In his documentary series The Civil War, Ken Burns tells the story of the bugle call “Taps,” played at U.S. military funerals and memorial ceremonies around the world. Despite its familiarity, “Taps” is only one of a number of bugle calls used to signal commands to troops both on the battlefield and away from it. This makes bugle calls, of course, a means for sending messages, but they are also a form of music. Not only do they convey information: “It’s time to get up” or “Lights out” or “Attack now!” They also try to set the mood or tone in which they want the listeners to receive that information. Each bugle call presents a total experience, of which the “message” forms only a small part. The melody and tempo of the call evokes associations of camaraderie, duty, order, obedience, shared difficulty, responsibility to one another.
I often think of bugle calls when I hear people complaining about why writing has to be so complicated. When I taught writing to college students, they often wondered why they needed to revise or sharpen their prose, why their way of saying something made any difference so long as the content remained the same. Conversely, I read and hear constantly that only one kind of writing is the best: shorter and to the point. Brevity and simplicity, so the saying goes, are always better.
But I’ve always believed that how I write what I write does matter, and I also believe that no single way of putting my words together works for all situations.
Imagine, for example, the head of a corporation teetering on the edge of failure. The CEO decides that the company can only survive if it sheds expenses, and that means, among other things, laying off workers. Of course, that message needs to be communicated to the entire workforce, but is the simplest, most direct, most matter-of-fact approach the best? Or does the CEO need to think about what workers will experience intellectually and emotionally when they hear the news? Does she need to consider the state of mind she wants to encourage in her remaining workforce when they finish reading the corporate announcement?
The experience of hearing the bugle call establishes or reinforces or invokes a relationship between the institution and its members, and among the members themselves. It seeks to bind them together; it presents or makes use of a common identity. Whether the slightly longer, upbeat sound of “Reveille” or the brief, slow elegy of “Taps,” the mixture of tempo, rhythm, and melody can evoke emotional responses in service members years after they’ve left uniform.
Writing—whatever the genre or purpose, even in so dry a document as a corporate memo or email—performs the same function. A piece of writing operates as more than a message delivery system. My vocabulary, sentence rhythm, tone, content, and even conventional features like my headings and format try to create an experience that highlights the common ground “we” (writer and audience) share. If a reader rejects the experience a piece of writing offers—if she can’t see herself reflected in that experience or doesn’t feel genuinely invited into it—she’ll reject that piece of writing.
For the CEO trying to convey her company’s difficulties and at the same time rally the best employees to remain, the lack of a compelling reading experience can lead to disaster. However clear the content—“The company’s struggling but working together we can make it”—her way of delivering that content and the kind of relationship she establishes in her writing will mean much more.
That’s why each time I write for others, I continually return to the same question: What kind of reading experience do I want my reader(s) to have? My message will be part of that experience, but so will the tone of my words and sentences, the associations they invoke, and the relationships I establish through the writing choices I make.