You have just finished writing a literary masterpiece (if you don’t mind saying so yourself), but you can’t help but feel like there’s something missing. You reread it over and over again, countless times. All of the points you wanted to make are there; the flow makes sense, but it still doesn’t feel right.
Maybe the content itself isn’t the problem. The writing just doesn’t have that oomph or pop that you are looking for. Instead, it just lays flat.
Writing, as you know, isn’t only about coming up with plotlines or new and exciting twists that excite your reader at every turn. It’s more than that. Writing involves a certain flair that flows through not only the content but also through every sentence and every word.
An effective way to add that flair to any literary work is by using wordplay.
Wordplay is the use of words in a clever or witty way. One of the most iconic comedy sketches of all time, “Who’s on First?” by Abbott and Costello is a great example of the effect that wordplay can have on an audience.
In the skit, Abbott starts off by saying that baseball players have peculiar names. Naming the players who are on each base, he tells Costello, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third,” and Costello responds, “That’s what I want to find out.”
The confusion caused here is obviously that the baseball players’ last names are Who, What, and I Don’t Know. The two go back and forth debating the names of the baseball players in a hilarious exchange.
The use of wordplay not only adds a level of humor, but it also makes the reader or audience think about the words that are being used and how they have been manipulated to create a bigger impact.
Using words in creative ways improves your writing and creates depth for your content. There are many different wordplay writing techniques such as puns, acronyms, alliteration, assonance and consonance, malapropism, and slang. You might already be using some of these techniques in your writing without realizing it.
A pun is when you use the double meaning of a word or similar sounding words in a humorous way. Puns are fun to use, especially if you are looking to insert humor into your work.
Here are a couple of examples of puns:
To make your own puns, think about words that sound the same or are similarly spelled, and put them together in a short phrase or two. The outcome could add the chuckle that your piece needs—or it could add a completely different tone to your writing.
Puns are best used subtly and sparingly. If what you are writing has a more formal or serious tone, you could consider using a pun in dialogue or in description to give it a lighthearted break. Now would be an appropriate time to use a pun, but I don’t want to punish you with that.
Acronyms have become more widely used in pop culture due to social media and texting. “LOL” (laugh out loud), “btw” (by the way), or “tbh” (to be honest) has become part of our everyday conversations.If you find yourself writing out a long phrase or title over and over again, an acronym can come in handy.
You can make up your own acronym as long as you define it on first reference. Then you are free to use it throughout your work. The acronym you create will allow you to use these names or phrases multiple times without making your readers read them each time.
Give it a try! I mean, why not? I mean, YOLO.
Alliterations use the same consonant in a series of words that are close to one another. Examples include:
Some businesses use alliterations for branding, such as “Best Buy” or “Bed, Bath and Beyond.”
Alliterations can be a tool to enhance memory through imagery and meaning. In one study, researchers had participants read poems aloud that had alliterative words while the other participants read poems aloud that did not. The result was that the participants who read the alliterative sounding words aloud were able to recall what they read while the other participants were not.
If you need to name a group, person, location, or place in your writing, using alliteration could be the solution to give the emphasis you’re looking for and to make sure the reader won’t forget it.
A well-known example of assonance is from one of my favorite movies, My Fair Lady, when Eliza Doolittle says, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” The “ai” sound that is repeated throughout the sentence is assonance. Structuring sentences in this way creates a rhythm or a musical effect that can be catchy and help to keep the attention of the reader. It creates a flow and enhances the pleasure of reading, therefore, allowing the reader to connect with the subject matter.
For example, the famous phrase from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” uses assonance. If, alternatively, Juliet had simply asked where her Romeo was, the phrase would not have had the same effect.
As a writer, consider using assonance if you are looking to create a memorable line or phrase that the reader will be able to connect with.
Consonance is similar to assonance, but here the emphasis is on consonants. An example is “The zoo was amusing, especially the lizards and chimpanzees.”
Consonance is a technique that is often used in poetry; however, it can be used subtly in other literary works to enhance your word choice. Other examples from everyday use include “pitter patter,” “odds and ends,” and “best bet.”
Using consonance works best with sounds like K, T, B, or CH. A good example of this is a song that is near and dear to my heart, “We Go Together,” from the movie Grease. In the line “We go together like ramma lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong,” the “mm” sound and the “d” sound are examples of consonance.
The effect is the same as assonance where a rhythm or lyrical feeling is created by the use of consonance engaging the reader.
My personal favorite wordplay technique is malapropism. Malapropisms are when a word is unintentionally used that sounds like another word but they have very different meanings. An example of a malapropism is “In Venice, people travel around the canals in gorgonzolas.” Gorgonzola is a type of cheese. The sentence meant to say gondolas, which are a type of boat, but people traveling around the waterways of Italy in cheese is definitely funnier!
I wouldn’t suggest using a standalone malapropism because it could give the impression that you unintentionally used the incorrect word; however, I would group several malapropism statements together. In this way, it is clear that the misuse of the phrase or word was intentional and was added for comic relief.
In the series The Office, Michael Scott is the king of malapropisms. In the episode “Frame Toby,” Michael says “Just seems awfully mean. But sometimes the ends justify the mean” instead of “sometimes the ends justify the means,” meaning that a good outcome excuses any wrongdoings in the achievement of that outcome.
The way that Michael said the phrase makes it seem like the outcome justifies the person being mean to the other. The addition of the “s” at the end of “mean” completely changes the meaning of the phrase.
That being said, malapropisms are not appropriate for every type of work, but if you are looking for a way to inject humor into your piece, it could be a viable option.
Slang can be used to connect with a specific demographic of readers. For instance, if you are writing a piece with a certain age group in mind, you might consider using lingo that age group is familiar with.
The gen Zers are “woke,” “sippin tea,” “boujee,” and “ghosting” while millennials are “shook,” “have receipts,” and are “throwing kikis.” Using slang can help you to relate with the group you are writing for.
Before using slang, consider your audience and whether the usage is appropriate. If you’re writing a piece from the perspective of your generation and want to reference terms that relate to your age group, then it might make sense to use slang. Or if a character in your work is of a certain age group and you want that character to use the terms or slang of the generation that the character belongs to, then the use of slang might be also appropriate.
The sitcom Friends popularized the slang term “friend zone” in “The One with the Blackout.” In the episode, Ross is described as being the “mayor of the friend zone,” meaning that he is often in a situation where there is unreciprocated romantic interest from the other person and they remain friends.
Make sure that you are clear on the definition of the slang term before using it. Some slang terms have multiple meanings, and you do not want to accidentally use a term or phrase that could potentially mean something else.
Now that you have chosen the wordplay technique you want to use, the next step is to create the effect you are looking for. To do this, you will first want to write down the sentence that you want to add the wordplay technique to. Choose the word or phrase that the technique could help emphasize or give a humorous twist. Find other words that sound similar but have different meanings, words that rhyme with each other, or words that start with the same letter.
Now, put them together. Does it have the effect that you were looking for?
Try moving the words around. The word or phrase that you initially chose might not be as effective as another pairing. Pick a different one and see how well that fits. You also don’t have to stick to the one wordplay technique that you chose. Try another technique. As the words or phrases come together, you will know by the way it sounds if it gives your writing that something extra you were looking for. Most importantly, have fun with it. There are no right or wrong answers. There’s only a feeling or an emotion that is evoked. It will be that aha moment where the piece comes together. When that happens, you’ll know.
Jennifer Manghisi is a senior strategy, business improvement and transformation professional currently working at Columbia University in New York City. She is originally from Long Island, NY. She received a Bachelor of Science from Bentley University in Business Management and a Master of Science from Columbia University in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. Writing is one of her passions and she enjoys freelance blogging and writing projects. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.