If you haven’t noticed, we’re fans of stand-up here at theCLIKK. 🎤
We don’t claim to be comedians ourselves, but we will say that stand-up comedy has had an enormous influence on the way we write. It can teach a lot about the effective use of language—even if you’re trying NOT to be funny.
Today, we’re giving you a little “sandbox” so you can get some direct, hands-on practice with one particular writing skill. That skill is cadence, or the “rhythm” of phrases and sentences in a piece of writing.
It holds attention. Which is important.
No writing or creativity required to participate. We re-discovered a piece of material by Lewis Black and realized that it’s perfect for examining the subtleties of cadence. We’ve transcribed a brief excerpt; your only task is to copy and paste, then fiddle with the punctuation. (You’ll see.)
The Lesson in Two Pieces:
1️⃣ Cadence is ultimately shaped by silences. Notice, if you haven’t already, that this is a broader aesthetic theme…
Design and visual art have white space. Music has rests (and John Cage). Theater has irony and innuendo. And so on.
Substance matters, of course—but so does its absence. All things are given form by the void they inhabit.
2️⃣ Punctuation is how copywriters shape silences. As we discussed more thoroughly in Get to the Punctuation, the main differences between bits of punctuation are the types and lengths of silences they add to the text.
⬆️ Read that last part again. It’s the crux of the exercise below.
The rhythm of language is more art than science; a lot of it is “playing with it until it clicks.” But if we had to boil the “science” parts down to a single sentence, here’s our best shot: repetition is the cardinal sin of cadence.
In other words: try not to use the same rhythmic patterns over and over again. If the reader’s brain can already “hear” how your next sentence will sound, your writing is in trouble. To briefly illustrate that point:
KID VERSION 😴 One two three four. I went to school. I saw my friends. I played with toys. I did my homework.
ADULT VERSION 😤 One two three four, five six seven eight. My name is Steve, can I help you? […] We are accepting applications, though positions are limited. […] I’m not really sure, but I’ll go check.
As we discussed in The Secret Weapon of Conversational Copywriting, it’s a lot easier to juggle these sorts of complications when you realize that your natural speaking voice regularly juggles them for you.
You just have to stop (more often) and listen (to yourself).
And now the fun part!
If you’re not familiar, Lewis Black is perhaps best known for his mercurial temper; he’s one of those comics whose sense of humor is sharpest when he’s worked up. There’s usually a lot of profanity involved.
Weirdly, though, it’s 98% as effective when he’s contained to a PG rating. That “loophole” made him the PERFECT choice to play Anger in Pixar’s Inside Out (above) and, likewise, today’s sample is pretty tame.
Here’s how the Lewis Black Sandbox works:
1️⃣ Copy the raw text in green (and paste it into some kind of text editor). It’s completely stripped of punctuation, and we’ve only capitalized what’s necessarily so.
2️⃣ Listen to Lewis Black’s delivery of it (1 min). The goal of this exercise is to mimic his spoken cadence in writing. So, of course, the next step is…
3️⃣ Edit the raw text so that it “reads” like his delivery. Your main task here is choosing punctuation marks and exactly where to put them. Pro tip: punctuation also includes empty spaces like paragraph breaks, not just marks like periods and commas.
Transcript without Punctuation
From the beginning of time man has looked at the heavens and firmly believed that the universe ends out in space it’s not true the end of the universe happens to be in the United States I’ve seen it and oddly enough it’s in Houston Texas I know I know I was shocked too I left the comedy club there and walked down the street on one corner there was a Starbucks and across the street from that Starbucks in the exact same building as that Starbucks was a Starbucks at first I thought the sun was playing tricks with my eyes but no there was a Starbucks across from a Starbucks and that my friends is the end of the universe people have said to me how do you know and I say go there stand between those two Starbucks look at your watch time stands still
From the beginning of time, [humankind] has looked at the heavens and firmly believed that the universe ends out in space.
It’s not true. The end of the universe happens to be in the United States. I’ve seen it.
And (oddly enough) it’s in Houston, Texas.
I know, I know. I was shocked too.
I left the comedy club there and walked down the street. On one corner, there was a Starbucks—and across the street from that Starbucks, in the exact same building as that Starbucks… was a Starbucks.
At first I thought the sun was playing tricks with my eyes. But no: there was a Starbucks across from a Starbucks. And that, my friends, is the end of the universe.
People have said to me “how do you know?” and I say: Go there. Stand between those two Starbucks. Look at your watch. Time stands still.
*THIS IS NOT THE ONLY “CORRECT” WAY. We could produce a half-dozen little variations, all faithful transliterations. This is just our arbitrary favorite way.