Words and music

Dorothy Hammerstein was not shy about making sure that her husband, Oscar, got credit for his lyrics. There are several variations of an anecdote where she corrected someone who gave Jerome Kern all the credit for writing “Ol’ Man River.”

“Mr. Kern did not write ‘Ol’ Man River.’ Oscar wrote ‘Ol’ Man River,’ ” she said. “What Mr. Kern wrote was ‘La-La-Dumdum, La-La-Dumdum.’ ”

This summer I’m working with a novelist who has a very musical way of writing. By that, I mean her sentences have a cadence, a rhythm. The syllables flow effortlessly from one to the next. Her lyrics, on the other hand, sometimes need a little work.

For instance, I came across this line about two people who had been working together for years: “… until it became routine and normal and second nature like an old married couple.”

So we had the same idea expressed four different ways: routine, normal, second nature, and like an old married couple. And then the next sentence mentioned that they did it every day.

Repetition isn’t always a bad thing. It can be a way of reinforcing an idea. And a novelist deserves some stylistic slack. But this particular sentence came in a page full of similar sentences, and the cumulative effect was to make me feel like I was reading ‘La-La-Dumdum, La-La-Dumdum.’ ”

So I suggested that she stop at “routine.”

On the other hand I work with a nonprofit CEO who is great at content. She can pack a paragraph full of facts. But the facts are packed so tightly, with dependent clauses and parenthetical phrases and a few other grammatical shoehorns, that there’s hardly room to breathe. Instead of hearing music, you hear the drone of an attorney reading a dense legal contract.

The ideal writer knows how to balance the words and the music. When you have to present someone with a lot of facts, let the language stretch out a little and find some rhythm. If you are presenting a small bite of information, resist the temptation to stretch it into an oratorio.

When you get the right combination, you’ll be a hit maker.


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