In Praise of One Beat Words
May 18, 2022 § 24 Comments
By Linda Button
Here’s to one beat words. Short and sweet and quick. Hot in your mouth, fast to say, they leap from tongue to brain in a flash. They amp up your tone and add salt to your prose. And by one beat words I mean short.
Short words are honed to work fast. Why? Most hail from the harsh north, where each breath is hard won. Blunt like chipped tools. Tough to make it through dark, cold nights. Not like the tongues from the warm south, born of sun filled days, where time stretched out with ease, no rush! and each sound led us down a long, slow path that seemed to have no end.
Words from the north cut to the chase. (A phrase, by the way, from the first days of film, where they meant “cut to the good stuff)”.
My folks, spawn of a long line of hicks, spoke in grunts. Dogs were mutts. You swam in the crick. Fixed the ruf. Each word shot from my dad’s mouth. We paid close heed. We ducked and did what he said. “Git here.” “Go on.”
Then, I was wooed by a posh school. They did not teach me to write well. They loved such long words. Lots of them. Scores. Tomes. Why use three words when you could use twelve? Fill the page, they pressed us. We purged our guts, plied words from our word gods, stuffed our work to awe our profs. Big blocks of text. No white space. No sense of dire. All was flat. We thought that made us sound, not just smart, cool.
Lost in veils. We had draped them in fluff. Masked and dressed for show.
I learned how to write when I got my dream job in, well, we called it the boob tube. The boob tube. Fourth grade zone. True. We learned to keep it short to reach the most folks. Our goal: keep them glued. “How much time do you have? Wait, wait, don’t go! Stay here. Look, here’s a new fun thing we just found for you. Try this. Try that. Stay with us.”
We wrote scripts for the ear, not the eye. That taught me to be blunt, like my dad. Hack off the dreck. Cut to the core. Clean up your prose. Trim the split ends. We carved each plea to one beat. We got to the point. We caught them in our trap.
Wow, I thought. I can say less and mean more.
Fill a page with your tale. The whole side. Then, take each word: the four beat, three beat even and, yes, the two beat words. Find a way to say the same thing with one beat. See how you forge a clear stone path of thoughts to the end. See how they change the pace, how the quick steps fuel what you mean.
Our brains eat short words like fast food. That makes sense. Short takes less space. Each word drops in, plunk.
Then, when the time feels right, slip them one glorious note.
Glo-ri-ous. Mmmmm. Stands out, right?
Choose your words with care. Hone them. Make them punch through.
And, please, keep it short. And glorious.
In this blog I have used just one beat words. Tell me, did it work, or am I full of bunk?
Linda Button spent 20 years running an award-winning agency and romping across six continents to speak on creativity and writing. Her essays on relationships have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love and Boston Magazine. She completed the Memoir Incubator at Grub Street and is working on a memoir about marriage, madness, and how martial arts saved her. https://lindabutton.works