloak of dust covered all

Like grey snow or Belsen ash, a ghostly pall.

Ground Zero.

 

That was then.

Time has marched on, for you at least.

 

Now there are twin pools to collect your tears

Cascading, trident-shaped, down sixteen years

Runnelling your sorrow and your fears

Into the marbled earth.

 

And I am free.

 

Now I dance among the spheres and stars:

Electrons, protons, Jupiter and Mars.

Here, now and forever, time and space don’t exist.

Despite the awful human cost

Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost.

Go figure!

We are all energy re-configured.

 

I am light among the atoms

I ride the particles and waves,

I plumb the depths and fathoms

I feel the music of the staves.

 

And know this.

 

We all are loved.

Even the pilots of the silver birds

Who twisted the message, the love unheard.

We all are loved, make no mistake.

We choose to love; we choose to hate.

 

Beyond the lives and loves undone

The daily round of work and play

The weft and warp of life unspun

The passage of clouds on a summer’s day.

Beyond all that grows under the moon and sun

Beyond the binary of all or none

Beyond what’s ended or begun —

We are all one.”

 

And so be it.

7 writing tips from RHETORICA® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques

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People often ask me to summarise my top tips for improving their writing. What are the shortcuts that can transform it fast?

pexels-photo-1

I tried to keep it to five, but in the end identified seven that take writing to the next level.

Here are the top 7 writing tips from my book rhetorica® — a toolkit of 21 everyday writing techniques:

TOP TIP #1: Write for your reader

TOP TIP #2: Honour the three steps of the writing process

TOP TIP #3: Set time aside to plan

TOP TIP #4: Nail your objective

TOP TIP #5: How to write concisely

TOP TIP #6: Write plain English

TOP TIP #7: Read your writing out loud (R.O.L.)

To read the book in full, you can purchase it from Amazon here.

I hope you found my tips useful. I also came across an article, Technical Writing Tools: The Ultimate Choice of 83 Experts by Ferry Vermeulen, which shares the technical writing tools that are favoured most by 80 experts. Give it a read.

Post-election review: ‘rhetoric’

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As the world holds a post-mortem on Trump’s post-truth victory, I’d like to put the word ‘rhetoric’ on the slab. Not because it’s dead, but because it needs reviving.

Bandied about by politicians and pundits both sides of The Pond, it’s become a dirty word, implying exaggerated, hyperbolic language of half-truths designed to manipulate people.

That is one definition of ‘rhetoric’.

The flip-side is ‘the art of using speech or writing to persuade or influence’ (Collins English Dictionary). While both definitions overlap, of course, this second one is often misunderstood, so I’m going to shed some light on it.

When we step into the garden of rhetoric, what do we see?

We see tall trees, and tiny flowers.

The trees are the planks of this vast subject, ie the art of arguing, proving, inventing, memorising and delivery. The flowers are what we call the figures of speech.

These are literary devices created by the Ancient Greeks, added to by the Romans (and plundered mercilessly by Shakespeare) that influence listeners and readers. They have a dramatic effect; they work.

These devices range from the familiar alliteration, assonance, hyperbole and rhetorical question to the more obscure epizeuxis, catachresis and polyptoton, taking in tricolon, anaphora and anadiplosis on the way — to name a few.

Now, in case you think I’m showing off, this is what the Greeks and Romans called these devices. To use a phrase invented by Shakespeare, don’t dismiss them with ‘It’s Greek to me’, because they surround us every day; we just don’t know them well enough to recognise them. They’re in political speeches (Obama was a master of rhetoric; the jury’s out on Trump); they’re in the ads we read in the underground as we go to work; they’re in the leader articles of The Economist. (That’s a tricolon — grouping things in threes — by the way.)

They work because they’re invisible; they sneak in under the radar of our intellect, because they instinctively resonate with us. In the case of the tricolon, for instance, lists of three have been used in the earliest human communications, as they relate to how we process information. We recognise and respond to patterns, and three is the smallest number of elements needed for a pattern. So ‘blood, sweat and tears’ has entered the lexicon, as well as Julius Caesar’s ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Maybe divinity’s at work here, too, at least in western civilisation: the Holy Trinity has been a pillar of Christian belief for millennia.

As for alliteration — repeating consonant sounds — you’ll recognise that from poetry and Shakespeare (‘Full fathom five thy father lies’, from Ariel’s song in The Tempest). But alliteration abounds (there I go again) in ads and everyday language, too.

Instead of saying ‘death-avoiding’, ‘death-defying’ sounds better. Instead of ‘furniture made to look old’, we say ‘shabby chic’. Rather than ‘cowardly’, we might say ‘lily-livered’. And so on. Alliteration wires words and concepts together, because the patterns of consonant repetition sound better on the ear.

A final example is anaphora — starting each sentence with the same words.

When Winston Churchill spoke to Parliament in June 1940 about defiance in defeat, he said:

We shall fight on the beaches

We shall fight on the landing grounds

We shall fight in the fields and in the streets…

And Martin Luther King nailed anaphora in his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech in August 1963. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., the speech ends on a peroration (another rhetorical figure), launching each new point with ‘I have a dream’. This is the 21-gun salute, the climax, where King cranks things up, tears down injustice with his words and moves us with his vision of a just and equal society.

So, good writing is not the preserve of rare geniuses. We can write well by using the devices that have been around for 2,500 years. That’s why in my recent book I say that ‘writing well is neither a black art nor an innate gift, but a learnable skill.’