When I say rhythm, you probably think of drums and counting beats. Possibly poetry and meter. But all language has rhythm, whether it's spoken or written or signed, and you can use variations in rhythm to keep your reader interested.
Most authors have a "default" sentence length they tend to write. (I tend toward longer sentences with lots of clauses, if you hadn't noticed.) There's no one length that's right or wrong. But if all your sentences are long, you wear your reader out. If they're all short, your reader can feel like you're shooting rapid-fire sentence bullets at them.
Varying your sentence lengths is key to keeping a reader interested and refreshed.
There's a classic example of how this works, written by Gary Provost:
Isn't that amazing?
Provost could have tried to explain sentence rhythm til the cows came home, but this demonstration is so much more effective.
Now, bland rhythm can be a hard thing to catch while editing. But never fear, because we have two tips to help you.
First, READ YOUR WORK ALOUD.
Have you ever read much Dr. Seuss to kids? He did a lot to encourage kids to read, but some of those books can be torture to read, because of the repetitive rhythm. If you find yourself falling into a metered pattern while you read, or you notice that you're always breathing in the same place, you probably should tweak some sentences for length.
Second, there's a cool add-on for Google Chrome called "Highlight the Music." You can run it on any Google doc, and it will color-code your sentences by length. It's free to download, and you can find it here.
*I, assistant editor Bethany, have never had any difficulty with this add-on. However, please do always save and backup your work before using any new word processing type programs.*
Someone already ran Provost's rhythm paragraph through the Highlight the Music add-on. So this is what it looks like in use, for those of you who are visual like me:
I find it helpful in my work to be able to look at it and see where I have massive chunks of one color that I need to break up. Not every page needs to be a rainbow, but if it's all one solid color, you probably want to change things up.
So take a look at the rhythm in your own manuscript, and see what kind of music YOU can make. Happy editing!
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!