When Steve Martin was asked about his influences as a writer, he didn’t list any comedians or humorists. He listed three poets:
- T.S. Elliot for teaching him about the meaning of words.
- Dylan Thomas for teaching him about the beauty of words.
- E. E. Cummings* for teaching him about the rhythm of words.
Martin doesn’t say they helped him create funnier routines or better punch lines. They taught him about the most basic unit of writing: the word.
When a piece of writing strikes you as especially effective — or especially bad — take a look at how the writer uses individual words. Does the writer pick an unusual word to create a more vivid picture of what’s going on? Or is the writer tossing in unusual words just to show off?
Some words have their own beauty. Some words look and sound ugly apart from their meaning. It’s really effective to use a beautiful word when describing something you like, or an ugly word when describing something you don’t like.
The rhythm of words can make long, complex sentences easy to read. A lack of rhythm can make a short sentence hard to slog through.
If you know what a word means, and you see beauty in it, and you like the rhythm (either by itself or with other words), you’ll have some great tools for writing well.
*Yes, capital letters for E.E. Cummings He was asked in 1951 how he preferred to see his name in print, and he replied, “E.E.Cummings, unless your printer prefers E. E. Cummings.” That’s also how he signed his own name. So let’s not have any silly arguments about this.