Wednesday, March 22, 2023
The power of contrast
On a deep and fundamental level, we crave contrast. Without different colors in our environment, we would be blind because our vision requires contrast to function. Music is monotonous without variation in tone, pitch, and volume. Diet is unpalatable without a variations in (and mixes of) sweet, salt, fat, and heat.
Writing that captures and keeps our attention is no different. As Ward Farnsworth explains in is Classical English Style, rhetorical power often flows from "various sorts of oppositions--by the relationship, usually one of friction or contrast, between two things. The two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style (or vice versa), the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it." That is, your reader is more likely to pay attention when you change up (within reason) what you're throwing at them.
Judge Bibas of the Third Circuit showed this in his opinion in Trump for President, Inc. v. Secretary, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (3d Cir., Nov. 25, 2020). His introduction is chock-full of short sentences and short words--the average sentence, just under 12 words; the average word, 5 letters. But in his last paragraph, the words per sentence jumps to 14, and the average word gets just a bit longer. He saves his biggest words (unprecedented, disenfranchising, disproportionate) to make his biggest point--a point that transcends the case and which he wants to draw the most attention to. None of this happens by accident. Great writers like Judge Bibas know how to use contrast in subtlety persuasive ways.
You can do it too--it just takes some practice. Here are a few exercises. Practice saying things in complicated, multisyllabic words (usually Latinate), and then say those same things in simple, one- or two-syllable words (likely Germanic). There is plenty of material out there to work with. For example, you could start with this verse in Genesis: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." (Gen. 1:3). Short sentence, short (one-syllable) words, clear ideas. You could make this more complicated with Latinate terms and a nominalization or two: "And Deity vocalized, I give my permission that illumination may exist: and the illumination initiated its existence." Longer sentence, more complicated words. Perhaps a bit silly of an example, but it at least gets you thinking about different ways to put things. Play the same game with concrete and abstract terms, passive and active voice, etc.
For the most part, you'll want to use active, simple, straightforward words and sentences. But as Judge Bibas shows, the change-up can really draw your reader's attention when you want to make an important point. Practice doing that, and you're well on your way to improving your style and persuasiveness.