5 Tips About Writing with Rhythm

By Mark Nichol

Think of all the things you do each day, including mundane tasks like getting dressed, cooking meals, and speaking to other people. They all involve patterns or random sequences of ebb and flow: rhythm. Writing is like that, too. Just as with any other activity, rhythm in writing can occur automatically, but it’s improved by conscious attention. Here are five tips for enhancing your writing by attending to rhythm.

1. Alternate Sentence Length
Vary the word count for your sentences — not mathematically, not analytically, but naturally, organically. Introduce a comical character with a statement that resembles a clumsy person stumbling down a stairway — then bring the headlong descent to a sudden stop with a concise comment. Describe a tortuous bureaucratic procedure with a run-on-and-on sentence, and then figuratively snap your fingers at it with a brusque reaction.

For inspiration, listen to a musical composition, noting the variety of measures. Do the same with recordings of speeches or comedy routines, and with scenes from films or television programs (fact and fiction alike) — and, of course, with fiction and nonfiction writing.

2. Relocate Words and Phrases
English is a flexible language. Exploit that fact. Though parts of speech have set interrelationships, the relative positions of words representing the categories are negotiable. Shift words and phrases around until the parts of a sentence seem to fall into their preordained places. How? Read your writing aloud, of course.

Note, too, that writers are inclined to introduce the most important element of a sentence at the beginning; the key component should be provided early on, right? Wrong. Where does the punchline go in a joke? Correction: When you tell a joke, where’s the punchline? (Doesn’t that revision read more smoothly?)

3. Embrace Sentence Fragments
The law against incomplete sentences was repealed a long time ago. A very long time ago. As a matter of fact, there never was such a regulation, except in the hidebound handbooks of grim grammarians. No kidding. People speak in sentence fragments and incomplete sentences all the time, and although writing, except for the most informal prose, should reflect a more carefully constructed communication, in all but the most formal writing, judiciously employ truncated statements. Over and out.

4. Match Rhythm to Mood
Let the length and rhythm of a sentence match the mood you wish to impart. A description of a beautiful landscape or an account of a rapturous experience should cascade like a rippling waterfall or undulate with the peaks of valleys of sensual imagery. Longer sentences punctuated with alliteration and assonance and laced with metaphors evoking physical sensations will help readers immerse themselves in the places and events you describe.

Conversely, the sentence structure describing a sequence of events in a thriller or a passage detailing an exciting incident is probably most effective in brief bursts of short, simple words.

5. Apply Tension and Release
Many musical compositions are paced on the principle of building up to peaks of stress or emotion and a counterpointing relief from that ascent. Writing benefits from the same approach to carrying the reader along on waves of tension and release.

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7 Responses to “5 Tips About Writing with Rhythm”

  • Marliss Bombardier

    I receive Daily Writing Tips via email, and I would like to thank you. The emails are entertaining, and many, like the ones on etymology, are educational.

    I especially appreciate them because they back up my convictions about how things should be written, or worded. I think a backlash against text shorthand is well underway, and I appreciate your part in it.

  • Vincent

    Please explain this a little more concisely, I can’t quite grasp it, reaching, stretching, tippy-toeing…there I have it!
    Thank you

  • Julie Link

    Great post! My only disappointment is the lack of examples. Care to include these in a sequel?

  • Strange Tastes

    Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant writer. Though, as he himself confessed, his writing; or more pointedly, his publishable writing, was limited to non-fiction. Why? Well, to use (paraphrase) his own words:

    ‘good fiction reads like a good melody sounds. All good authors of fiction are, from my own experience at least, musically adept in some way or another.’ (He claimed that he couldn’t hear music in his head without listening to it).

    Point of the story: Writing with rhythm is almost essential to compose any tale dancing down a path of chimerical wonder.

    Thanks for the post. It’s nice to see writers giving tips that aren’t shackled down in conformity and structure.

    *Fight the system*

  • Mark Nichol

    Thanks to all for your comments!

    Julie: I indirectly provided a couple of examples within the discussion above, but I didn’t offer any sample sentences or passages from well-known writers, because researching exemplary sentences is time consuming.

    Site visitors are welcome to offer excerpts from their favorite writers that demonstrate these tips.

  • Jane Ann McLachlan

    Very nicely expressed. I’ve tried to explain this myself, though not in a blog, and I think it’s a hard concept to understand if you can’t already hear it. I suggest reading poetry out loud, and even writing some, because the rhythm is more obvious in poetry, and the beats more significant. Then apply that rhythm to prose.

  • Natasha McNeely

    This is a useful post! I remember when I first started writing. I wrote what most people refer to as “purple prose”. My sentences were long enough to be paragraphs. Luckily, I got some sense knocked into me and finally started alternating my sentences. That was a few years ago. It’s no problem, now!
    I’ll be sure to send people with questions about writing to this post.

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