Writing is a kind of way of speaking, and I hear it and I think a lot of readers hear it, too. And so the sounds of the language and the rhythm and the cadence of the sentences are very powerful.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, in an interview with NPR
There are a lot of writing tips out there, and I try to keep many of them in my head when I’m working. Things like George Orwell’s tips for writers, for example, or Stephen King’s 20 rules for writers. But one of the most fundamental and important writing tips for me, is to pay attention to what my writing sounds like.
I read my work – out loud, or whispering, or mumbling – all the time, but especially when I’m doing serious editing, or serious re-writes. It’s a great way to spot all sorts of grammatical and spelling errors, and it’s also the best way to edit and fix the way you’ve shaped your sentences, your paragraphs, your language, and your dialogue. If it doesn’t flow, if it doesn’t have that rhythm that both Le Guin and Woolf mention, then it must be changed.
Rhythm is important in poetry of course, but it is (I think) equally important in prose, both in fiction and non-fiction. There are basic things to finding a good rhythm, like mixing up the length of your sentences to give the text some life, avoiding run-on sentences (unless you’re using that as a stylistic choice), and choosing the right words to fit the subject and the context. But there are other things that are more subtle. Things that have to do with the rhythm and weight and feel of the words you choose, and how that affects the flow and the sound of your writing.
In the post ‘Change The Language, Change The World’ over at tor.com, author Fran Wilde (her new book is Updraft) has some interesting thoughts on the importance of language and a writer’s choice of words, and the following quote fits into my thoughts on flow and rhythm, and the importance of listening to what you write:
The more we see and say the words, the more carefully we hone our usage, the more our experience will open up each unique setting, and within those settings, each unique person.
It’s difficult to write any solid tips or snappy rules for how to capture that flow, that sound, that rhythm. And each writer’s preferences and choices will be different, of course. But the one tip I do live by as a writer is to be aware of the rhythm, to pay attention to it, and to listen to my own words.
That’s why I sit here and mumble, even as I’m writing this. I want to hear my writing, I want to feel it, I want to listen to it: Does it flow? Does it feel good? Or does each sentence feel somehow obnoxious and dead and wooden?
And if you want an example of rhythm and flow in action, then this quote by Gary Provost is hard to beat:
“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. Its 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.”