by Sam Chapman and Sierra Dickey
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
The Rhythm of Sentences
I don’t believe sentence rhythm can be taught. I believe that any systematic attempt to teach sentence rhythm would instill a formula on something that must to develop naturally.
That said, I firmly believe that it can be tutored. Tutors, unlike teachers, can discuss the rhythm of specific sentences. Rather than drilling a formula, tutors can help articulate the importance of sentence rhythm as a device, what effects it has on the writing, and help the writer determine where his or her choices have been effective (or not so much). Below I will equip tutors with some ideas to keep in mind as they assess sentence rhythm with writers.
The ideas that I present in this post are about inter-sentence rhythm: how the long and languid sentences work in conjunction with the short and spicy. I do not address questions of rhythm within sentences.
1. Sentence rhythm is important. There is no arguing that. Take a look at the Provost quote above if you need convincing that boring or repetitive rhythm can absolutely murder a paper. Provost gives an extreme example, of course, but falling into a dull cadence has a way of drowning out whatever you’re attempting to convey.
2. Extremely complex sentences are fine, but stick to one per paragraph. You probably had that phase in your primary or secondary education where you were convinced that “good writing” meant “longer sentences.” You abused semicolons and tossed out commas like confetti. There is a use for long compound-complex sentences: they are best for conveying background information, for expounding on a point, or for guiding your reader’s attention towards a point you make in a shorter sentence. However, if the bulk of your content is wrapped up in m-dash paper and semicolon bows, you’ll discover much more of it gets lost in translation.
3. Short sentences focus the reader’s attention. It’s the best way to get a point across. The more a piece of information is distinct from what surrounds it, the more it draws the eye.
4. Genre matters. Different genres will require different tricks of sentence rhythm. If you’re writing a science report, questions of lilt and cadence that might inform a piece of creative writing won’t matter as much. Your audience expects their information in a certain format, and that format depends on the genre you are writing in. A sentence that is perfect in one type of paper might be unacceptable in another—know your expectations.
5. Avoid the cult! As of late, the cult of the sentence fragment has sprung up on the American literary scene. Sentence fragments are the new “thing.” Writers have started using them with abandon, usually to assert a brusk voice or make a punchy statement. In some genres like poetry, creative writing, and personal essays, sentence fragments are okay. But if your sentence fragment isn’t absolutely necessary to your piece, scrap it.
Just to be sure: What is a sentence fragment? A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence. It misses one of three things: a subject, a verb, or a complete idea.
6. Some by-the-book examples. The book Rhetorical Grammar provides us with lots of exacting instruction for how to identify and employ the mechanics of rhythm. In Chapter 6, RG talks about how to create an effective rhythm within one sentence. The gist of this is: get the right focus. Your words should arrange themselves according to your ideas, and you should move words around in order to place stress on the right information. Often that means putting important words/concepts toward the end of the sentence, since that’s the part of the sentence that gets the most emphasis.
In Chapter 5 of Rhetorical Grammar, we learn about cohesion. Cohesive passages use sentence rhythm to their advantage. For RG, cohesion means effective use of the known-new contract. Fulfilling the known-new contract means your sentences begin with some piece of information or analysis that was established in the previous sentence, and then build on that “known” with some new information and analysis. [Just look at the first two sentences of this paragraph: the first one ends on “cohesion.” The next sentence starts with that same idea–“cohesive”–as its known, and then adds a new element, the advantageous use of sentence rhythm.] It’s almost as if you are playing call-and-response with yourself, setting something down and then responding to it with something new, this new thing also acting as a reverberation of what you just said. This is a great way to develop effective rhythm in your writing, as call-and-response chants are always rhythmic.
7. Some rhythmic examples. Here, we provide three passages with very different rhythms. Each of these passages is from a different genre of writing: literature, science, and news reportage. As you read them, you might ask yourself how sentence length and cadence combine to create an overall effect. How does it feel to read these sentences? How do the writers utilize sentence rhythm to grab your attention (or not) in each of these examples?
Note! By including these examples, we are not suggesting that all creative writing should sound like Zeitoun or that all journalism should sound like the Dallas Morning News article. We print these excerpts here to show a wide range of sentence rhythms and to emphasize that different genres can call for different kinds of sentences.
Creative: “Gonzales was easy to find. On the arrest report, he was identified as being an officer from Albuquerque, and he was still with that department in the fall of 2008. When he was reached by phone, he told his side of the story.”
—Zeitoun, Dave Eggers
Scientific: “As champagne or sparkling wine is poured into a glass, the myriad of ascending bubbles collapse and radiate a multitude of tiny droplets above the free surface into the form of very characteristic and refreshing aerosols.”
–“Unraveling different chemical fingerprints between a champagne wine and its aerosols”, Cornell University
Journalistic: “Many of these retirees are living seasonally or year-round on boats, lured by the simplicity of life and lower cost of living. They are also searching for tranquillity, a place away from the fast pace and hectic life increasingly dominated, they say, by time pressures in an age of social media.”
–“Baby Boomers Savor Retirement Living on Boats in Mexico”, Dallas Morning News
8. Learn rhythm by practicing. The more you write, the closer you’ll get to that elusive “feel” for sentence rhythm. There’s no other way to get better. Or maybe there is! Reading writers whose rhythm attracts you is also paramount to developing personal rhythm. If you have talented and vetted people’s words running through your head all day, before you know it you will be mimicking them in your own writing.
For more on rhythm, check out Purdue OWL’s wise words about sentence variety.