You almost always know when a conversation turns bad. People get formal; their speech moves away from a relaxed, comfortable tone and towards a rigid and cautious one. The rhythms of their language almost completely flatten out - they may start speaking faster, their points disjointed and hurried. People stop talking to each other and begin talking at each other. The connection is gone.
When a human being speaks with confidence for any length beyond a few words, their voice naturally takes on a conversational cadence that changes with shifts in emotional state. It's a quality that is almost like music; it gives body to the speaker's words and conveys a sense of relaxed contentment in his or her ideas and thoughts.
Voice rhythm, while playing a vital role in establishing rapport in everyday conversation, is also a fundamental component of good writing - as well as conspicuously absent from almost all bad writing.
Consider the famous rhyme:
Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow;
and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.
And now consider this version:
Mary had a lamb which was little with white fleece and it followed her.
Can you tell the difference in the second version?
Aside from its terrible structure and questionable grammar, that singsong rhythm found in the original has been destroyed. There is no music at all in the second version - it sounds rushed, as though the writer was skimming over the details. The facts are all the same, but the reader effects are very different. The second version is dry and cold while the cadence of the original makes that one fun to say. People remember the little lamb with fleece so white; no one wants to remember the short sheep that had white wool and was overly needy.
Knowing how to intentionally create the difference between the two is absolutely vital if you expect to establish trust and rapport based solely on your writing.
Playing The Music Of Punctuation
Musicians will tell you that it often isn't the notes, but the silences between the notes that create music. Writing works in much the same way. If you want to develop an elegant writing voice, you must develop an educated ear - not only for how words sound, but how the spaces between the words do as well.
Language rhythm emerges in pauses, moments of rest that occur with regularity. To write something that is a pleasure to read, you must give the reader places to take a short break, breaks that can be found in predictable places by the reader's subconscious mind. These pauses are created with punctuation, different punctuation marks creating different types of pauses and tone shifts:
As the reader's attention sails through the writer's words, punctuation regulates and directs that flow. Understanding the subtle differences between various marks is the first step to knowing how to build those differences into powerful effects - as well as how to avoid ugly effects that you don't want.
- At the short end of the spectrum are commas. A comma, handy little thing it is, creates only a very small pause, so small that commas often get dropped even when they shouldn't.
- Next in line are emdashes - dashes used to split off tangent phrases - which create not only a longer pause but also a shift in tone as the subject is temporarily changed. Parentheses do a similar job (but with slightly less effect).
- Semicolons are the most abrasive pauses that you can deploy without stopping the flow cold; they marry two related sentences into a single complex structure, avoiding a sentence termination. Semicolons are useful in articles that require complex thoughts; they are often used in fiction for literary purpose; they can be downright lethal in persuasive ad and website copy, due to their power to turn sentences into paragraphs and readers into sleepers. Semicolons make long sentences out of short ones.
- Sentence terminators (periods, question marks, exclamation points) do more than pause the flow. They stop it dead. Cold. A transition is required to get the flow going again. Commas tap the brakes. Periods slam them. (Have you ever noticed that question marks slam them and then get philosophical? Exclamation points slam them and then make demands!)
Learning By Listening
Even with a basic understanding of technique, learning to write with rhythm doesn't happen overnight: you must train yourself to be consciously aware of how written language is perceived by a reader. Growing comfortable and confident with your own writing voice takes time, practice and patience.
In conversation, in what you read, even in movie and television dialogue, pay attention to the rhythm in the words that capture your emotions. Learn to tell the difference between music and noise. Listen for the pauses.
When you write, occasionally stop and read your work aloud. Take notice of your physical posture as you speak the words: are you breathing normally? Do you feel relaxed? Are you inspiring your own emotions or are you feeling stilted and rehearsed? If you do not feel the music, most likely the reader will not either.
Most of all, read. And read. And then read some more. Read fiction, nonfiction, and particularly poetry. Read the works of new writers, unfamiliar writers, classical writers, popular writers. Read Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, Charles Dickens and Tom Clancy, Henry David Thoreau and Robert Pirsig. If you are serious about your writing, make the time. Every writer possesses a unique voice and uses unique techniques for creating emotional effects with words. Being well-read will expose you to the great legacy that you have inherited as a writer yourself.
Most of us are not fated to become great poets; your ambitions may include little more than effective letter writing or website copywriting. As in all things, however, whatever is worth doing is also worth doing well. By listening to language and appreciating the musical dimension to the everyday word, anyone can create prose that is a pleasure to read - writing that is more memorable, more effective, more timeless.
Words that sing as well as speak.