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Listen to the rhythm

Gloria Estefan understands it. So do most popular musicians. But it’s a practice some writers—even highly successful pros—don’t always execute well.

I’m talking about rhythm

If a song doesn’t have a recognizable rhythm or motivate people to sway to the beat (or at least tap their toes), then it’s really hard to engage them. The same is true for prose. (I’m referring to pieces composed for the masses.)

The big problem with clunky writing is it interrupts reading flow. Instead of allowing readers to delve subconsciously into the piece and forget the outside world, arrhythmic writing jolts them like airplane turbulence. Readers might stop in their tracks and ask, “Wait, what’s going on here? Should I grab a parachute and bail?”

Masochists will re-read a sentence or paragraph to get back in the groove. They’ll plow through to the conclusion despite the noise. But there are consequences. Most readers will quickly forget what the clumsy piece was about. At worst, they’ll just stop reading and move on to something else.

I first got turned on to the concept of rhythmic writing while reading “On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner many years ago. Rhythmic writers connect with readers easily and allow them to absorb their work comfortably. Gardner says rhythm creates a sense of “authority” for the writer—without much thought, readers acknowledge the writer “knows his stuff.”

Gardner cites the opening of Melville’s “Moby Dick” as an example of lyrical, rhythmic writing:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Notice how Melville creates flow with his word and punctuation choices, propelling the reader forward with a gentle roll. In just one sentence, we’re hooked. “What’s next for Ishmael?”

I’m no Herman Melville, but here’s an example of a piece I wrote for a university alumni magazine. I tried to establish a rhythm in the first few paragraphs to engage readers who might not otherwise be interested in the topic:

Zach Wigal has proven that video games aren’t just about strong thumb muscles and flat-screen fantasy—they also have the potential to help humanity.

Since launching the Gamers Outreach Foundation in 2008, Wigal has helped raise more than $37,000 for projects as diverse as portable video game kiosks and baby blankets for a local children’s hospital to tsunami relief efforts in Japan.

In the process, Wigal has emerged as a buster of the geeky gamer stereotype and a leading visionary for the gaming industry’s charitable arm.

Here are a few strategies to help develop rhythm in your writing:

  • Read and reflect. Take a close look at writing that really grabbed your attention. Examine the passages you slipped through easily. How are the sentences structured? What word choices did the writer make? How does the punctuation contribute to flow? Note these little details and try to incorporate them in your next piece.
  • Write conversationally. Imagine you’re sharing your piece with just one reader. Write as though you’re talking informally with that person. If you’re writing for a layman audience, forget the jargon. Keep paragraphs short. Mix short sentences with longer ones. Your readers will thank you. Your work will also earn higher Flesch-Kincaid Readability scores.
  • Read your work aloud. This might be the most important act a writer can take. If you can read through a piece comfortably from start to finish, great job! But if you halt and stumble over words or improper punctuation or if you find yourself running out of breath because your sentences are just too long and maybe could be broken up into two or three (see what I did there?) then you have some editing to do.

Rhythmic writing might seem like an abstract concept, but it’s not all that hard to attain. Just listen closely to the words, create some flow, and you’ll develop your “writer’s ear” in no time.

For fun, I’ll leave you with Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.” Ignore the bad ‘80s styling.

What strategies do you use to create flow in your writing? Let us know in the comments section below.

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