Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Music of Our Words

Sometimes I’ll write a sentence and, even though it's technically correct, I know there is something wrong. The sentence doesn’t sing. The words lack any real power because the rhythm is off.

Every piece of prose we read carries a kind of music. Sometimes it’s a merry jaunt that makes the reader’s eyes dance across the page. Sometimes it’s a jittery staccato that makes the reader catch their breath. Sometimes it’s a harmonious flow of words that makes the reader float through the story.

Rhythm is connected to both the pace and the sound of the words. It can be found in the ebb and flow of your prose and it brings life, feeling and atmosphere into the story. Although the music is often subtle, it has a profound impact on the reader because it can trigger the reader’s emotion. This is the same reason soundtracks so successfully enhance movie imagery.

Because rhythm is sound, we must read our pieces out loud to tune our ears to the music. This way we’ll be able to hear how the rhythm of the sentences fit in with the music of the paragraph in the concert of the scene.

When you are writing and editing do you think about the music of your piece? What importance do you place on rhythm?

48 comments:

  1. I know it helps to read my work out loud, but I usually don't. Too impatient. I do read out loud though when I know something's definitely not right with a sentence or paragraph. Reading it aloud helps me juggle the words for better effect.

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  2. Hi Lynda,
    Great post; I do think about it when I write poetry, but I do agree we need to think about it more. I can run on, so it is something I need to watch~

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  3. Great post. I think the rhythm of a sentence is very important. It either draws the reader in or knocks her out of the world the writer is building.

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  4. Joy, yep, I can understand the impatience. It takes a little extra time to read it out loud. Plus my cat looks at me funny when I read my work out loud ;) But like you said, it's worth it.

    Ellen, the music in poetry is more obvious, but just as necessary. :)

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  5. I really need to work on reading my stuff out loud more to get a better feel for the rhythm. Rhythm really matters because when you get it right, it'll suck you in and you'll be powerless to resist it.

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  6. I know exactly what you mean! I call it 'zing factor'. Sometimes something is just lackluster, even if there's nothing grammatically wrong with it. I'll even go through my chapters and give them a zing rating. I love your analogy of music!

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  7. SOO true. Are words are music.

    I read my stuff outloud to catch the flow and rhythm.

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  8. I know what you mean. Sometimes I'll go with a grammatically incorrect sentence because it sounds better.

    CD

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  9. I love this post! Yes, our words should sing. They must have a rhythm, which is part of what our voice is. I like how you put it!

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  10. Laura, yes exactly, the wrong rhythm can push the reader away.

    Jeffrey, yep, and you don't even realise it's happening until it's too late ;)

    Alexia, oo..I like that: the Zing Factor.

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  11. Melissa, we write symphonies and ditties and folk songs in our stories.

    Clarissa, yes exactly! that's a case of breaking the rules because it's the right thing to do.

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  12. Karen, yes, it IS a part of that elusive thing we call voice. Another reason why it's so important in our prose.

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  13. I think the music and rythm of a book is what really sets it apart. But it takes a lot of practice. At least for me.

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  14. Hi Lynda...a lovely post which reads like a song, the words flowing into each other.

    I seldom read my words out loud. But, I will try today atleast a few pages and see how it goes.

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  15. Lynda - So agree. And, the best kind of sentence is one that is beautiful, but not over the top. I long to write those kinds of sentences.

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  16. Absolutely! I've always been a firm believer in the rhythm of sentences. For instance, saying the phrase:
    "the whisper-smooth lapping of the sea on the shore" sounds much more gentle and flowing than:
    "the tranquil breaking of the waves against the rocks"--even though the content is pretty much the same. Part of it is the combo of words together, part of it is cuz of softer (sibilant) vs harsher consonants. Like S's, P's, and M's instead of T's, B's, or K/ck's.
    And yes! reading aloud REALLY helps. I just read my entire 220 page ms aloud this week. Sore throat after? Yep! But very revealing.

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  17. I can't remember who said it, but one of the editors at the Highlights Foundation Summer Workshop at Chautuatqua said your story should be "fun on the tongue." I try and remember that...

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  18. Melissa, yes it can take a lot of practise -- just like learning to play any instrument :)

    Rachna, there are other benefits of reading out loud as well. eg it's easier to pick up on mistakes (I find).

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  19. RaShelle, yes, as with anything it's finding that balance and not over doing it.

    Carol, great example! Thanks for sharing that.
    I chuckled at your sore throat due to reading out loud too -- I can so relate.

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  20. Sharon, oh I really like that expression! "Fun on the tongue"! It says it all.

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  21. Love this post, because I totally agree with everything you've said. I always read my entire ms. out loud in final edits, listening for anything that doesn't sound right. I definitely have an internal rhythm I listen for.

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  22. HUGE importance. I read everything out loud several times (some more quietly than other) it helps pull out awkward sentences. Love it.

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  23. Great post. For me, reading aloud is the true test; it helps eliminate the awkward sentences and dialogue.

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  24. very true! :) great post. i often read my work aloud to check to see how it sounds.

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  25. ah, yes, Lyndylove, I'm one of those who actually believe that the music of words is the most important in a novel. It's the thing that carries you along or the thing that ruins the book if it's missing.

    I've noticed that writers with the natural narrative talent have the best music in their sentences.

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  26. I know it sounds crazy but when I'm writing in a good rhythm, I get a feeling almost like I am rocking in a boat.

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  27. Oh I agree. The sibilant sounds and careful use of alliteration are all devices I choose carefully. Which is yet another reason it takes me so long to go through revisions and edits...I fester fester fester over every minute detail as much as the big scope plot constructs.

    I read aloud chapter by chapter during final edits. I also try and have my husband or a beta read it aloud to me...this is really when I find out if there are stumbling spots or the last little typos/missing words.

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  28. Wonderful explanation.
    I read aloud to check rhythm.

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  29. I'm glad you posted this. I have always heard a rhythm with my writing, and I never knew how to explain it to someone who didn't get it.
    Reading it outloud allows for it to come through.

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  30. This is so true - I think the rhythm of sentences and how they fit together is a large part of the ever-elusive "voice". Although I don't read my work out loud to myself enough... I should really do that more.

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  31. Thanks for the reminder. Writing is music. We hear it, feel it... We read aloud.

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  32. It is very important. I believe that rhythm is our 'voice'. I place a lot of emphasis on that. One reason I enjoy hearing the author read their own work - you can hear it so clearly.

    Reading my own work in front of an audience gives me a stronger sense of my rhythms, too.

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  33. I always write to music - helps me with pacing and mood.

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  34. Jennifer, yep, that internal rhythm is so important to find.

    Jolene, aw, you don't shout out your ms to the roof tops? ;)

    Ellie, it's surprising how well reading out loud works.

    Aspiring, that's probably why you have such a strong voice in your works.

    Dezzy-baby-hun, I have a question for you. When you translate books do you try to match the music as well as the meaning of the words you're translating?

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  35. Jenna, it's a good feeling that :)

    Lola, attention to detail is good, and yes, it does take time, but it's worth it in the end.
    I've never asked someone to read my work back to me, but it's an exceptionally good idea.

    Mary, thanks :)

    Terri, yes it can be difficult to explain to a non writer. They are like, "word? music? what are you on about?" lol

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  36. Ishta, I'll have to write a post about voice..hmm..maybe after Novemeber when I have some time to give it justice.

    Robert, and yet the music of words is often neglected...

    M Pax, yes, hearing the author read their work adds a whole new dimension to the story.

    Alex, me too. I love soundtracks.

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  37. What a beautiful post. I'm all about learning the rhythm of my WiP... aren't we all?

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  38. I never thought of it this way, but yes, I guess I do try to think of it in terms of a musical phrase, or sentence. Wow. I like this way of thinking about my writing!

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  39. This post was certainly like music!

    I agree with you, Lynda. It's very important to have a rhythm in our words. Reading our stories out loud can help a great deal in figuring out what's going right or wrong.

    Jai

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  40. Yes, that's a very beautiful way to think of it! It should sound like music, perfectly in tone :)

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  41. Jen, It's a never ending journey of learning :)

    Lydia, writing is not only an expression but an artform :)

    Jai, thanks :)

    WritingNut, yes, exactly, tone!

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  42. "Dezzy-baby-hun, I have a question for you. When you translate books do you try to match the music as well as the meaning of the words you're translating?"

    well off course, darling, I always transmit the style of the writer not just the words used. It can be difficult sometimes when his/her style is ugly because then my translation has to transmit the ugliness as well :) This is exactly why I love writers who have music in their veins - in such cases I can dance tango with their sentences as well while translating them:)))

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  43. Wow! This is so true, and me being a musician as well as a writer can definitely relate. I'm always trying to make my prose sing (I sometimes fail terribly). Whenever my writing is flat I don't feel satisfied. It's terrible really. Writing firsts drafts is quite time consuming! :o) PS: found you over at Nicole Ducleroir's! New followere here! *waves*

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  44. Well, no old follower, but I just rediscovered you :o) LOL

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  45. I can hear the rhythm in some writing but never knew WHY I liked it better than other writing. You hit truisms here. Thanks!

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  46. Dez, That's very cool. You must be a good translator then to be able to dance or skip to the same beat as the work you're translating :)

    Jessica, I have a theory that finding the music in words is easier for a musician (or an appreciator of music) because they are used to listening for the beat. Oh and welcome back! :)

    Victoria, it's often so subtle it's not consciously noticed (and that's a good thing!)

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  47. Rhythm's critical, though not until you've finished every portion of the editing process but those last polishes. Rhythm adjustment happens there. It's where your novel turns to poetry - where multiple strands of meaning and emotion are laced through every word. Great post.

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  48. Victoria, it certainly saves time if you wait until the final polishes to focus on rhythm. The amount of tossing I do before then is crazy.

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