During my run this evening, listening to the rhythm of my sneakers pounding the pavement, and passing a pair of swans sitting still on a perfectly still lake surrounded by autumn foliage, I started to think about rhythm in writing.
Years of editing and writing and reading picture books have instilled in me a keen sensitivity to the rhythm and cadence in the language I read, write, and edit. I think rhythm is important not only in texts for the very young, but in any matter which uses the written word to convey ideas, thoughts, feelings, tone, drama etc. The rhythms and cadence of individual words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can have a profound psychological effect on the reader—and yet they do it almost by stealth, with subtlety.
I frequently relate to my writing students the story of a client I once worked with. She had written a picture book text about the plight of an endangered species of eagle. Her language style of choice was (as happens so often in first drafts of picture books from new writers) rhyming verse with a jaunty and galloping meter. This stylistic choice had, as you can probably imagine, the unfortunate effect of taking what was a serious and soulful subject and making it almost comical—which was absolutely opposite to the writer’s intention. And as so often seems to happen when rhyming verse gets out of hand, the narrative went completely off-track…the story quickly became something that didn’t work at all or even quite make sense.
When I pointed out to her that perhaps a galloping meter did not fit the flapping of eagles’ wings, the swooping and soaring, or the serious tone of the subject matter, she rewrote the text in a more lyrical prose style. It was quite extraordinary: it was as if she had been set free and so, too, the eagles in her story. She quickly came back to me with a piece that exactly evoked the soaring of eagles, their swooping, the beat of their wings and so forth in its rhythm and cadence. The entire tone of the piece had changed—and it not only worked now, but had become something of incredible beauty that absolutely achieved what it set out to do. Through attention to rhythm, it had acquired the soul it was seeking.
This is a fairly overt example of the effects of rhythm. Those who study picture books and spend any significant time trying to write one will soon understand the importance of rhythm, become hyper aware of it, start to intuitively incorporate it, play with it, and use it to great effect. Rhythm and cadence are so important in texts for the very young, which are primarily designed to be read aloud.
But, more subtle are the effects of rhythm and cadence in the written word for older readers (including adults). It’s easy to get caught up in plot, character development, and narrative arc in longer works—and these are, of course, essential. But I encourage the writers with whom I work to really think about the sound of language in each sentence they write, and it’s something I pay great attention to in my own work. Each sentence, I believe, should have an appropriate rhythm and a cadence and tone that suit the context and soul of what is being conveyed.
Short, sharp sentences, for example, tend to increase tension, speed up the pace, and add drama. In many cases longer, more fluid sentences, create a calmer and more reflective tone. Of course, there are exceptions to these examples (just as there are almost unlimited ways to use rhythm and cadence). But my point is that rhythm and cadence can have very powerful effects, and writers would do well to pay more attention to them and then milk them for all they’re worth.
The key? Read your work aloud. Your manuscript may not be designed to be read that way, but try it anyway. Listen to how the language sounds. Tweak it until the rhythm and cadence complement and complete what you’re trying to convey. Then have someone read it back to you.
One day, when you’re doing your first live reading of your newly published book, you’ll thank me.