As a professional writer (copywriter, blogger, fiction and nonfiction book author), not only do I write a lot, but I also read a lot. In addition, I’m also committed to me becoming a better writer, so I’m constantly looking for ways I can up my game.
One of the things I’ve noticed that sets the good/great writers apart from the “so-so” writers is rhythm—how the writing sounds.
The rhythm of the words and sentences is a subtle aspect of writing that isn’t normally talked about, but that doesn’t lessen its importance.
Unfortunately, rhythm is also tough to teach (which is probably why it isn’t talked about very much). It’s something felt, deep inside … just as it is with music. It’s less straightforward than say a grammatical error.
And to add to the confusion, every writer has his/her own style and unique rhythm, so there’s nothing you can point to in order to offer “right versus wrong” type of guidance.
But if you’re committed to becoming a better writer, getting this down is key.
However, the following three tips will get you started thinking about your own writing rhythm, at least, and how to improve it.
Rhythm Tip 1. Watch out for long sentences. (In fact, you might want to consider avoiding them altogether.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with long sentences. And there are times when longer sentences are necessary (see my next tip—but also note that I said “longer,” not “long”). The problem is that long sentences have a tendency to turn into “flabby” sentences.
Think of a sentence as an eel. The longer it gets, the more slippery and elusive it becomes. Long sentences are sentences just waiting to slither away, right out of your control.
So what’s going on with long sentences? Well, first off, they’re tiring to read. By the time readers reach the end of a long sentence, they’ve probably forgotten the subject/verb/point of the sentence. And they’re likely too tired or too lazy or too busy to go back to the beginning of the sentence and sort the whole thing out.
Another common problem with long sentences is lack of punctuation. Punctuation is a big part of rhythm. The start and stop of a period. The bated breath of an em-dash. Think of punctuation as your percussion section.
But when you write a long sentence, all you have to work with is the quiet sigh of the unobtrusive comma. (Yes, they certainly have their place. But it’s a subtler instrument, for sure … think triangle rather than kettledrum.)
The rhythm of words is like the rhythm of music. Essential yet (usually) not the star.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to sentence length is to keep a sentence under 30 words.
Rhythm Tip 2. Vary sentence length.
In music, a steady beat is usually a good thing. In writing, it’s considered one of the deadly sins. (Okay, not really. But it isn’t something that is found in good writing.)
If every sentence is the same length, your writing is going to get pretty dull pretty quickly. You need short sentences, longer sentences (but not too long), medium sentences, and very short sentences.
How do you know if your sentences are all the same? Read it out loud. Does it sound monotonous? Do you hear a “sing-songy” voice in your head when you read it? Better take a closer look at those sentence lengths—I’d bet they’re pretty close.
Rhythm Tip 3. Reconsider sentence fragments.
Forget your fourth-grade English teacher. Forget that obnoxious green line in Microsoft Word telling you your grammar is wrong. In copywriting, as well as in many other forms of writing, sentence fragments are a lifesaver. Those fragments allow you to quickly and easily vary your sentence length. Plus, they can help your writing sound conversational. After all, people speak in fragmented sentences, don’t they? Therefore, reading sentence fragments gives people the impression that you’re talking to them—in your own voice and your own style.
So what’s a sentence fragment? A sentence that isn’t complete. It’s missing something—a noun, or verb, or both. It’s not a complete sentence.
Exercise: Get in Touch with Your Writing Rhythm
Hearing things is a good way to start getting in touch with your writing rhythm. You may be familiar with this technique already, and use it to find mistakes. While yes, it’s a good way to discover errors, it’s also an excellent method for getting to know your own unique writing rhythm.
Start by reading your work out loud. If you’ve never done this before, try not to be too hard on yourself. Chances are you’re going to discover all sorts of problems—sentences that are too long, and paragraphs that have sentences that are all the same length. Make a note of what needs fixing.
Then, once you fix it, read it out loud again. Then read it the original way again. Listen to the difference. Even better, try to feel the difference—deep inside, in your gut. (Your gut is an excellent rhythm sensor.)
I also recommend reading other writings out loud—things you haven’t written yourself. And read a variety of writings: plays, novels, direct mail pieces, newspaper articles, websites, poems. Read bad writing, and then read writing that’s so beautiful, your knees buckle.
Listen to the rhythm while you’re reading. How does it make you feel? More importantly, how does it make your gut feel? Your gut will never lie to you—learn to trust it as a writing tool, too.
I cover more writing tips in my Love-Based Copywriting System book if you want to dig a little deeper into this topic.
I’d love to see and feel the rythmn of an example of #3. above -use of an incomplete sentence? I don’t see one here Please respond thank you Carolyn
Michele PW says
Great question. It would be something like:
I picked apples today. At the local orchard. Yum!
You would probably want the first sentence to be longer though than this example. The way I use them is something like this (this is from a psychological suspense book I’m writing):
But I didn’t. I let him go.
I used the sentence fragments to build tension. Make sense?