Sunday, January 8, 2012

Got Rhythm?

What does writing have to do with music?

When you are in the revision and self-editing mode with your Work In Progress (WIP), it is helpful to read it aloud, whether to yourself or to someone else. This not only helps you catch errors you might not have seen on the computer screen or printed page, but it also helps you create a musicality with your prose.

“What?” you may ask. “I’m not a musician.”

You don’t have to be, to create a beat or a rhythm with your sentences. You don’t want to have them all sound the same. Here’s a very simple example:

He went to the cupboard. He looked at the bare shelves. He took out a can of soup. He heated it. He sat down to eat.

For one thing, all the sentences begin with “He.” The second is that they all have the same rhythm or beat. To vary them, you might write something like this:
Joe stared at the dusty shelves in the cupboard. Nothing but soup. He selected a can of tomato, opened it and heated it. With a deep sigh, he sat at his lonely table to eat.

There are other ways to make your writing more poetic or musical. Use the senses to create mood or emotion and paint pictures, build on imagery, metaphor, simile.

Rain falls over the Atlantic Ocean from River Shannon to Limerick and will probably go on for a long time. The cold wetness has made people so sick they cough until they are breathless. Cures are sought to ease the sickness, such as boiled onions in milk, blackened with pepper.

Not terribly exiting or evocative language. A lot of “telling” the reader the “facts.”

Here’s a passage from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt:
Out in the Atlantic Ocean, great sheets of rain gathered to drift slowly up the River Shannon and settle forever in Limerick. The rain dampened the city from the Feast of the Circumcision to New Year’s Eve. It created a cacophony of hacking coughs, bronchial rattles, asthmatic wheezes, consumptive croaks. It turned noses into fountains, lungs into bacterial sponges. It provoked cures galore; to ease the catarrh you boiled onions in milk blackened with pepper, for the congested passages you made a paste of boiled flour and nettles, wrapped it in a rag, and slapped it sizzling, on the chest.

By using poetic language, McCourt transforms lifeless description into a symphony.

What do you do to create rhythm in your writing?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


elysabeth said...


Excellent point. When working with the 6th grade class in Utah via Google Talk, we talk about varying sentences, paragraphs, et cetera. But we don't necessarily call it rhythm. I'm sharing this with the teacher so that he can think about reclassifying what we call editing on this part - reading out loud. The students have to read their writing to a peer and get peer feedback (we call the constructive critism wishes and likes - first you say something you like about the story or whatever it is they are working on then you tell them what you wish were differnt - more description, distingish between who all the "pronoun" characters, et cetera), so this fits right in with their editing kit. Thank you for the wonderful information - makes editing more fun - lol. See you in the postings - E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a yA paranormal mystery
"The Proposal" (an April Fools Day story), a humorous romance ebook
"The Tulip Kiss", a paranormal romance ebook
"Bride-and-Seek", a paranormal romance ebook
"Butterfly Halves", a YA fantasy ebook

Faye Tollison said...

Great blog post. I appreciated the reminder that our stories have rhythm. I sometimes forget all the aspects of writing so reminders like this help a lot. Your suggestions were great. Thanks!
Faye M. Tollison
Author of "To Tell the Truth"
Upcoming books: "The Bible Murders"
"Sarah's Secret"

Karen Cioffi said...

Varying sentence length is so important for interesting reading. And, using strong, engaging and descriptive words are the way to go.

Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

Unknown said...

Great passage from Angela's Ashes to make an important point. Written language can be musical when spoken aloud. I'm going to share this with students in my home school writer's workshop.

Mary Jo Guglielmo said...

I think the rhythm of the sentences also helps the pace of the story.

Magdalena Ball said...

That was a good example Heidi. Rhythm in writing is so important. I like to read my work outloud (in the post-draft phase) and listen for the rhythm. It's usually obvious when something is out of whack. Writing poetry, which is often rhythm driven, also helps create more rhythmic prose.

Magdalena Ball

Anonymous said...

I like to read my work outloud too. It's even better when someone... anyone?!... actually listens to me. lol ;)

Heidiwriter said...

Great comments--thanks! I'm glad a couple of you will be able to use it in classes. Elysabeth, I like your "wishes and likes." What a great way to teach constructive criticism.

elysabeth said...

Thanks, Heidi; unfortunately, I can't take credit for it. The teaCher i've been working with via Google Talk for the past 4 years is the one who incorporates the wishes/likes in his writing class. This is so he can tell that the students are getting the feedback necessary to revise, edit and rewrite their stories or projects. He has what he calls an "editing kit" that he gives to the students but basically it is an all in one place of all the aspects we have previously talked about that the students keep in their writing notebooks. I did use his techniques when I did a workshop this past November for teachers. E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
Author of Finally Home, a yA paranormal mystery
"The Proposal" (an April Fools Day story), a humorous romance ebook
"The Tulip Kiss", a paranormal romance ebook
"Bride-and-Seek", a paranormal romance ebook
"Butterfly Halves", a YA fantasy ebook

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