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Good writing needs cadence. (Symposium Secrets to Stronger Editorials).

A cadence is a pause that meaningfully punctuates the flow of music. Similarly, in our writing, cadences are stress points, moments where syntax and substance team up to convey special meaning. Cadences are the drumbeats that sound through our prose signalling significance to readers, telling them how the writing is to be read. Because cadences play so primary a role in creating and authenticating a writer's "voice," they're especially crucial to anyone who spends full workdays trying to change other people's minds.

To illustrate the way cadences can affect the way we hear or read words, I will focus here on the familiar "I have a dream" sequence in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech during the 1963 March on Washington. His initial two sentences set up what is to follow:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governors lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

Every rhetorical technique King uses here can be--and often is--employed by opinion writers. It's instructive to watch how masterfully he uses grammatical parallelism and repetition and manipulates sentence lengths to achieve rhythm and effect cadences that underscore his main points.

All seven of his single-sentence paragraphs (those that follow the set-up graf) begin with that paralleled grammatical structure: "I have a dream.... I have a dream..." The first four of these sentences are almost exactly the same length: 34 words, 36,33, then 35. Then he clips back to that five-word paragraph: "I have a dream today."

The most devastating knockout punches in the boxing ring often travel the shortest distances, and King makes maximum use of that short sentence to create his own punch, his own powerful cadence.

Then, after a one-sentence paragraph ("I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama... .") swells out to 57 words, he gears back, again, to repeat that short paragraph "I have a dream today" Now it's even more compelling, because it's repeated (and therefore stressed) and because it's a five-word sentence following a 57-word sentence, with the stark juxtaposition of these long-short units yielding special vigor, rhythm, and cadence.

Many decades ago, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White advised us to "Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end." King does that, making maximum use of his end emphasis positions in sentences and paragraphs to create cadences that drive home his main points.

Notice the words that fill the end emphasis position in his first five paragraphs:

... the American dream.

... all men are created equal.

... the table of brotherhood.

... an oasis of freedom and justice. .where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In a nutshell, you have there the thematic heart of King's entire speech, cast calculatedly into the ends of those sentences--the notion that our nation has not fulfilled its own ideals, has not lived up to its own "American dream" of equality, brotherhood, freedom and justice, and non-discrimination. These abstracts constitute fully King's "dream," too-and he knows exactly where to place those key words, where they will resonate most consequentially.

Writer's handbook an indispensible companion

For more advice on great writing, turn to Beyond Argument a Handbook for Editorial Writers, an indispensible companion for opinion writers, students, and educators.

The NCEW-published book features essays from 12 experts, including indepth looks at writing well:

* Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, says making writing sing takes practice, practice, practice. He offers 42 ways to write an editorial.

* Richard Aregood, editorial page editor of the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, and also a Pulitzer winner, explores offbeat approaches to the form that will invigorate the writer- and the reader.

* George B. Pyle, columnist and editorial writer for The Salina Journal in Kansas, focuses on structuring arguments for greatest effect.

Help spread the word

Sales of the book, edited by members Maura Casey and Michael Zuzel, have passed the 250 mark since October, raising more than $4,000 for the NCEW Foundation.

College bookstores have ordered numerous copies, and members have taken copies to sell at regional seminars, conventions, and journalism workshops. In addition, 46 incoming NCEW members have received copies of the book as part of their new member packets.

If you don't have a copy, order one today. Only 760 copies remain at Headquarters for distribution. If you're planning to attend a convention, are participating in a journalism workshop or seminar, or know someone who would benefit from a copy, contact Sheri Virnig at NCEW headquarters, 717/703-3015.

Dennis Jackson is professor of English at the University of Delaware and co-editor with John Sweeney of The Journalist's Craft: A Guide to Writing Better Stories (All-worth 2002). E-mail djackson@udel.edu
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Author:Jackson, Dennis
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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