As a professional copywriter, not only do I do a lot of writing but I also look at a lot of writing. One of the things I’ve noticed that set the good/great writers from the so-so is rhythm.
What I mean by rhythm is how the writing sounds. The rhythm of the words and sentences. It’s a subtle aspect of writing, one not 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, like it is with music. It isn’t as straight forward as pointing out a grammar error. What makes it tougher is that everyone has his/her own style and own unique rhythm. However, these three tips should get you started thinking about your own writing rhythm and how to improve it.
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 where longer sentences are necessary (see next tip — but note I said longer and 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 far away and completely out of your control.
So what’s going on with long sentences? One problem is they’re tiring to read. By the time readers reach the end of a long sentence, they’ve most likely forgotten the subject/verb/point of the sentence. And they’re probably too tired or too lazy or too busy to go back to the beginning of the sentence and sort the whole thing out.
Another problem is long sentences lack 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 have their place. But it’s a subtler instrument. (Think triangle rather than kettledrum.)
A good rule of thumb is to make sure a single sentence doesn’t go over 30 words. If it does, strongly consider breaking it in two. Or three.
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 still isn’t good writing.)
If every sentence is the same length, your writing is going to get pretty dull pretty quick. You need short sentences, longer sentences (but not too long) medium length sentences and very short sentences.
How do you know if your sentences are all the same? Does your piece sound monotonous? Are you getting a sing-song voice in your head when you read it? Better take a closer look at those sentence lengths. They’re probably all pretty close to being the same.
3. Sentence fragments are a good thing. 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. People talk in sentence fragments. Therefore, reading sentence fragments gives people the impression 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 — noun, verb, both. It’s not a complete sentence.
Rhythm in writing is much more than just what’s going on with your sentences. (Not that we’ve covered everything that goes wrong with sentences.) But it’s a good place to start.
Writing Exercises — Get in touch with your writing rhythm
Hearing things out loud is a good way to start getting in touch with your writing rhythm. You may have heard of this technique to find mistakes — and yes, it’s a good way to discover errors. But, this is also an excellent way to start getting to know your own unique rhythm.
Start by reading your own 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 — including too long sentences and paragraphs where all the sentences are the same length. Make a note of what needs fixing.
Once you fix it, read it out loud again. Then read it the original way. Listen to the difference. Even better, try to feel the difference — deep inside, in your gut. Our gut is an excellent rhythm sensor.
You should also read out loud things you haven’t written. And read a variety of things — plays, novels, direct mail pieces, newspaper articles, Web sites, poems. Read bad writing and 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.