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First, I do not practice writing often, nor for a long time when I do. So that might be a reason I am struggling with rhythm lately. Second, I do not intend this post to be an example of good rhythm. In fact, I am largely neglecting it in this post. Third, I am leaving out discussion of consonant and vowel sounds, and focusing only on rhythm having to do with stress and non-stress.

Now, I can only think of two main reasons why someone might struggle to write prose with good rhythm. One is that they may have poor phrasing ability, so that they cannot think of many alternative ways to say the same thing. The other is that they may simply have poor rhythm.

My question is: Which of these two reasons -- poor phrasing ability and poor sense of rhythm -- is the main reason for writing with poor rhythm. More specifically, knowing which of the two is the reason, or whether both are, how does one solve it? Is it useful to practice constrained writing, such as metrical writing, to enhance phrasing ability? Is it useful to play with scansion marks, to enhance rhythmic ability? What role does immitation play in this?

If one has excellent phrasing ability, it would seem to my mind unnecessary for them to concern themselves so much with scansion, as by thinking of various ways of phrasing a thought they could discover one with the right rhythm. It also seems to my mind, that if one has excellent rhythmic ability, they could choose words for a thought in accord with the rhythm in their mind with some effort, as though writing in meter. Therefore, it appears that having one ability compensates for the other, although I must add that the complete absence of one renders the other completely useless. For without ability with phrasing there is no phrasing, and without ability with rhythm there is no rhythm, because rhythm requires a rhythmic sense.

So I request insight and suggestions on my question. Thank you for your answers.

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    Who says there is one universal "good rhythm" and that all others are poor? Who made you the rhythm judge for all writers? Some may genuinely write with poor rhythm, considering some other aspect of the prose more important. Others may merely disagree with you on the matter of what rhythm would serve their purposes with this particular prose. Feb 14 at 15:53
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    This post appears to me to have mediocre rhythm. What was your reason?
    – Therac
    Feb 14 at 19:02
  • If it seems I communicated that others' writing is rhythmically defective, I apologize. I was not trying to criticize anyone's writing or writing style, but to provide myself and others who are not satisfied with their own prose rhythm a prompt to other writers for help on this matter.
    – garbia
    Feb 16 at 10:13
  • Where is it written that any prose author should pay any attention to rhythm, please? Poets, surely, and are you Asking solely about poets? Mar 2 at 23:33

3 Answers 3

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I believe that the cause for poor rhythm in prose is that those writers focus on content (does my sentence say what I want it to say?) and syntax (is my sentence grammatically correct?) and fail to "sound their writing out" (what does my sentence sound like if it is spoken?).

The remedy is to read what you have written aloud (or imagine the sound of it in your mind) and notice whether it can be spoken fluently and without "arrhythmias" and if the stresses fall where they should.

Since we all, when we read, subvocalize, and since subvocalization facilitates understanding, writers should always strive to write in at the very least a speakable rhythm.

Also, punctuation, which in many languages is somewhat flexible, can help readers understand the intended rhythm, so commas, dashes, colons and so on should be employed with an ear to their effect as well.

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    I would add to the first point that this mentality is not all that bad in many cases. Truly strange rhythm may be jarring, but it will often correspond to a strange or unusual word choice or phrasing, which should usually be avoided in most prosaic writing irrespective of the rhythm. Beyond that though, content matters more. Books, news articles, and almost every other type of prose except speeches all sell on content above all else. You can write a wonderfully rhythmic story, but if the story itself is not interesting or compelling, nobody is going to care about the rhythm. Feb 15 at 2:51
  • @AustinHemmelgarn Your comment has a pleasant rhythm. Writing rhythmically doesn't require much effort and many master it without noticing.
    – Ben
    Feb 15 at 6:41
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My question is: Which of these two reasons -- poor phrasing ability and poor sense of rhythm -- is the main reason for writing with poor rhythm.

You didn't specify what "poor rhythm" is, nor did you give any examples. Perhaps if you edited your question with specific examples, you would get more insightful answers.

If you meant rhyme, I'm sure you wouldn't use the word prose. Anything can become bland, if you consume too much of it... perhaps the author got bored with prose... and perhaps when you are, too, you would enjoy their works more?

Alternately, there might be a rhythm, that, because of your cultural background, or pronunciation, or even because of the context of your reading, might elude you. Perhaps if you revisited the writing again, or heard it performed, live, or performed by different people, your impression might change?

More specifically, knowing which of the two is the reason, or whether both are, how does one solve it? Is it useful to practice constrained writing, such as metrical writing, to enhance phrasing ability? Is it useful to play with scansion marks, to enhance rhythmic ability? What role does imitation play in this?

Constrained/metrical writing can probably help with consistency in sentence structure, and scansion marks can help you visualize patterns. Imitation is a cornerstone of how we learn... especially if you pay attention to how all the details vary, like sentence length, punctuation, spacing, etc.

Reading your own work aloud, or having others read it, can also help.

A universal rule in art is: you have to know the rules, in order to break them. (If you want to be able to do it tastefully.)

Just for you, the deep end: "The Waste Land" - T.S. Eliot

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Broadly because not only does prose never have any requirement for rhythm but further, the extent to which any writing does require rhythm is a measure of how far it is away from prose and toward poetry.

Most of us fall for the fallacy that what makes poetry is simple rhyme, often nursery-level rhyme. In fact what makes poetry is that it moves to a different rhythm.

Who doubts that, can you Post some examples showing any prose passage where rhythm matters in any way? One example?

Sadly, the issue is clouded by the way some modern writers claim - and critics accept - that poetry includes works of clear prose, on the sole grounds that writer or publisher says such texts are poetry.

Who here has not met such deviations from traditional ideas of literature?

Who here has not wondered whether such deviations spoil any useful delineation between poetry and prose?

Who here doubts this Answer will be down-voted, largely on the grounds that deviation from tradition is always justified by its exponents calling it 'development' or 'progress'?

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  • Do you mean to say that prose poems do not exist?
    – garbia
    Feb 18 at 22:38
  • No, Garbia. What made you think that? Feb 21 at 0:13

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