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November 5, 2013

Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?

Two drumsticks with text: Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?

We’re probably all familiar with the idea that poetry, music, and song lyrics can have rhythm. But prose writing—our normal, everyday writing with sentences and paragraphs rather than lines, stanzas, and verses—can have a rhythm too.

I’d occasionally heard a rhythm in my head while reading stories but never paid much attention. Several years ago, when I read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, I learned that not only do others hear rhythm in prose, but also that prose rhythm is considered a good thing.

In his chapter about how he judges submissions (he’s an agent) by the sound of the writing, something clicked for me. After that point, my voice began to develop deeper and stronger. Now, it’s not unusual for me to decide whether or not to make a line-editing change based on rhythm.

A comment from a beta reader might point out an unnecessary word, and I’ll decide to keep it (or change it to a stronger word) because I like the rhythm of the sentence more with those syllables there. Or I’ll change a perfectly good and clear sentence to create a different rhythm. Or I’ll make decisions about punctuation or sentence fragments to achieve a certain rhythm.

That doesn’t mean all my sentences are rhythmic or that our writing has to have a rhythm, but there are times we might want our writing to evoke that sense. For those cases, it’s good to know how to develop rhythm in our writing.

What Does It Mean for Writing to Have Rhythm?

Some people talk about lyrical writing as though it refers to rhythm. Lyrical writing certainly can incorporate rhythm, but it typically also includes other aspects, such as being more descriptive or ornate.

In its most positive form, lyrical writing can be rich, layered, evocative, and beautiful. In its most negative form, lyrical writing can be purple-ish, overwrought, pretentious, and sound like the author is trying too hard.

In contrast, rhythmic writing is simply about the way the words come together—syllables, punctuation, sentence length, hard or soft sounds, etc.—to create a sense of a beat. Sentences should flow smoothly and not jar the reader. Rhythmic writing can also be lyrical, but it doesn’t have to be.

And yes, I’m a genre author, yet I’m talking about this advanced technique to improve writing craft. In other words, while many think of literary fiction when discussing lyrical writing, genre writing can take advantage of these same techniques. Rhythmic writing is not limited, by any means, to literary fiction.

How Can We Know If Our Writing Has Rhythm?

In general, the easiest way to tell if our writing has rhythm is to read it aloud. (Or perhaps to have someone who isn’t familiar with our story read it aloud.) If the sentences of a paragraph could be read in lines and sound like a poem, it’s most likely rhythmic.

Rhythmic writing will often sound like waves of stressed and unstressed syllables and sentences. More importantly for good writing, the cadence of the sentences pushes readers forward, just like how we talk about a song’s “driving beat,” and those stressed syllables or sentences will fall on those words or ideas we want to emphasize.

Why Is Rhythm a Good Thing?

Those last points above are why rhythm can be a good thing for our writing. In addition to rhythm encouraging readers to turn the page like a song we want to turn louder, rhythm also creates connections.

In poetry, a poem’s sounds contribute to its meaning and emotional impact. In music, the beat can increase the emotional power of a song.

Rhythm creates and connects to emotions.

As I said before, I don’t try to make every line I write follow a rhythm. Sometimes we need to say something simple like “She nodded” or “The door was locked” without worrying about the beat.

However, during high-emotion (often deep point-of-view) scenes, I do pay attention to the rhythm. I read those sections aloud and see if I’m juggling all the components of rhythm well. I add and cut and use punctuation to create the right rhythm for the emotions I want.

For example, here are two paragraphs I wrote yesterday:

“He opened his mouth to call them again, but no sound escaped. Like a nightmare where he couldn’t yell, his voice had gone silent. If he never called for them again, he’d never have to face the cold lump in his heart. Never have to face that they weren’t here.

No thinking. No feeling. No pain”

(Eh, it needs work, but hopefully, even that first-draft version will give you an idea of what it means to have rhythm in prose.)

So should we freak out if we’re not good at this? Absolutely not. This is not yet another thing to add to our “we must think about as we’re writing” list.

But it is something we can learn about and try to develop for those times when we want to create a stronger emotional reaction in readers. And it’s certainly something we can pay attention to while editing.

How Can We Improve Our Rhythm?

Rhythm to some extent depends on our voice and whether we have an “ear” for it. If we have to work too hard at it, the seams will show. If we’re too self-conscious about it as we’re writing, we’re more likely to veer into Purple Prose Land.

However, we often have many talents that we’re not aware of until we think about them consciously. Simply by knowing what aspects contribute to the rhythm in our prose can help us improve that aspect of our writing.

The first step for improving our rhythm is a) knowing what we want to emphasize and b) knowing what our brains naturally emphasize:

  • We naturally pay more attention to the beginnings and endings of sentences and paragraphs.
  • We also naturally emphasize shorter sentences (something we could shout) and shorter (strong) words (a syllable or two).

When we combine those natural power positions with rhythm techniques, we increase the emphasis and the impact:

  • Sentence Length: Paragraph endings are already an emphasized position, so if we combine longer sentences at the beginning of a paragraph with a shorter sentence at the end, we’re creating a strong beat for the reader. Make the most of it by ensuring the information in that position is important, like a “dun, dun, dun…” ending. *smile*
  • Sentence Fragments: Similarly, sentence fragments are typically short and can be used to stress an idea.
  • Power Words: Margie Lawson talks about power words frequently. They’re usually described as words that carry an inherent emotional impact. When placed at the end of sentences, they combine the idea of sentence endings with short, strong words for extra emotional emphasis. In the example above, the power words would include: escaped, nightmare, silent, cold, heart, and pain.
  • Punctuation: We can use punctuation like periods, commas, em-dashes and the like to break up our words into pleasing rhythms. I’ll sometimes use an “optional” comma because I’m trying to emphasize something as well.
  • Paragraphing: The use of white space and occasional short paragraphs (one sentence or phrase) can add an extra strong beat to a prose section. In the example above, spreading the reaction over two paragraphs (with the second one short and definitive) calls more attention to the emotion, dragging the reader deeper into the point of view.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Many rhetorical devices apply to rhythm. The example above uses “anaphora” (one of my favorites), which is the repetition of one or more words at the beginnings of phrases or sentences (both with the “never have to face” and the “No… No… No…” phrases).

When we’re editing our work, we can pay attention to the rhythm of our writing—especially in highly emotional sections where we want a stronger connection with the reader. We can develop our “ear” for rhythm and hear when something hits an off-note. And when we need to improve a section, we can use some (or all!) of the techniques above to strengthen its rhythm.

With stronger beats and a sense of rhythm, our prose can come alive. Readers will feel that driving beat pushing them forward to the next page like a subconscious form of story tension, and they’ll experience a deeper connection to the emotions of our story. *smile*

Have you ever noticed the rhythm of sentences or paragraphs when reading stories? Have you previously struggled to understand the concept of rhythm in prose? Does your voice have a natural rhythm? Does your rhythm come out in drafting or editing mode (or both)? Can you think of other aspects of rhythm or other tips to share?

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What do you think?

24 Comments on "Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?"

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Dyane

Great post! I was going to write something similar but you did a wonderful job, so I think I’ll just share it everywhere I can. Thanks for making something that seems to difficult to explain much more concrete.

Davonne Burns

Since I read all my stuff out loud I tend to notice the rhythm pretty quickly. I know personally I focus on longer/shorter sentences when doing action scenes to heighten the emotional impact. Though I tend to alternate rather than build up.

Debra Eve

Thanks for that rhetorical devices link, Jami! That’s a great reference. I love rhythm in writing and do work on it, usually in the last pass. Although difficult, I try to read the finished draft out loud over a few days and make notes.

When a passage sounds particularly awkward, I mark it for later work. Then I break into sentences on the screen, giving each it’s own line. I can usually see the problem I heard at that point.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Ooh!!!! I love this post! As an English lit major (my psych major’s part of my double major), I’m PUSHED to constantly worry about prose rhythm, and you eventually get good at it, and develop your own style as well. Like in my papers, I tend to like short sentences, or I would at least use commas to break down a long sentence into more manageable chunks. There are certain words that I like to use at certain times too. Yes! Beginning and end emphasis for sentences and paragraphs. I love that technique too. For fiction, I like to make sure my characters are speaking at the right speed, and make the right pauses. I really like to do the. “…..,” said X. “……” So the said X in between makes the reader pause for a moment, which reflects how the character paused for a moment too. As for the narrative part, yes, I do like to control the length of the sentences so that it sounds right. In general I would want a good variety of lengths so it sounds more musical and less robotic. And manipulating length to convey different feelings is fun too. Oh I love using long/multisyllabic words or simple, monosyllabic words to create different effects. They do FEEL different somehow, and which you use really depends on the situation. Using punctuation to create different paces–yup. Love that too. Perhaps a bit too much though. I have to be careful of semicolons because one reader complained… Read more »
Roselynn Roberts
Roselynn Roberts

I have really enjoyed your newsletters especially this one. Rarely do you see a post discuss rhythm in genre writing. Do you have more examples of rhythm in genre writing you can share?

Taurean Watkins

First off, thanks for sharing insight on this topic, but also for broadening it as well, because often when we think of “Rhythm” we inherently think of music and/or poetry.

So, it’s nice to hear how writing can have a rhythm without being musically or poetically inclined. At least, not in an overt way as say Ellen Hopkins (Novels in Verse), or musically inclined in the traditional sense. (Like MANY picture books, even if they don’t have meter or rhyme)

As much as I LOVE music, and have experimented with it now that I make videos (Both for my site and for the fun of it), I don’t have the chops to do it overtly in prose without it sounding hokey, and that’s on top of just telling a non-boring, solid STORY.

For me, I do think my stories have rhythm, but in terms of characterization, rather than the just the prose itself. I really wanted distinction and nuance from my characters to come through. I had to make sure whatever my MC said or did is not mirrored by another character.

Thanks for opening up the conversation from a new angle, Jami.

Diana J Febry

Some excellent tips, especially about placing power words at the end of sentences. Other than mixing up long and short sentences I’ve never really thought that much about rhythm. Off to do some editing.

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Teagan Kearney
Teagan Kearney

Thanks, Jami for this great informative post with practical advice.

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