Hearing what you write

Here’s a post by PJ Parrish at Kill Zone Blog: I Hear A Symphony

The post starts with this quote:

Writing prose without thinking about cadence is like trying to seduce a man by handing him your résumé. The facts are there, but the electric charge isn’t. —Meaghan O’Rourke

My immediate reaction: YES!

Alas, this isn’t what the post is actually about. The post at least starts out by discussing the structure of a story as that compares to the structure of a symphony. No doubt that’s a worthy topic, but it isn’t what I was thinking. I was right there for this argument: Writing prose without thinking about cadence is going to produce flat prose. That’s so unrelated to story structure that I skimmed the post, and sure enough, Parrish does get to this point partway through the post:

Sure, you can write a pretty good book without rhythm. You can even get famous. But you won’t write a book that people remember.

I think that’s arguable. In fact, I know that’s overstated, because I can think offhand of various books I enjoyed and found memorable despite flat or clunky sentences. However, the broader point, that cadence and rhythm are important, is still one I agree with.

Good writing is an aural thing. But to get that aural vibe right, you have to be visual. You have to pay attention to how your writing looks on the page. Your rhythmic tools are:

  • Sentence length
  • Paragraph length
  • Sentence fragments
  • Punctuation
  • Pacing.
  • Alliteration. This is a potent spice. Use it sparingly.

Too many long paragraphs? It looks old-fashioned and boring. Too many short paragraphs? That makes your rhythm choppy and nervous. 

This is very interesting! To get the AURAL VIBE right, you have to be VISUAL. You have to pay attention to HOW YOUR WRITING LOOKS ON THE PAGE. What a strange thing to say! It’s not that I disagree that your tools for cadence and rhythm are different from the ones listed above. Those are the tools, all right. Also repetition; that’s an additional element left out of that list. Maybe other stuff I’m not thinking of right now — oh, word choice! Actual word choice, the sound of the words! I notice I’m thinking of the sound of the words, not how the words look on the page. That’s true even though I love love love names such as Meadhbh, pronounced Meave, which is a name I’ve mentioned before, and thank you CJC for introducing me to lovely Welsh names.

Tools for building cadence and rhythm: paragraph length; sentence length; comma splices and fragments; punctuation; alliteration; repetition; word choice. What else? Oh, right:

Image from feeloona on Pixabay

The most important tool for writing with cadence and rhythm is NOT how the words LOOK on the page; it’s how they SOUND in your mind.

I actually do think that how the words look on the page contributes somehow to how they sound in your mind. A paragraph break is a tiny pause. A sentence that stands by itself, especially a short sentence, is emphatic. Any short sentence is emphatic. A period is a tiny pause. A semicolon is a tiny pause, and using a semicolon followed by a conjunction sounds different — feels different — than the correct comma followed by a conjunction. That’s why you may want to break that rule (among all the other rules) and occasionally put a semicolon rather than a comma in front of a conjunction.

But, although the words on the page contribute to the sound, the sound is what matters. To write with cadence and rhythm, you have to hear the words.

Or I’m pretty sure you do. It seems impossible that anybody would write with cadence and rhythm without hearing the words in their mind, but the world is wide, so maybe somewhere someone does. I just find that unimaginable.

Personally, I hear the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, and the flow of the writing.

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2 thoughts on “Hearing what you write”

  1. That’s a great quote. I’m going to steal, er, that is, synergistically leverage it.

    One of the first critiques I ever got said that I should try to make paragraphs no more than three sentences long. Otherwise, it was visually tiring, or something like that. I thought this was taking things to an extreme, but I agree that paragraphs that are too long can be harder for some readers.

    Sometimes how the words look on the page can. have a strong impact. The last book I published with Harlequin, I threw in some weird paragraphing. It went something like this:

    Rachel told herself that she was imagining things. Everything was just as it should be. It was just her mind playing tricks on her.

    I thought for sure the editor would ask me to take it out, but no one cared.

  2. Evelyn, absolutely, we all synergistically leverage everything, so to speak.

    To me, the paragraphing creates auditory impact at least as much as visual impact … usually. In your example, the visual impact is indeed primary! I think it’s fine, done ONE time in the book. Very dramatic!

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