“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dickens’ famous introduction to A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps the most famous example of a balanced sentence in history. It’s so famous and effective that most people have forgotten that it’s only the first in a series of beautifully balanced phrases that introduce the book.
But it isn’t only literature that benefits from a nicely balanced turn of phrase. Consider Fiat’s ‘Hand built, by robots’ or The Financial Times’ ‘No FT, No Comment’. Balance is clearly something writers of marketing words should care about, just as much as writers of novels.
So, here are my top three ways of introducing balance to your sentences.
Often when I proofread copy, I find that I can introduce balance to a pair of stilted sentences by joining them together using a comma, semicolon or em rule. The writer might have heard the balance in their head when they wrote it, but the chances are they read it without punctuation and mentally removed their own full stops as they proofread.
For instance, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” would have been a much less effective statement had it been two sentences, padded out with unnecessary words.
It might sound facile, but just sticking a comma in the middle can often be the difference between two dry sounding sentences and one meaningful and balanced phrase.
However, not every sentence gets its balance from punctuation; often, the native rhythm of a sentence can be enough by itself. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier opens with the phrase “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” deriving balance from alliteration.
Advertising slogans also often use this technique. For instance, Hitachi’s classic ‘Inspire the Next’ uses the internal rhythm of four simple syllables and the balance provided by the N sound in ‘inspire’ and ‘next’ to bookend its cornerstone message.
Dickens’ actual introduction to A Tale of Two Cities reads:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
The writer presents us with a series of paired clauses, each of which features a thesis and antitheses either side of a comma. In industrial marketing, we could compare this to the classic feature/benefit paradigm, in which we present first the function of a device and then its purpose.
Dickens’ pairings of best and worst, wisdom and foolishness and light and darkness might be laid on a little bit thick to work well in your next press release or technical data sheet. But the fundamental tactic, the fundamental balance, is essential.
It doesn’t matter if everyone forgets your elegant writing, just as most people have forgotten everything but Dickens’ first twelve words in A Tale of Two Cities. As long as they buy lots of widgets, your job will be done and balance will be restored to the world.
Image courtesy of flickr user Steve Pomeroy