Perfect Style: Whether She's Icing a Cupcake or Writing a Sentencing Plea, by Jude Hopkins, 9/11/22
Let’s face it: Martha Stewart makes perfect cupcakes. But that’s not the only thing she’s good at.
Until it lost its news value, Martha Stewart's statement before she was sentenced for charges related to insider trading was a good example to illustrate writing style to my English classes.
Here it is:
Whether or not she wrote it—or hired it out to professional writers—it’s a gem.
So if we analyze it using Edward P.J. Corbett’s style outline (pictured below) we can see for ourselves how effective it is.
Martha uses mainly general, abstract words with emotional appeal, which she hopes might soften the judge’s heart before he sentences her.
She relates how “shameful” a day it is, without taking any blame. She doesn’t name names in saying how shameful it is for her family, her employees and partners. She never says what the “small personal matter” is (charges related to insider trading) because that would implicate her. But the word “shameful” is very emotional, especially without blame attached. She makes it sound as if she were the one being wrongfully shamed. Nice twist, Martha!
She is also quite vague about what the “well being of others” consists of. She states she is personally faced with a “conundrum, a problem of monumental…proportions.” In what ways is it such a problem? She isn’t saying because to do so would dredge up her criminal charges. But the emotion is real—and safer for her purposes.
She mentions “the good” she has done, the “contributions” she has made, along with the “productive, creative, and useful activities” she is known for, without spelling out the details. Very emotional. Let the judge conjure up images of her with her puppies and kittens and cupcakes.
She also uses the emotion-packed sentence “I seek the opportunity to continue serving my country and my community in the same positive manner I always have.” No specifics listed, but by using the phrase “serving my country,” she evokes the patriotism of a brave soldier. Mmmnnn.
She follows this up with the words “good, worthwhile, and exemplary” to describe her life, again without specifics. Emotional punch.
She implores the judge to show her mercy by using the phrase “competent and experienced and merciful hands,” again without providing any examples. No stranger to flattery, Martha uses it here, hoping it will work on the one to determine her fate.
The piece is largely absent of any specifics because, after all, she was found guilty of obstruction of justice and lying to investigators. Why bring up nasty, if factual, details if she hopes emotion might be the pathway to avoiding The Big House?
Also under diction, Martha uses a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Latinate words for various purposes. Polysyllabic words like “monumental” and “conundrum,” not to mention "exemplary," are meant to convey how educated she is. This says, Do you really want to put someone of Martha’s means—and mien—in a prison?
But she also uses good old Anglo-Saxon words like “heart” and “hands” to lend a homey overtone to her plea. See, she can also be one with The People (just not in prison). Very effective.
Wisely, Martha steers away from jargon. She avoids any word or phrase that rings of the street when she’s attempting to portray herself as above anything like dingy prison life.
Now, let’s look at her sentences (referring to syntax, not time spent behind bars). Most of them are long, as she’s hoping to emphasize her erudition and sophistication, syntactic and otherwise. However, her opening sentence, “Today is a shameful day,” is short on purpose. She wants to get the judge’s attention and not pummel him with a long-winded statement that allows his mind to wander.
Notice also, the short question she uses to introduce the fourth paragraph—“What to do?” She gets the judge’s attention, then guides him in what exactly to do, i.e., spare her.
What kinds of sentences does she use? She begins (Paragraph 2 and first sentence of Paragraph 3) and ends with mostly simple sentences, allowing her to make short, impactful statements that linger in the judge's mind. In between, with the exception of the question, she has mostly complex sentences and an occasional compound-complex one. She rightly uses longer sentences to explain why she should not be sent up the river, as it were.
She uses one loose sentence (main clause upfront followed by descriptive phrases or subordinate clauses) very effectively (Paragraph 4 and another in Paragraph 6), serving to emphasize the good she has done, and a periodic sentence in Paragraph 3 that leaves the main clause until the end (“you are faced with a conundrum …”) that leads beautifully into the next paragraph in which she tells the judge how such a problem might be solved (i.e., let her off easy).
Other than the question in Paragraph 4, she begins a lot of her thoughts with “I,” as we might expect of one setting forth her case (anaphora or the repetition of sentence beginnings). Very effective is the sentence in Paragraph 2 that begins with a “what” clause as the subject (“What was a small personal matter became…”), providing variety to keep the judge alert.
She’s a genius with parallelism, which serves to emphasize anything placed in those constructions. It’s in every paragraph: “for me, for my family, and for my beloved company and all of its employees and partners”; “choked and suffocated,” “a good, worthwhile and exemplary life,” and isocolon “all the good I have done, all the contributions I have made,” and on and on. She wants the judge to pay attention to the suffering she has endured and the goodness she inspires. Might be a bit heavy handed here, but adds a definite rhetorical flourish.
She’s also very good with polysyndeton, a figure of speech distinguished by adding conjunctions between words to draw out their meaning and bring attention to the rhythm. Look at her sentence in the last paragraph: “My heart goes out to you and to everyone in this courtroom, and my prayers are with you.” She also uses it in the sentence “your competent and experienced and merciful hands,” referring to the judge. Nice touch, Martha.
Antithesis is used to point out the opposition between her goodness and the media’s cheap desire for spectacle; between her suffering and her desire to serve her country and community; her life and the judge’s decision.
Look at her alliteration in Paragraph 6 with “country” and “community,” drawing attention to those positive associations. And her assonance in vowels in words throughout like “good,” “peace,” “beloved company,” “country and community,” etc. And her consonance in negative words like “choked,” “suffocated,” “wrought,” “intense suffering,” “fatal circus,” etc.
In other figures of speech, she does use a compelling metaphor and simile in the second paragraph: “an almost fatal circus event…spreading like oil over a vast landscape….” The circus event refers to the media, like clowns, turning her conviction into a meretricious tabloid event, which she says is like “oil” over a “landscape,” the former being deadly to Mother Nature (Martha herself).
Other figures of speech are used, but I’m trying not to try your patience (I just used the figure of speech known as polyptoton, a repetition of words derived from the same root!)
Martha doesn’t use a lot of conjunctive adverbs for transitional devices (“however,” “therefore,” etc.) so as not to look like she’s brashly wandering into the judge’s legal territory. Instead, she mostly sticks with “and” to link her thoughts. A wise move. Shows she’s humble.
Although this was a spoken piece, the transcript shows her paragraphs to be relatively short, clotted as they sometimes are with long sentences, heavy on the parallelism. But she provides needed breaks between statements.
Linguistically, this was a most apt plea for mercy that ultimately didn’t soften the judge all that much. He sentenced her to five months in prison and five months of home confinement. That's enough to knock the insider trading out of a girl (not to mention all those fancy phrases).
But, as we all know, she emerged from the experience without serious damage to herself or to her brand. She's resilient, like her muffin tins.
Lesson from analysis? She is just as adept in her language as she is in making her perfectly topped cupcakes. So write well and effectively. Someone is always looking. If not a judge, certainly yours truly.