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Stresses in Writing



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Aley says...



Stresses in Writing
A Guide to Working with Stress


Stress means a certain quality of sound during a syllable. Syllables are the parts of words which are the building blocks for words. They are the individual parts of a word which have their own unique beginning and end, and usually consist of a beginning, and middle at the very least, but may also include an end. The middle is usually a vowel, so you can find syllables by breaking words up according to the vowels you hear. Those syllables then qualified in one of two ways: to be stressed, or to be unstressed. Every sentence is made up of many stressed and unstressed syllables, and each syllable in a word can be labeled either stressed, or unstressed.

If you look up information on stress in language you will discover that linguists talk about stress differently than writers, and even between prose and poetic writers, there is a difference. For linguists, stress usually means the parts of a sentence which is stressed, i.e. full words. For prose writers, it usually reflects inflection and tone. For poets, it comes down to the syllable as they work with beat and inflection.

In the study of language, measuring stress happens in three ways. The primary way is when a part of a word is said louder than other parts of itself, or other words nearby in the case of single syllable words. Words are considered stressed when they are "stronger" than the rest of the word or sentence. Something can considered stronger when a reader says it longer, louder, or higher. The last way in which stress can be indicated by a reader is through pitch, i.e. the final word in a question.

Index

Writers and Stress
The Poets
Prose Writers
The Linguists
Working with Stress
Meter Work
Adding Interest
Conclusion
Links
  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:42 am
Aley says...



Writers and Stress

As previously mentioned, both prose and poetry writers handle stress while they are writing. Just like a poem can handle stress, so does this article, a novel, or a short story. While poets deal with it more openly, prose writers tend to handle it more privately calling it tone as they use the word "stress" to indicate stressful parts of a story such as a climax. They also tend to create stress differently than a poet. While a poet creates stress through the natural sounds of a word, and the intonation of how a word is read, or through punctuation, a prose writer will create stress through the length of sentences, paragraphs, or even the types of words and punctuation used.

Due to the relevance of stresses on the syllabic level for poetry writers, I will cover that first. If you write prose, you should still read the poetry section because I will be going over how to break down things to syllables, how to hear it, and give some advice about handling stresses differently.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:42 am
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The Poets

As a poet, syllable stress is important because it is a fundamental part of analyzing poetry, as well as writing poetry that rhymes or is structured. Being able to analyze a poem's structure can provide you with clear methods to get different effects. Since a meter is made up of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, you have to understand both how to count syllables, and what their stresses are.

Poets identify stress by sound, and often by comparing words together. If you listen to a word like "tomorrow" you can hear that it doesn't sound the same throughout the entire word. There are parts of it which are said louder, stronger, or longer; these parts are stressed.

An example of how this operates can be found if we look at the stresses in the first sentence of this article. To start, we need to break the line up into its syllables: "Stress means a cer-tain qual-i-ty of sound." For help with distinguishing syllables, check out Counting Syllables.

Now that the sentence has been broken up into syllables, we can identify the parts that sound louder/longer/stronger than the others. When I read the sentence out loud, I hear it like this: "Stress means a cer-tain qual-i-ty of sound."

If you're having trouble hearing stresses, you can look up the pronunciations of the words in a dictionary, and it will have the stresses in bold or capitals depending on the phonetics and symbolism the dictionary is using. However, dictionaries can be misleading if you have a different accent than the assumed accent in the dictionary.

For example, if we take the word "whatever" and we read it normally, we get "whatever" with none of the syllables being strongly stressed; however, if we say it in a stereotypical, snobby-girl accent, we get "whatever". This difference between the dictionary pronunciation and spoken pronunciation is why it is important to train your ear to identify up-lifts in noise, louder or softer sounds, and multitask on speaking and hearing what you say, as these will allow you to identify stresses more easily.

Because poets identify stress by sound, reading a poem is best done aloud. Reading a poem aloud is helpful because stresses shift based on context, particularly via understood meanings and sentence structures. The placement of stresses during your reading can change the meaning of the poem, and reading silently doesn't allow those distinctions to surface in more than the most basic of ways.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:43 am
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Prose Writer

Prose writers tend to handle stress on a sentence level rather than a word level like linguists, or a syllabic level like poets, however these other levels still affect their writing. If you take a look at a prose book near you, you can see stresses according to the length of sentences, and punctuation.

Sentences also are read with a certain cadence which can be identified through meter in poetry. Just like you would read this like a text book, you would read a novel or a short story differently, and that is reflected by the writer's syntax, choice of words, and even their use of stressed and unstressed syllables and words. For instance, in this article, I am using a lot of lists and commas. In a novel, I would use much fewer lists and I would have a range of sentence length and style.

When a novelist leans heavily on one style of sentence, it creates a dramatic effect which is considered stress for a novel. This is because a reader would naturally pick up on those repetitions and begin to emphasize them as they read.

You can use that as a prose writer many different ways. When you want something to be unstressful, you can cue your reader that everything is normal and fine by having a variety of sentence lengths and styles. Use a mix of pronouns and names, develop internal thought or external action, and the reader will likewise read easier.

If you want to create stress in your reading, repeat the same sounds, repeat the same tones, repeat the same sentence structures, repeat the same words. Reworking the language can create stress. Also, shorter sentences can create stress.

As grammar and punctuation rules are ever-changing, such as with the use of ellipsis, and what is considered grammatically acceptable for an internal thought's sentence, you can use your artists' license to create less than perfect sentences, which can also create stress.

The reason this works is because as you do things like repeat, use shorter sentences, and rework structures, you are more likely to add in words that are naturally considered stressed to linguists such as nouns and verbs. These create the stress your reader interprets as they read along. Also, people recognize patterns which can create stress similarities for the rest of the sentence regardless of whether it is the actual linguistic stress or not. This is how writers use intonation to create stress both in poetry and in prose.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:43 am
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The Linguists

Linguists have a more prescriptive approach. They handle stress word-to-word based on a word's parts of speech, i.e. nouns, verbs, etc. Additionally, they sort words into two main classes: open and closed.

Open class words are those which can have a new word added easily to their category, such as "googled" as a new verb, and "internet" as a new noun. Adverbs and adjectives are also commonly created, such as "blondly" as an adverb in "she puzzled blondly through the problem" and "the dog was stupidifyingly large." These words, which have more than one syllable, often have a pattern within them where one syllable is stronger/louder than the others.

However, some closed class words, i.e. those parts of speech that rarely get new additions, are also stressed.

Negative auxiliary verbs such as "don't" and "not" are stressed because they indicate something very important, namely the lack of something, the opposite of something, or the negative of something. As a result, we often emphasize negatives to make sure people understand we're not agreeing.

Another group of closed class words which is often stressed is pronouns. Pronouns indicate who we are speaking about or to, or from which perspective we are talking, so they are a very important part of speech, and thus may be stressed depending on the intonation of the reader.

    Stressed
  • Main Verbs
  • Nouns
  • Pronouns
  • Adverbs
  • Adjectives
  • Negative Verbs

Closed class words are generally not stressed, and there are many different parts of speech that are considered closed because they rarely get new additions. Prepositions, such as "of" and "around", are a closed class. Another example, and perhaps the most useful group, is that of determiners, also known as articles. In English, these are "a", "an", and "the", and they are used before nouns, which are open class words.

A more confusing closed class set of words is included under the title of verb, but they're auxiliary verbs, verbs like "be", "to", "must", "can", "have", and other very common verbs which stack with a main verb. For example, "to be caring" only has one stressed verb, "caring", while "have walked" only has one stressed verb, "walked."

Linguists also say that anything that is added on to the main root of a word, such as the suffixes "-ed" or "-ing", or at the beginning of a word, like the prefix "pre-", is unstressed, with the root being the part of the word that actually indicates the meaning.

Going back to the earlier example with auxiliary verbs, "walked" and "caring" are multi-syllable words ending in suffixes, so only the roots "walk" and "care" are stressed.

    Unstressed
  • Auxiliary Verbs
  • Prepositions
  • Determiners
  • Conjunctions

If you're still confused about which word classes are stressed or not, this website provides a helpful overview: The English Club. It is also the source for most of my information about stresses in the linguistic eye.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:44 am
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Working with Stress

The following section applies more directly to poetry than other types of writing because the poets rely more heavily on singular syllables. While prose writers can apply stresses in their writing, the "Prose Writers" section is more directly helpful to how to work with stress in prose literature.

Working with stress is about how to change stresses in an established work without ruining what you like. There are some key things you should know. First, you can add unstressed words and not typically run into problems. Second, when you have a pattern of syllables, people are going to read it and change stress to match it if there are inconsistencies or things which they can change. That is going to affect the message of the work.

That being said, the first challenge is deciding how you're going to use meter in your poem. If you would like to follow a certain meter, editing syllables is going to be your main method. If you want to make a particular part of your poem stressed, while the rest is not, then using particular words to encourage stressed reading will work better.

  





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Meter Work

In the first two to three lines of any poem, you set the expectations for the rest of the poem. If you start writing with a certain meter, or tone, or you start with rhymes, the reader will expect those to continue. Meter and feet are the ways in which stress patterns are qualified in poetry. You can identify these things by "marking up" a poem, or identifying the syllables, their stresses, and any potential rhyme scheme. Here's a guide on how to do that: Marking Up A Poem but I will also go over it here.

A foot is the basic pattern, and the meter, is the pattern as a whole. In some cases, readers will stretch what you have to fit those patterns. Think about dramatic readings if you want to understand how this works. Someone reading a poem dramatically might purposefully mispronounce common words to set the tone. Likewise, a reader might stress words that are typically unstressed to match your meter.

Writing in meter is a bit easier than editing in meter. Many times rewriting a poem with the meter in mind will be all you need to do to create a metered poem, but it can be confusing if you're unfamiliar with meter and how it works. The more poems you read in the meter you want to write in, the better you will get at writing in that meter.

If you want to do more complicated editing like adding in a meter to a poem that doesn't have one, then you're going to have to add stressed and unstressed syllables so that they make a pattern early in your poem.

Getting those first three lines to reflect the patterns you want might take some work. To add a meter you have to consider what words you're going to be able to replace or change. Think of words that are similar in meaning, and add either stressed words like adverbs and adjectives, or multisyllabic versions of a word to create the same meaning with different words when you're adding stress.

If you're adding unstressed syllables, add closed class words or endings like "–ly", or "-ing". My favorite things to add are interjections like "Oh," which can either be stressed or unstressed depending on inflection. If you don't want an old style, you can always add "the" or "of" to get your unstressed syllables. You can also fix or add syllables with pronouns which can be stressed or unstressed depending on inflection as well.

You can even add unstressed syllables to get to syllable counts for things like haiku.

To show you how this works, let's take a basic poem about a leaf and change it so that it has a beat.

    The brown crunchy leaf
    claws across the ground
    with its dry fingers
    fragile, like a baby's nails
    despite being at the end of its life.

First off, we have to know what the goal of this poem was so that we can preserve that and recognize what we can change. We also have to break it down into syllables.

The subject of this poem is pretty simple, a fragile dead leaf gets blown around. There is an underlying tone of pain from the description of the dry leaf, and the verb "claws" which shows its desperate need to hold still. Let's look at our syllables.

    The brown crun-chy leaf
    claws a-cross the ground
    with its dry fin-gers
    fra-gile, like a ba-by's nails
    de-spite be-ing at the end of its life.

Once we have that shown, we need to see what the stress pattern currently is like in this poem so that we can figure out what might need changing. I'm going to capitalize the stressed syllables, or syllables that sound louder or longer when I read them out loud. Also, additions to words like suffixes and prefixes are unstressed, and closed classed words are mostly unstressed. This tells me stressed open classed words are stressed.

    the BROWN CRUN-chy LEAF
    CLAWS a-CROSS the GROUND
    with its DRY FIN-gers
    fra-GILE, like a BA-by's NAILS
    de-SPITE BE-ing at the END of its LIFE.

I didn't call the pronouns stressed in this instance because when I read it out loud, they didn't sound stressed or emphasized. I'm not saying "the brown crunchy leaf claws across the ground with ITS dry fingers" because the possession of the dry fingers isn't the important part. The dry fingers are the important part. That means "its" sits in the background, unstressed. Most possessive pronouns are going to be like this, but not always. For instance, if there were two shovels and she swung "HIS" shovel rather than "hers" that marks an important distinction and that would be stressed.

Note: If you're writing a new poem where you want to use syllable patterns, consider typing like this the first time through. Break up double syllable words with hyphens (-) and capitalize stressed syllables. It can save you some time if you need to write in a particular meter by showing you where you're going wrong, and make counting syllables quicker.


Right away I can see that I have multiple clumps of two stressed or unstressed syllables: "brown crunchy", "dry fingers", "with a", "like a", "ing at the", "of its" and "despite being". These stand out because they have two stressed syllables, or many unstressed syllables, next to one another. I am closest to an alternating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, so that will be what I work towards.

To start, I'm going to work from top to bottom and see what I can change of those clumps aiming for an alternating pattern. Our first problem is "brown crunchy" because "brown" and "crun" are both stressed. My first instinct is to go for a different adjective to describe the color, but I could change both of the adjectives. If I have a two syllable adjective, it will fit into that slot, and provide me with an unstressed beat before "Crunchy" which is an important distinction in this poem.

Some of my options include; crackled, reddish, or fallen. I could also go with a more creative word choice that's more descriptive about the attitude of this leaf, keeping my goal or theme of the poem in mind. These could be something like: vagrant, soiled, or feeble. Now that I've thought of some choices, I'm just going to substitute them into the phrase, and see what I like best.

    The [word] crunchy leaf

Right away I don't like "crackled" because it's the same thing as crunchy. "Reddish" is good, but I don't like having to use "ish" and I want this to be an old leaf, not a newly fallen one, so red isn't the color it would be. "Fallen" is also good, but it is somewhat weak compared to "vagrant" and its friends. "Vagrant" is a little bit of a mouthful for this poem considering the rest of the words, but I might go back to it if I change the reading level later. "Soiled" is a fun play on the fact that this leaf is going to be soil soon, and I like it, but I don't like it as much as "feeble." "Feeble" gives a sense of weakness that is exactly what I want in this poem.

    The FEE-ble CRUN-chy LEAF

Doing this for the rest of the poem leaves me with the following result.

    the FEE-ble CRUN-chy LEAF
    CLAWS a-CROSS the GROUND
    GRAB-bing ON with POKE-y FIN-gers,
    FRA-gile, JUST like BA-by NAILS.
    the END of LIFE.

You may notice that I changed the stress on "fragile." By the time I got to that point in the poem, the alliteration between fingers and fragile made that part of the word pop more than before. It strengthened it. Due to that, I had to add a stressed word right after a pause, which could be any filler word, but "just" works really well for me in this poem.

Here are the changes I made.
  • First line, I changed "brown" to "feeble".
  • I didn't have to change the second line at all.
  • In the third line, I had to take out "with its", so I added "grabbing on" which naturally has an up beat on "on" due to intonation and the beat I have already established in the first two lines. Prepositions are words that rely heavily on intonation to choose stress.
  • Still in the third line, I had to change "dry" because of the stress in "fingers" so I chose "pokey" which describes leaves very well when they're dry.
  • In the fourth line, I had to get rid of "like a" so I changed it to "Just like" and then instead of saying "baby's nails" I changed it to "baby nails" to clean up some of the tongue twisters going on in the section.
  • The last line of the poem is really important, so I didn't start on a stressed beat. Instead, I started on an unstressed beat like the first line. I got rid of "despite being at" because "the end of life" is more dramatic, and I removed it from the single sentence, and made the idea its own sentence.

You will notice that I didn't make this a perfect stressed-unstressed beat. The first and last line start on unstressed beats, while the rest of the lines start with a stressed beat. All in all, if I were to stick this poem in a single line, and show the stresses with a lowercase x for unstressed, and a capitalized X for stressed, it would look like this: xXxXxXXxXxXXxXxXxXxXxXxXxXxXxX. Let's line it up into the stanzas to take a closer look at where those XX occur and how they're going to affect the poem.

    xXxXxX
    XxXxX
    XxXxXxXx
    XxXxXxX
    xXxX

I left it like this because I like the way that it introduces the poem, and I want those two lines to stand out. I also don't end the third line with a stressed beat because I want the first word on the next line to really stand out. "Fragile" stands out more because it isn't in the pattern of X/X which you get in most of the poem.

Not only does it have a range of syllables per line, but it also doesn't stick to a strict xX when it comes to the end and beginning of lines. Despite that, this poem will sound like it has a pattern because whenever we read the end of a line, we automatically pause for milliseconds as our eyes jump down, and that pause acts as soft [unnoticeable] unstressed beat. Not only that, but because it is just the first two stanzas which are like this, it probably won't be noticed due to this still being an area that introduces the beat.

Here is the result without it being marked up:

    The feeble crunchy leaf
    claws across the ground
    grabbing on with pokey fingers,
    fragile, just like baby nails.
    The end of life.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:46 am
Aley says...



Adding Importance

To use stress to add importance to a particular part of your poem you must first establish a norm, and then break it. This is pretty easy to do either way because you have two options.

First, you can create a pattern of chaos, meaning that there is typically no pattern, and then create a pattern within that chaos which will create an area of interest or importance. This may really annoy some people who are reviewing your work, but if they comment on it, see it as a "win" because that means that your randomly inserted structure was noticeable and they are responding to that.

The more difficult method is the reverse. Create a poem that is typically structured, and then create a moment of chaos. This is more frustrating for reviewers than the other method because it looks as though you just messed up or forgot your pattern. To establish that you have not forgotten your pattern but that you broke it on purpose, you will need to do something creative and unique with the words, punctuation, capitalization, or face of the text to emphasize that it is exactly how you want it.

In a general readership you will have more acceptance of either method because they are looking for these differences in terms of "this has been approved" and then they don't ask "How did you mess this up?" but "why did you change it?" and that becomes more of a conversation with your reader than an argument about formatting.

The main reason why you may do this in a poem is to show a development from one place to another. This could be a development of growth in the speaker, or a deterioration of the same. Of course there are other ways to use it, but the most widely acceptable ones are contextual relationships to change. These changes are reflected and work really well with changes in grammar styles in a poem as well, including spacing, line sizes, and white space on the page.

Overall, developing your skills with meter will help you determine what affect these will have on a poem, but in my experience, having a structured poem makes it sound more childish [like lullabies, or children's books], or more formal depending on the reading level of the poem. Breaking away from that can make it more relaxed, more chaotic, or even more emotional depending on the reason for breaking away from the initial design. It can create a sense of "looking under the veil" or seeing something that shouldn't be seen, but it can also end up creating a poem that gets brushed aside if you're not careful about where you change the meter.

In my experience, and again, this is really a personal thing, I wouldn't start a change from structured to unstructured any further than half way down the poem. However, if you are just adding in a moment or a phrase that you want stressed, you can do that anywhere, including in the first two lines.

Adding in a break in your pattern in the first two to three lines can make a reader believe that the wrong thing has the pattern, but as long as it is small, it can be overlooked. I actually use this as a way to introduce poems frequently. I will have a first line which is more of a subject line, and then go into a description of that subject for the rest of the poem with a unique voice. This creates more of a descending feeling for me and you can see that in poems that are the "Life is like …" poems where you fill in personal experiences after a prompt line.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:46 am
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Conclusion

Working with stresses requires practice because the more you practice replacing words, the more of a collection of words you have to use for stressed and unstressed words when you need to. That way, when you're writing a poem, you will have handy knowledge of words that you can use to make certain sounds and beats without needing to edit later to get there. You will soon be able to skip the step of editing in stress for the entire thing, and see how stresses and beat affect the poem.

If you take a look at the example in Working With Stress, these are two different sounding poems. Now, the first poem isn't pretty, and it wasn't meant to be, but by just working on changing the words to match a certain stress, it has become prettier. Whether that's what you want or not is completely up to you as a writer. This is also affected by other factors of the poem like syllable sounds [hard or soft], connotation, and so on.

Working with creating interest in a particular part of a poem can be as simple as adding the opposite of what is around it in terms of stresses. If there is a pattern to stress, create something outside of that pattern. If there isn't a pattern to stress, create something that is patterned. If all else fails, and you just want to add two syllables, go for strong stressed syllables right together.

We naturally cling to patterns, so I strongly suggest that whenever you write a poem, you go through and check whether your reader is going to be expecting a certain pattern of stresses by just checking the first two lines of the poem. If there is a beat there, then they will expect it throughout. If there isn't, then they will be surprised if one shows up later.

  





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Sat Apr 01, 2017 2:47 am
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Links

For more on stress, and how to identify it, check out Lumi's article How-To: Iambic Pentameter and Cade's article Rhyme…all the time!. They both go over stresses in syllables in different ways than I just did, providing you with more examples and helpful tips. I also have written an article on how to Mark Up a Poem which I linked to earlier, but here's the link again.


  








I like to create sympathy for my characters, then set the monsters loose.
— Stephen King