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Carl Barks and Groucho Marx

Today I’m going to write about an unusual writing practice: Counting syllables.

Last week I came across a reference to counting syllables in an anecdote about Groucho Marx in a delightful book by Dick Cavett, the former host of a popular TV talk show. Cavett was interviewing Marx, a comic actor who also used to host a TV show.

Cavett asked Groucho if he’d seen the musical play Hair, which featured Broadway’s first frontal nudity scene with both sexes.  “No,” Groucho answered. “I was going to see it, but I went home, took off my clothes, looked at myself in the mirror, and saved seven dollars.”

The audience roared. But Groucho deliberately got the ticket price wrong, according to Cavett: “The figure he chose for the price of an orchestra seat was of course not the correct figure, but it had the right number of syllables for the joke.”

Cavett went on: “People will think an old comedian is crazy when he tells a young writer to change a line from ‘There are twelve chickens on the lawn’ to ‘There are fifteen chickens on the lawn,’ but he’s right. Because of the rhythm, fifteen is a funny number and twelve is not.”

How many people count syllables?

I don’t, but some writers do. There’s a rhythm to good writing, and you may have to experiment – even fudge a detail or two, as Groucho did – to get the rhythm right.

Let’s hear from another successful writer, Carl Barks. He was the cartoonist who did Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comic books for Disney for many years. (Don’t underestimate Barks and his work: George Lucas called Barks’s comics “a priceless part of our literary heritage.”)

Here’s Barks talking about his working method: On many pages of his stories, he said he had “two climaxes, one at the end of the first four panels, and at the bottom of the page. The reason: He felt he needed “something to cause the person to read on further.”

I was impressed when I read this. Climaxes are a hugely important writing concept – one that I didn’t hear much about until my Ph.D. program.

But Barks did something else as well. Any guesses about what it was? According to Barks, “At times I would count the syllables in the words, to make sure that the dialogue would flow like music, from one panel to another.” Barks said he would sometimes use a word his young readers didn’t know “because I was counting syllables, and that particular word happened to have the right number to cover the exact meaning.”

I think these two men were on to something. Sometimes teachers and editors forget that the sound of a sentence is just as important as the grammar. I often spend five or ten minutes revising a sentence to get it exactly right – and then recoil the next day when I go back to read it. “Who wrote that?” I ask, with gritted teeth. The unpleasant truth is that I did.

Just a moment ago I revised this sentence: I’ve never counted syllables, but I think Barks and Marx were onto something. Why? “Barks and Marx” are rhyming words, and I didn’t want readers distracted while they were reading this post. Here’s the revised sentence (I substituted “these two men”): I’ve never counted syllables, but I think these two men were on to something.

The nugget of gold here isn’t really about climaxes or counting syllables. What impressed me about both men is that they didn’t settle for the first thing that came into their heads. They found a way to make it better.

When I was a college instructor, many of my students were weak writers. That wasn’t surprising, since they had landed in my developmental writing class because they couldn’t pass the college entrance exam in writing.

But so often I felt that they could do perfectly well if they would just spend a little more time on an assignment:  Experiment. Try a different approach. Ask someone else (it doesn’t have to be an English major) for feedback. Even little changes -the difference between twelve and fifteen – could be the first step on the road to success.

Barks & Marx (hah!) figured it out. Have you?

Carl Barks and Groucho Marx 2

Photo of Carl Barks by Alan Light, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3366723