Rhythm in writing is a bit harder to define than other elements of the writing craft, but the cadence of your story can go a long way toward pulling your readers in and making the experience enjoyable. Here are some tips to help you find your groove.
As a writer, it can be easy to get wonderfully lost crafting images, foreshadowing major plot twists, building motifs, and sculpting seamless wordplay. I love playing with these elements in my own work, but never at the expense of another facet of the craft of storytelling I consider key: rhythm in writing.
Though the words we write are frozen on the (physical or digital) page, meter, flow, and cadence can still make a huge difference between text that bores and text that grooves.
Here are a few ideas to help infuse your own writing with rhythm.
Write in silence, or as close as you can get
Unless I’m working on something routine or mundane, I never feel like I’m doing my best writing when distracted by music. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a professional musician and composer and love music of all sorts — but any rhythms I listen to invariably interfere with my ability to hear, and bring to life, the natural flow of the text in front of me. When working, turn off the music and focus on the rhythms inherent in your sentences and paragraphs instead.
Add conscious variety
There is no “right” way to infuse your writing with rhythms that enhance your storytelling — but one strategy I’ve found particularly effective is consciously adding variety to things like sentence length. If I write a long sentence full of flowing adjectives and complex constructions, I’ll often inject a short, abrupt element, just to provide contrast. Similarly, if I create a sentence or paragraph that falls into rhythmic patterns of three (syllables, blunt words, or nearly anything else), I’ll follow it with something more aligned with a duple meter. Your own writing doesn’t need to follow these rules or any other defined guidelines. Just see what happens when you consciously try to make one chunk of text feel rhythmically different from the one right before it.
Listen to hip hop (when you’re not writing)
Even if hip hop isn’t your genre of choice, acquainting yourself with the art’s master practitioners can help you think about rhythm and language in new ways. Whether telling their stories in rapid-fire triplets or with stuttered phrases punctuated by loaded silences, the best rappers know how to choose and place their words to make their narratives fly, adding unexpected layers of nuance and power in the process. I’d recommend checking out Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Jurassic 5 to get started.
Listen to jazz (when you’re not writing)
Top jazz players, from Louis Armstrong to Herbie Hancock, interact with rhythm in dimensions that most people can’t begin to fathom. While there may be no direct correlation between a John Coltrane solo and how you write the next chapter of your book, listening to great jazz can help charge your creative batteries, particularly when it comes to bringing a musical perspective to your work, and could lead you to new rhythmic experiments with your words.
Reacquaint yourself with great speeches
The most memorable orators have a knack for infusing language with rhythm and meaning. Even if you have no intention of ever rallying a crowd or running for office, their work can help inspire your own. Take a few minutes to listen to great speeches by Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, and even Fred Rogers before picking up your metaphorical pencil and see where their rhythmic inspiration takes you.
Reacquaint yourself with Shakespeare
In high school, I memorized and performed a Hamlet monologue for my senior English class. In addition to absorbing the beautiful language, I remember being blown away by how rhythmically complex and evocative the piece was. The speech occurs in the fourth act, as Hamlet looks over an army about to march to its doom. Even the opening line, “I do not know why yet I live to say, ‘this thing’s to do,’ sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do ’t,” feels alive and dangerous in its rhythmic intensity. Recite it out loud and you’ll see what I mean. Try reading or listening to Shakespeare, any Shakespeare, with an ear towards rhythm, and see how it influences your own work the next time you sit down to write.
Read your work aloud, or have someone do it for you
In “How To Read, Edit, and Evaluate Your Writing With Fresh Eyes,” I recommended listening to your writing read aloud, whether by you or a trusted friend, as a way to “see” it with fresh perspective. The same tactic can help you identify rhythmic strengths and weaknesses within your work. Recitation doesn’t need to be an Oscar-worthy performance or a slam poetry knockout; all it needs to do is help you hear how your words come to life when experienced in the context of time. Chances are you’ll hear rhythmic nuances that you never would have noticed and be able to revise your work effectively from there.
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