What these 5 Christmas songs can teach you about writing

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Is there any relationship between Christmas songs and writing? I think there is! Let me explain the lessons you can learn from your CD player…. 

In my final column before taking a break for holidays, I thought I’d draw your attention to some of the best-known songs of the Christmas season and reveal the writing messages that they hold for all of us. I’ve written about most of these lessons in previous posts but I thought that underlining them with a hit of Christmas music might both drive the lesson home and provide you with a good holiday soundtrack.

Here we go:

Lesson 1: Tell more stories in your writing

Song: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus 

I learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real in grade 2 thanks to the unkind words of a nasty nun who stood in front of the class and announced, “There isn’t anyone in this class who’s still immature enough to believe in Santa Claus, is there?” Of course, I wasn’t going to raise my hand! But I was crushed. My parents had successfully coddled me for seven years.

Most of us can probably remember precisely how we learned that Santa wasn’t real and, as a result, can relate to the story embedded in I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.

Lesson 2: Give readers repetition

Song: The 12 days of Christmas 

Is there any Christian school child who hasn’t sung the 12 Days of Christmas? I think not! While I find the song more repetitious than even I enjoy, it makes its point effectively. People (readers!) remember what they hear/read the most.

I volunteer as a debate coach at my local high school and one of the points I’m most frequently, umm, repeating to my kids is this: You need to make every point at least three times — once in your introduction, once when you present the point and once again in your conclusion. It will feel repetitious to you, but not to your audience.

Lesson 3: Use the magic of threes

Song: We Three Kings

I’m the mother of triplets so three is already a magic number for me. But think about it: Our society is hardwired to respond to lists of three. For example, we have:

  • The three little pigs (children’s literature)
  • Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (US Declaration of Independence)
  • Peace, order and good government (Canadian Constitution)
  • Friends, Romans, countrymen (Shakespeare)
  • Blood, sweat and tears (General Patton)
  • The Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Christianity)
  • Stop, look and listen (public safety)
  • The good, the bad and the ugly (film industry)
  • Bacon, lettuce, tomato (sandwich)

And in Christmas music we have the famous carol We Three Kings to remind us that three is indeed a magic number. (I like the energy and silliness of the recording I’ve selected for you but there’s a bunch of palaver at the beginning that I suggest you fast-forward through. Start at the 1: 10-minute mark.)

Lesson 4: Use concrete language

Song: The Christmas Song

I’ve been a Mel Tormé (1925-1999) fan for 40 years — starting when it was an uncool choice for someone in my age group. I especially love the unctuousness of his tenor voice and the way he could stretch and expand syllables over a plethora of notes. He composed the music for The Christmas Song (also known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) in 1946 and co-wrote the lyrics with his friend Bob Wells.

In addition to loving the music, I also appreciate the way the specific, concrete language conjures such clear visual images in my mind’s eye: chestnuts roasting on an open fire, yuletide carols being sung by a choir, tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, toys and goodies on a sleigh. Do you see how visual the song is?

You can learn exactly the same lesson about the value of concrete language from the speeches of Winston Churchill, but isn’t it more fun to do it with a song?

Lesson 5: Know there’s no such thing as a “perfect length” 

Song:  Fairytale of New York

The single question I’m most often asked is this: What’s the perfect length for a blog post? Readers are often surprised when I answer, “it depends.” And some of them get annoyed when I say, truthfully, “as long as you need to be to make it interesting and useful.”

This lesson is effectively demonstrated by my favourite Christmas song of all time, Fairytale of New York by the Pogues. (I chose the recording linked above because there is no YouTube ad attached to it, but really, you should listen to the Pogues’ version, which is far superior.)

A typical radio song is no longer than three minutes but the Pogues are able to stretch their work to almost five minutes with their lively melody and interesting story. They show that numbers don’t matter.

In terms of writing, I typically try to keep my posts to less than three minutes reading time but every once in awhile, when I have a topic that I know will interest my readers, I take as many words as I need to write about it. And no one has ever told me that I write too long.

I know that not all my readers celebrate Christmas but for those who do, I wish you the happiest of holidays. I will be taking a break from my blog from Dec. 20 to Jan. 2.

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My three-minute video podcast last week aimed to help non-native English speakers learn to become more comfortable with writing in English. See it (with a transcript) here and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.
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What writing lessons have you picked up from holiday tunes? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.