Finding Your Rhythm: First, Throw Grammar Out the Window

I have a friend who’s a drummer. Everywhere we go, he’s always tapping out a rhythm–on the steering wheel in his truck, on the table of a pizza joint, on the inside of my palm as we walk down the street. Rhythm is a part of his everyday life; he feels it in everything he does, and that’s what makes him a great musician and songwriter.

But rhythm isn’t only important in songwriting–all writing is made up of syllables and stresses, long and short sounds, pauses and flow. I know I’ve read emails from coworkers which make me feel like a wooden soldier marching along, stiff-legged and jerky, because the words are strung together so haphazardly. Of course, it might be you’re trying to make the reader feel like they’re a passenger in a car driven by a brake-happy old lady. The point is to be aware of the rhythm your words create. You’re creating a mood for the reader, whether you’re aware of it or not, based on how your writing carries them along.

I think one of the hangups which can cause writers to break their flow and rhythm is feeling the need to stick closely to grammar rules. Not splitting infinitives, for example. Who made that rule? Why does it matter? If your meaning is understood, isn’t the language doing its job–communicating ideas to others?

I have to admit, I can be a stickler for grammar at times. No one wants to wade through a mess of grammar mistakes when they’re reading. The key, I think, is to understand grammar rules first, and then to not be afraid to break them when needed–whether for the sake of meaning, flow, rhythm, or story. (See what I did there? Splitting that infinitive? Heck yeah I did it.)

So, go study up on your grammar–then throw it all out the window and write something with rhythm.

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Are You a Writer or a Storyteller?

This summer, I decided it was time to re-read Harry Potter. I just finished the 7th and final book yesterday, and while reading, I learned something–something which disturbed me at first. Now, I’ve read the HP series many, many times before–I think this was only my third time to read the final book, but I’m sure I’ve read the first few books at least 8+ times, mainly because of my slightly obsessive tendency to re-read the entire series every time a new book came out. But this last time through, I was (I like to think) a much more mature writer, and it shocked and saddened me that I didn’t find JKR’s writing as incredibly flawless as I used to believe it was. I felt a bit like Harry himself realizing that the people he so admired–his dad, Sirius, Dumbledore–are human after all.

HPend

Despite my small misgivings about some of the writing, I still consumed those books voraciously. After finishing the seventh book, I felt the same sense of loss which I had felt after reading it the first time–the loss you feel when you put down a good book and wish it didn’t have to end. J.K. Rowling is not an impeccable writer. But she is a superb storyteller. And though the two are connected, they are not the same.

It is possible to write well without telling a story. We’ve all read articles or stories or even long Facebook posts which are well-written from a technical standpoint, but which leave us wondering–what’s your point? Where is the narrative? What story are you trying to get across here?

The fact is, our everyday lives are full of stories. It’s how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. People who are bad at telling jokes are usually bad because they aren’t natural storytellers–they jumble the components together and don’t fully understand the need for suspense or timing. Storytellers, on the other hand, can feel the pulse of a story; they understand its rhythm, the way it rises and falls and builds towards something.

Great writing, a sense of language and structure, deepens and strengthens a great story–but a great story can also get pretty far on its own, I think. What about you? Have you read great stories which weren’t written particularly well, or read great writing which didn’t tell a story?