Can you make words dance—like letters gyrating, Elvis-style? Growing up, I wrote songs, danced, and stage acted. These tasks demanded a sense of rhythm, or at least of timing, for mastery. But no fine art compares, not at all, to tying rhythm into writing.
Today, I sprinkle less rhythm, more rhyme, into writing. Author Barbara Baig (2015) says nothing of rhyme, not in her chapter on rhythm. Nor does she speak of alliteration. She just suggests that rhythm is like rhyme in writing—where rhyme is repetition not in sound, but in structure.
Beefing up my prose with repetition jars me. Why? Playwriting shaped my style: short, brief, skinny sentences. Leap from playwriting into screenwriting and—chop, chop, chop—you fork fillet mignon, the leanest of genres. Lean tastes good to me.
Aside from brevity, I gush over alliteration. A prof of mine, as he handed back papers, patted one student’s arm, praising him as “the master of alliteration.” The prof then bent down, whispering to the glowing student the kiss of death: “Come see me during office hours.” One blogger said never, never, use alliteration. But figures of speech make fine art, don’t they?
Classics use figures of speech—and lots of breaths. Sprinkle in short, quick, “breathing” spaces, says Barbara Baig (2015). To do so, punctuate—or slip in clauses and phrases. When you sing, you take breaths. When you read, you take breaths. When you write, you plan, like beats in music, breaths. Breaths—a simple way to sweeten your prose.
And focus on good grammar, too. I wrote songs with bad grammar, long ago, before I was educated. Later, I wrote songs with a musician, correcting every bit of his bad grammar. We bickered. We butt heads. And then I won. “The pros get grammar right,” I said. But world-class poets let grammar slide. Now, I pervert my grammar, almost every second sentence.
Author Barbara Baig maps out tools to make words musical, to make words sing. She tells how in her book titled Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence & Captivating Readers:
- When looking at your writing’s rhythm, sense the music, not the imagery.
- In poetry, words use stressed and unstressed syllables. These syllables give off beat, like a drum.
- But in prose, syllables seem less important. Instead, words, clauses, phrases, and sentences mush together to make rhythm.
- To make rhythm, use repetition and variation.
- To make repetition with words, repeat the same word (like “chop, chop, chop” above), repeat the same phrase, or repeat a word combo.
- To make variation, use similar phrase or sentence structures, but vary the words. For instance, you can “repeat a … phrase structure or phrase type … while varying the words” (p. 234).
- In paragraphs, combine short with long sentences. Repeat and vary sentence lengths for effect.
- Add pauses to your writing. Set off pauses with commas, other punctuations, subordinate clauses, and so forth.
- When we sing, we take breaths rather than squeeze out two hundred words, wheezing all the way. Sprinkle in breaths to let your writing sing, too.
- Many profs, lawyers, and bureaucrats stuff their writing with words, few of their sentences breathing. Don’t model your writing after these guys and gals. They’ve been duped.
- With phrases or sentences, slap your best words at the start and finale. Final words in phrases or sentences especially act as zingers.
- To hear the music in your writing, slow down as you read—and truly listen.
Baig suggests repetition marks rhythm. But I don’t shy from rhyme. My brother wrote rhyming poetry, inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. I too fell for rhyme, for Poe, for poetry. So, at school, I critiqued my brother’s poem, verses that rhymed, that called forth images of death, of decay. My teacher scrawled on my paper, “Gross!”
So much for macabre. But in writing, there’s always room for one last—breath.