Have You Got Rhythm?

Many things make good writing — clean syntax, evocative imagery, authentic dialogue — but what makes good writing great is rhythm. Cadence. The way the words and phrases combine and converge, the way they flow and then rest. For a beat. And start again. Much like a song, or even a symphony.

Interesting that “composition” applies to both the written word and the musical piece; “lyric” to both the words in a song and the feeling of lightness in, say, a lyric opera.

Words and Music

We read with an internal voice rather than just with our eyes; you’re “hearing” these words in your head as you read them, aren’t you? And just like a song in which the beat doesn’t match the tune, a poorly cadenced story or poem can fall on our inner ears with a jarring thud.

Take this from a certain nationally syndicated writer (I’ll keep him anonymous, in case he was merely the victim of bad editing):

But there is a huge difference between taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment and charitable largesse.

Placing the short phrase (“charitable largesse”) after the long one (“taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment”) makes the sentence stop abruptly, as though it had hit a wall — or the conductor had suddenly brought the orchestra up short. Perhaps the writer did this because he felt coercion should come first as the more important idea; a comma after “imprisonment” would have been a helpful brake before the all-stop.

Very Varied

Variation in sentence length and structure is an important rhythmic tool. A series of sentences all built the same way has a sing-song effect, like this from my own invention:

Lying on the floor, she stared up at the ceiling and wished the night were over. Despite her anger, she felt the tears drip down onto the cold floor beneath her neck. Balling up her fists, she let out a scream of frustration that no one else heard.

Boring? Unforgivably. Not just because each sentence has an introductory clause (“Lying on the floor,” for instance), but also because each sentence has the same number of words. It creates a vaguely uncomfortable feeling; without closer inspection than it deserves, you know you hate it but you can’t quite say why.

Contrast that with the beauty of this paragraph from Cormac McCarthy in The Road:

Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees the curve of a road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and silent. Shrouded in the carbon fog. He walked back and sat beside the boy. It was desperation that had led him to such carelessness and he knew that he could not do that again. No matter what.

Word count of each sentence: 17 – 8 – 6 – 20- 3 – 5 – 8 – 20 – 3. And each sentence powerful in its simplicity.

Cool, Daddy

John Steinbeck, too, lays down just the right beat in East of Eden:

I must depend on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable in trying to tell you about the Hamiltons. They were not eminent people, and there are few records concerning them except for the usual papers on birth, marriage, land ownership, and death.

Do you see — or, rather, hear — how smoothly Steinbeck arranges the series of noun phrases in the first sentence? Three short phrases followed by a long, flowing one? The second sentence strings together the important markers of life, ending in the  sudden finality of “death.”

Compose Yourself

Next time you write, check your rhythm by actually reading your words aloud. Listen to your structure, your sentence length,whether short phrases clang uncomfortably after long ones.


Extract Those Extra Words

Wordiness is one of the cardinal sins of writing. Extra words are like weeds in a garden, keeping the flowers from blooming. And like the pretty yellow leaves of the dandelion, these word weeds may sound nice but only distract you from your goal of clean, strong, direct writing.

Many writers just get into a habit of using extraneous words; they get so used to writing certain phrases the way they’ve always read and heard them, it seems unnatural to change them. But I usually find that if I force myself to do without those extra words, the ones left behind really do manage on their own. [Hmm, did I really need that “really”? Let’s try “the ones left behind do manage on their own.” See what I mean?]

Try on these sentences with and without the crossed-out words, and see if they don’t fit better without:

▪   The restaurant serves up a classic menu.

▪   She asked whether or not I was going.

▪   Personally,I think you’re wrong.

▪   I would like tothank you for your help.

▪   It’s my very favorite subject.

▪   If in the eventwe find we can afford it, we will buy it.

5 Spelling Rules of Thumb

English words are notoriously difficult to spell; a mishmash of different origins has created a collection of words with no discernible logic. “Choose to lose”? Why isn’t it “Choose to loose” or “Chose to lose?”

The truth is that many similar-sounding words can be differentiated only through familiarity and practice, just as we simply know the difference between “ate” and “eight.” Until we commit the difference to memory, we will always risk declaring that the coffee table “compliments” the couch (“Nice cushions!”) when we mean “complements.”

I could delve into the roots of our troubling language and its chaotic, cobbled-together nature, or simply give you a few homemade rules of thumb for some of the more troubling words that can’t always be settled with your computer spell-checker.

  1. Affect or Effect? Usually, “affect” is an action, which begins with the same letter. “Effect” is generally a noun. So one thing affects another — or has an effect on it.  There are exceptions, as always: When we speak of “effecting” change, we turn the noun into a verb. And “affect” can also be a noun, as in “He assumed a snobbish affect.” But in the most common, everyday uses of the two words, you can stick with the basic differentiation.
  2. Aural or Oral? Think of “audio” and you’ll remember that “aural” indicates hearing. “Oral” has to do with the mouth, as in “oral health.”
  3. Complement or Compliment? Something complements another by completing it; note the first six letters are the same.
  4. Consensus or Concensus? When a group reaches consensus, it has given consent to an idea. No, it’s not about giving your opinion to a census taker. 
  5. Principal or Principle? The principal is still your pal, at least when it comes to the human version of this homonym.

These are just my favorites; if you’re a spelling maven, share your own.

Feng Shui for Words

I often think of sentence structure as a kind of feng shui for words.

Feng shui (fung shway) is the ancient art of arranging objects to create harmony in one’s life. I’ve never studied it formally, but I have often suspected that rooms “want” to be arranged in a certain way; after several attempts at changing and rearranging, I feel the room settle into a kind of serenity when I finally hit the right setup.

Or maybe it’s just exhaustion.

Everything in Its Place

Sentences give me that same falling-into-place satisfaction when I finally get them arranged so their message is clear and direct.

This isn’t always a simple matter of ordering as subject – verb – object. Take this:

We are traveling to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner in our car.

“Driving to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” seems like it ought to stay together as one thought, doesn’t it? But not with “in our car” at the end — unless you do plan to have dinner in the car.

Change it to “We are driving in our car to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” and it falls into place.

(Or you could simply employ my “When in doubt, weasel out” rule, and eliminate the unnecessary “in our car.” )

Or, take this:

The goal of the committee is to keep the lines of communication between merchants and city officials open.

You might think that the verb here, “to keep,” properly belongs between the subject — “the goal of the committee” — and the objectival phrase, “the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.” After all, “Let’s keep it open” is correct, right?

Yes. But you’ve put far too much distance between “to keep” and “open.” With such a long objectival phrase, the reader can lose track of the whole point by the time she reaches the end.

And so we rewrite:

The goal of the committee is to keep open the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.

Now, doesn’t that feel better?

Watch Your Words

Bad structure, by the way, doesn’t just wear out the reader. It can communicate something entirely different from what you intend. Compare these two sentences:

She enjoys relaxing in her PJs with her fiance.

She enjoys relaxing with her fiance in her PJs.

Takeaway Tip for Good Sentence Structure

▪   Carefully read complex sentences to be sure they’re communicating what you wish to say. Try different arrangements until it all falls into place.