Have you ever read a text that just felt uncomfortable to get through? Jagged sentences. Strangely structured pauses and starts. Endless passages and cut-short snippets mercilessly suffocating the story beneath the surface.
Prose rhythm is one of the most easily-explained concepts of good writing. It means, quite simply, to get the flow right. Succeeding in this feat is, of course, a whole other story.
Is your story standing still, walking, running or sprinting?
Part of what makes storytelling so enticing is that all stories come with an inherently unique pace. Two events and their aftermath may follow identical timelines, and yet be polar opposites in terms of perceived tempo. A gunshot and the ensuing chaos is something very different to a quiet cup of coffee happening at the same time across town.
In other words: No matter which story you’re telling, its contents are embedded with momentum. This momentum may stand still, it may walk leisurely, it may run, and it may sprint uncontrollably. Next to using the right words to communicate its speed, rhythm can both enhance and stifle the story.
The trick is to use the correct sentence length, punctuation and other syntax to build a pace that suits the pace of your underlying message and narrative. As my guru Janet Burroway puts it:
In prose, on the whole, the rhythm is all right if it isn’t clearly wrong (…) (but) rhythm can greatly enhance the meaning if it is sensitively used.
Combining meaning with flow
So, how do you go about marrying the message of your narrative with the pacing of its events? Firstly, you need to take a step back and look at what you’re actually trying to convey. If you were to pick an emotion or an atmosphere you’d like the reader to be left with after finishing your text, what would it be?
If it’s energised, the pacing should be faster. If it’s relaxed, you should slow it down. Like they’ve learnt something – somewhere in between. Like they want to take action – faster. Like they want to reflect – slower. The intention of your writing – and the actual story that it holds – should both be guiding components of setting the pace.
One of the best ways of judging whether you’ve got the pace of your business writing right or not is by reading the text out loud. When you do, make sure you articulate the pauses and full stops that your sentences demand from you. It will become painfully (or beautifully) clear whether the meaning and flow are in alignment when the text is articulated.
Business prose and its rhythm
When you’re writing in a professional context, you may not be dealing with the great questions in life – and so the pacing can be difficult to determine. Or, rather, it can be difficult to figure out what that pacing should be. Remember that a blog post on industrial leak testing has its own optimal momentum, just as a crime fiction short story does.
Any piece of content that you write for your business has an intention. And as I mentioned above, that intention is key to the rhythm of your piece. Ideally, you want the reader to feel comfortable in the flow of your text. With the right pace, they will – and that will compel them to continue reading to a much greater extent than if the pacing is off.
There’s no right or wrong pacing in business writing, so long as you’re aware of what you want the pacing to be doing for you and your messaging.
Full stops – the hammers of business writing
The full stop is arguably the most important prose rhythm tool there is. It has the power to make the reader stop dead in their tracks. To re-read. To reabsorb. This is also why the full stop is used extensively in marketing, and particularly in slogans or campaign hashtags. There’s a reason Nike has a full stop at the end of their legendary ‘Just Do It.’
The break forces you to absorb the sentence’s message. You don’t ‘Just Do It… one day’ or ‘Just Do it… tomorrow.’ There’s no room for interpretation. You just do it.
If you want your reader moving fluidly through a passage of text, use commas, hyphens, and longer sentences. And when time comes for the crescendo; for the final note where you hammer your key point across – make them stop. Make them fully stop.
Full stops can also create a jagged pace, or a sense of urgency. This can work particularly well if you’re conveying an intense situation or a stressful experience. And don’t forget that full stops are also a chance for your audience to take a breath. Long sentences are good for flow – but make them too long, and you’ll lose your reader.
When you use prose rhythm to your advantage in business writing, you’re essentially doing your readers a favour. You’re making the message, narrative and story components easier to consume for them. And you’re making the time they take out of their busy days to read your piece worth it.
That means they’ll be more likely to revisit you, to remember your writing, and to recommend it to others. In short, rhythm can actually be a deciding factor in audience retention.
Want to get prose rhythm right in your business writing? Check out the 10-minute workshop here.