Maybe You Don't Sing, But Your Writing Should.
I read occasionally in a review, “The writing sings.” What does that mean? Did the author write a song? Does every line use the same number of syllables? Does he repeat the title ad nauseam in the chorus? I think the answer is yes. And more.
Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?
As a musician, I might be more sensitive to the idea that writing should have rhythm. It’s one part of what makes prose “sing.” When you read a relentless string of run-on sentences it can be exhausting, like listening to droning Eastern music. You never know when it’s going to end. As a writer, you have to supply little opportunities here and there to give your reader a chance to take a breath. Like this. I find sentence fragments to be not only acceptable, but important to the rhythm of writing. Some writers, like Hemingway, have a more brutal approach to rhythm. Kind of like heavy metal. Short, punchy, declarative sentences—punch punch punch! Bam bam bam! Hemingway, like AC/DC, can actually make it swing while keeping it hard boiled. That takes skill, talent, and experience. Not to mention a skin-tight rhythm section.
Rhythm in writing can be a hard thing to quantify, although I know it when I’m reading it. Some authors like T.C. Boyle and Michael Chabon tend to adapt their rhythm to the style of the story they’re telling. Elmore Leonard and George Pelicanos wield crisp dialogue like a conductor’s wand, alternating rapid-fire exchanges that speed the heart rate with longer, more detailed passages that allow the reader to sit back a little and absorb some backstory at a more relaxed pace.
Let's Talk Prosody
Another thing that helps your writing sing is careful word choice. Pay attention to your prosody, which is the rhythm and sounds created by a series of words. For every idea you’re trying to put into words, the exact word to convey your specific meaning is out there, and there’s always one that will sound more pleasing in your sentence. Also, I generally try to use the shortest word that nails the meaning. The gratuitous slathering of ten-dollar words throughout your writing can be sand in the Vaseline. Every time I have to dive for the dictionary, it breaks my reading trance and brings a little bit of resentment. (“Brobdingnagian?” Couldn’t she have just written “big” or “massive” or “enormous?”) While it’s true that at the heart of all this we write for ourselves, we can’t just satisfy our own whims—or flex our vocabulary muscles—at the cost of the reader’s attention and trust. Simplify. Tighten. Clarify. It will help keep your rhythm rockin’.
Don't Bore Us, Get to the Chorus.
That's a frequently-used and widely ignored bromide from the songwriting world. The chorus of a song typically contains the hook, and you want to hook the listener as soon as possible. How do we do that with writing? One of the most potent pieces of advice I got early on in my writing career was from a successful novelist. She’d read the manuscript from my bloated, overwrought first novel and asked me, “Are you sure you’re starting your story in the right place?” Sure, I said. I started at the beginning. “But is that where you want your reader to pick up the thread?” Then I got it—hook the reader right away with some action that helps reveal some characters while leading quickly to the conflict. Stir in expository information as needed. That’s more of a guideline than a hard rule, of course, but I’m more likely to throw a book across the room if it opens with four pages of detailed description of the weather, or a long narrative about where and when the protagonist bought his outfit.
Writing prose that sings is my goal. Like a satisfying musical composition, great prose is the culmination of several failed experiments and hard decisions. Like William Faulkner said, kill your darlings. You might absolutely adore a turn of phrase you came up with, but if it doesn’t push the narrative forward, or if there’s a more succinct way to say it, it’s adios, pretty little muchacho. Less truly is more, most of the time. Writing that sings is a joy to read, without saying, “Look at me!”
Writing With Rhythm Isn't a Party Trick.
There are no hard and fast rules that will easily add rhythm to your writing, although these ideas I’ve presented might help your prose at least carry a tune. You can also work on making your writing vary its scope, which is a big step toward adding rhythm. Throw down a couple of broad strokes. Then zoom in for a small, telling detail. It can keep the reader mentally engaged, opening the door for emotional impact, which is what we all want, right? Except maybe Hemingway. No one knows what he wanted.