The Importance of Sound Writing

I don’t pay a lot of attention to presidential speeches, but even so, snippets from them are ingrained in my memory.  Why is that?  Professional speechwriters.  Typically, presidents don’t write their own speeches but have professional writers on hand to do the heavy lifting for them.  These writers know what it takes to capture our imagination and our memories.  If you want to see some good, even great writing, look up presidential speeches.
Good writing goes beyond just style, however. A speech I heard in college on live TV was President Reagan’s speech to the nation after the Challenger disaster.  Its last line is crazy glued in my memory because of the poetic elements in it.  I discovered, after I Googled it, that it actually is poetry.  Take a look at this sonnet and see if you spot anything you have heard before.

(Found at

High Flight

By John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

(A sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was killed at the age of nineteen on 11 December 1941 during a training flight from the airfield near Scopwick.)

Portions Of This Lovely Poem Appear On The Headstones
Of Many Interred In Arlington National Cemetery,
Patricularly Aviators And Astronauts

"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds -
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of -
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I've chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
"Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God."

Hear anything familiar?  Yes, Reagan’s speechwriters borrowed the first and last lines for President Reagan’s closing: “The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." 

Without knowing Reagan was quoting a poem, I was impacted by this borrowed portion. Why did this make Reagan’s speech so effective and memorable? 

The best writing has some of the elements of poetry. 


Poetry focuses in part on the sound of what is written.  Good writing, especially a speech, does, too.

Yes, my opening title is a pun.  Sound can mean good or healthy as well as its more common definition. Okay, let’s take a look at the quote in Reagan’s speech.  What poetic devices are used in “slipped the surly bonds of earth”?  The beginning sounds of slipped and surly are the same.  That’s a sound device called alliteration.  You’ve heard about that for years.  What about “bonds of earth”?  Are there literal bonds (physical restraints like ropes or chains) or just figurative bonds?  Right, that’s a metaphor when you compare Earth’s gravity to a rope or chain without using like or as. Yes, it’s a poetic device, but it doesn’t affect the sound of poetry by itself. It’s about a mental image, which is equally important.  It gets enhanced by the alliteration.

Finally, look back to the sonnet and read the first line.  If you pay conscious attention to the rhythm of the words, you will notice Magee’s effective use of iambic pentameter.  That’s when an unstressed syllable (or word when a word has just one syllable) is followed by a stressed syllable and you have five of those pairs (or feet) per line of poetry.  That puh-PUM puh-PUM … cadence actually often happens naturally in our speech. Usually, it’s not five puh-PUMs worth in a row.  It, too, enhances the metaphors in the sonnet.

  I have slipped the sur-ly bonds of earth
PUM puh PUM puh PUM puh

Repetition is also part of the sound of writing and not just in alliteration's beginning sounds.  Consider Lincoln's "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  Sound is important.

 So, what do I do with this information?  Write with alliteration and intentional rhythm to make your writing memorable like the nineteen-year-old Magee did.

Time to practice.

1.  Write an original sentence with alliteration in it.

2.  Write an original sentence with three iambic feet in it somewhere.

3.  Write one with both.