[This is part of an ongoing ChurchMag series, A Dutch-Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Better Writer.]
This year, I finally did something that had been on my to do list for a long time: I started learning to play the drums. You know what’s the hardest when you start out? To keep a steady rhythm.
It’s not the technical stuff that’s hardest to master, like how to hold the drum sticks, or how to do a fill. It’s sticking to the beat—the steady rhythm of the music. It’s easy to lose the beat, to go a little faster or slower than you did before or than you’re supposed to.
In writing, there’s also a rhythm, a beat. It’s hard to analyze, but you ‘feel’ it when you read a blog post, article, or book. When everything flows smoothly, when you glide from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph into another without skipping a beat, that’s when you know the writing has rhythm.
So what is this rhythm made up of? There are several factors at work:
1. Word Length
Use too many long words and readers stumble, even when they’re not trying to physically pronounce the word. Use too many short words and the writing becomes staccato, like a machine gun. A balanced mix of shorter and longer words is the solution.
2. Sentence Length
The same holds true for sentences. If your prose consists of mainly long, flowery sentences, you shouldn’t be surprised if people stop reading. Long sentences slow down, because they take longer to comprehend and sink in. On the other side: a blog post with only short sentences is hard to ‘get into’ and doesn’t hold the attention either.
This being said, you can have your word and sentence length correspond with the mood of your piece. I tend to use shorter sentences for how to-posts for instance and go longer for more emotional pieces.
3. Literary Devices
We’ve covered some effective literary devices in a previous post, but it’s good to realize these affect the rhythm of your writing. Take alliteration (multiple words starting with the same letter or letters) for instance: can be a useful tool, but too much alliteration causes readers to stumble.
Stories on the contrary (though not a literary device per se), make readers speed up because they want to know what happened next—provided you’ve written them well.
4. Word Order
If you use the same word order in every sentence, your writing is not only in danger of being boring, it’s also harder to read. The solution is to be creative in your sentence structure and word building.
Another aspect is that a word order may be grammatically correct, but not necessarily the most effective. Play around with word order to make a sentence run smoothly (which reads way better than: “To make a sentence run smoothly, play around with the word order”)
5. Repetitive Words
This is a mistake many writers make: using the same word or similar words too close together. It’s not only ‘not pretty’, it also disrupts the flow of reading. For example:
“I’ve always been interested in drums. What’s interesting is, is that I never did anything with this interest.”
OK, so this is a little over the top, but try and read these sentences out loud. There’s no beat whatsoever. This is where a thesaurus comes in handy to find a good synonym.
6. Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation
There’s a running joke on how commas save lives.
It’s not only true, but they also make reading easier—as do most punctuation marks. Correct grammar, spelling and punctuation help the reader to glide through your work, instead of being interrupted by confusion or mistakes.
And did I mention typos? They totally bring a reader out of their concentration—not good.
Do not underestimate the importance of structuring your writing. Paragraphs help your reader follow the beat of your reasoning and thus the beat of your writing.
How do you determine if your writing has flow and rhythm? First of all, read it out loud to yourself. Nine out of ten times, you’ll discover a few typos, some grammar issues, and at least a sentence or two you need to revise.
Then, have someone else read it and give feedback. Was there any point where they had to stop? Reread a word or sentence? Was there any confusion, irritation?
Sure, it’s time consuming and getting critical feedback is no fun at all. But if you do this consistently for a while and pay attention to the pattern in the feedback you get, you can dramatically improve your writing.
Can you think of a writer or blogger who has a great rhythm in their writing? What does he or she do to create that flow?