You’re Saying More Than You Think You Are

This is not about body language.

It has nothing to do with tone of voice or eye contact or facial expressions.

This is about the unconscious linguistic associations that people will make while reading your writing, and why ignoring things like etymology and prosody makes you a really bad writer. But first,

What is prosody?

Prosody, for the purpose of this article1, is the musical quality to your writing, and the way in which your reader experiences it.

Prosody includes things such as tempo, sound, rhythm, flow—everything about your writing that makes it sound like you want it to sound, to be interpreted as you want it to be interpreted. It’s the thing that makes reading aloud a joy to the listener. It’s what keeps your reader engaged while you’re not actually saying much. But it also includes word and phrase associations: alternate definitions, homonyms, context.

I once came across someone on Reddit who said, “a writer doesn’t need to worry about things like etymology, a writer just needs to write.” Now, I know Reddit is an exercise in mediocrity, the unloved middle of the human race, but this ignorant person isn’t the first of his kind. I’ve heard similar sentiments echoed by internet writers everywhere, and even from a few people with writing degrees. It’s true that a writer needs to write—and not spend all of her time searching the OED for the etymology of every word, she’d never get anything done—but to completely ignore it is be a mediocre writer forever. At best.

Everyone knows that when speaking, your tone of voice and word choice change the meaning of what you’re saying. “Great. I’m so excited.” is very different from “Great! I’m so excited!” And “We’re not communicating very well right now.” is worlds away from “You’re terrible at communicating.” That’s like, Human Communication 101. But what’s the difference?

In the first example (great, I’m so excited), one is sarcasm and the other is genuine. In the second (we’re not communicating), it’s fact versus blame, even though they effectively mean the same thing in an argument. One, however, will extend the argument into whose mother is more overbearing, while the other has a chance of ending the argument. It’s obvious, yeah? Intuitive. You’ve grown up inherently knowing the difference.

But let’s get into the nitty gritty of it. In the first example (great, I’m so excited), changing the emphasis changes the meaning. It’s a social convention that emphasizing “so” turns a sentence into sarcasm. It’s social convention that giving a flat inflection to a positive adjective gives it the opposite meaning.

In the second example (we’re not communicating), using “you” instead of “we” shifts the blame and makes the recipient of the comment immediately on the defensive. Using “right now” makes the conflict a one-time, resolvable thing, rather than an insurmountable lifestyle choice. Using “not very well” negates a positive (not well), giving the recipient a chance to end on a subtly optimistic note, while using “terrible” is just a straight negative, again putting the recipient on the defensive.

This is all still pretty intuitive for you, I’m guessing. But what about when it gets more complicated? What about this Sylvia Plath sentence, the one we all know and know is beautiful?

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart; I am, I am, I am.

That’s very different than this: “I took a deep breath and listened to my heart beat. It sounded like it was saying ‘I am’ a lot.” But can you articulate why they’re different? Why one is better than the other? If the answer to that is no, then there’s nothing stopping you from writing sentences like that with no way to fix them.

So how do you teach yourself to know the difference? Acquaint yourself with prosody. Etymology. Learn to love language and it will love you back. Ignore it, and like a jilted lover, it will try to thwart you at every turn.

But I can sit around and tell you you’re a bad writer all day. How do you get better?

Prosody and Etymology 101

Take, for one example, the word QUEEN.

The millisecond you read it, you probably thought of one or more of these things:

Queen Elizabeth
the last fantasy novel you read
a crown
royal lineage
basic millennials
Freddie Mercury
drama queens
drag queens
Queensland, Australia

Or maybe you thought of the Queen of Hearts, and then you thought of playing cards, beheadings, paint, and roses. Or maybe you thought of the War of the Roses. Maybe you thought of Queen Anne’s lace, and flowers, and taking walks in nature with your grandmother. Or maybe you just wondered where I was going with this sentence, thinking I was a little too dramatic for putting it in all caps (which you might not have thought had I put the word “puppies” in all caps).

It’s a short word, but it’s a loaded word. It’s got a lot of different definitions. It’s got historical context (royal lineage, geographical locations), social context (yas queen, drama queen), and personal context (the last fantasy book you read, walks with your grandmother).

But, a millisecond is a very short period of time. You may not have consciously thought any of these things. But we’ve been talking about the word queen for a while now, so I’m sure you’re feeling strong right now, a bit above it all, a little superior (only strengthened by the fact that I’m telling you how you feel, and you don’t totally agree).

Now imagine again that I used puppies as my example. It might have brought warm, fuzzy feelings. Reminded you of happier times. Maybe you would have imagined puppy dog kisses and floppy ears, or maybe even puppy love. Did you? Would it have made you more open to the ideas I was suggesting?

This is prosody and etymology interacting in their simplest forms. Every word you use has history and context. And a reader, while not always consciously recognizing it, will make associations in his head while reading. And if you undermine those associations without knowing you’re doing it and meaning to do it, your writing will fail. You might get lucky, get a few good sentences in, but without a deep knowledge of the craft, that’s all you’ll ever have: luck.

But let’s dive a little deeper. Each word you use is going to interact with your reader on three basic levels: how you actually mean it, associations with the word, and feelings brought about by the use of the word.

1. How You Mean It

First, obviously, your reader will see your word how you want them to see it. In the example, you saw the word queen as an example of prosody and etymology. Every writer knows and understands this. Every person knows and understands this. It’s pretty much the basics of how language works.

2. Word Associations

You’ve probably, at some point in your life, played the word association game. I say summer, you say fall. You say fall, I say stumble. Etc. Your mind is constantly playing this game on a subconscious level in order to understand and process language and social interactions.2 As a writer, your job is to use these associations to your advantage. And in order to do that, you need to know what associations are possible.

3. Feelings

Underneath the word associations, your brain is hard at work reminding you how you feel about the word and the words associated with it. This is where trigger words come in. But, more than that, this is where you can create suspense, imbue euphoria, make your reader feel things you want her to feel without explicitly telling her to feel them.

So let’s go back to the examples. On the first level, you saw queen as the example I was using. Obviously. On the second level, you associated it with something. Maybe one of my examples, maybe something else. On the third level, it had you feeling a sense of royalty, of superiority, because those are feelings we all associate with queens and ruling. It also may have had you feeling like I was dramatic, because that’s what we associate with drama queens and basic millennials.

What if I switched it to “puppies”? On the first level, you saw it as an alternate example to “queen,” and you saw it as little dogs. On the second and third levels, you associated it with something, probably something with happier feelings than “queen.” If I had given you more time with it, you may have been less likely to doubt me, because “puppies” wouldn’t have brought with it any feelings of superiority. You wouldn’t have felt alone at the top, having to doubt everyone else’s intentions.

But did you notice a difference between the paragraphs? Did you notice that while I was talking about the word “queen,” I was making assumptions, making statements, using more forceful language: harder consonants, shorter phrases, words with stronger, more concrete meanings?

Then, when I switched to talking about “puppies,” I used softer consonants. I used meandering sentences. I asked questions instead of making assumptions and accusations.

This is what writing is all about.

Sylvia Plath knew it. She knew that using “brag” instead of “beat” would bring to mind a sense of power and authority, the idea that a heart knows what it’s about, while the one-syllable B sound wouldn’t take it so far that the reader wouldn’t connect “brag” with “beat.” She knew that using “I am” once wouldn’t be enough to connect it the sound of a heartbeat, but using it four times would violate the rule of three and be too repetitive for the reader to enjoy. Can you pick out other linguistic tricks she used?

Obviously she wasn’t thinking all of this as she wrote. A writer who thinks of the etymology of every word is a writer who never gets anything written. But she was familiar enough with the ideas that it was intuitive. Like a child learning the ins and outs of speech, a writer needs to become intimately familiar with words in order to use them to their full capacity. How do you do that? Read. Study. Learn. Repeat.

Writing is a lifelong process. It’s a dictionary always on your desk, Elements of Style in the back of your mind, and sociology at your fingertips. The minute you recognize that is the minute your writing begins to improve. A writer’s job is to do more than write. A writer’s job is to create a worldview with every word, an undeniable and irrefutable truth his reader doesn’t know she’s subscribed to until she’s too far in to leave.

1The actual definition of prosody covers a lot more than this and mainly regards the linguistics of spoken language or the rhythm of poetry. It does, however, extend to the functions I’m discussing here, though there has been less research done on the topic than there should be.

2This failure to connect words to different meanings in different situations is one of the language and communication obstacles in individuals with autism. For more information, check out this article.