In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.
I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it here with you, dear reader.
For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.
The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.
The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.
Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:
In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:
Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.
The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.
Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).
Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.
As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.
The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. Parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).
The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing creates three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.
Next Up: The Next Series of The Writer’s Toolbox:
Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know
In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.
One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:
“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.
But what exactly are those techniques? The next series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your very best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.
- Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know (I will make this article available soon. Stay tuned.)
Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).