What we say vs how we say it

Which matters most then – what we say or how we say it?

I bet I can guess your reply. The first thought most of us will have is that, of course, what we say is most important – the message is always more important than the medium.

But we are readers of fiction, writers of fiction some of us too. Surely we are seduced by the beauty of words? If not, then why bother?

Winston_Churchill_cph_3b12010And anyway, isn’t everyone seduced by beauty? Aren’t we all stirred by eloquence? Otherwise why did Churchill slave over his wartime speeches? He could have had a civil servant bullet point the facts for him and read that out on the radiogram, without all the three-part lists and falling cadences.

Don’t bother saying:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Just say ‘We will fight wherever necessary,’ and leave it at that.

It was the poetry which mattered – in tough times, with little food and too much work and bombs raining down – it was the poetry which counted.

And why do advertising agencies exist? Surely a brisk summary of a product’s selling points would suffice?

170px-TrumanCapote1959Here’s something Truman Capote once said:

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”

He was one of the most beautiful prose stylists in the language on his day old Truman. Not so much with In Cold Blood where he was trying to fit in, be liked, impress. Instead read his stories, and read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his crystal clear paean to a beautiful boy, who he had to pretend was a beautiful girl – because of the times.

02p/43/arod/15356/P2774143One of Truman Capote’s childhood chums was Harper Lee, another wonderful writer, though by no means a poet. Her one novel was To Kill a Mockingbird. Well, I suppose, if you are only going to write one, you might as well make it a fantastic one.

It’s a curious book in some ways – more like two bundled together. One, a gentle rural remembrance, Cider with Rosie in the deep South, the other, a gritty courtroom drama about racial tensions and cultural upheaval. Both are brilliant.

That book staked Harper Lee’s claim as a great novelist, what she wasn’t, I don’t think, was a great prose stylist. Her writing was functional rather than beautiful, it was more about the message than the medium. And when her book came out, Truman, her old friend, couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Where was the poetry, the sublime music of the words – where was all that useless beauty?

But it was a book which meant a lot, still means a lot, to many, many people, including me. And yet, so, quite rightly, does Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So which wins – the medium or the message?

Which matters most, what we say or how we say it?

I’m calling it a dead heat.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

14 thoughts on “What we say vs how we say it”

  1. At first I thought it was ‘how you say it’, but then I switched to ‘what’, but then I thought about all the functional, neutral, content oriented stuff I have to write for business – about being concise, clear, to the point and ‘just watch those emotive words and phrases please’, so I swung back to the ‘how’ because that’s what keeps me going as a writer. Great stuff Chris. You are prodding us with your usual insights! By the way, I have not read Truman Capote, but I am spellbound by John Steinbeck’s prose. For me, it combines the elegance of simplicity with the sheer poetry of lyrical emotion.

    1. Yes Steinbeck’s wonderful isn’t he? There was a golden period of American prose I think stretching through most of the 20th Century. I’m not really sure that rich seam of talent still exists today.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for this interesting reflection. For me, the one needs the other; the lilting cadences of poetry, as well as of prose, touch the spirit and win over the mind to the matter. The art is in delivering a sound and profound message in just the right way, something which eludes us and which we writers quest after, not always with success, sadly. There is another view, however, that an abrupt and punchy message, or plain simple facts, do not always need dressing up to dance. Words to suit the occasion – it’s the second time I’ve talked of that today.
    Great post, thank you. I really wanted to engage with it, which is the evidence of your success. 🙂

    1. Thank Christina, very kind of you to say so. Of course, I too think that both are important – though I do think that the importance of the way something is said or written can often be overlooked or downplayed by people too keen to jump to the conclusion that content is king. I suppose that’s what made me want to write the post.

  3. I agree, it’s definitely a dead heat. The poetry of words adds a further layer of felt, rather than consciously processed, meaning. But in the same way as a floppy hat and fake moustache can disguise someone’s appearance, so can pretty words hide true expression and motive. There is a different kind of beauty to be found in a plain sentence, an honest truth.

    I really enjoyed this post and will be pondering for the rest of the day!

    1. Thanks Chastity! Very true what you say – the power of words can certainly be misused Euripides was writing about the power of honeyed words to mislead way back in 480 BC: “When one with honeyed words but evil mind
      Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”

  4. An interesting discussion, Chris.

    For me, I’d give the edge to what you say before how you say it. Not a huge edge, but I’d put a little more importance on the ‘what’ than the ‘how’. Beautiful words strung together to sound beautiful to the ear and look beautiful to the eye, are meaningless if they don’t say anything. The communication of something worth communicating is of prime importance, imho; how you say it enhances the communication for the reader.

    A thought-provoking blog. Thank you for it.

  5. My writing tends to be limited to technical issues, but WHENEVER I’m making a speech/giving an address – or even when writing safety instructions, I look for the rhythm in the words. It HAS to flow, and there is always a way to make it do so.
    For speeches, I’ll practice out loud to make sure it works.

    1. The reading out loud trick works for all kinds of writing I find – I’ve probably read most of my novel out loud when I was writing it – it’s a great way to check the way the word sound together.These days I’m asked to read from the book at lit festivals etc – so it’s a good job I checked it works in that way!

  6. Chris, enjoyed your blog post. I must say that since we writers speak about the human condition, then what makes one writer stand out is how he or she delivers the message. Word play and style are key in keeping the reader’s attention. Lynn

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