Friday, April 22, 2011

How to Wield the Power of the Syllable

Syllables are units of speech sound. They create the rhythm of words through changing tones and stresses. They are the musical notes.

As a writer, it’s important to understand the influence syllables have on words. The more syllables a word carries, the more complex the word becomes and this will impact the rhythm. For example: ‘Acknowledgement’ is not considered a ‘big word’ in terms of the percentage of the population knowing its meaning. It is, however, a complex word because it has four syllables. Words with many syllables will slow down the pace of our prose.

If we choose a word with many syllables over a word with few, then another result is often an emphasis on that word, especially if the majority of our prose is made up of simple words. For example: small (1 syllable), tiny (2 syllables), minuscule (3 syllables), infinitesimal (6 syllables – gasp). ‘Infinitesimal’ has a greater emphasis than small and is stronger than ‘very small’. As demonstrated, using syllables in this way will also lessen the temptation to use adverbs.

The emphasis is made even greater when we place a complex word in amongst simple words and vice versa. We should, of course, ask ourselves, ‘Do I want that emphasis?’

Part of the beauty of rhythms is their variance. It’s good to mix up the syllable count to gain flow to our text.

When choosing words, do you think about their syllable count? What are your thoughts about the more complex words? How often do you read your manuscripts aloud to hear the rhythms?

Note: This post is part of the A-Z Challenge. To learn more about the challenge click the image on my sidebar.

Reminder: I’ve entered my blog into the People’s Choice Award as part of the Sydney Writers’ Centre Best Australian Blogs Award 2011. If you haven’t already, please vote for my blog here. It is listed under W.I.P It: A Writer’s Journey -- Lynda Young.


  1. Depends on what you write and for what audience, I think. I don't necessarily pay attention to syllables, but I do pay attention to rhythm and flow.

  2. Informative post! I've never counted syllables to select words and likely never will. I do, however, read my writing out loud to hear its "music" and feel.

  3. I do think of the syllables, or at least the rhythm of the sentence and how it flows in the paragraph and on up.

  4. I have to admit, I've only given thought to syllables when trying very hard to write poetry! But I hope my stories have a kind of rhythm too (fingers crossed!)!!! Thank you for a very interesting thought provoking post! I gotta find my writerly rhythm! Take care

  5. ah,bummer, don't tell me I, as a translator, also have to follow this syllable symphony of yours while translating a book :)))

    I actually had an eight syllable verse poem to translate in my last book, which also had words with dual and metaphorical meanings which were some kind of clues to finding some treasure when read right ... Serbian language has much more syllables in our words so it's was a hell to translate and still keep the meaning, the form and the hidden clues. I think I died a bit while doing it :)

  6. I'm a musician and I don't even think about this when writing! Well, maybe I do, and I just don't realize it.

  7. When my inner editor is out in full force, my manuscripts really come under scrutiny in terms of rhythm and flow. This kind of 'music' is a very satisfying way to marry poetry and prose.

    Super post.

  8. So far, when editing my flash fiction writing exercises etc, I read aloud and find many many times that a word doesn't seem to work. Although I never thought about it, I guess it comes down to rhythm and syllables. Great post.

  9. M Pax, oh yes, of course. Yep, it helps to understand where that rhythm and flow comes from.

    Mohamed, hey there. It makes a difference reading out loud, doesn't it.

    Holly, great

    Old Kitty, hehe. It's something to consider once the main structure of the story is set.

  10. Dezzy, hahaha that would have been a nightmare! I don't envy you that task.

    Alex, yeah I reckon it's an unconscious thing for you.

    Suze, yes exactly. Glad you liked.

    Kari, it might help you identify the problems. Reading aloud is so helpful.

  11. I have never even thought about this. What a great thought. Wow there are a lot of things to be aware of and think about. Great post.

  12. I often read my work aloud and write the way I want it to sound, so I guess I'm taking into account syllables without realising it.

    Great post, you're doing a good job keeping up with this challenge.

    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  13. Great post. I just voted for you :)

  14. As a journalist I was always told that if you couldn't say it to someone you shouldn't expect them to read it either. Long words make writing complex - but I hate things that are too simple. I think balance is important.

  15. I will think about it more carefully after reading this post!

    Duncan In Kuantan

  16. I consider sentence and paragraph length. And I think somewhere deep inside, I know that if a person is totally stressed out or scared they aren't going to be using big words.

  17. I guess I think about it in a slightly different way. My default is more complex words, because they're often more parsimonious (like infinitesmal--one word--vs. very small--two). However, I often do try to control the vocabulary, depending less on the sound of things and more on the voice of the piece or the character who is speaking. Very interesting post!

  18. Cool post! I don't often think of syllables but I am conscious of the rhythm of words.

  19. Thanks for the interesting writing tip. Like so many others, I hadn't really thought about the nuances of syllables.

  20. I don't think about syllable count, but I try to be mindful of flow. Stephen King in his book On Writing said to use the word that comes to mind, because that's usually the right one. Too many manuscripts I've read try to clutter with big words, when often a simple on works better. I made the same mistake when I first wrote, overusing the thesaurus.

  21. Ah, now this is an interesting post!!! I will ponder this...

  22. One of my favorite classes in college was one on poetry-- we had a whole section on the tone and rythm of words-- Iambic pentameter, etc...
    I love words and the music they make.

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  24. Great point that too many syllables in the wrong place (or anywhere) can slow down the pace of a novel. Or feel clunky. Reading aloud is a good way to catch these. Um, yes! I will need to read my current novel revision aloud to myself! Thanks for the reminder. :)

  25. I'll give this some consideration.
    I'm not sure of its serviceability.
    How about, "But the grace of our Lord surpassingly over-abounded" to prove your point?

  26. What a great topic - I don't really think about syllables when I'm writing but this makes me realize they should at least be in my consciousness. Thanks and nice to "meet" you on the a-z challenge.

  27. Fascinating post. I've never stopped to consider syllables before, though I've often heard about rythm in writing. I shall be giving it consideration from now on. Thank you!

    Ellie Garratt

  28. I never thought of that.LOL.I guess it can be very helpful for those who write rhyming poems, but not for those who write prose poems.

  29. Josh, thanks

    Charmaine, yes, exactly. You are taking into account.

    Niki, thanks so much for the vote.

    MorningAJ, absolutely.

    Duncan, great

    Laura, for sure! That's a great addition on how it's useful to be aware of word length and complexity

  30. Sarah, for sure..and even voice has a certain sound depending on the character.

    Clarissa, and it makes such a difference to our prose

    Pam, I think it's something worth thinking about. :)

    Theresa, oh for sure. Like everything else, we need to have an understanding of why we use words. If it's to show off or sound like a 'writer' then we are using them for the wrong reason.

  31. Ibdiamond, hehe great.

    Jo, same here.

    Carol, hehe it's an easy thing to skip because we feel we've 'heard' our manuscripts if we've read them silently to ourselves. It's worth the extra time it takes though.

    David, HA. We don't have to sit and count all the syllables, but it does help to be aware of the music they make.

    Karen, and wonderful to meet you too :)

    Ellie, hope it helps.

    Maria, even prose has a certain rhythm and flow.

  32. I can honestly say I haven't thought about this before. I mean, I notice the rhythm of sentences when the rhythm is "out", but I haven't thought specifically of how the number of syllables in words is related to that. Something to think about. Thanks!


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