Publication Prep

3 ways to check the rhythm & flow of your writing

Whenever we read anything, we hear it in our minds. Even deaf people do this. We need an auditory representation of every word in order for the text to make sense.

Imagine then how important the rhythm and sound is of every piece we write. It affects readability to the extent that your reader may stop reading if the rhythm jars too much. (Are you still there? I hope so.)

The advice nowadays is that an important element of proof-reading is to listen to our words. What flows? What doesn’t? How can we improve it? There are three ways to check how our writing sounds.

1. Look at your sentences – speed.

Long simple sentences will increase the speed of your narrative. Short sentences will slow it down. For example:
She ran round and round the garden and thought she would never stop, shouting as she went and laughing until she was out of breath. (long & simple = speeds the narrative)
‘Stop,’ her mother screamed. ‘Just stop!’ (short = slows the narrative)

Long complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses will slow the speed down again because these are harder for the brain to process. You have to work out who is doing what to whom.

e.g. She smiled at the man, who walked into the shop carrying a huge bag and dragging an old trolley, which looked as though it had seen better days, although from the patches that had been carefully sewn on round the sides, it had clearly been the pride of someone’s life once upon a time.

2. Look at your sentences – rhythm and flow

This is where your voice or your voices come from.

Interestingly, in an Oxford study comparing a series of rhythm measurements for English, French, Greek, Russian and Mandarin, the conclusion was that languages do not have significant differences in rhythm – the major differences in rhythm come from individual speakers. (see Comparing dialects & languages using statistical measures of rhythm 2010)

If you look carefully, you will see that a particular speaker uses language in a similar way each time they speak. There will be differences that reflect emotion and differences that reflect the person to whom they are speaking, but on the whole, the ebb and flow of the language will be similar every time that person speaks. And different from the other speakers.

Can you identify which person is speaking from the rhythm of their language, the kind of vocabulary they use? Have a look in a novel written by someone else (your favourite writer?). It’s always easier to see things in the writing of someone else (because your own writing is filled out inside your head with all kinds of things of which you are only marginally aware). Then look again at your own writing.

3. Look at your sentences – sound

The sound of your words creates not only mood but adds to your message and makes your writing memorable.

Assonance (the repetition of the same vowel sounds within a phrase or sentence). It can have a soothing or hypnotic effect. For example:
‘And stepping softly with her air of blooded ruin about the glade in a frail agony of grace she trailed her rags through dust and ashes, circling the dead fire, the charred billets and chalk bones, the little calcined ribcage.’ – Cormac McCarthy, Outer Dark (example taken from Literary Devices part 1 – NY Book Editors)

Alliteration (the repetition of a sound at the beginning of adjacent – or nearly adjacent – words). This makes your writing memorable but use with care because it can also make your writing memorable in an irritating way. The example we all know is – ‘She sells seashells by the seashore.’ Alliteration is used in almost all advertising and brand names eg PayPal.

The sound of words. Certain letters make sounds that either soothe or do the opposite. ‘”Speak softly, slowly, smoothly,’ he said.” (a soothing sound) “But she didn’t. Bang, the gunshot rang out. Bang!” (a jarring, wake-up sound).

Most important of all – listen to your writing!

Read it out loud and listen to what you have written. I’ve done this myself (for whole novels) and it works. You hear all sorts of things that you miss when reading silently. Listening is a way of standing outside your story as well as hearing the sound and the flow. But it takes ages. Another drawback is that part of your mind is taken up with the reading instead of having the whole of your attention concentrated on the listening.

A different voice is helpful. Get someone to read it out to you. That’s better because you can concentrate on what you are hearing. What’s hard is to find someone willing to do it. There are limits to what even our nearest and dearest are prepared to do for us in this respect – just think of the time it takes!

Something that I’m finding increasingly useful is to use a text-to-speech program. I tried this in the past and found that the robotic voice was so mechanical and unpleasant that I went back to reading aloud myself, but these programs are improving. There is an option for everyone.

If you’ve got a chromebook, you can use the Chromevox program (free). I tried it recently and didn’t think it was brilliant, but I saw afterwards that you can change the voice so I might have another go. Here are the instructions for enabling and using Chromevox.

If you have Windows and any version of Word since 2003, there is a good text to speech reader included. I’ve tried this feature in their latest version and was impressed. Here are the instructions: Microsoft Word reads to you: how to use the Speak and Read Aloud commands (from PC World)

Finally, if you don’t have either a Chromebook or a post 2003 version of Word, there are other free text-to-speech readers available. Techradar recommend five of these. Have a look at – The best free text to speech software 2020.

OK, dear writers and readers, that’s it for now. If you try this method of proof-reading, I would be interested to hear how you get on and whether you find it useful. Good luck to you all. (And if you read it out loud to yourself and anyone overhears you, remember that talking to yourself is a sign of either madness or creativity….. it’s a sign of something anyhow. Probably endurance and that can’t be a bad thing.)

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