Five ways to put a little rhythm in your writing

In my last post I talked about rhythm – and how it feels to have your prose decimated by an editor who’s deaf to the cadences of your carefully crafted prose. There are many ways to put a little rhythm in your words – here I present five things you can do today.

1. Understand why rhythm is important

Writers with a good sense of rhythm are easier to read than those with a poor sense of rhythm. Rhythm is all about pace. It’s about keeping your audience reading. It’s about not tripping them up with lumbering, hard-to-read prose.

2. Avoid overusing adjectives

Too many descriptive words, especially if they’re squished into a single sentence, can make your text sound clumsy, slightly desperate, and impossible to read.

For example, the event billing itself as a programme of talks with “renowned local and international inspiring and creative architects” (five adjectives) sounds as inharmonious as it is hyperbolic. Every unnecessary adjective is like a little verbal hurdle for your reader to jump. Would you actually have the energy to attend the event after ploughing through that congested sentence?

3. Watch your nouns

As with adjectives, a series of nouns coming one straight after the other will interrupt the flow of your prose, killing your readability. For example, a phrase such as “our health promotion strategy” would be better as “our strategy for promoting health” (proving that it’s OK to add extra words if doing so aids rhythm and readability).

Those organisations I spotted on Google committed to various “health promotion strategy action plans” (five uninterrupted nouns there) could, however, remove at least two words from their stodgy bureaucratese. Are they strategising? Or planning? Or taking action? One suspects they’re simply trying to make themselves sound busy and important. They’re certainly not trying to sound pleasing to the ear.

4. End on a long note

Like a piece of writing, a piece of music is made up of phrases – shorter, distinct units that make sense individually as well as in the context of the whole piece. Very often, these phrases end on a long note – and doing the same with certain written phrases can also add a sense of finality.

For example, when expressing a series of ideas, I tend to put the longest of the listed points at the end of the sentence. Earlier, I said:

“Too many adjectives can make your text sound clumsy, slightly desperate, and impossible to read.”

Here, each item in the list involves progressively more syllables than the last: “clumsy” has two syllables; “slightly desperate” has four, while “impossible to read” has five.

Re-order the ideas and the phrase sounds much less harmonious and flowing:

“Too many adjectives can make your text sound slightly desperate, impossible to read and clumsy.”

Because it ends on a long note, the first version sounds more resolved. Knowing when to end on a long note (and when not to) is the sort of thing a competent writer does instinctively – and something less experienced writers don’t even notice. As with music, practice can help you develop a good ear.

5. Read your writing aloud

Writing rhythmically is all about your ears – and the only way to hear if you’ve got the rhythm right is to hear it. When you read your words aloud, those unnecessary adjectives, those clunky groups of nouns, and all those unresolved phrases that looked OK on the page will scream out at you to be fixed.