Put some rhythm in your copy

by Tom Albrighton 8 June 2015 Copywriting, Tone of voice

You read with your eyes, and listen with your ears. But researchers have found that, when people read, they actually hear the sound of the words in their heads. So you read with your ears too, in a sense.

If that’s the case, the rhythm of your copy is a crucial part of its impact. If what you’re saying doesn’t ‘sound’ right to the reader, how likely are they to do what you want?

Animal_drums_2011To some extent, rhythm is one of those writing skills that just has to be learned over time. Through reading (any reading), practice and careful listening (of which more later), you learn to sense the pace and cadence of your words – and, more importantly, how to improve it.

For me, rhythm usually comes at the editing phase, not the first draft. I get the ideas down first, regardless of how gauche or grunty they sound, then go back and try to sculpt them into something more graceful. Of course, your mileage may vary. Maybe you put things like ‘[and one more]’ or ‘bom-tidde-pom’ as placeholders in your first draft, and hang your meaning on that rhythmic framework later on.

Once you got rhythm, don’t expect many compliments about it. Unless you’re deliberately aiming for an arrhythmic effect, the right rhythm will probably just sound natural and flowing, without drawing attention to itself. Actually, I think this is probably one of the aspects that clients are unconsciously responding to when they say work sounds ‘professional’, ‘punchy’ or just ‘good’. Conversely, the most irksome direct amends are often those that mess up the rhythmic flow.

Levels of rhythm

There are different levels of rhythm within a piece of writing, all interconnected.

  • At the most micro level, there’s the rhythm of words and syllables (prosody, or metre).
  • Then we have the rhythm that emerges from a succession of sentences, and the slower rhythm of unfolding paragraphs.
  • Finally, if the piece is long enough, there may be an even deeper rhythm in the form of a narrative arc or overall structure that gives shape to the whole piece.

Let’s look at a few suggestions and examples for these different levels.

Word rhythm

Word rhythm is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a sequence of words. When the words are spoken aloud, you can hear a stress (sometimes called an emphasis) as a slight increase in loudness, or a longer vowel. You can also hear pauses between words, often (but not always) indicated by punctuation such as commas, full stops and so on.

At the simplest level, you’re looking for a pleasing pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Word order that sounds wrong will often come from putting two stresses next to each other that need to be separated, or just changed. You also want a nice mix of shorter and longer words – usually with more short than long, for clarity and simplicity as well as rhythm. And you want enough breaks and pauses to let the reader mentally ‘draw breath’ between your points.

For an example, let’s look at what is arguably the greatest popular song ever written. (Primary stresses are marked with ´ and secondary ones with `; line breaks indicate a breathing pause.)

Áll my tróubles séemed so fár àwáy
Nów it lóoks as thòugh they’re hére to stáy
Oh Í bèlíeve in yéstèrdáy

See how Paul expertly varies the rhythm for development and expression. Beginning with a single word, opaque in isolation, the song takes flight in the second line – lyrically to ‘far away’, melodically to a higher register and harmonically to the relative minor. Then it gently drifts down through resignation in the third line before finally returning to the tonic, the earth’s surface and the solidity of ‘belief’ in the fourth.

In terms of word length, ‘yesterday’ stands out with its three syllables: all the others apart from ‘troubles’, ‘away’ and ‘believe’ have just one. But the length of the lines varies widely, mirroring the lyrical arc I’ve just described. (Incidentally, Paul sang ‘scrambled eggs’ in the first line until he came up with ‘yesterday’ – showing that the very best writers sometimes get the rhythm before the sense.)

The lesson is clear: mix it up.

A good general guide is that you should be able to say each sentence in a single breath, just as vocalists must do with lyric lines. However, that’s a maximum, not a target. Punctuate flowing, discursive passages with something more bracing, like the previous paragraph or a cross-heading, to bring the reader up short and stop them drifting off to sleep (unless you’re consciously aiming for a hypnotic effect).

Conversely, don’t use so much ‘punch’ (primary stress + pause) that you end up battering the reader into submission. Shórt wórks. But nót tóo múch. It wéars péople óut. Húrts théir héads. Líke thís. Sée? Só dón’t.

Having said that, a short sequence of consecutive stresses can be very effective if you have ‘parallel’ points that you want to give equal emphasis to, like quality and value in this famous slogan:

Góod fóod cósts léss at Sáinsbury’s

Improving word rhythm

You can improve the rhythm of your writing via an almost infinite array of tinkering tactics: changing word order, switching between synonyms, modifying punctuation, swapping clauses, splitting or joining sentences, adopting or dropping contractions (‘don’t’, ‘you’ve’ etc), adding or removing ‘that’s and altering paragraph breaks. The skill comes with experience, but you can accelerate the learning process by always thinking consciously about the rhythm of your writing as you work.

Here’s an example from something I worked on recently:

Chóose fròm lóads òf beaútiful pátterns, inclùding smárt strípes, fún spóts and sophísticàted àrgíll.

Say it out loud to yourself to hear the stresses I’ve marked. ‘Choose from loads of’ is a bit stodgy; there are too many primary stresses close together. ‘Beautiful patterns’ is OK, and ‘including’ gives a nice run-up to the set of three (see below), but ‘smart stripes’ and ‘fun spots’ both juxtapose two primary stresses, putting humps in the rhythm. Conversely, ‘sophisticated argill’ has too long a string of unstressed syllables and secondary stresses separating its primary stresses.

A better version might be (amendments in bold):

Chóose from dózens òf beaútiful pátterns, inclùding snázzy strípes, fúnky spóts and clássy àrgíll.

I’m no closer to a Yellow Pencil, but at least it trips off the tongue a bit better. We now have a rippling dactylic run in ‘dozens of beautiful patterns’ (ba-de-da, ba-de-da, ba-da). Switching to ‘snazzy stripes’ and ‘funky spots’ affects the meaning only marginally, but makes those two terms flow much more smoothly, while ‘classy argill’ tightens up the piecemeal ending without sacrificing the stressed close, to which we will now turn.

Ending on a stressed syllable

As Giles Coren noted in his memorable, insanely potty-mouthed rant about Times subs altering his copy, you should always end on a stressed syllable. Here’s the relevant bit:

Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

I’m not sure this learning actually is ‘pre-GCSE’, but it’s certainly something you come across if you study literature. For example, have a look at Macbeth’s famous soliliquy (stressed-syllable endings emboldened):

Shè shóuld have díed hereáfter;
There wóuld have béen a tíme for súch a wórd.
— To-mórrow, ànd to-mórrow, ànd to-mórrow,
Créeps ín thìs pétty páce from dáy to dáy,
Tò the lást s´yllable òf recórded tíme;
Ànd áll our yésterdàys have líghted fóols
The wáy to dústy déath. Óut, óut, brìef cándle!
Lífe’s but a wálking shádow, a póor pláyer
That strúts and fréts his hóur upòn the stáge
And thén is héard nò móre. It is a tále
Tóld by an ídiòt, fúll of sóund and fúry
Sígnif`ying nóthing.

This illustrates both the observance of the rule, and when it might be worth breaking it. The stresses on ‘word’, ‘time’, ‘death’ and ‘more’ give tangible, oppressive weight to the fatalistic sentiments, while the throwaway doubleback of ‘nothing’ (which could easily have been ‘naught’) expresses existential frustration at life’s meaningless and lack of closure.

In most situations, you’ll probably want your copy to sound confident, certain and solid, so ending on a stressed syllable will be the way to go. That applies to whole pieces, paragraphs within them and individual sentences or lines.

However, if you do want to express ambiguity or doubt (when writing in persona, for example, maybe in a charity ad), by all means do the opposite. And don’t let rhythm override sense or memorability – reworking ‘Wé tr´y hárder’ or ‘Jùst dó it’ to avoid the unstressed close would have been madness.

The rule of three

The rule of three suggests that writing structures based on three elements are inherently more satisfying, compelling and generally effective. For example, while pairs of adjectives can feel adversarial or abrupt, sets of three feel rounded, balanced and harmonious. There’s something about threes that just feels right.

The same applies to the number of sentences in a paragraph. The preceding para follows the rule, as does this one. Three sentences allow you to unfold an argument in a clear, linear and pleasing way.

Often, the three sentences conform to a particular semantic or logical sequence that you might find yourself using again and again. For example, first you assert a premise. Then you qualify or develop it. Finally, you set out its implication, conclusion or consequence (as decided by you, to persuade the reader).

You know you need to sort out your pension. But understanding all those regulations can be difficult, if not impossible. What you really need is a knowledgeable guide.

Without the third sentence, the sentiment is altogether more bleak – and this emotional sting would remain, albeit less forcefully, even if the third sentence were to follow on immediately in the next paragraph. Breaks and pauses aren’t just for rhythm or visual clarity; they mean ‘stop and think’, and their timing dictates which points your reader dwells on. Clearing things up as you go helps you carry the reader along with you, and three-sentence paragraphs are often ideal for this.

As a variation, you can make a pertinent observation, link it to a benefit and then back it up with a proof point.

Nobody likes being paid late. Our invoice factoring service takes away the hassle, so you can concentrate on real work. So far, we’ve collected an impressive 85% of the debts we’ve taken on.

The rule of three can apply to larger writing structures too. For a long-copy ad, three paragraphs might work well. If you’re writing a story, you might want to use the ‘challenge, initiation, return’ structure of the Monomyth (see What really makes a good story?). Or you might want to organise your writing by focusing on three events, periods, people, products, services or benefits. You’ll nearly always find you end up with a pleasing structure as a result.

The only problem with the rule of three is when it becomes, er, a rule. It’s an excellent go-to approach if you’re struggling to shape your copy, because you can be fairly confident it will impose a logical structure and a certain level of readability. But there are times when that structure becomes a straitjacket. For example, what if you want to add a fourth point to a paragraph, as I’m doing now? Or a fifth?

As ever, rules are for the observance of fools and the instruction of the wise. You use them as long as they help, but drop them the second they stop. If your copy naturally falls into a tripartite structure, great. But if you find yourself splitting or joining sentences, or adding unneeded adjectives, purely to respect the rule, it’s time to loosen up.

Also, if you observe the rule of three too slavishly, you could end up with a sentence rhythm so regular that it puts the reader to sleep. You’re trying to write a melody, not just a beat.

Alternatively, you might feel you don’t want your rhythm to be so rounded and symmetrical. Maybe it just doesn’t suit the tone of voice you want to achieve. For example, I once ghost-wrote a foreword on behalf of a CEO. Partly because of the tone of the piece (practical, forward-looking, optimistic), and partly because of his own background and personality (former engineer, rigorous, logical) and first language (German), a two-sentence paragraph structure just felt right. First this, then that; if this, therefore that. If I’d smoothed off all the corners, some of that desirable directness would have been lost.

Listen to your copy

As I noted at the beginning, rhythm is something you hear as well as read. So you really need to hear your copy out loud to get a sense of the rhythm.

The simplest way to do that is to recite it yourself. However, it’s easy to be distracted by the sound of your own voice, or feelings of self-consciousness. Also, you might be in an environment where it’s just not practical.

An alternative is to get someone else to read your copy to you. But, again, you might feel self-conscious having someone else look at a work in progress.

The method I use most is text to speech, which I covered in this post. The computer doesn’t always get the rhythm right, but it does give you the sense of someone else reading to you, and it’s far better than silent reading.

So there you go – a few thoughts on putting rhythm into your copy. Of course, compelling rhythm won’t transform a bad idea. But awkward rhythm could make a good one sound unconvincing. So when you’ve finished your lyrics, it’s always worth spending a little time on the beat.

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