Good Writing is Like Music

Two tips to help you write with rhythm and flow.

Good writing is like music — it flows smoothly and has a natural rhythm. When your writing flows, your reader can focus on the story, rather than the words on the page.

Here are two ways to make your writing sing:

  1. Vary your sentence length. Mix up short and long sentences to create a natural rhythm in your prose.

  2. Vary your sentence structure. Break it up with commas, semicolons, parentheses, and em-dashes — this tells the reader what’s important (and lets him breathe).

To show you why, here’s a quote from legendary writing coach Gary Provost. This is from his book 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing (link).

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with the energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals - sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t write just words. Write music.

Gary Provost

Why Sentence Length?

Shorter sentences are easier to read. They flow better. On the other hand, a longer sentence requires more focus, and slows down the pace of the narrative.

Use short sentences:

  • When you need to speed up the pacing

  • To write quick actions, movements, or dialogue

  • To draw attention to a specific point (e.g. “Write music.”)

  • When you want the prose to have a hoppy, staccato feel

Use long sentences:

  • When you need to slow down the pacing

  • To immerse the reader in vivid descriptions

  • To set the tone and create a sense of atmosphere

  • To highlight the importance of a scene (see the Blood Meridian quote below)

Why Sentence Structure?

In English, there are four types of sentences: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex (link). However, as fiction writers, we’re not interested in academic definitions.

Let me show you the four most common sentence structures in fiction:

  1. Simple sentences: This is your ordinary declarative sentence. It’s the most common sentence type in fiction. “This is something you should know,” it says. (e.g. This sentence has no frills.)

  2. Lists: You’ll often have to make lists of things. Maybe you’re listing traits, or maybe you’re listing people. (e.g. She had red hair, green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a face full of freckles.)

  3. Arguments: Once in a while, you’ll need to argue a point. Familiar sentences in this category include the “if-then”, the “yes-but”, and the “x because y”. (e.g. Argument sentences are more complex because they are causal.)

  4. Interruptions: An interruption is when you break a sentence to add a point — like this (or this) — for emphasis or better clarity.

See how each type of sentence impacts the flow of your prose? Use them accordingly.

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How do I do this?

Writing with flow and rhythm takes practice. You won’t be able to do it right away, but over time, rhythm will become your second nature. Here’s how to start:

  1. Experiment with rearranging sentences. Break or combine them to create a rhythmic balance in your writing. This is difficult at first, but as you write, it gets easier.

  2. Read your writing out loud! This helps you hear how the words sound (rather than just see the words). Reading out loud will help you identify any clunky or awkward phrasing. As you read, pay attention to how the sentences flow into each other. Make adjustments as necessary to create a smooth, natural rhythm.

  3. Copy a style you’re unfamiliar with. If you’re a short-sentence writer like me, you can copy a florid writer like McCarthy or Faulkner. If you’re a long-sentence writer, try copying a declarative writer like Hemingway. Copying helps you learn.

Here’s an example of a long sentence from Blood Meridian. Pay attention to how it forces you to slow down:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses' ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse's whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen's faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Cormac McCarthy

Here’s the Gary Provost quote from earlier, highlighted:

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