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Let's Make Music, Part II

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 10:39 PM

Four more musical concepts to make copy sing on paper.

Peter P. Jacobi

Last month, I promised installment two of "Let's Make Music," this year's version of my annual summer lecture given to a body of writers at a weeklong conference. It follows in condensed form. Remember that I left you after covering six of ten words with musical connections I deem important for writers, words I think you, as editor, should look for in copy handed to you for publication.

Remember that I discussed six words: MELODY, TONE, RHYTHM, ORCHESTRATION, PASSION, and IMAGINATION. To them, I said, I would add four more: VOICE, SUBSTANCE, SURPRISE, and HONESTY.


As for "VOICE," I said it "means that the work of art has a distinct personality, a singularity; that it is given birth by an artistic presence, by a composer or writer with an assured creative manner, an artistic signature recognizable enough and interesting enough to attract a public.... Voice is an essence that separates one artist from another." The great composers had and have voice in abundance, I said, and so do great writers.


"SURPRISE" was my next word. I put my explanation this way: "A symphony works because it contains different themes and different developments of those themes. The composer carefully tosses in changes of pace, of mood, of instruments being used, of volume, of intensity. An opera works because the music is ever changing as the plot unfolds. Change brings surprise, a welcome aspect of a successful piece of music.'

Philosopher John Dewey once declared that "music gives us the very essence of the dropping down and the exalted rising, the surging and retracting, the acceleration and retardation, the tightening and loosening, the sudden thrust and the gradual insinuation of things." Changes, Dewey was talking about. Surprises, Dewey was talking about.

So, what about writers? Novelist Anne Bernays preaches the point: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently. You can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal."


Add "SUBSTANCE" to the list. That means adequate content, material, subject matter. Even when composers wrote what we call "abstract" music, music without a topic or program, they offered and still offer substance. Lasting music has something to tell us by speaking to the emotion, to our senses, to out taste. In writing, we have to be writing about something, and we have to have the information, the details that fascinate, that tickle a reader's brain, that attract and cause the reader to pay attention, that teach or entertain or inspire."


The final word I chose was "HONESTY." To me, that means "being true to one's artistic self for -- like all of us -- the artist has but one 'you,' and it is the one 'you' that can add something different, something unique, something personally experienced, something personally thought, something personally felt.

"The composers who amount to anything across the ages," I argued, "were and are artists of honesty, of integrity. I'm not talking here about lives lived with integrity. Among them, there were and are flawed beings like the rest of us. But as artists, if we indeed do remember them or pay them attention, you'll find that they were or are true to their work, their talent, their output, their chosen art form, and their audience.

"Musicians to their audience. Well, are we, as writers, any different? I say no, absolutely not."

The ABCDEFGs of Good Writing

Put those ten words together, I urged. "Practice them, use them, and they can result in something wonderful, something magical, be it in musical or literary form."

I began my conclusion to the talk by singing the first line of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," then singing -- to the same tune -- "A-B-C-D-E-F-G." To each of those letters, I then added a word:

A -- Be ACCURATE. Don't pass the wrong along.

B -- Be BRIEF. Don't waste space or words.

C -- Be CLEAR and COMPLETE. These are absolute essentials. Without them, you do nothing but confuse your reader.

D -- Be DARING. Use the spirit of adventure and experiment that is within you.

E -- Be ENTHUSIASTIC. Write with urgency, as if you truly care.

F -- FINE TUNE. Edit the best you can and then edit again.


Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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