Last week, I spent a couple days in New Orleans for Collision Conference, a tech/startup event with a significant marketing/content component. The conference was sandwiched between the two weekends of Jazz Fest, and as a result we were treated to pop-up concerts, bands on parade, and a soulful, fun vibe in the air. I even met a startup founder with an app that makes it easier to learn piano (if you’re in the market for a new hobby, check out Strike a Chord).
I was more aware of the music around me than usual on this trip, mainly because I’ve had this concept of rhythm in writing kicking around in my head lately. It’s one of the top things I edit for, and I believe it’s the secret sauce of really solid, memorable prose.
A month or so ago, it seemed like a great idea for a blog post – something so critical, yet something no one ever seems to talk (or write) about. And then I realized why. Turns out hearing written rhythm is one thing; explaining just what you heard is quite another.
And so every time I would sit down to write about it, to try and unpack and articulate what it means to edit for rhythm, I’d find myself in the murky world of dactyls and trochees and stresses and schwas –18th-century concepts focused mostly on poetry. For the most part, not helpful.
I can tell you for sure, though, that rhythmic writing isn’t just for poets – not any more than creating music is just for composers of symphonies. And while I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this post won’t be the last word on the topic, I do have a few tips that might help you develop a more tuned ear for rhythm (and possibly along the way, a more rhythmic writing style). Consider this list my MVP:
1. Read what you wrote out loud.
The first step toward fixing a rhythm problem is realizing you have one. And the best way to do that is to read out loud. Because of the way our brains process language, your ear will catch things that your eyes will not.
2. Try adding or subtracting syllables, especially at the end of a sentence.
Having read your sentence out loud, you might already have a feeling that something doesn’t sound right. Often, it’s a matter of the syllables in your sentence being out of balance. Try adding or subtracting a syllable or two at the end, then read your sentence again. Different patterns of emphasis can help as well. Move things around until your ear tells you you’ve gotten it right.
3. Having trouble cutting syllables? Think to yourself: How would I explain this out loud?
Many people who have trouble distilling their thoughts in writing are actually great at doing so in speech. So when you’re wrestling with how to articulate a complex idea in fewer words, try thinking to yourself: how would I actually say this? Or, another way to think about it: how would I answer someone, in my own words, if they asked me what this sentence means? Let go of sounding a certain formal or professional way, let go of words you think need to be in there, and just write exactly what you would have said. Then, if you need to, polish it.
4. Match punctuation to breath.
By virtue of needing to breathe, everyone talks with a certain rhythm.
When we speak, our words follow the rises, falls, and pauses of our breath. When we get excited, our hearts beat faster and harder, and words pour out quickly in between breaths. When we’re relaxed, our heart rates slow down, as does our pace and tone of speech. We’re more contemplative. Balanced. Final.
Every reader has their breath as a constant backbeat when they read – whether it’s out loud or silently. So use that to your advantage.
Need to build anticipation? Use lists and parallel clauses to push the limits of sentence length, so that your reader has to wait to breathe. Need a point to settle in and be remembered? Give it its own short sentence.
5. Impersonate the masters.
Here’s an exercise you can do to practice writing with rhythm:
First, find a paragraph or a sentence written by an author whose prose is always on beat. Children’s books are a gold mine for musical prose, since they’re meant to be read aloud – think Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein. For something more grown up or modern, look to E.B. White, Peggy Noonan, or Seth Godin.
Once you’ve picked a paragraph or sentence you like, try writing your own version on a different topic, but with the exact same rhythm. Match your syllables, their emphasis, and even the spots where the author used parallel structure, alliteration, or internal rhyme. You might wind up with something absurd, but I bet you’ll love the way it sounds.
6. (Bonus tip for marketers): Harmonize outsourced writing with your brand voice.
If you’re a marketing director, agency account exec, or otherwise in the position of working with freelance content creators, be mindful of the impact even your smallest edits can make. Any time you add an extra phrase on to the end of a sentence, or swap out a carefully chosen word for the fancy one your boss prefers, you could be editing the rhythm and flow right out of the piece.
It doesn’t take much.
Even the simple addition or subtraction of a comma can throw a musical paragraph right off pitch. So if you really need to operate within certain constraints (brand phrases, AP Style, etc.), and you need to keep your customers engaged, be sure to review the previous four tips. Or better yet, kick the general feedback back to your writer, resisting the urge to rewrite the problem areas yourself. If you hired a pro, they’ll probably still have the melody stuck in their head. Trust they’ll use it creatively to make your brand voice sing.