Here we have a test. Would you like to join in? Here’s what you do: you write a short piece. Not too long. About half a page or so. There are two rules. Rule one is this: keep the units short. From full stop to full stop, ten words or less.
You got that? Good.
Rule two now. Did you guess? The words must be short as well. Real short. No words with more than one sound. One stroke. One beat. No words with two beats. None of those two part words those posh folks use.
Trust me, it is hard, real hard. But what is the point? For that we have to end the test.
Phew. That’s a relief. Did it even make sense to you?
It is, in fact, an interesting writing exercise. There are two rules, just to clarify: no sentence can be more than ten words long; and no word can have more than one syllable.
I came a bit unstuck, of course, trying to explain the second rule without using the word syllable.
The exercise comes from a book called ‘Developing a Written Voice’ by Dona J. Hickey (1993, Mayfield Publishing Company).
She has given the exercise to many students in her writing classes, and observes that the first rule forces the writer to place the key words in the sentence close together, and this makes the writing forceful:
‘The most powerful position in a sentence are the first and last words. The closer these words come together, the more forceful the message is.’
The limit on syllables enforces a simpler, more everyday vocabulary. She writes:
‘When monosyllabic words end in a hard consonant, they form a power unit in English. When monosyllabic, consonant-ended words are placed at the end of a sentence (the most powerful position), their force is doubled.’
She goes on to point out that a succession of monosyllabic words, especially those ending in consonants, make the message emphatic and forceful.
Multisyllabic words, on the other hand, soften the language. They can make it more tranquil, compassionate and tender.
Give it a go yourself sometime. It’s a good reminder that those short and simple words really do resonate with power.