Wick Communications

Finding your rhythm

In Writing techniques on August 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm

In the blog Daily Writing Tips, Mark Nichol discusses adding more rhythm to your prose. He likens the happy flow of sentences to a musical composition, and I think he’s on to something.

I think his most useful tip is to alternate the length of sentences. I don’t think he literally means you have to alternate every long sentence with a short one. Rather, he’s suggesting you do it from time to time in a conscious manner that makes readers take note unconsciously. Take, for instance, what Herman Melville does with the first two paragraphs of Moby-Dick:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs–commerce surrounds it with her surf. …

He follows the staccato “Call me Ishmael” with a 143-word, two-sentence legato flourish. The next graph begins with a four count (This is my substitute for pistol and ball/With a philosophical fourish Cato throws himself upon his sword/I quietly take to the ship/there is nothing surprising in this.) And that rhythm is punctuated by two more meandering sentences.

Do you think Melville’s music is an accident? I don’t.

Nichol’s other tips are worth noting, too – except for the one about sentence fragments. I think they work in a certain kind of newspaper story, but not often. Take a look at the tips and see if you can turn today’s feature into an opus.

Clay

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  1. Great post. Very nice job. Thanks for sharing

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