In music, “back phrasing” is when “a singer intentionally sings in front of the beat (or behind it–“front phrasing”). I’m told that Willie Nelson does this effectively, as do many jazz artists.

The purpose is to create “negative space,” which ostensibly gives the ear a place to rest or surprises the listener with notes or timing that defy expectations.

It’s attractive because it sounds different. More complex. More interesting.

Negative space is also used in art, architecture, and other visual mediums.

Basically, negative space is the opposite of positive space. When our ears or eyes or brains expect something to be present–a sound, an image or a physical form–and it is not there, it draws our attention.

Negative space is also used in writing.

You can make your writing more interesting by omitting words, or using unexpected words or phrases, or by changing the “normal” flow of the message.

Like this.

Or. . .


And by using other visual ornaments the reader doesn’t expect, like bold, CAPS, and other choices (e.g., varying the length of sentences and paragraphs, using slang).

You’ll see me use unexpected words or examples, and throw in the occasional cuss word (or simulated cuss word), to provide visual and auditory interest (auditory because we “hear” the words in our head).

It’s all about doing something the reader doesn’t expect.

Because the opposite is boring.

Boring works in the world of law or commerce. But “interesting” works better because readers are pulled into the writing.

There’s an art to doing it right. Overdo it and some readers will be repelled.

To get it right takes practice. Start by changing up the pattern of your writing. Use an occasional one- or two-word sentence. Turn statements into questions, to engage the reader in the “conversation” you’re having with them on paper.

Does that make sense? (Yeah, like that.)

I started doing this in my demand letters. I loosened up and had fun with them, staying professional but not nearly so formal.

And now, I do it in my newsletter and blog.

Try it. You’ll like it. So will your readers.

Back phrasing and negative space in writing