Writing with Rhythm

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This is a guest post by Hugh Ashton. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

When I was substantially younger than I am now, I wrote masses of anguished adolescent poetry. My favorite verse form was the sonnet, a style and format that is maybe little surprising for a teenager to be writing.

For those who slept through this part of their English course, a sonnet is a formal 14-line poem with a complex rhyme scheme in iambic pentameter.

I no longer indulge in such musings, but I learned many tricks and techniques from writing my sonnets and other poems.

First and foremost, writing poetry, especially formal poetry, tells you a good deal about the internal rhythms of the English language. Most of the spoken English language moves to a fundamental iambic rhythm: di-DUM di-DUM di-DUM. Put five of these together and you have a line of blank verse:

Now is the winter of our discontent


Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?


The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

In the second line of the last quotation, note how Marlowe breaks the rhythm slightly for emphasis (if you don’t slur the word “devil” into one syllable, that is), and then reverts to the set rhythm for the second half of the line.

You don’t have to write in this formal style, of course, but you should make yourself aware of the internal stresses in English prose, and how they carry readers through your writing.

Until relatively recently (a few hundred years ago), all reading was done out loud – everyone read by vocalising the written words. When these rules of internal rhythm are broken, as in this quotation from a camera manual, the result is clotted prose – prose which does not flow:

Depth of field is the area of acceptable sharpness in front of and behind the subject in focus. The larger the F-number used (from F2.8 to F22), the deeper the depth of field. On the contrary, the smaller the F-number (from F22 to F2.8), the shallower this zone of acceptable sharpness”.

It’s not bad English – it’s free of jargon – but it’s not good either.

Another reason why these sentences do not flow is the lack of “macro rhythm,”the pauses for comprehension (and breath!) in the middle of a sentence. For another example, take this sentence from a recent Pentagon report:

There is a crisis of confidence among Afghans in both their government and the international community that both undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.

If you read this out loud, it’s all got to be done in one breath. There’s no pattern to the sentence. By the time you’ve got to the end, you forget what the beginning was like. Here’s a suggested rewriting:

The Afghan people are experiencing a crisis of confidence in both their own government and the international community, and this is undermining our credibility, as well as emboldening the insurgents.

Not perfect – I’d probably split this sentence into two – but the sentence now has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Note how there is also an implied contrast between the “Afghan people” and the “insurgents” in my version that is somewhat lacking in the Pentagon original.

Returning to my youthful bad poetry (and here is an example of “super-macro rhythm” in a piece of writing – the thematic tie-up between the start of a piece and the end), the other major thing I learned from writing formal verse was to use a mental thesaurus, and not to be afraid to change the order of my words. I say a “mental thesaurus”, because a paper thesaurus can be too restrictive; wandering around the canyons of your mind can produce some interesting twists and turns that would never be explored using a printed page.

It’s all too easy to write bad ungrammatical verse:

As on my bed I toss and turn
Remembering things I tried to learn

But relatively easy to recast these lines into something more grammatical
and natural:

I’m lying wide-eyed in my bed
While half-learned facts race round my head

By forcing the grammar to be natural, I have also forced myself to think of different words and thereby avoid clich├ęs and hackneyed phrases. It works for prose too. Try to read your work out loud before you submit it. Does it work as a live reading? Does the language flow? Do the sentences hang together? Does the piece have thematic coherency? In other words, have you got rhythm?

Hugh Ashton is a writer and journalist who has lived in Japan for the past 21 years. As a copywriter and rewriter of translated material, he has become increasingly pernickety and critical of his own writing and that of others. His latest published work is an alternate history novel, Beneath Gray Skies, which is available from Amazon, etc. Details of the book may be found at http://www.beneathgrayskies.com.

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4 thoughts on “Writing with Rhythm”

  1. That is a good piece – plenty for thought and it is very practical advice.

    I am told (I may be grey haired, but not that old that I remember) that Dickens honed his work by giving public readings.

  2. You are right. The Pentagon Report is unnecessarily confusing with the lack of breath, the commas.

    I will take my words from visual to aural before I publish. I hope that my NYC cafe mates – where I write – will not mind too much. . .

  3. Here’s a thought about using the iambic rhythm: because this is a natural speech pattern in English, it is useful for adding emphasis to impact statements in writing.

    Ex: “I think we have a problem.” “Abort!”

  4. I have always been one to be free with my words, some have called me beautifully-blunt, while others have just cried.
    I do not intend my writing of poetry to delve right inside you, calling to your inner core and testing your faith of feeling….
    I am just me, a girl who writes for her own freedom and therapy…
    I do not stick to any writing rules as such, I just let it what needs to come out.
    Is this wrong? Should I be really thinking, and later changing what I meant when my hand sweeps across a page?
    And if I was to do so, then what good is the creative free thoughts of which I have spoken?
    For they would not be free, they would be manipulated and styled, adjusted to the way we are told and taught to be heard.
    Do not get me wrong, there is alot of unbelievable pieces out there, but it does make me wonder how many of them are straight from the writers soul, not reformatted or worded at all….
    Just pure soul on paper…????

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