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.