Writers are advised to read their work aloud to spot issues they wouldn't otherwise, and maybe work out what it'll take to fix them. Things you might otherwise miss include poor explanations, errors of spelling, punctuatio and grammar, long or convoluted sentences, repetition, and poorly chosen register (what the source linked above calls tone). More subjective things include problems with a sentence's rhythm or pace, or "stilted" dialogue.

It's this second set of concerns I have a question about. Well, not so much stilted dialogue; the above link gives me a feel of what that is. I'm most worried I won't notice when a sentence doesn't have the right rhythm or pace. I can't help but give a rhythm to each sentence I write that feels like it makes sense as I'm doing it, but there are so many combinations of stress patterns and syllable counts and it feels like you could "fit music" to any of them. When checking for it on a re-read, is there anything specific I could check for that's easily overlooked?

3 Answers 3


It depends on what you are writing and who is in it. I have characters that speak and think in different patterns because different people speak differently. I have some characters that speak and think in short, rapid sentences and others that meander into the poetic on occasion.

What is right for one character and situation will not fit all of them.

The most important thing that I look and listen for is a natural flow. Sometimes, I read a sentence and remove a word, others I will add one if it improves the natural flow.

I also will reread sections prior to what I am writing before moving on since it seems to add a cohesive flow to the piece.


For prose, I tend to use the concept of "flow" rather than rhythm. It's not dancers or music, it's a creek flowing over rocks, smooth here and foamy there and gently burbling here and splashing there and roaring for just a moment, but the seemingly-random changes should be pleasing.

In my opinion, flow in prose can't be judged on just one sentence--a very large part of it is the way that the sentences interact with one another, and in fact often the way that the paragraphs interact with one another.

I rarely worry about anything like flow until I'm working with at least three or four paragraphs, and quite often I don't think about it until I'm dealing with an entire scene or other logical block of writing.

First, I write the sentences primarily for content--it's not as if I don't care at all about how the sentences are crafted, but I do force myself to let the sentences come out with minimal tweaking (that is, minimal tweaking for style; there may be a lot of tweaking for meaning) in the moment. I reassure myself, repeatedly, that I'll be coming back to that awkward phrase or that sentence that seems like maybe it should come earlier.

Then I sweep through with a preliminary cleanup. I fix awkward or redundant phrasing, I replace "good enough" words with that word that was teasing my brain but that I couldn't find while forcing the sentence out, I combine paragraphs or add paragraph breaks. I often move sentences or blocks of sentences up or down. If there's dialogue, I fix any voice issues--that character wouldn't use that word, that character wouldn't speak in a sentence of that complexity. I tighten the dialogue--we didn't need that exchange; a simple nod would have accomplished the same thing.

Only then do I have a chunk of prose that's fairly complete in meaning and message, and ready to be tweaked for pure language issues.

I start with sentence variety and (it suddenly occurs to me) tense. If he blahed, he blahed, and he blahed, I find a different way to put two out of three of those. If there's a lot of past continuous tense, I try to shift most of it to simple past. If I have several simple sentences, I may make some of them more complex sentences, separated by the surviving simple ones. If I have a lot of complex sentences, the reverse. I read through it and read through it--in my head; my primary focus is how it sounds in my head, not aloud--and in the end I'm just making changes that "sound better" to me, and it's purely a judgement call. At some point, I'm dead to it and I have to come back later.

One way that I can tell that each sentence depends on its surrounding sentences is that when I add or remove a sentence, I almost always have to reshuffle its neighbors a bit.


You say you can't help but give rhythm to your sentences, which is wonderful. But the rhythms we hear in our heads aren't always easy for our mouths to get around. So if you read your work in the rhythm in your head, when your mouth stalls on a sentence, more often than not, what's stalling it will be obvious. A repeated word, repeated syllables, missing words etc.

I read in large blocks. If I edit a sentence, I go back and start reading from the previous paragraph because the rhythm and word choices from the previous paragraph often affect the next.

It sounds a little crazy but I sort of 'conduct' the music of the sentences as I'm reading. E.g. if I want a lilting rhythm, I sway my hand back and forth as I read to keep my voice in that pattern. It's odd but it works for me.

I also transport myself into the character that is speaking, or the character whose point of view it is (if it's not dialogue) and read my work as if they are talking. I put on accents (even though I'm not good at that) and change my voice pattern to match the character. I then alter the word choices, use slang, or shorten word like "them" to "'em" to fit the character's speech patterns.

Finally, I use Speechify on my iPhone to read the book aloud to me. Listening to my work in a boring, stilted voice helps me to hear when the sentences are dragging on and becoming dull. It helps me get brutal with my editing and "kill my darlings" because the work really has to stand on its own two feet when it's read in such a monotone fashion. It also helps me find mistakes, missing words etc.

I've gotten better with practice. When I first started reading my work out loud, it felt odd and uncomfortable. But now it's second nature and I even do it when my partner's in the room.

Good luck with yours!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.