The French playwright Moliere once famously said, "Everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose" (citation).
There are two ways one can write: prose and verse. We've all written prose, whether we knew it or not. Prose is how we communicate in the day-to-day. Prose is how we express our emotions, needs, and desires. Prose is even how we send a text asking a friend out for drinks. Prose is how we think and how we talk and how we dream. But we can go deeper. We can write stories and essays; we can write diaries; we can keep dream journals. We can write wedding vows; we can write obituaries. Sometimes, though, it feels like the words we write can't quite express our feelings. They don't really seem to hit the mark. We have something that we want to say, and neither words nor emojis is cutting it. What then?
Well, we could turn to the other kind of writing: verse. Meter notwithstanding, verse commonly comes in two forms: poetry or song. Poetry, of course, has many flavours -- sonnets, haikus, and couplets are just a few of them. The beauty of a poem is the way that its author works within the constraints of a certain structure to convey a concept to an audience. Structure can often make an idea much more powerful: think, for example, if instead of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's legendary refrain from "The Charge of the Light Brigade," he'd simply said, "Six hundred horsemen have a mile and a half to go; they'll probably die soon." Instead, Tennyson wrote in such verse as to send shivers down the spine of whoever reads it.
And what about the other kind of verse, song? What is the difference between writing music and writing poetry? Pat Pattison provides an insight for us. He is the author of the unparalleled Writing Better Lyrics, a book that I have been working my way through slowly. It's one of those books worth savouring. Pattison says that "[p]oets can depend on the reader's being able to stop and go back, even to look up words while reading the poem. A lyricist can't" (citation). Songwriters must rely more on clear rhymes and rhythms to convey structure to a listener; poets can use visual cues to show their readers where thoughts begin and end. Another difference is that songwriters can couple their words with music to connect their audience with a message. Personally, I love to write songs. I always have. Music is the way that I process my feelings when they're too heavy for me: heartbreak, rage, grief, ecstatic joy - when I am overwhelmed, I turn to music. For me, each song that I write starts with a feeling. The emotions swell up in my chest, and I have to find a way to let them out before I burst. I try to start by creating a scene for my listener so that we end up in the same headspace together, then I express my feelings once we have that connection. I try to find chord progressions that match the feelings I'm expressing - like the soundtrack to a movie, I want the music to convey the same feeling that my lyrics are.
We’ve talked about writing poetry and song when prose doesn’t seem to be coming through. But what if there’s a third option? What if we could integrate some of the lessons we’ve learned about writing poetry and song in our prose? What if we could use prose to convey the same emotions that a master poet can through his verse, without being constrained by arbitrary structures or expectations?
Here’s what I’ve learned about songwriting that will help you in your prose:
First, pause. Give yourself a mental ellipsis. Think about what information you want to express through you writing, the emotion that you want your reader to feel, the takeaway that you want to leave them with.
Next, start taking notes. You could carry a notepad around with you, or you could just use your phone. Personally, I just use the notes app on my smartphone to jot down any ideas that come to me throughout the day, or to take pictures of anything that I find inspiring. That way, when the time comes to sit down and start writing, I’ll have material to draw from.
After you’ve collected some ideas, set up a structure for your writing. When I write songs, before I even start on the lyrics, I set up the structure that I want for that song: Intro, Verse 1, Chorus, Verse 2, Bridge, Chorus 2x, Outro. Then I pull up my notes and figure out how it all fits in. It’s infinitely easier to “fill in the blanks” than it is to try to find the right words when a blank white page is staring at you. Of course, when writing prose, you won’t be dealing with choruses and guitar solos - but you’ll still benefit from having a structure in mind! Your structure might look more like Introduce yourself, talk about an experience that relates to the message, explain how your message relates, and provide a solution.
Once you have a structure and a definite goal in mind, remember to start tangible and end visceral. Have you ever talked with a stranger who, before even exchanging names, begins talking about their personal struggles? It’s a bit off-putting. You wonder, “What’s the catch here?” The same applies to writing. Establish common ground, then move into the scary and wonderful world of feelings and emotions. For example, if I want to write about how I deal with frustrations, I could jump right in on breathing techniques and muscle relaxation exercises. But that wouldn’t be effective. Instead, I would start by talking about my commute and how much I hate it when people speed up next to me when I’m trying to change lanes. That’s something most of us can relate with. And if I can talk about something that you relate with, you’ll be more likely to listen to how I handle that situation that we’ve both been through. Think about Taylor Swift’s song “You Belong With Me.” She starts off by setting the scene for us in the verses, then in the chorus she explains the emotions that she’s feeling. That’s a perfect example of starting tangible and ending visceral. So if you want to connect on an emotional level with your readers, remember to first find a common experience for them to grasp.
Finally, and I think most importantly, be authentic. Use your own voice. When studying songwriting, I would listen to various of genres of music, looking at how other songwriters structured their songs, how they wrote their lyrics, how they connected their sound and their message. You can do the same thing with prose. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that good writers “read a lot and write a lot" (citation). You may wonder why I’ve jumped from talking about authenticity to advising you to look at other authors’ works. The reason is simple: we’re all influenced by something, whether we realize it or not. The more influences you have, the easier it will be for you to sift through them all and find your own voice. And your voice is the one that your readers want to hear, whether you’re singing or writing.