December 14, 2001 / Copywriting / Winter 2001

The Powerful Magic of Words

Written by Linda Ballew

Finding Just the Right Words to Convey Powerful Images

A note from doomed Russian submariner Dimitri Kolesnikov inspired TIME essayist Roger Rosenblatt to consider the reason compelling all human beings to record the events and relate the emotions that stir our lives. He concludes it is a basic human need for freedom.

“You write a sentence, the basic unit of storytelling, and you are never sure where it will lead. The readers will not know where it leads either. Your adventure becomes theirs, eternally recapitulated in tandem – one wild ride together,” Rosenblatt noted.

“Even when you come to the end of the sentence, that dot is still strangely inconclusive…We use this freedom to break the silence, even of death, even when Ð in the depths of our darkest loneliness Ð we have no clear idea of why we reach out to one another with these frail, perishable chains of words.”

“In the black chamber of the submarine I am writing blindly, like everyone else,” read Kolesnikov’s note.

Rosenblatt’s description of sentences as “frail, perishable, chains of words” brings to mind the story of Liz, a student who came to me, like many students had before, suffering from senioritis and a serious case of brain cramp.

“I can’t think of a way to write the closing,” she said. “It’s second semester, and I have nothing left to say. I can’t do this.”

I turned to her and saw her dismay at my words: “Liz, meet me here on Saturday.”

Curiously, but with a whine in her voice, she repeated, “Saturday? My friends and I are going out…er, I mean, I have to work.”

After a moment of silence, she submitted, “What time?”

“At 6:30 p.m.,” I said to her. “On Saturday.”

The day arrived and true to her word, she met me. “How is this going to help me finish my copy deadline?” she asked.

I told her we were going to take a walk around and through the 70-year-old campus. Most importantly, we were not going to say a word to each other.

“Liz, I want you to look, and, most important, listen, as we take our walk,” I said.
Impatiently, she looked at me and began to argue. “Look and listen to what Mrs. Ballew? There is no one here except for you and me.”

“I know, Liz. Let’s walk.”

Not talking was difficult at first, but as we strolled in the dusky evening light, we began to discover things we had never really noticed before as we hurried through our hectic school days.

When we finally returned to the publication room, tears were streaming down Liz’s face.

“What’s the matter, Liz?”

“I saw them Mrs. Ballew.”

“Saw what?”

“I saw the ghosts and heard their tales.”

I thought she was going to tell me about the legendary ghost who supposedly haunts the school, so I grinned at her and asked, “You saw Ida?”

“No, I saw us,” she seriously informed me. “I saw this year’s seniors who are trying to leave their mark, their story. I felt the emptiness of what it will be like when our presence is no longer felt in this building. We worked so hard to get to this point, and in a few months we will be gone. We are the ghosts, Mrs. Ballew.”

Immediately, she sat down and began recording all that she had seen and heard.

Focusing on the very traditional yearbook concept, Liz knew that her two-fold, four-page closing needed to relate to the overall yearbook theme, “Envision the Power.”

She realized she wanted to appeal to the senses and evoke memories of her senior class’s four years of high school experience. She wrote:

“As the gentle, tinted afternoon sun slips through the aged windows and settles toward the floor, it illuminates the vacant hallway with warm radiance. Curling around every corner and enveloping each crevice, the soft hues of light exaggerate the hollowness of its quiet surrounding. This tranquil vacancy surrounding the year’s closing sits in the aftershock of the year’s rush of activities and frenzied conclusion. Blanketing the emptiness left by this closing, a constant rhythm of strength and pride reverberates within the silence. This enduring cadence forms the powerful foundation on which traditions build.

“The intense hush of concentration within a classroom, the roar of the ecstatic crowd inside a packed stadium, the sweet sounds of melody emanating throughout the halls, the intense breath of a struggling athlete and a triumphant battle cry; all echo through the emptied air disclosing an intricate, web-like tale relating the heartbeat of time and adding to the potent medley of voices bonding eternally to a union of years past.”

So, when we read Liz’s closing, Rosenblatt’s definition of sentences seems unrealistic. People throughout time have discovered the power of words.

Large or small, alone or crafted into sentences, words are the key elements of language that communicate philosophy and policy, build concepts, record history, and transmit messages of humor, pathos, love, empathy, and sentimentality. Because these words possess the powerful magic to alter our moods and provide us with information, choosing them must be done with care.

Pre-Plan
Ways to discover just the right words and the various methods to employ them in the most effective way can be found by using the most important step in the writing process, pre-planning. This is the step that cures “brain cramp.”

Experience
Ask yourself, “How did Liz come to this first part of her closing?” Like the tragedy of the Russian submariner, she needed a moving experience. A writer must place herself in the final seconds of a basketball game. She must have visited the construction site of the advanced carpentry’s high school house. She must have sung in, or at a minimum, attended, a holiday concert.

Brainstorm
This technique, whether it is used in a group or by an individual, accomplishes the hardest task of all, putting ideas on paper. The sweetness of brainstorming is that all possibilities are viable. Record every feeling, every sense, and every related thought. Honestly, it can be as simple as making a list.

Focus
Begin to pick and choose as you search for one specific topic. Nothing creates more mental confusion than trying to put too many characters, events or messages into one 250-word article. You cannot relate a whole year or a whole season and still evoke strong memories of any event. The writer must know the scene, and then pick and choose the highlights. As you narrow the topic, it is beneficial to brainstorm again. Brainstorming takes only a few minutes. It should not cause mental fatigue, but rather, assist in reviewing your experience.

Group Process
Writing is thinking and decision-making. You do not always have to do this alone. Discuss the assignment with others. Ask for their advice and opinion. Share what you know and what you do not, and others will give you direction.

Like the submariner, Liz chose emptiness and silence and the sensory images that filled that void. Her heightened awareness of the situation became the catalyst for the words that appeared, giving her the capacity to relate a poetic emotion worth remembering.

Do you hear it? Do you hear the “echo through the emptied air disclosing an intricate, web-like tale relating the heartbeat of time?”

Anna Skinner, a student editor for the 1999 Encore at Chatfield H.S., Littleton, Colo., provided a superior example of powerful word choice and focus in an opening spread article entitled, “Decide.”

Her list of decisions which were eventually organized from the most trivial to the most significant ideas, illustrate the profound influence of a simple list of choices.

“Decisions…Chee-tos or Fritos? PB & J or BLT? Big Mac or Whopper? French fries or onion rings? Apples or oranges? Snickers or Milky Way? Popsicle or banana split…”…Fearless or afraid? Happy or sad? Outgoing or timid? Leader or follower? Write my memories or read someone else’s?”

This superior example of thoughtful word choice and brainstorming forces us all to take a look at the decisions we have made in our lives while we intuitively understand her message Ð make your own choices and responsibly accept the consequences.

Rely on the Experts
What happens when brainstorming slows down or when you need to find a unique word to create an angle or compose a word picture? The answer is simple. Rely on the experts, who can be found everywhere. Check out magazines like Sports Illustrated, Slam, Sony Style or the Coldwater Creek catalogs. Believe me when I say that creating a word bank is invaluable and very easy to do. Who could resist buying this red dress after reading the following:

“Star quality. For you, life’s meant to be lived with gusto. To be twirled in, cartwheeled through and taken by romantic storm. And lately, everything around you seems to be paling into pastels. Break the conventional mold with this empire-waisted, long red dress blazing with embroidered stars…”

Better yet, who could resist saving these marvelous word ideas under these headings?

Strong Verbs:
twirled
cartwheeled
break

Concrete Nouns:
gusto
mold

Decriptive Words/Phrases:
star quality
taken by romantic storm
paling into pastels
conventional
blazing with embroidered stars

Each staff member needs to contribute to the weekly word list. Perhaps a copy editor’s job description could include building a data bank of words. Updated weekly and posted near the reference section of the publication room with the thesaurus, dictionary and style manual, it can become an invaluable resource when that awful disease “brain cramp” strikes at the most inopportune moment.

What could possibly be harder to write than copy? Headlines and captions, of course. So what do you do? Go upstairs and thank your English teacher. This instructor has helped you to begin to understand the important writing devices that make you an effective communicator.

Action Verbs
Verbs tighten your writing so you can use fewer words, a plus in yearbook copy. These important sentence elements also create strong visual images.

  • Avoid the passive, wimpy “be” verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, been, being
  • Use active voice to control sentence structure and communicate clear ideas
  • Control verb tense. Write almost all yearbook copy in past tense, but understand the power of using narrative present tense in opening and closing copy. Review examples like Anna and Liz’s theme copy.

Poetry
Do you remember how confusing the terms simile, metaphor, allusion, contrast, repetition, and double entendre all seemed in the first poems you read? Now, however, media-television, advertising, bulletin boards, magazines, newspapers, web sites-are filled with intriguing word plays that amuse and inform you.

As a child of the 21st century, the subtleties of media are as second nature to you as the Transylvanian accent of the Count on “Sesame Street.” Use these poetic devices to create a sophisticated design that maintains readers’ interest in your overall pages. Imitation truly is the best form of flattery.

Style and Content
Content explains what you have to say. It relays your information or message. Style provides the format to convey your message and give it personality. Many factors determine your style and content: your writing ability, writing practice and reading background. Here is the overwhelming consideration-the audience “you are writing for” or “the audience for whom you are writing.” Not all writing needs to be written in the traditional quote/transition format. Experiment with lists, Q&As, polls, surveys, infographics, pullout quotes, and so many other formats.

From our very first sounds to our last utterances, words never cease to amaze us. As Rosenblatt wrote, “In the first place, in the last place, that is what we people do-write messages to one another. We are a narrative species. We exist by storytelling-by relating our situations-and the test of our evolution may lie in getting the story right.”

Linda Ballew