Some words of wisdom from an experienced writer. No, not me. Honest Ben Franklin.
Writing Right with Dmitri: The Insidious Invasion of the Bloodcurdling Apocalyptic Terrorist Cadaver
Do you use 'power words' when you write?
Just for fun, read the 'fearmongering' list on this 'How to Boost Your Blog Traffic' page. I double-dog dare you. Some of my favourites are:
- apocalypse (okay, I use that one, but only humorously)
- pus (really? How about mucus?)
- terrorist (yeah, sure, but...)
- stupid (seriously?)
'Now wait,' you protest, 'I'm not taking this off the writer who got everybody to read about the Phantom Time Hypothesis by submitting it to Peer Review with the subtitle 'Tree Rings and Jesus' Underwear'.' It's a fair cop, and it did work: the PR crowd read it and helped me with it, and then the BBC put a boring title on it. In spite of which, I got cited by a website concerned with the issue – as usual, only Germans cite me, and they are frequently, as here, the kind of people you would expect Fox Mulder to hang out with. But hey, it's communication of a sort.
Provocative titling doesn't always work though. My entry about Balaam the Donkey Abuser has only been read by one stalwart so far. Maybe it was because I also included the word 'civilisation' and the name of an archaeological site. That probably tipped the punters off that it wasn't that exciting and wasn't likely to lead anywhere titillating. So, is being definitive, argumentative, confrontational, sensationalistic or downright scary what is required to get people to listen to what you have to say? Are 'power words' necessary to grab readers in the internet age?
What would Ben Franklin say?
While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood's), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procur'd Xenophon's Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method. I was charm'd with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practis'd it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved….For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fix'd in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Part 1, 1771.
This description of part of Ben Franklin's self-education programme in writing improvement comes from his account of life in his teens. Poor Ben was starved for reading material, literally. He only had a couple of years' formal schooling – with 17 kids, his dad couldn't afford more. And there were no public libraries1. As an apprentice to his brother, Ben actually did a deal where, instead of getting fed regular meals at the boardinghouse, he got half the money his brother would have spent, and fed himself. From this, Ben spent half on simple food for himself and the other half on books. Now, that's what I call hungry for learning.
So what did Ben find out from reading about Socrates? That being less dogmatic could get you a lot farther in a discussion. That quiet questions could be more effective than shouted answers. Hm. Wonder what he would have thought about something like this?
We have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies.
George W Bush, 20 September 2001.
I'm not asking you what you think about the sentiments expressed. I'll take it for granted you don't particularly like terrorists. But what about the technique used here? What 'power words' have been brought into play? I count 'fascism, Nazism, totalitarianism, lies…' and oh, yeah, 'unmarked grave', 'murderous', 'sacrificing', 'radical'…hm. Pretty much everything but 'a', 'an', and 'the'.
Maybe Ben didn't know about 'power words'. How about this?
It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has with the most wanton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenceless Towns in the midst of Winter, excited the Savages to massacre our Farmers, and our Slaves to murder their Masters, and is even now bringing foreign Mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood. These atrocious injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country we once held so dear.
Ben Franklin, 20 July 1776
Count any 'power words'? How about 'Barbarity', 'Cruelty", 'defenceless', 'Savages', 'massacre', 'foreign Mercenaries', 'deluge…with Blood'? That is not very Socratic, Ben. Shame on you. So what do we learn? That good policy goes out the window when people feel threatened? Maybe. That 'power words' work? Well, if you're bent on the hard sell – be it merchandise or war – they're certainly effective.
But maybe, just maybe, you want to do something else with your writing. Maybe you aren't trying to move 100,000 units this month, or get Congress to fund your bombing campaign. Could you possibly be trying to get the audience to think? That's harder, actually. Millions for defence, but not one penny for education, as some have privately said…
In that case, you might want to go back and read up on the Socratic method.