One of the things that I absolutely love doing, is helping people to transform their written output, and to truly find their own voice. Sometimes I upload certain articles I´ve written about #creativewriting to this blog. Here is one of those:
Haruki Murakami is one of my absolute favourite authors. The link above is to a superb article, published in Flypaper, on how he uses music in his writing and the role music has played in perfecting his own unique style. He writes:
“Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.”
So I've put this post together to help you work towards upgrading the rhythm, flow and musicality of your writing so that you can develop your self-expression capabilities through the magic of words.
First, have a look at this:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals; sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
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.
So, can sentence rhythm, flow and musicality be taught? Or does a systematic attempt to teach these things simply instil a formula on something that must be allowed to develop naturally? As a writing coach, I've found that it can actually be tutored. I love to discuss with my clients the rhythm of specific sentences rather than try to drill a formula. I can help to focus my students on the importance of sentence rhythm as a device, show them what effects it has on the writing, and help them determine whether their own choices have been effective or not. Awareness of what we do well and what we don't is a powerful tool...
There are times when you just want to get the words down. That's normal. But whether we are writing creatively or for professional or academic purposes, we simply must take the time to work on our form, to make sure that we are allowing the words to flow. So what can help to make rhythm and build momentum. How do we add musicality to our writing?
Rhythm and flow, worked well, help turn rote delivery of information into the breathless pursuit of the next sentence. Momentum is built, the pace itself becomes addictive. Rhythm and flow, worked poorly, make interesting content absolutely brutal to read.
For some it comes naturally. For most, not so much. These things are important on a sentence-by-sentence basis and across an entire work. One approach is to write as closely to the way you speak as possible. If you can speak and tell stories reasonably well, you'll find that your readers respond best when your language patterns mimic your speech patterns. It may also mean breaking many of the most-revered pillars of grammar. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? Like starting a sentence with the word like. Or because. Splitting infinitives with relish. And shredding into sentences midstream with and or but. And, in the bigger picture of a longer work, it means being constantly aware of the broader pace of things.
Rhythm, flow, pacing, progression. Whatever you want to call it, it can be difficult to self-edit. The manuscript, the text, the post may be fine, but does it read, does it scan? Getting someone else's opinion, much like you would when formulating a CV, can give you some excellent insight into what you're doing right, and what you're doing wrong. If you do want to self-edit, take some time off after the first draft. A fresher perspective, a feel for the ebbs and flows, all come after spending some time away from the text.
If you have difficulty writing first draft material with good rhythm, don’t give yourself an excuse to forget about it; the editing stage is perfect for fixing up those little glitches. READ IT ALOUD. Pay attention to how the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs connect to each other. If you find yourself verbally stumbling over certain areas, you can be sure your reader will stumble as well. Take the opportunity to rearrange whatever is necessary for a smoother read. If there are areas where things are too slow, ask yourself: Am I telling too much and showing too little? If it feels too fast, are you avoiding something, something that could fill in the gaps? Maybe you are over-using dialogue (that speeds up pace) in place of more artful, gradual building. Ask yourself: how aware am I of these issues when I read what others have written?
VALUE THE PAUSE
When the music stops, and we take a breath before the chorus begins, the moment is heavy, weighted with expectation and emotion. What follows then gains a heightened importance. It has much more power.
“Being able to flow, smoothing together details and thoughts in a natural way, is no more important than being able to stop this flow, give pause, and emphasise special thoughts lost within,” writes Gary Hoffman, in his excellent manual: Writeful
PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE LENGTH OF YOUR SENTENCES
Short sentences are a powerful tool. They have the power to shock and surprise. Even sting. When used effectively, very short sentences can give texture and mood to content, particularly when you’re writing about something fast or describing a tense situation. Think action. Think finality. Each very short sentence can shine a spotlight on everything that came before. They focus the attention. They're often the best way to get a point across. The more a piece of information is distinct from what surrounds it, the more it draws the eye.
Try to alternate the length of your sentences. You'll soon see how the long and languid ones work in conjunction with the short and spicy. Powerful stuff. Describe a tortuous bureaucratic procedure with a tortuously long sentence, and then snap your fingers at it with a brusque reaction. For inspiration, listen to music, comedy routines, scenes from films or recordings of speeches. Try recording yourself; WhatsApp is useful for that, and listening back to the rhythm of your own voice. Does it engage? Many musical compositions are paced on the principle of building up to peaks of stress or emotion with a subsequent relief from that ascent. The same pace can be applied to writing to carry the reader along on waves of tension and release.
Complex sentences are fine, but stick to one per paragraph. You've most probably gone through a stage in your own education when you thought “good writing” meant “longer sentences.” Complex and long sentences are best for conveying background information, for expounding on a point, or for guiding your reader’s attention towards a point you make in a subsequent, shorter sentence.
MATCH RHYTHM TO MOOD
Let the length and rhythm of a sentence match the mood you wish your readers to feel. A description of a beautiful landscape or an account of a rapturous experience should cascade like a rippling waterfall or undulate with the peaks and valleys of sensual imagery. Metaphors, alliteration and other such devices, when employed in longer sentences evoke physical sensations that help readers immerse themselves in the places and events you describe. When you're writing a more sentimental scene, feel free to use a smoother rhythm and longer sentences. And when you are trying to describe the sequence of events in a thriller or a passage, detailing an exciting incident is probably most effective in brief bursts of short, simple words. Suspense needs to be quick, punctuated, sharp. It needs immediacy. Remember, too much of anything becomes boring quickly. Variety is the key.
ENGLISH IS A FLEXIBLE LANGUAGE SO TRY RELOCATING WORDS AND PHRASES
Exploit the fact that English is so flexible. Although 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 natural places. How? Once again, try simply reading aloud, you'll soon work it out. Many writers want to put the most important elements of a sentence at the beginning, but just like a well-told joke, it is most effective to place these elements at the end. The gist of this is: get the right focus. Your words should arrange themselves according to your ideas, and you should move words around in order to place stress on the right information. Often that means putting important words/concepts toward the end of the sentence, since that’s the part of the sentence that gets the most emphasis.
EMBRACE SENTENCE FRAGMENTS BUT DON'T OVERDO IT
There's no law against incomplete sentences. No kidding. A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence. It misses one of three things: a subject, a verb, or a complete idea. People speak in sentence fragments and incomplete sentences all the time. So although writing, except for the most informal prose, should reflect a more carefully constructed communication, in all but the most formal writing, practise using these truncated sentences. Simple.
But do be careful, don't overuse them. You have been told! Just be confident enough to forget about any rules that try to constrain your rhythm; grammar rules in particular. Whatever makes the rhythm sound good, and whatever gets your point across in the best way, that’s what you should write.
THE MYSTERY OF TRADITIONAL HIEROGLYPHICS: COLONS & SEMICOLONS
Traditional hieroglyphics are quite simply the colon and semicolon, which give us wonderful potential for PAUSES. They attract our attention but are certainly underused, in part because of confusion over their appropriate usage. A colon actually boosts the importance of what comes after it, a semicolon is used in exchange for a conjunction, hooking two words or phrases together. Get over your fear of the correct use of punctuation and learn by trying these things out in your writing.
The melted-together-word is a way of using hyphens to connect words together to communicate an entirely new idea or concept. For example, a message that is “hard to write” is subtly different from a “hard-to-write” message. One explains the action, i.e. writing the message, while the other explains the object. These made up words, through their uniqueness and heavy load of content, even through their cleverness, slow a sentence down and focus attention on themselves. And they give a lot of opportunity for a writer to be fresh, original and funny.
Different genres will require different tricks of sentence rhythm. If you’re writing a science report, questions of lilt and cadence that might inform a piece of creative writing won’t matter as much. Your audience expects their information in a certain format, and that format depends on the genre you are writing in. A sentence that is perfect in one type of paper might be unacceptable in another. Know your expectations.
Cohesive passages use sentence rhythm to their advantage. A simple way of employing this is making sure a paragraph begins with a TOPIC SENTENCE. This kind of sentence tells us what the paragraph is going to be about and should refer back to an idea presented in the previous paragraph. We can employ cohesion on a sentence by sentence basis too. This means your sentences begin with some piece of information or analysis that was established in the previous sentence, and then build on that “known” with some new information and analysis.
"Here we learn about cohesion. Cohesive passages use sentence rhythm to their advantage."
Just look at the two sentences above. The first one ends on “cohesion.” The next sentence starts with that same idea – “cohesive” – as its "known", and then adds a new element, the advantageous use of sentence rhythm. It's almost as if you are playing call-and-response with yourself, setting something down and then responding to it with something new, this new thing also acting as a reverberation of what you just said. This is a great way to develop effective rhythm in your writing, as call-and-response chants are always rhythmic.
LEARN RHYTHM, FLOW & MUSICALITY BY PRACTISING
The more you write, the closer you’ll get to that elusive “feel” for sentence rhythm. And by reading writers whose rhythm attracts you, ensuring you have talented people’s words running through your head all day, before you know it you will be mimicking them in your own writing.
Take some time to listen to music. How people react to music is a good reminder of how readers react to rhythm in writing. The words on the page should have a certain sound. Depending on the type of writing, that sound might be smooth and fluid, or punctuated and choppy. While most readers won’t be able to define the elements of good rhythm, they’ll notice if the words just don’t sing. Good luck!!!
VARIETY + ARRANGEMENT + EMOTION + FLEXIBILITY =
RHYTHM, FLOW & MUSICALITY