Great writing takes strategy. Once you know the formula, you can emulate it in your own work.
When we think of great works of prose or poetry, the images that pool in our mind are of Emerson wandering through the forest, or John Addams penning at his desk deep into the night, the halo of the oil lamp casting shadows over his quick work of the quill. You probably don’t think of math.
To my deep chagrin, my high school algebra teachers were right: math is everywhere. It’s in everything. You may have heard of the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each new number is a sum of the previous two. 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,34,55,89…and so on into eternity. As a writer, and a terrible mathematician, it is mind boggling and humbling to see how math, and this sequence in particular rears itself in nature. In flowers, the sequence of petals follows the formula: lilies and irises have 3 petals, rose hips have 5, cosmos bloom with 8. Then daisies 13, chicory 21, and so on. In art, you can trace the shape of the sequence over almost any work we deem beautiful, and find that the proportions and perspective fall directly in line with it.
Leonardo da Vinci’s use of the Fibonacci Sequence in ‘La Gioconda’ (Mona Lisa). Picture: Getty Images / Classic FM
Math is the world of pattern building. And while writing is an art form, it follows a pattern and a formula. There is a sequence within each turn of phrase. Some words or collections of them might intrinsically feel good, but if we take a deeper look at them, the formula is present. Once you can recognize the patterns, you can apply it to everything you do. Let’s begin with anaphora.
Anaphora is repetition. It’s a literary device where you repeat a word or clause at the beginning of each sentence. It’s used to stoke the emotion of the audience. For that reason, you see it most often in speeches.
Let’s take a look at MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He used anaphora to draw attention to his appeal when speaking to the people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It appears several times, with a few different phrases.
I have a dream
With this faith
Now is the time
Let freedom ring
The words themselves were powerful, but the repetition made them more so.
Think of it as variables:
A + B, where A is the statement that we’re repeating. Let’s use “now is the time” as our example.
Now is the time + B
Now is the time + C
Now is the time + D
Now is the time + E
And so on, until you’ve won over your audience. If we take a closer look at MLK’s use of anaphora with “now is the time,” we see how he uses it to build emotion and urgency.
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
You want to use anaphora and your chosen phrase at least three times for full effect. Odd numbers tend to be better and more memorable. To really drive your message home, combine anaphora with polysyndeton or a cumulative sentence.
Polysyndeton & Cumulative Sentences
Polysyndeton is a long sentence with no breaks or pauses. Simply put, it’s a run-on sentence. And though we tend to advocate against run-on sentences, when combined with anaphora, it works. A cumulative sentence is a series of clauses held together with commas, forming one long thought.
When you pair anaphora with one of these devices, it’s like when the beat drops in a great song. It builds momentum and urgency or intensity. That “beat drop” would be nothing without the buildup. So, use a cumulative sentence with anaphora to really hammer home a point, like Martin Luther King Jr. did at the end of his speech.
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
Dr. King was a brilliant orator and speech writer. His I Have a Dream speech is a masterclass on using literary conventions to stir the emotions of his audience and drive them to action. His writing created a beautiful crescendo that we remember, teach, and honor today.
Why should you care?
Great writing makes people stop and pay attention to you. It’s a powerful vehicle for influence. Marketers can use it to create urgency for sales, get their audience to believe in their brand, and cement their place as an authority in their industry. What does your brand believe in? What does your product promise to do? Use anaphora to tell us your brand values. Or your commitment to your clients. Whatever it is you want to say — just do the math.