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5 Writing Tips You Can Learn from Stephen Sondheim

Don’t you love farce? My fault I fear. I thought that you’d want what I want. Sorry, my dear. But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns.

OK, I’ve just broken my number 1 rule of writing. I began this piece with a direct quote. But I adore Stephen Sondheim’s way with words. I particularly like the lyrics to this song (Send in the Clowns) and I happened to read them again this week.

I’ve always enjoyed almost all of Sondheim’s music, but after seeing some faded video of the writer coaching young voice students at the Guildhall School of Music in London, I’m in even more awe.

I’m frequently struck by the connections between writing words and writing music. Here are five tips I gleaned from watching the four-minute Sondheim clip, likely recorded more than 30 years ago.

1)    Be kind to yourself. Some coaches and, dare I say, editors, like to throw pitched battles. I once had an editor who screamed at me in the middle of a crowded newsroom. It was embarrassing to me (and should have been to him) and didn’t help me one iota. Ever since that incident I’ve always tried to be cautious and kind in my critiques. I know that berating someone seldom brings out their best side and, in fact, often summons their worst. Notice how polite and gentle Sondheim is with this young, inexperienced student. The man who had heard his work sung by Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins showed the student every possible respect. In fact, he even criticized his own writing of the lyrics (listen from the 2:15 minute mark). Don’t you deserve to be treated gently by yourself? Be as kind and understanding of your own shortcomings as Sondheim is to this young woman.

2)    Be fastidious. Watching this clip, you can tell that Sondheim has high standards. He spends much of the four-minute clip focusing on just four words: “well, maybe next year.” First, he wants a gap between “well” and “maybe.” Then he wants more importance given to the word “next.” Hearing him go after these trifling points illustrates that God is in the details.

3)    Always examine both content and form. Singers need to attend to tone, pronunciation (the Ts in “ought” and “to”) and phrasing (“well, maybe next year”) and writers must pay heed to grammar, and spelling and content. Regardless of the art form, if the audience can’t understand you, then the message is for naught. Good spelling and clean grammar do not make a good writer. But good writers make sure they spell properly and use good grammar (even if they have to pay someone to help them do it.)

4)    Be persistent. It’s so easy to give up, isn’t it? Did you hear the sigh from the young woman when Sondheim asked her to sing the phrase again? My heart went out to her. So did his! Did you hear him say, kindly, understandingly, “It’s good for you”? By that, he meant, it’s wise to do things over and over again, until you can hardly bear it. Only through steady and diligent practice will you become any better.

5)    Be aware that you can over-rehearse/edit. I was struck by how readily Sondheim acknowledged that it’s possible to over-rehearse. So, too, it’s possible to over-edit. I was reviewing a piece for clients last week. They had submitted it to a newspaper several years ago and it had been turned down. When I read it, I could see why: It had been over-edited. All the life had been sucked right out of it. I roughed it up a bit, smoothed it out again and we’ll resubmit it.

There ought to be clowns, right?

Daphne Gray-Grant

Daphne Gray-Grant

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8 1⁄2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. It's brief. It's smart. And it's free.
Daphne Gray-Grant
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