Before you read this post, I want you to take a moment to turn on your favourite song.
Go on. Full blast.
As you listen, try to pick out what instruments are being played. Pay attention to the lyrics, the quality of the singing voice, and the underlying rhythm.
What’s your gut reaction to hearing those familiar beats? A fast song might make you want to bob your head, or click your heels, or flat-out bust a move. Maybe you want to sing along to a slower song, or do a pirouette (as long as no one’s watching, right?).
Considering how people naturally react to music is a good reminder of how readers react to rhythm in writing. The words on the page should have a certain sound. Depending on the type of writing, that sound might be smooth and fluid, or punctuated and choppy.
While most readers won’t be able to define the elements of good rhythm, they’ll notice if the words just don’t sing.
Here are some tips to help you find a writing rhythm that rolls off the tongue:
Vary the Length of Your Sentences
There’s nothing more monotonous than reading the same length sentence over and over.
Maybe you tend toward long, detailed sentences. Maybe you write short ones. One important aspect of rhythm is to vary the length of your sentences so the mind feels the natural ebb and flow of your words.
The following passage, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, illustrates this point:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope [sic]. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous.
Notice the passage alternates long sentences with shorter ones.
Start thinking about sentence length and variety as you’re writing, and soon you’ll find yourself doing it automatically.
Rearrange Words or Phrases
If you have difficulty writing first draft material with good rhythm, don’t give yourself an excuse to forget about it; the editing stage is perfect for fixing up those little glitches.
Whatever you’re writing, read it aloud. Pay attention to how the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs connect to each other. If you find yourself verbally stumbling over certain areas, you can be sure your reader will stumble as well.
Take the opportunity to rearrange whatever is necessary for a smoother read.
Consider What Your Rhythm Evokes
Before you sit down to write, consider what emotions you’re trying to evoke.
There will be times you don’t want your words to be smooth, like when you’re writing a suspense scene. If that’s the case, the last thing you want are a series of long, drawn-out sentences.
Spot the difference in how the following two passages make you feel:
- A breath caught in her throat as she forced herself to keep still long enough for the man to pass her by. She couldn’t see him, but she could feel his presence as he weaved his way between the crates, closing in on the spot where she hid. She quietly reached deep into her coat pocket and grabbed the handle of the sharp object, reassuring her it was still there.
- She held her breath and crouched low. The man was close behind, weaving his way between the crates. She fumbled for the knife handle deep in her coat pocket.
While neither of these examples are great prose (I don’t do suspense stories), it’s the length of the sentences that contribute to, or take away from, the desired effect. Suspense needs to be quick, punctuated, sharp. It needs immediacy.
If you’re writing a more sentimental scene, feel free to use a smoother rhythm and longer sentences.
Remember though, too much of anything becomes boring quickly. Variety is the key.
Forget the Rules
Well, don’t forget all the rules, but do forget about any that try to constrain your rhythm–grammar rules in particular.
If you need to split an infinitive, go for it. Be bold and use sentence fragments (you’re such a rebel). Start sentences with words that should never be used to start sentences. Whatever makes the rhythm sound good, and whatever gets your point across in the best way, that’s what you should write.
Sure, maybe Jane Austen didn’t break the rules, but she’s dead. Times have changed. And as much as I adore Jane, modern writing demands flexibility.
So be flexible.
Go Make Some Music
Now you have the keys to improving rhythm in your writing. You know how to make your words sing:
The more aware of rhythm you become, the easier and more naturally it will flow in your writing.
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