Great writing isn’t always divine inspiration. Sometimes, it’s a simple formula.
A few weeks back, we kicked off our Powerful Writing Series with Anaphora, Polysyndeton, and Cumulative Sentences. If you’re new to writing or feel intimidated by the process, don’t sweat it. Writing is an art, but it’s also an exercise in crafting illusion. Behind every great magician is a hidden door, a trick deck, a confidence to transform sleight of hand into spellbinding wonder. In this series, we pull back the curtain and reveal the formula that produces great writing. Let’s dive right in.
Portmanteau is when you combine two words and ideas to coin a new word. The new word formed in the process shares the same meanings as the original words. We see it all the time. A few common examples are:
Situational + comedy = Sitcom
Costume + play = Cosplay
Medical + care = Medicare
British + exit = Brexit
Breakfast + lunch = Brunch
Hungry + angry = Hangry
Quite simply, the formula is A + B = AB. It’s a simple device that, if you’re the first person to do it for a set of words, can make you sound very clever. It’s low-stakes wordplay. However, it’s also very easy to overdo it. Not all words should be neighbors.
Why should you care?
It can be a tool for branding or naming. Today, Apple calls the internet Macintosh an iMac, which is much easier to say and remember.
Chiasmus is a phrase or sentence repeated inversely. You’ve seen it many times before. Here’s an example of chiasmus that you’ve probably heard in the office: Working hard or hardly working.
It’s in literature:
“All for one and one for all.” -The Three Musketeers
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” – JFK Presidential Inauguration Speech
And modern poets use it:
“Got my mind on my money and my money on my mind.” – Gin & Juice, Snoop Dogg
This is the breakdown of chiasmus as an equation: A + B = B + A
Chiasmus is an old device that has been used forever, in every language. Why does it work? It’s creative repetition. It’s catchy. People will remember what you said. It can outline two clear choices or draw comparisons.
2013 Cayman ad in Entrepreneur Magazine. Picture: Getty Images / Classic FM
Why should you care?
It’s an easy way to be remembered. And when it comes to marketing and advertising — it bodes well to be remembered.
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in close proximity to each other. It’s not quite rhyming, and not quite alliteration, though it can have a similar effect. Like alliteration or rhyme, it can serve to help us remember the words. Moreover, it helps set the mood or tone. It dictates the pace at which we absorb. In scripts (think radio or TV commercials), it forces the speaker to slow down.
Long vowel sounds tend to slow the pace of reading…
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.
The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
…whereas short vowel sounds tend to quicken a reader’s pace.
Back in Black
Weary, dreary. It’s the “eerie” that’s long. The “a” in “back in black” is quick. It adds to the frenzy. And though I promised formulas, the equation here isn’t as clear. You have to look for it. You have to listen for it. It’s more subtle than the rest.
Where do we see this in advertising?
Matthew McConaughey reprises his role as an obscurely reflective Lincoln driver. Picture: Lincoln Media Center
Matthew McConaughey’s Lincoln commercial is a perfect example of assonance. We know this guy is a slow talker. It’s part of his persona and southern charm. And though he’s performing as himself in this commercial, it’s also a caricature. A character. It’s the slow burn, smooth talking dude that has it all figured out, and you can’t help but want to be like him…Lincoln SUV and all.
Take a look at some of his long “oh” and “ou” vowel sounds here.
“Sometimes you gotta go back to actually move forward. I don’t mean going back to reminisce or chase ghosts, I mean going back to see where you came from.”
What he’s saying, frankly, is nonsense. It doesn’t really mean anything, and it certainly doesn’t say anything about the car. But it worked perfectly with his whole southern drawl and persona. Assonance is typically used in poetry and prose, and while this is neither of those things, it still worked. People reacted to it because it was so bizarre. Lincoln’s sales went up. And the minute you see a still of McConaughey in that driver’s seat, you know exactly what it’s from.
Why should you care?
Sometimes weird works. And pacing matters.