Reading, Writing, and Rhythm

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Reading, Writing, and Rhythm "November 10, 2015
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Some thoughts on making your writing go with the flow.
By Robert W. Sprague

Getting the right education is vital to your future career.  Take me, for example.  I prepared for a 30-year-and-counting career as a writer and consultant by studying… music.

That’s right.  Instead of courses in business, journalism, or even literature, I immersed myself in16th century counterpoint, sight-singing, and scoring for contrabassoon.  I can tell you how to perform Schenkerian analysis or how to present a tone row in retrograde inversion.  That’s why I get the big bucks.

In actuality, I think my musical training has been very useful in my writing and consulting career.  What I learned – by emulating the great masters such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruce – helps me every day.  The ear that was trained to distinguish an augmented third from a perfect fourth is good at perceiving the shades of meaning communicated by customer, stakeholder, or employee.  And I’m often told that my writing flows well, whether read aloud or presented on page or screen.

Here are three parallels between music and business writing.  Perhaps they will help you, even if you didn’t make it past first year piano.

Feel the Rhythm

In music, rhythm is often more distinctive than pitch.  Three Gs and an E flat occur in many melodies, but add the “dat-dat-dat-dah” rhythm and we all recognize Beethoven’s 5th.

Rhythm plays a big part in good writing, too.  We perceive rhythm when we read, as well as in the cadence of a speaker or presenter.

The pattern of accented syllables creates one kind of rhythm.  There is no wrong or right “meter” to use in prose – even Shakespeare mixed up his iambic pentameter when it suited him – but the way words go together (or don’t) can guide the eye and reinforce the meaning.

Punctuation is the secret weapon.  Careful use of commas, periods, paragraph spacing, as well as dashes, ellipses, and parentheses, not only affect the meaning, but also provide the clues a reader or speaker needs to understand the rhythm in a sentence or phrase.

Form Fitting

Most writers start at the beginning and write until they get to the end – or give up.  Good composers usually have the entire structure of a piece of music – the “form” – outlined before committing the rest of the details to paper.

I usually have the shape of a piece of writing in mind from the start.  I know where I want to go, and about how long it’s going to take me to get there.  Sometimes I write pieces from the end or the middle before I ever get to the introduction.

Like sonatas, theme and variations, and fugues in music, there are forms that work well for writing.  Great writers leverage these forms, never afraid to break the mold if it aids in their purpose.

Avoid the Clams

Musicians refer to an audible mistake as a “clam.”  They practice very hard to reduce clams to a minimum.  A concert pianist may play tens of thousands of notes during a single movement – and is expected to rarely, if ever, miss even one.

The fact is that a clam can destroy the mood even if everything else about a performance is right.  In a similar way, a “clam” in a piece of writing can destroy the meaning and leave the reader or listener concentrating on the mistake instead of the thoughts that surround it.

Some clams in writing are obvious, such as misspellings or typos.  Others are more subtle.  I am sensitive to inconsistencies such as referring to a company in the third person for two pages and then suddenly switching to “we,” or adopting a formal tone and then abruptly inserting slang or contractions.

Casual readers may not be able to spot the dangling modifier or split infinitive, but they will feel the distraction at some level, to the detriment of the writer’s purpose.

I hope these observations help you in your own writing, and I hope that they also help you appreciate the musical qualities in the good writing you encounter.

As for me, I think it’s time to do some more practicing.

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