Rhythm is an powerful element in your writing. And you can think of the rhythm of your writing in (at least) two ways. It can be the technique of matching the pace of your copy to the feelings and visuals you intend to create. But you can also think of rhythm as a way to impart a “musicality” and unpredictability.
Consciously using rhythm techniques helps you generate sight, feeling and, yes, even sound images for your reader.
People internalize what they read as visual images – that’s one of the great beauties of sitting down with a good book: it gives you the opportunity to create mental worlds. And the pace of your writing reinforces the mood of its visuals, in an almost movie-like way.
To inspire an excited, fast-moving feeling in your reader, punctuate intentionally, and impart motion through the use of action verbs and short, rolling words. If you want to convey a relaxed feeling, a sense of rest or of moodiness, lengthen your sentences, use abundant punctuation and appropriate descriptives, and pay very close attention to detail.
Your pulse races, hands clenching your ticket as she comes flying into the homestretch. Whispering a prayer, you watch her cross the line. A photo finish. Too close to call. Eternal silence. Bated breath. The announcement crackles in your ear. She lost. By a nose.
How do you feel? Breathing just a bit shallower? This example is full of short, incomplete sentences. Lots of periods that bring readers abruptly to the close of a moment, yet leave them hanging, so they want to move on. Visually, it’s choppy, a montage of images that gives you more information than actually appears in the words themselves.
Now read this:
Your pulse races, your hand clenches your ticket, she comes flying into the homestretch. You whisper a prayer, she crosses the line, a photo finish, too close to call, eternal silence, bated breath. The announcement crackles in your ear. She lost by a nose.
Pretty much the same short sentences, but a different scheme of punctuation. Does that change the images the passage creates in your mind? Me, I visualize this event in a softer focus. The montage isn’t as stop-and-go; instead it almost flows with a strange quality of suspended motion that is at odds with the obvious speed of what is happening.
You gotta use a technique like this sparingly – heaven forbid you should create a whole Web page or email of it. It would quickly bore your readers by becoming predictable and would lose its inherent power.
Now let’s set a different mood:
Your fingers finally uncramp and ease their vise grip on damp paper, a palpable weight in your open palm, the embodiment of hope that has become failed dream. You shred precisely, with contempt, then surrender the useless burden, and the tatters flutter like betrayal to the stained concrete at your feet, no longer distinguishable in their promise from crumpled candy wrappers and empty plastic cups.
Now how do you feel? Can you see the palm opening in slow motion, ticket fragments falling like decayed petals? Can you sense the despair?
One definition of rhythm is: an alternating recurrence of similar elements. Songs have rhythm; jokes have rhythm in their timing and delivery. Good copywriting has rhythm that is revealed in the variation of sentence length – and it is precisely this sort of rhythm that gives your reader a sense the copy “sounds” compelling.
When you consistently write sentences that are all the same length, your writing develops a plodding predictability. To avoid this, mix up your sentence lengths: a short sentence, a long sentence, a long sentence, a medium sentence, then another short sentence. This last sentence will carry some impact, because the reader wasn’t expecting it. Another short sentence might reinforce the impact. Then a long one. Give your reader the experience of rhythm in variety.
Interestingly, there is a “rhythm in three.” When you incorporate a series of things into a sentence, three seems to be the magic number. It has a nice rhythm – we hear it as complete and satisfying. “We leap into the boat, setup the sail and venture out onto the sea.”
So plan your words to create just the right pace, then give it a good beat.