Rhythm, Tone, and Flow

The Three Key Elements of a Writer's Style


Perhaps the most crucial and least understood phase of the writing process is the editing that comes after the rough draft has been completed. For poor writers, this is no trouble at all -- just a quick lookover to make sure that t's have been crossed and i's dotted, and maybe a quick run through the computer's spell-check. Good writers, however, agonize over their second and third drafts, because they understand that getting words down onto paper in the rough draft was just the easy part. What they're working on now is their personal style -- that is, their distinctive writer's "voice." This is the key to engaging the reader's interest and trust.

Many aspects of a piece of writing deserve attention when you edit, and among the most important are rhythm, tone, and flow. Here's what I mean by these vague-sounding terms:

  • Rhythm is achieved by varying the length and type of sentence structures. (See the Handbook section that describes the four basic sentence types.) The aims here are 1) to avoid overusing any one sentence structure in a way that becomes a distraction to the reader, 2) to move gracefully back and forth between the clarity of simple sentences and the richness of complex sentences, and 3) to evoke the rhythms of your own vocal style, with the same rising and falling of pitch, the same ebb and flow of phrasing between breaths. The only way to achieve a natural rhythm is by reading your work aloud. If your writing is "hard" to read because you run out of breath in the midst of too-long phrases, or because a turn of phrase strikes your ear as oddly out of character, nothing you would ever really say, then the rhythm just isn't right. If, on the other hand, the words on paper are really you, you'll know it by how pleasing it is for you to read out loud . . . even if you're so shy that you do your reading in a closet!

  • Tone is the attitude conveyed by nuances of emotion, irony, and implication or innuendo. The tone should match the material -- a persuasive essay on an emotional topic like human rights, for example, might work best with a tone that is serious and fair-minded, not sarcastic or sanctimonious. The tone of any piece of writing should invite the reader's participation and agreement; it should put the reader on your side. You have as many tones on your writer's palette as you have emotions in your heart; these tones will color anything you write, so choose your effects with care! The key to achieving the right tone is diction -- that is, word choice. Effectively chosen words are precise in their denotation, and evocative in their connotation.

  • Flow is similar to rhythm, but refers not so much to sound as to meaning; that is, the ear is sensitive to rhythm, while the mind is sensitive to flow. When writing flows well, there is a steady progression of thought, with one idea leading inexorably to the next. The reader begins to suspend his natural tendency toward skepticism and distraction, and is drawn into the world of the writer. We say that a story is "absorbing" or even "magical" when it flows well. The principal writing skill needed for flow is mastery of the paragraph. In most kinds of expository writing, such as persuasive or descriptive essays, each paragraph should do three things effectively: 1) It should present exactly one main idea, one that is directly relevant to the main point of the essay. 2) It should support that idea with adequate evidence, details, illustrations, examples, etc., in order to make the idea convincing and significant. 3) It should contain smooth transitions that move the flow of thought gracefully from one idea to the next.

In the process of revision (literally, "re-vision," or "looking again"), the challenge is to read your own words not as the writer who wrote them, but as a fresh, impartial reader. You have to forget everything that isn't right there on the page -- what you meant, the effort you put into the first draft, the grade you hope for (or the grade you fear) -- and concentrate on shaping the words into an engaging, coherent, unified piece of writing.


© Michael Fleming

San Francisco, California

March, 1993


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