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Saturday, July 2, 2011

writing, some more notes on



i selected the below paragraph because it foregrounds two effective writing techniques--alliteration and word precision. as you most likely know, alliteration is when neighboring words share the same "starting sound," and thus create (among other effects) a kind of sonic repetition. word precision needs no explanation--though i can't stress enough its important. (consider the differing effects between writing, say, "the test was hard," vs. "the test was difficult," and you begin to see what i mean.)

in this excerpt from the film review in this week's New Yorker, i've highlighted all the moments that (for me, anyway) are working either formally or informally as alliteration.

The educator who matters in “Terri” is Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), an assistant principal with a problem. His problem is Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki), a mountain in his mid-teens, with a penchant for wearing pajamas to school. Add the soft, unhurried waddle of the lad’s gait, plus the seconds that tick by as he ponders the answer to a simple inquiry, and you start to wonder if Terri is less of a student than a sleepwalker. It is Mr. Fitzgerald’s chosen task to awaken Terri to the world, along with other worrisome cases—Chad (Bridger Zadina), say, who claws at his scalp as if trying to get at the itchy thoughts inside.

now writer Anthony Lane's use of alliteration here might seem excessive, but only because i've drawn such attention to its salience; the repeating Ps and Ts and Ws would be invisible to a reader who hadn't been tipped off to their presence ahead of time. (though, it needs to be mentioned, the "invisibility" of alliteration does
not mean the effect is lost; rather, what gives most literary devices their power is precisely their ability to subconsciously stir us without our knowledge.)

now let's take another sweep through the text, this time coding for word precision. my findings are highlighted.

The educator who matters in “Terri” is Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), an assistant principal with a problem. His problem is Terri Thompson (Jacob Wysocki), a mountain in his mid-teens, with a penchant for wearing pajamas to school. Add the soft, unhurried waddle of the lad’s gait, plus the seconds that tick by as he ponders the answer to a simple inquiry, and you start to wonder if Terri is less of a student than a sleepwalker. It is Mr. Fitzgerald’s chosen task to awaken Terri to the world, along with other worrisome cases—Chad (Bridger Zadina), say, who claws at his scalp as if trying to get at the itchy thoughts inside.

each of the words Lane selected--and i which i've highlighted--conveys something their more general counterpart does not.

gait v. walk.
tick v. go by(?)
ponders v. thinks about
inquiry v. question
scalp v. head

i could go into a detailed analysis of each of these examples--drawing attention to, say, the onomatopoeic resonance of "tick" over something dry and pallid like "go by" (or "pass")--but i won't. i think the logic behind Lane's choices are self-evident.

okay, so that's it. i hope i've shown that alliteration should be subtle but powerful. and our diction should be precise without being overly technical or awkward.

1 comment:

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