Rhythm and Flow

Scroll down ↓

A few weeks back, I shared the idea of brevity and deletion, using a famed Hemingway 6-word story as an example.

Today, I want to turn to another element of writing that really matters. But that you can’t see.

Rhythm and flow.

Writing has its own pace. Its own energy.

And, what so many writers never really get, especially those writing for digital media, is that readers respond not just to what’s on the page. Not just to what’s left to be filled in by the reader’s experience. But to the cadence and ease with which a writer moves them through the text, the story.

While researching the book I’m working on right now, I stumbled upon another book that shared a fascinating 3-year experiment that was a direct hit for what I was writing about. The topic, the approach and the conclusions blew my mind. But it took me nearly three-months to get through it. Because it was written in an academic style that was much more concerned with conveying information in an accurate, linear, logical progression than it was guiding the reader along an intriguing quest of discovery.

Rhythm and flow, worked well, help turn rote delivery of information into the breathless pursuit of the next sentence. Rhythm and flow, worked poorly, make interesting content brutal to read.

So, how do you create gorgeous rhythm and flow?

There’s no easy answer.

For some it comes naturally. For most, not so much.

It’s the effect of labor and attention over years. That’s certainly the boat I’m in.

And, it comes into play on both a sentence-by-sentence basis and a sense of flow across an entire work.

My approach is to write as closely to the way I speak as possible. Because I’ve found my readers respond best when my language patterns mimic my speech patterns. That assumes I can speak and tell stories reasonably well (yeah, yeah, I know, we’ll leave that for another conversation, lol). It also may mean consistently breaking many of the most-revered pillars of grammar. Like starting a sentence with the word like. Or because. Splitting infinitives with relish. And shredding into sentences midstream with and or but.

And, in the bigger picture of a longer work, it means being constantly aware of the broader pace of things.

Noah Lukeman, in his fabulous book, The First Five Pages, shared some wonderful insights on the topic in the chapter entitled “Pacing and Progression.” where he asks:

The manuscript might be fine, but does it read?

Lukeman’s insights on the issue include:

  • Pacing and progression are difficult to self-edit. Ask a small number of trusted readers for insight.
  • If you must self-edit, take a few weeks off to allow you a fresher perspective, then read through the entire work in one sitting to get a feel for the full ebbs and flows.
  • In areas where things are too slow, ask if there is enough at stake, if you’ve got solid beginning and ending points but the middle plods, if you’re telling too much and showing too little.
  • If it’s too fast, ask if you’re avoiding an inability to fill in the gaps or using dialogue (that speeds pace) in place of more artful, gradual building.

These are just a few things to think about.

If you’ve never read Lukeman’s book, by the way, get it now.

Curious, how do YOU work with issues of rhythm, flow, progression and pace when you blog or create longer works?

And, how aware of it are you when you read what others write?

Share away in the comments, let’s all learn…


Join our Email List for Weekly Updates

And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...

36 responses

36 responses to “Rhythm and Flow”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, Tonya Leigh Williams, Santi Chacon and others. Santi Chacon said: A Writer’s Life: Rhythm and Flow: A few weeks back, I shared the idea of brevity and deletion, using a famed Hem… http://bit.ly/f0Upy4 […]

  2. Eminem writes in perfect Shakespearian iambic pentameter, a lot of other rappers also. There is a reason for that. There is not secret pace and rhythm is everything.

    As a journalist I always read out loud my articles before submitting them to the editor.
    I still do this with all my posts, some say the reading rhythm is different from the speaking one but I don’t agree. I believe everything that is written should sound good when read.

    Great topic Jonathan. Rhythm and flow is important in life, not just writing. A bit too fast, or too slow and you miss the mark.

  3. This is a sharp and important point (increasingly so) as the deluge of content creation and proliferation rockets higher. I don’t have the stat at my fingertips, but each year yields exponential leaps of newly available information.

    So, I feel that the tranquility of rhythm and flow is a prime content filter very much on the rise.

    And with self-publication on the same rocket, the fine art of rhythm and flow may very well become (if it isn’t already) an absolute and nonnegotiable barrier of entry into the realm of well-regarded writers.

    Rhythm and flow speaks to another subtle and equally powerful element – empty space, by which I mean “reading between the lines.”

    Rhythm and flow are essential not only to elicit an easy and enjoyable reading experience but to entrance the reader into thoughts not on the page. I view this empty space idea as the other side of the coin with rhythm and flow.

    Suffice to say, writers beware if you proceed without rhythm. It never was meant just for high school dances anyway…

    • MitchAndreas says:

      I am happy to have fallen on your post. Reading many of the responses have also been enlightening.

      I agree with Matt Garland also, where he makes reference to the need for rythmn and flow. His expression flows in such a way that I was willing to endure completing the whole post.

      How many of us can say we read all the posts or any to completion. Well, that wasn’t intended to be a question. I am much aware that it began with ‘how’.

      Yesterday was my first time on your blog, and I am back again today. I think its rythmn and flow speaks for itself, for without that it would be quite difficult to get me hooked. Thanks for doing a great job.

    • Lynn says:

      Matt, your piece didn’t have rhythm and flow for me because it had so many grammatical and structural problems. While it was “conversational”, I kept hanging up on the jerky use of basic English.

      “This is a sharp and important point (increasingly so)” is clumsy, would work better as “This is a sharp and increasingly important point”. You are mixing metaphors when you say, “deluge rockets higher” A deluge is a flood and water doesn’t rocket anywhere. Word definition is in error with “proliferation rockets higher” because proliferation means a “rapid increase in number”. So you could say that the “proliferation is increasing exponentially” or the “numbers rocket higher” and be more true to the definition.

      You say “filter is on the rise”… when you mean the “USE of the filter is on the rise”. In one place “rhythm and flow” is singular (“it speaks”) and in the next sentence, “rhythm and flow” are plural (“they are essential”). Stick with one or the other. It should be “barrier to entrance” not “barrier of entrance”. And if one idea is on the other side of the coin WITH another, they are on the same side. You mean, “I view empty space and rhythm and flow as two sides of the same coin”.

      Finally, “entrance” is not a verb. You could use “lead” or “guide” instead of entrance. Or if you must use the enter idea, it could be simply “enter” instead of “entrance”.

      Many of you will feel that I have been unnecessarily picky and unkind in this comment, but it is absolutely true that hopeful writers need to have the craft of writing under their belts. It is a craft. There are conventions. There are rules. Once mastered, the writer can play with and alter the rules for effect. Without regard for the basics of English, no writing can have rhythm and flow.

  4. Jen Gresham says:

    This will come as no surprise from me, but I approach blog posts as I do poems. I read them aloud and make sure the pacing and flow don’t trip me up. If they do, I edit.

    Having someone else read it aloud is even better, but often hard to find a willing subject, depending on how frequently you post.

    Glad you pointed this out, Jonathan. It’s important to writers of all genres. And the more complicated your topic, the more true it is.

  5. Jonathan,

    Fabulous post. I took a master class in storytelling from Narativ (narativ.com) last fall. Learned a lot about the art of knowing when to provide detail and when to let your readers (or audience) fill in the gaps. Think it will take me a lifetime to master.

    In the interim, I know what my next Amazon order will be.

    Chandlee Bryan

  6. Another wonderful post from you Jonathan! Rhythm and flow just like a dance….when you dance, you don’t think about it, it happens…like the way I write…it flows…could be because I blog about things that are passionate to me – feelings, emotions…..I write from the heart and since the heart flows and has rhythm then I will continue to go with the flow….I also read it over and over once I post it to make sure…..www.makegirlfriends.com
    In gratitude,
    Nancy

  7. Miki Johnson says:

    Hi Jonathan. I’m glad you’ve brought up pacing, especially because it is such an incredibly hard thing to define, let alone teach/learn. I studied journalism instead of creative writing, but I remember the thing my professors kept hammering into me (I struggled the most with it but am also happiest that I learned it) was to WRITE LIKE I TALK. After arguing with my professors for hours that I DID talk like that, it finally started sinking in. One suggestion for how to get better at this is to record yourself actually talking, then sit down and transcribe it. Use that as a starting point for an article and work to only make it clearer when editing, not more “writerly.”

    Also, I come to writing from an editor’s perspective, since I was always more interested in editing and became a senior editor at American Photo Magazine after school and then editor of the RESOLVE Photo Blog after that. When I am at my writing best, I force myself to just spill everything I’m thinking for a story, using exactly the words that come out of me, even if they are ugly and inexact. Then I spend about 70% of my time POLISHING. Going back and reading sentences and paragraphs over and over and over again, usually semi-out-loud just to hear where I have to pause and when things get sticky.

    Most people will probably say they do that already, so I suggest you take it one step further and ask to help a friend edit their writing. Start with something small like an important email or blog post. Read over it all at once first and write down any questions you feel are unanswered at the end. Then go through again and find specific sentences or phrases that confuse you. Then mark where you find your mind starting to wander. Bring all these back to your friend and discuss them. See why they made these decisions, if you can together come up with a way to address the problems you see. It’s always hard to edit your own work, but starting to think like an editor can only help 🙂

  8. Dom says:

    Powerful blog post Jonathan. You definitely have rhythm!

    I’m an avid reader, and the pages turn so much faster when the author has the skills of rhythm and flow.

  9. Alex says:

    I am very conscious of flow as I write and edit. Reading aloud helps but sometimes I just have to wait before what I have to say has the force I want behind it. it’s almost like I’m waiting for the tide…

    Rhythm has me foxed tho’, perhaps it’s what I most need to work on.

  10. “Writing has its own pace. It’s own energy.”

    There, fixed that for ya. LOL! 🙂

    The last two points of Lukeman’s in your post are awesome, thanks so much for this topic.

  11. Ellen Wynn says:

    Johnathan, eye thoroughly enjoy reading everything ewe right!! Ewe are a compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining, and uplifting writer. Eye am honored two have been you’re friend four 25 of my… 29(ha!) years! Inn response two today’s query: Your dead-on with you’re commitment two using you’re own voice (witch is entirely readable), and disregarding the moor formal strictures of stile. And, don’t tell my mother, butt eye also agree that “proper” grammar can actually trip up a reader and disrupt rhythm and floe. Something that really can’t be left up two the writer’s discretion, however, is spelling and usage. Rhythm and floe hit a speed bump inn the message four me when a truly compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining, and uplifting peace has mis-used words. Awl eye can think about at the end of my reading is how that GIFTED, GENIUS writer definitely used sum version of Spellcheck, because words aren’t misspelled, butt he has fallen pray to it’s biggest drawback; Spellcheck doesn’t catch homonyms. Had the writer asked his equally GIFTED, butt less GENIUS friend two proofread four hymn, she wood have pointed out a few words that kneed too bee the correct version of themselves. Much love, LN

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Just seeing who’s is awake, lol!

    • El Edwards says:

      Hehehe. Ouch! You’re right, it jars, lots.

    • Annette says:

      Ellen Wynn – thank you so much for this sentence. I recently wrote a piece where incorrect grammer felt more in tune with the flow and I was torn as to how I could use “proper” grammer and make it flow. Just what I needed to hear.

      “proper” grammar can actually trip up a reader and disrupt rhythm and floe

  12. So true, Jonathan. These issues have been TOMA for me a lot lately, as I generate content for my newsletter and blog and also revise my novel.

    I’ve been concerned that my ‘make it short, sweet and to the point’ approach to online content has hindered the prose in my novel. I need to keep an eye on that to see if that’s true.

    Your point about pace and timing is excellent, too. I am fortunate to be working with an editor who points out when I’ve inserted something at the wrong time. That is something I would not notice on my own.

    I’ve been batching my time; the other day I wrote 11 articles (drafts) and found it very helpful to do that all at once. They’ve been printed, are marinating and awaiting my edits, which can involve almost as much ink as the first draft.

    I love Alex’s reminder to read things aloud – that really does make a difference.

    Thanks again for this insightful article on writing.

    P.S. I can’t wait to meet you at the #wds!

  13. Like this post, Jonathan –

    I also write the way I talk.

    But my main teaching is that I started writing poetry years ago.

    And I always read a lot of it. I would advise that to anyone who has trouble with this. Poetry trains your mind without your being aware of it.

    It has to have a flow. And every word has to be important.

    My first book was all poetry.

  14. Mark Silver says:

    For me, like others, reading my own work aloud helps catch the unconscious rhythm. It’s an awareness that has grown in me over years, so I often hear the sentence in my head as I’m writing it, and if I miss a beat I’ll stop and edit right there.

    So critical.

  15. You will know,
    When words flow.

    It sounds just right,
    Not a blight.

    Short and sweet,
    It has a beat.

    This story’s now done,
    Editing won.

  16. Ron says:

    The subject is right on,how about sharing
    the mind blowing part with us,and some real examples
    of why they influenced you to the degree they did.
    Thanks, Ron

  17. Great post Jonathan. I have a few things to add.

    My podcast has been called “audible caffeine” because I have so much energy and talk so fast, and sometimes my public speaking is the same. But while there are some people that tell me to slow it down, the #1 piece of positive feedback I get is my energy level, so I’m keeping it as “my thing.”

    Flash forward to working on my book. Like you, I tried to write it based on the tone and energy I speak with. While friends love the energy in test readings, I hear back from the editor this week.

    I also did a post on flow this summer (http://ow.ly/3BtuW) which led me to theories from rappers to Michelangelo.

    I think the key for anyone is to find their unique voice and go with it.

    Thanks, Jim

  18. Sandra Lee says:

    Jonathan,

    I love this train of thought so much. “Cadence and ease” will become a slogan for me. There are times when a natural rhythm emerges in my writing. Those are the best times indeed. Thank you.

  19. Annette says:

    Absolutely agree Jonathan. When I write (be it a song or a biography/profile for an artist I like to take the reader on a journey: excited, relaxed, rejuvinated, inspired,…..wanting to know more….The pulse/rhythm somehow evolves. Its not like 90 bpm (beats per minute) from start to finish.

  20. Anne Wayman says:

    Jonathan, this is truly helpful. I’ve always known I tend to write short – which is great for classified ads and could be worse on blogs – but I’d never ever thought of it is writing (or reading) fast. That changes my view entirely, and yes, leaving out detail and important stuff happens to me all the time.

    It just now occurred to me that if I take time to breathe while I’m writing and when I’m rewriting it might not only slow me down, but my writing as well.

    Thanks!

  21. laurie says:

    I’m an avid reader of yours Jonathan… your writing DOES sound just like the way you talk, I can actually hear your voice as I read each post and it feel like you are right here in the same room.

    I’d like to find my own voice in my writing so that it sounds just like me too, but having been pretty shy when it comes to the spoken word most of my life I don’t think I’ve yet found my voice there either. So do I experiment? Try out different voices?… heh heh… that should be fun. 🙂

    thanks Jonathan!

  22. Jon says:

    Great post and suggestions. I have sent a sample of The First Five Pages to my Kindle.

    Writing ideas coming up at the oddest times, so I always try to have paper and pen handy to jot them down. For me, then, it is thinking about the topics for awhile. When I sit down to write it, the words flow somehow… usually, anyway. Other times, it takes longer and many drafts later.

    Great post! Thanks!

  23. I’m not sure if these formulas apply as much to fiction writing as they do to non-fiction but I’m going to share them because they’ve been extraordinarily powerful in helping the flow of my writing.

    In years past, I always operated of a basic flow of beginning, middle, and end.

    This all changed when I was introduced to the teachings of Eben Pagan. He’s the one who pointed out to me that there are 4 learning styles and that if you wanted to reach 100% of your ideal readers of your content/prospects, you better include content that appealed to each one.

    And that if you didn’t include all 4, you’d favor heavily the style you favor and only be talking to 25% of your crowd, turning the other 75% off.

    Here it goes…

    1. WHAT: You tell WHAT the information is and the definitions of what you’ll be covering for at least one sentence.

    2. WHY: You spend no less than 3 sentences talking about WHY this is of importance to the audience.

    3. HOW: HOW do you do what you’re talking about? What are each of the action steps you take to accomplish this?

    4. WHAT IF: WHAT IF I want to take action NOW? What’s the step I can do immediately to get the ball rolling?

    You see, you’re kind of a blend of all of these but we’re rooted in one. 25% of you just want to know what it is and if that’s hidden or murky, you’re out.

    Other people have to see a reason why they should be even paying attention to this or else it doesn’t keep their attention.

    25%, once they know what the piece is about, they scan the content just looking for the action steps to determine if the content is even worth spending more time with or if it’s just a bunch of theory.

    And there’s the 25% who are driven to test concepts out for themselves to prove their validity; the sooner the better.

    I’ve found these lead the content through a nice beginning, middle and end flow but by adhering to this, each part is thoroughly covered and complete.

    See what you think by writing something out now whether it be your next piece of content or a Facebook Status, or an email and see how it lands on your audience.

  24. chieko says:

    Recalling all those seriously-wonderful texts I’ve studied at uni, I realise that they all have a great:

    (1)sound flow as well as
    (2)logical flow
    (3)emotional flow
    (4)visual flow (= each word sends a visual message as well as cognitive and phonetic) and of course,
    (5)grammatical flow, all at once.

    Let me repeat this, in a different rhythm.

    A text becomes irresistible, when it flows logically, emotionally, audially, visually, grammatically, simultaneously.

    anyway,

    I’ve enjoyed everybody’s posts. This is a wonderful thought-provoking forum. Thank you Jonathan!

  25. Excellent points, Jonathan!
    Yes, this is an oft-overlooked aspect of writing. So glad you spotlighted it!
    Thank you,

    Peter

  26. Rob says:

    As great as the article was Jonathan, the comments one-upped it(no offense). I point out that I enjoyed Matt Garland’s input and writing. I also point out how thoroughly I enjoyed Lynn’s also. Practice makes for better writing (even comments on posts, lol).

  27. […] before I knew it, I was done. It took a total of 4-5 hours to write everything, but I was in such a flow moment, it seemed like 15 […]

  28. Priyanka says:

    🙂 when i write in a flow, my writing becomes a bit heedless of grammar – and even spelling. and when m stuck, all the grammar creates those structures which i try to find my way out of, but sometimes can’t. i have constantly been told my writing has flow. and now that you illustrate it thru your examples..u know, those terse lines beginning with Because etc..i can say, a ha.:-)

    i think the point of a post is how well it engages people, so they can come out and play with your ideas, instead of feeling they’re up against something profound. so in that way, i felt this post opened up a lot of space – for expressions and interpretations.

    love the comments of matt, corinne and miki. editing, and finding those empty spaces – are my bugbears, rather areas i need to work on. chieko’s too i like cos it sums up the flow aspects so neatly.

    thanks for sharing – and keep flowing 🙂