rhythm in writing

The Rhythm of The Word

William Zinsser—

“Good writers of prose must be part poet, always listening to what they write.”

The writer is like the conductor of an orchestra. His back to the audience, his face invisible, he summons the experience of music for people he cannot see. The writer as conductor composes music, playing his words as instruments, listening for sound, rhythm, tone and pace.

Writing is a symphony.

The words you write make sounds, and when the sounds satisfy your reader’s ear, your writing works. Note that I said satisfy, not please. If your reader’s heart starts to pound and his palms begin to sweat because you’ve hit the core of his being with words—words that startle, convict, or convince—like a shriek from the attic, he is not happy, but he is satisfied. You must develop a good ear for writing.

How do you develop a good ear for writing? Practice. You must write. A good ear is not bequeathed—it can hardly be taught. You must develop your ear, as a musician develops his. Reading your work and hearing grammatical mistakes, even though you might not know the grammatical rules you broke, demonstrates the development of an ear for grammar. You sensed something sounded wrong. The same process applies to your writing style. If you write daily you will develop a sound, a certain rhythm that is yours, and you’ll become acquainted with that sound.  You’ll learn to recognize it and you’ll learn to recognize when your writing “just doesn’t sound right.”  Furthermore, you’ll begin to understand why it doesn’t sound right.

Even though your writing may never be read aloud by others, most readers will “hear” what you write via an inner voice. The sound of your writing adds or detracts from its flow to influence the reader’s impression of what you’ve written.

Good writing is not a cacophony, or a monotone expression, but a symphonic orchestration. The rhythm contributes to the flow of the reader’s comprehension and interest, and the writer may strategically choose one synonym over another simply because it has more or fewer syllables. A sudden break in rhythm can create emphasis, justifying an occasional bit of deadwood if it contributes to the rhythm of a sentence.

The opening phrase of the Gettysburg address pushes the envelope of wordiness, at least by modern standards. Mr. Lincoln risked embarrassment when he wrote “For score and seven years ago.”  The President could have introduced his sentence with plain “Eighty-seven” —a savings of two words and less of a strain on the listeners’ power of multiplication. But Lincoln’s ear said go with four score and seven. In doing so, he gingerly skirted the fringe of fanciness, but it worked. Suppose, he had held on too long. Suppose he blundered over the line and continued, “In the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and seventy-six.”  His speech would have dropped with a thud. Or, suppose he had settled for “Eighty-seven.”  In that version he would have entered his first sentence too abruptly—the timing would have squandered impact.

The question of ear is vital. Only the writer with a reliable ear is in a position to bend the rules or use bad grammar deliberately.

Teachers warn students not to end a sentence with a preposition. Sometimes, though, it’s more effective to place a preposition at the end of a sentence. “A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool he murdered her with.”  This is preferable to “A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool with which he murdered her.” Why? Because the latter sounds more like murder.

Which would you write? “The worst tennis player around here is I,” or “The worst tennis player around here is me”? The first shows good grammar; the second shows good judgment.

The split infinitive occasionally draws the writer into gray territory where his ear must be quicker than the guidebook. Most seasoned writers avoid splitting infinitives (placing an adverb between the linking and action verb). An earlier sentence demonstrates proper adverb placement—

Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position… to use bad grammar deliberately.

Novice and non-writers unknowingly split their infinitives often, writing sentences like—

Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position… to deliberately use bad grammar.

Students learn to correct split infinitives as they edit of their work. In rare circumstances, though, an awkward arrangement causes an infinitive to improve when split. “I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow.”  The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear; the violation is harmless and scarcely perceptible. Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal. “I cannot bring myself to like the fellow really.”

The ear not only guides us through difficult situations, but it saves us from minor and major embarrassments of prose. The ear, for example, must decide when to omit that from a sentence, and when to retain it.

“He knew he could do it” is preferable to “He knew that he could do it” —simpler and just as clear.

In an effort to make every word count, edit the smallest article that proves superlative to the passage. The word that is often inserted needlessly. Only in some cases is that needed.

“He felt that his big nose, which was sunburned, made him look ridiculous.”

Omit that and you have “He felt his big nose…”, which is incorrect. He did not touch his nose.

If the sentence makes sense without the word that, remove it.

If that is needed, use that—rather than which, unless the meaning is ambiguous. Which might feel scholarly, and therefore correct, but it’s formal and can sound pompous. Only when your sentence needs a comma to achieve its precise meaning, as in an aside or parenthetical, is which needed. In that instance, which serves a particular function, different from that.

“Take the shoes that are in the closet.”  This distinguishes the shoes in the closet from those elsewhere.

“Take the shoes, which are in the closet.”  Only one pair of shoes is being referenced, “which” tells you where they are.

Note that the comma is necessary in the latter sentence, preceding the word which. Which phrases and clauses usually qualify—define, identify, locate, or explain—the phrase preceding the comma.

  • The student, which always earned good grades and never turned in late work,
  • The writer, which studied under Lewis,
  • The tsunami, which is a tidal wave,
  • The height of Everest, which was first calculated from Indian soil,


Only scholastic settings frowns on the use of contractions. Professional writing employs their use. Why? Because writing has a rhythm and to use a contraction or not use a contraction effects that rhythm. Depending on what effect the writing calls for, alone, should determine contraction use.


Asyndeton refers to the rhetorical scheme of omitting a conjunction in a series of words—X, Y, Z as opposed to X, Y, and Z. This rhythm imbues the phrasing with punch and heightens the pace of the sentence.

Vini, vidi, vichi—I came, I saw, I conquered.

The counterpart of asyndeton is polysyndeton. Polysyndeton inserts a conjunction between every item in a series, giving the phrase a deliberate and emphatic beat.

Hemingway wrote in After the Storm

I said, “Who killed him?” and he said, “I don’t know who killed him but he’s dead all right,” and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broken and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a stiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was all right only she was full of water.

To write well, you must train your ear. With good writing, the reader forgets he is seeing words on a page. Listen when you write. Listen for the sound of your writing, and develop your ear. Practice.

When I finish a sentence, after much labor, it’s finished. A certain point comes at which you can’t do any more work on it because you know it will kill the sentence. The rhythm is set. The meaning is set. Occasionally I will leave behind a sentence that I know is missing a word, and I’ll go back to it later. … For me, a line has to sing before it does anything else. The great thrill is when a sentence that starts out being completely plain suddenly begins to sing, rising far above itself and above any expectation I might have had for it. —John Banville

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other. —Eudora Welty

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist