Like music, writing has rhythm. Think of Shakespeare. He wrote his plays in iambic pentameter: Da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum, da dum.

Okay, I know you're not Shakespeare but you and your sales letter or your school essay or your e-zine article have rhythm too -- whether you know it or not. The beat that exists behind your writing is a key part of what we call your writing voice. It makes your work unique and recognizable. It expresses your personality. It's part of what makes you, you.

Some lucky people are born with an ear for good rhythm. Just as "born musicians" know when to slow down and when to speed up, "born writers" instinctively understand how to play with the rhythm of their words. Others need to learn. Here are five strategies to help you do better.

1) Vary your sentence length:

When I teach writing workshops, I urge people to aim for an average sentence length of about 14 words. According to studies by the American Press Institute, this is the best length for readability in today's society. People sometimes roll their eyes at me, suggesting that I propose dumbing-down the language.

This, I am convinced, is a misunderstanding. I am not suggesting you write only 14-word sentences -- that, after all, would be boring. Instead, I'm urging you to aim for an average of 14 words. There's a key difference. Some sentences should be long -- anywhere from 25 to 40 words. Others should be short. Two or three words.

It's the variety that matters, because this is what gives your writing rhythm. You can see this for yourself by taking a passage of writing and entering the number of words per sentence into an Excel spreadsheet. Then click on the little icon that will turn the numbers into a bar graph. (I'm not just being a geek. Try it! It's fascinating.) Ideally, you should see a highly uneven graph -- one with lots of peaks and valleys. If your graph is flat -- or even "flat-ish" -- that means you need to work harder at varying your sentence length.

2) Vary your word length:

Just as your sentences shouldn't all be the same length, so, too, your words should show variety. I'm all for short and basic Anglo-Saxon words: hills, fight, beaches, island. (Short, punchy words were Winston Churchill's secret.)

But to make your writing flow, you also want to throw in the occasional three or four syllable word like, say, "occasional." Again, it is the juxtaposition (hey, there's a five-syllable one) of long and short that lends rhythm to your writing.

3) Read your work aloud:

Musicians don't practice in silence, nor should you. You will not truly understand rhythm until you read your work out loud. Do it quietly, if you wish. I won't even complain if you whisper. Read it again and again to tweak your sentence length and adjust your word choice until the language flows and sounds musical to you.

4) Study the rhythms of other writers:

Just as most teenagers think that pop/rock is the best kind of music because that's all they hear, many adults think that marketing mumbo-jumbo or happy P.R. prattle is normal, because that's the only type of reading they do. Please, don't limit your reading to brochures, websites and your daily newspaper or you'll risk developing a tin ear!

If you want to improve your rhythm, read widely and catholically. The science writer Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell) has a wonderful sense of rhythm. So do Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) and Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities,) although they are very different. Study a wide range of writers and decide what you like. Many magazines also offer a terrific selection of writing that is strong in rhythm -- Scientific American, Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker, among them.

And, for bonus points, try some poetry. (My all time favorite poet for rhythm is Dylan Thomas, but to each his own.)

5) Copy the work of writers you admire:

When I say "copy," I don't mean "imitate" (although that's a good idea too.) I mean copy literally -- by typing passages from other writers into your computer or by handwriting their work onto paper. I know this sounds crazy but rhythm is something you feel rather than think. By copying the work of others, you will absorb their sense of rhythm. Did you know that this was how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write?

And as you do this, remember that writing with rhythm is not an intellectual exercise. After all, the beat we know best is the one that comes from our heart.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 16th 2008, 1:38 AM
Comment by: kyurae L.
It was a very good recommendation for foreigner or student who studyng as a writer.
Wednesday April 16th 2008, 6:58 AM
Comment by: LEW
I enjoyed your article very much. It's something I haven't really spent time thinking about, so for that very fact and it's usefulness, I find the subject very interesting. You did a nice explanation too. Thanks. LEW
Wednesday April 16th 2008, 7:22 AM
Comment by: Jamiebeau (Hagaman, NY)
Using Microsoft Word 2007, each time one uses the Spelling and Grammar corrections, a Readibility Statistic statement appears which can be helpful as well. It lists: sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per word. I suppose this should give one a good idea of rhythm and meter to be considered.
Jim
Wednesday April 16th 2008, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Eliza M.
Excellent advice for all business writers.

Also consider extending the practice to your research. If you're picking up a magazine,blog, or newspaper of interest to a potential target audience, then read and recite the news, ads, and articles. You'll be fives steps closer to writing from the "voice" of the customer! Best. EM
Wednesday April 16th 2008, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Diva G.
As someone that loves classical music,I really think that rhythm too, is an element, part of personality that emanates from every peace of writing. Like different interpretation performed when playing music.
Wednesday April 16th 2008, 8:58 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
I always love your articles. You are the cat's pajamas. Thanks, Graeme.
Thursday April 17th 2008, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Jill K.
Terrific piece! A gentle reminder that while writing is indeed an art, there is a science to it too. Being a copywriter, I need to write for a variety of media and audiences each day. Switching between creative, ethereal copy, demonstrative text for video scripts, press releases and consumer-friendly radio scripts requires me to alter the tone and pace of my sentences. This article is a great reminder of the importance of using the right rhythm for the intended audience.
Thursday April 17th 2008, 7:44 PM
Comment by: Aage J. Barlund
I find myself constantly frustrated by some writers inability to write properly. In order to save money the newspapers rely on the word processors ability to make it right, thus making it less than acceptable in terms of spelling and grammar. Have the professional writers nowadays lost their sense of pride in making their language perfect? I know time and deadlines puts pressure on the writers, but they are, after all, professionals and paid for what they put on paper.
Thursday April 17th 2008, 8:46 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your comments, everyone. I just wanted to remark on your suggestion re: readability statistics, James. While I LOVE the readability stats feature in Word (it's available in versions earlier than 2007, too), I don't recommend it for evaluating rhythm and meter.

This is because the statistics are AVERAGES -- and that blurs the picture.

For rhythm and meter, my number 1 suggestion is still reading aloud.

Cheers -daphne
Monday April 21st 2008, 12:30 AM
Comment by: James A. (Plano, TN)
Your comment "to read aloud" is remarkably simple, but is most effective. I constantly reread what I write as I write, making changes according to how it feels, but reading aloud has an entirely different effect - revealing possibly that which you refer to as: "rhythm". My wife, Mickey, and I read aloud to each other that which each has written mainly to check for correctness of content with important correspondence and manuscripts, and what you say is most evident in the polish of our final products, though we had never before been conscientiously aware of aesthetic aspects.

As a violinist and mathematician, I am most aware of elegance in phrasing and in logical mathematical proof, and am somewhat aware of techniques for achieving elegance; now "reading aloud" has to be added since the result of good "rhythm" should be equally desirable and a form of elegance.

In the second sentence from the top I purposely did not put the period at the end inside the quote, producing a string of symbols at the end as follows: '"rhythm".'. I am following the fundamental rules of communications which are: "When referring to an object, use a name for the object, never the object itself." and "Placing quotation marks, '"' (the double mark) and "'" (the single mark), around an object yields a name for the object. This yields what is called a quote of the object, or simply a quote. We say that the object is quoted, and the quote now is a useful name of the object. The end of the first sentence in this paragraph has the quote: â??â??â??rhythm".'", and the end of this sentence is: "'"rhythm".'.â?.

The end of the previous sentence is: '"'"rhythm".'.â?.â??, and the quote at the end is: '"'"rhythm".'."â??. Enough! Now, to make my point, these are simple strings that can be easily deciphered, but to understand why manual writers avoid the marks, rewrite the quotes using the usual convention of inserting the extraneous closing punctuation marks inside the quotation marks where the quoted parts are not quite as clear.
Tuesday July 22nd 2008, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Neus Escude M. (Terrassa - Barcelona Spain)
Could it be possible to have extra information on "language and rythm"

I believe that the key to every lnguage is created by a sense of rythm
only caracteristic to that given language.So, when we learnt a language
what we realy learnt is a "special song" where some wording feels correct
or not.LIke in our sense of music we say we know a given song because one note leads necessarly to another,so in a given language one word
leads to the (a( necessaily)) next.

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