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Grammar Guide

When in Doubt, Weasel Out!

The weasel is a sneaky varmint, and you can use its wily ways to make your writing more powerful. (Photo by Magalie St-Hialire Poulin on Unsplash.}

Many things make good writing — clean syntax, evocative imagery, authentic dialogue — but what makes good writing great is rhythm. Cadence. The way the words and phrases combine and converge, the way they flow and then rest. For a beat. And start again. Much like a song, or even a symphony.

Interesting that “composition” applies to both the written word and the musical piece; “lyric” to both the words in a song and the feeling of lightness in, say, a lyric opera.

Before hitting “publish” or “send,” check your rhythm. How does your piece move? Does it make you want to keep reading, or do you tune out the message? The movement you create in your words can mean the difference between having a hit or a flop.

Harmonizing words like music

We read with an internal voice rather than just with our eyes; you’re probably hearing these words in your head as you read them. And just like a song in which the beat doesn’t match the tune, a poorly cadenced story or poem can fall on our inner ears with a jarring thud.

Take this sentence in an opinion piece by political pundit Bill O’Reilly about creating a wealth tax to fund services for the poor:

But there is a huge difference between taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment and charitable largesse.

The flow of the sentence changes with the placement of the long verb clause (taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment) and the short noun clause (charitable largesse).Placing the long clause first makes the sentence run past the short clause rather breathlessly, like a singer trying to cram in all the notes in a long measure. It also clouds the sentence’s clarity. Are “folks” under threat of both imprisonment and charitable largesse? Many people would have to stop and re-read the sentence to be sure they understand it.

How much smoother and clearer the sentence would have been like this:

But there is a huge difference between charitable largesse and taking money away from folks under threat of imprisonment.

It sounds better. It makes its point better, ending on the negative consequences of a wealth tax.

Feel the beat of the words you compose

Variation in sentence length and structure is an important rhythmic tool. A series of sentences all built the same way has a sing-song effect, like this from my own invention:

Lying on the floor, she stared up at the ceiling and wished the night were over. Despite her anger, she felt the tears drip down onto the cold floor beneath her neck. Balling up her fists, she let out a scream of frustration that no one else heard.

Boring? Unforgivably. Not just because each sentence starts with an introductory clause (“Lying on the floor,” for instance). Each sentence has the same number of words (16). It creates a vaguely uncomfortable feeling; you know you hate it, but you can’t quite say why.

Contrast that with the beauty of this paragraph from Cormac McCarthy in The Road:

Across the fields to the south he could see the shape of a house and a barn. Beyond the trees the curve of a road. A long drive with dead grass. Dead ivy along a stone wall and a mailbox and a fence along the road and the dead trees beyond. Cold and silent. Shrouded in the carbon fog. He walked back and sat beside the boy. It was desperation that had led him to such carelessness and he knew that he could not do that again.
No matter what.

Word count of each sentence: 17–8–6–20–3–5–8–20–3. 

Aside from the cadence, I want you to notice this: Each of McCarthy’s sentences is powerful in its simplicity, uncluttered by fancy verbs and unnecessary modifiers. The narrator doesn’t “glimpse” or “peruse” the scene
because someone told the writer he should use sophisticated language for variety; he doesn’t tell us how we should feel. He just sees what he sees and lets us feel what we feel.

John Steinbeck, too, lays down just the right beat in East of Eden:

I must depend on hearsay, on old photographs, on stories told, and on memories which are hazy and mixed with fable in trying to tell you about the Hamiltons. They were not eminent people, and there are few records concerning them except for the usual papers on birth, marriage, land ownership, and death.

Do you see — or, rather, hear — the rhythm in Steinbeck’s first sentence? Three simple nouns followed by an elegantly modified fourth. The second sentence takes the reader through the milestones of life and the sudden finality of death.

Tips for smooth writing rhythm

Next time you write, check your rhythm by reading your words aloud. Listen for:

  • The word count of each sentence. Short sentences are often best, but using more than two or three at once can sound choppy.
  • ·Complex and simple clauses. Don’t structure each sentence the same way, to avoid monotony.
  • Arrangement of phrases. You’ll usually get better flow if you start with the shorter phrase.