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Writing with Rhythm
By Sari Mathes
Sentence variety. It’s the difference between hearing an instrument play the same melody over and over again and listening to a symphony. Many new writers believe that long sentences with strings of subordinate clauses showcase intelligence. So they stuff their work full of sentences that resemble paragraphs, and paragraphs that could pass as chapters. They modify every clause. They string adjectives together like Christmas lights, not realizing that the tree alone has a beauty of its own. Every verb is coupled with an adverb or two. They stuff amplifiers in front of adjectives, then pack them into relative clauses that give the reader encyclopedic amounts of information before they can get to the period. Or, they choose one complex construction (usually it’s passive voice) and use it like a chord-drill, playing the same dull tune over and over.
Compare the following examples:
A. Sweet Sylvia, the homely oldest daughter of the surly first Asian Prime Minister of the Planet Fleejee, a tiny red planet from the farthest corner of the Amphibian Galaxy, which had broken from its Mother-planet during the Great Cosmic Skyquake of 3006, sat very dejected on the large purple velvet embroidered pillows of her throne, severely detesting her fat, balding, despicable father, who had only become one the second year after he was appointed Prime Minister, while she hurriedly wolfed down her salty cold rice and beans, a split second before she choked to death.
B. Sylvia choked to death.
C. Sylvia, daughter of the Prime Minister of the planet Fleejee, sat dejected on the purple pillows of her throne. She stared at her father. How she hated his fat, ugly face. She had to get out of there. Hurriedly, she wolfed down her salty dinner of cold rice and beans. And choked to death on it.
Example A is analogous to an orchestra gone wild. Every instrument is screaming for the spotlight and the conductor appears to have skipped town. Anyone left in the audience would, by now, be requesting earplugs. This is not mood music. No rhythm, no harmony, no dynamic phrasing, just noise.
Example B can be compared to a simple sing-song nursery rhyme. One note, one instrument, and also, not exactly easy-listening on its own. But, pair it with the more elaborately worded sentences in example C, mix it up with a couple of questions or exclamations, and its staccato simplicity stands out like a cymbal striking the final note of a complex concerto.
Stop. There is nothing wrong with a one-word sentence. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with a lengthy and complex sentence that provides details and embroiders your ideas. Just as musical notes blend together to create an auditory tapestry, so should your words. Mix it up, shuffle the deck, alter the rhythm of your words. Punctuate a paragraph with some staccato sentences. Layer your language with elaborate harmonies. Refrain from playing the same refrain over and over. Use this musical analogy to think about your audience while you write and don’t forget to vary the rhythm of your words.
If you have questions about how rhythmic your writing is, Breezeway Books provides a free edit assessment from a qualified editor.