The Music of Writing

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.
~ Truman Capote, Truman Capote: Conversations

The best writing has a certain musicality to it so that it flows smoothly from one word to the next, one sentence, paragraph, and chapter to another. It’s not just the flow of ideas, although that counts a great deal for keeping a work cohesive and understandable, but rather a flow in a more sensual way, the way music is sensual. To understand how your words can be musical, you must, first of all, understand the sound the words make. I tell my students to read their works aloud, if not to an audience, at least to themselves. The way words look on paper is not always how they sound and when you read your words, you will hear how they blend and flow together. You might read something out loud and feel it sounds wrong. That’s actually a fairly good indication the words don’t flow naturally or smoothly. If you read your words aloud and you love the way it sounds, others are likely to respond the same way. That’s because reading aloud taps into the elements of music, many of which we don’t realize are part of language as well. What am I talking about? One of the most important aspects of music is rhythm. You might be more familiar with this as “beat”. All music follows a regular beat. While words don’t always follow the same regular beat throughout a single work, especially when the work is long, a beat can be detected in the combination of accents or stresses in words and sentences. Rhythmic poetry shows this most clearly in the use of meter. Even when you write poetry that is not metered, in particular, free verse, you still need to be conscious of rhythm. You combine long and short words together, as well as a variety of word types: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Your sentences should vary in length, structure, and type. Many beginning writers try to cram as much as they can into single sentences which produce exceedingly long paragraphs. It’s better to break up complex and compound sentences into shorter ones. The basic rule you need to remember is to limit the idea within a sentence to a single idea or topic. If you have two or more subjects to your sentence, it most likely should be broken up. If you have several semicolons in your sentence, you can most probably break it up to be more effective. The longer your sentences, the less impact they have. Don’t go swinging in the other direction, though. I have seen a great deal of writing with several short sentences one after another, all with the same structure. This is exactly what editors and writing teachers refer to when they say your writing is choppy. Sure, sometimes you want to create emphasis by using some short sentences one after the other. My suggestion is limit it to three short consecutive sentences for emphasis—this could be great, especially for speeches—but break out of that right away and don’t use it too often or you’ll be defeating the purpose. You shouldn’t underestimate the value of varying paragraph length, either. Several blocks of long paragraphs one after another will easily tire your reader. Again, follow the one idea rule: limit the ideas you develop in a single paragraph to one. In fiction, you also need to try to limit the action in each paragraph. Multiple unrelated actions are best put in separate paragraphs, especially when the actions are performed by different characters unless the actions are all immediately related and not broken by dialogue. The rule for dialogue is to start a new paragraph each time a different character speaks. It’s also more effective to include the actions of a character speaking within the same paragraph containing that character’s speech.

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