Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rhythm in Writing

Often in fiction we talk about voice, language, and tone. Aspects of writing that apply to individual words and sentences. But there aren’t too many discussions about the rhythm or the pacing of individual sentences. Rhythm is something that we’ve given over to poetry.

Though, that hasn’t always been the case. Shakespeare wrote his plays with careful attention to rhyme, meter, rhythm, verse, etc. I’m not suggesting a return to that (I suspect there are very few of us who know/remember enough scansion to even scan Shakespeare’s plays correctly). But I think there’s a lesson to be learned.

Fluidity, if you want a different word for rhythm, is very important to writing. Even fiction writing. I think there’s some acknowledgement of that in “found poetry.” If you aren’t familiar with the concept of found poetry, it’s when a poet/writer takes another’s writing and reworks it to form a poem. Though altering someone else’s text makes me a little uncomfortable, it highlights the fact that some prose is so lovely that it is poetic.

While literary writers aspire to poetic writing, I believe that all writers can benefit from paying attention to rhythm. Think about the best books in the genres you read and write. Do the words on a page stream along? Then the author has put a lot of work into rhythm.

How do we, as writers, grow in this area? One of the best ways that I’ve stumbled across is to read aloud. I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. I resisted reading aloud for years, but it’s the first step to getting a feel for rhythm in your own writing. If you’re reading aloud and your reading stumbles, ask yourself, “Why?” Figure out how you can fix it. And don’t start from chapter one. It’s too easy to get caught up in the plot and ignore the words. Start from the last chapter. Read it aloud to the end of the chapter. Then go to the second to the last chapter, and read it aloud. And so on, until you finish the first chapter.

Yes, it takes a long time. Yes, it will take you longer to get a book finished. But it will begin to teach you how to listen for rhythm. And surprisingly enough, you’ll hear more than rhythm. You’ll see which scenes are underdeveloped, which actions and emotions feel false, and which passages of dialogue are stilted.

Go on, try it.

And if you do read your own books aloud, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. And if you’ve found other ways to work on rhythm, I’d love to hear them too.


  1. I totally agree with you about reading out loud. To me it's the only way to see if your words really flow along the page.

    I also find it the best way to find mistakes or echoes. It's easier to glance over things when you read in your head.

  2. I really think getting the flow and rhythm right elevates the prose from good to amazing. I've heard of reading it out loud before but not about starting with the last chapter. Excellent advice. I'll be trying that.

  3. Bookmarking this post. Rhythm has always interested me--some authors have such beautiful writing where the words just flow along as you read.

  4. Excellent post. I agree, reading aloud is really important :)

  5. I read aloud all my short stories before submission. I plan to do the same for my WIP. Great post.

  6. One of my writing groups has everyone read their passages aloud. While I often hear that dismissed because it's "not the reader experience," it definitely helps you identify your own work's faults. Plus, audiobooks are popular now, so it's pretty important that your words SOUND good. :) Thanks for sharing this!

  7. A brilliant post. I hear the words in my head as I write them down, and have also been very conscious of the rhythm of sentences and how important the cadences are.

  8. Great post! I agree that fluidity is often overlooked when people talk about writing but it is very important to the overall reading experience. I'm very put off by books that don't flow well, even when the writing is technically correct.