April 18, 2010 § 5 Comments
I am compelled by the notion of rhythm in my writing and how it helps evoke a mood. To create rhythm, I try to vary my sentences lengths and, yes, even sometimes resort to the use of sentence fragments. Gasp! This is often pointed out to me when I send my work out to be critiqued. When this first happened, I rushed to edit them out, even though I had intentionally used them. But I soon realized the mood, or feeling, I was trying to create suffered. I then went in search of justification for my use of sentence fragments, as I know I have seen them in many novels — some of which were award winners!
As in any case where a writer endeavors to break the rules, a full understanding of the “rule” and a conscious intent to break it is often the difference between success and failure.
I defend my limited use of sentence fragments as an acceptable way of creating rhythm. At the end of this blog, I have cited internet postings in support of my stance. (Some of these examples I saved from long ago, and hope I have the original references marked correctly. If not, I apologize and give full credit to the authors.)
What do you think?
Rhythm as Verbal Music
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.
Varying Sentence Length – Repetitive writing can seem robotic and dry. Especially when you write an informative paper, you may feel tempted to state the facts, one after another, in the same fashion. To avoid distracting the reader with repetitive sentences and to add rhythm and variety to your sentences, make sure you vary sentence length. Remember that there are different ways to vary the length of your sentences. Look for ways to combine sentences or to stylistically cut them short (yes, you can use fragments). Follow long sentences with short ones that help to drive your point home.
3. Sentence fragments are a good thing.
Forget your fourth-grade English teacher. Forget that obnoxious green line in Microsoft Word telling you your grammar is wrong. In copywriting, as well as in many other forms of writing, sentence fragments are a lifesaver. Those fragments allow you to quickly and easily vary your sentence length. Plus, they can help your writing sound conversational. People talk in sentence fragments. Therefore, reading sentence fragments gives people the impression you’re talking to them — in your own voice and your own style.
So what’s a sentence fragment? A sentence that isn’t complete. It’s missing something — noun, verb, both. It’s not a complete sentence.
Rhythm in writing is much more than just what’s going on with your sentences. (Not that we’ve covered everything that goes wrong with sentences.) But it’s a good place to start.
“While sentence fragments are technically incorrect, their judicious use can be used to stress important points in your plot or characterization. Short sentences can do the same but both need to be used with care or they result in stilted, hard to understand prose.”
From: Discovering Voice, Nancy Deen © 2006
“You have probably been told never to use sentence fragments in your writing. That’s certainly true in very formal writing, but expert writers know how to use sentence fragments and often do.
3) Vary sentence length and type. Variety will keep the reader interested not only in the story, but in what you have to say. If every sentence has the same feel to it, the same length and way of unfolding, you’ll lull your reader to sleep, no matter how interesting the subject matter. When used judiciously, sentence fragments can be invaluable. They create emphasis by breaking up the flow, much like inserting a stop sign at an intersection. Short sentences amid longer ones accomplish the same feat. You’ll know you have a good sense of variety when the editing of a single sentence forces changes upon all the sentences in the paragraph.