Writing With Rhythm: The Inside Analysis on Good Sentences

Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences really came together for me in the last chapter. I imagine the book has a little something for everyone—the basics of syntax at the start and some really cool advanced tips toward the end. The final chapter in particular had some amazing thoughts on rhythm, cohesion, syntactic symbolism, and stop consonants. I did my best to capture the best bits below.

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte

The following are excerpts taken from Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Bold and italics and notes are mine. The rest is Virginia’s.

***

Short sentences often serve well as introductory sentences in a paragraph. As the writer moves into a new topic, in fiction or nonfiction, the be-sentence defines and introduces, singly or in pairs or triplets:

In the morning it was all over. The fiesta was finished. I woke about nine o-clock, had a bath, dressed, and went downstairs. The square was empty and there were no people on the streets. A few children were picking up rocket-sticks in the square …

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Simplicity is not a given. It is an achievement, a human invention, a discovery, a beloved belief.

– William H. Gass, Finding a Form

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.

– Anne Lamott

After he ate, he left the house  answers the question, “What did he do after he ate?”; He left the house after he ate answers the question “When did he leave the house?” The climax expression comes last…

A group of Czech linguists refers to this tendency of many languages to put the known first and the unknown or unexpected last as “sentence perspective.” They point out that, in order to communicate the sentence dynamics that have been partially lost by the stiffening of word order, English must resort to other strategems, and these are among the things that give the language its distinctive syntactic appearance.

Dwight Bolinger, Aspects of Language

Inversions for emphasis

… an arrangement that puts adverbial information at the beginning of a sentence, follows it with the verb on which it depends and then the subject:

Into this grey lake plopped the thought, I know that man, don’t I?

– Doris Lessing, Children of Violence

Parallelism is saying like things in like ways. It is accomplished by repetition of words and syntactic structures in planned symmetrical arrangements and, if not overdone, has a place in day-to-day writing.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted…

– Ecclesiastes: 3:1-2

All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

– John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, January 20, 1961

Ellipsis – the acceptable removal, because they are understood, of parallel items in a series.

My Juvenal and Dante are as faithful as I am able or dare or can bear to be.

– Robert Lowell, Near the Ocean

Rhythm is an unavoidable consideration for any prose writer, like metrics for the poet, and it is by no means limited to the use of parallelism. Wherever one notices and appreciates syntax as style, rhythm is tactically: prose structures, like poetry, create beat and cadence; syntax becomes rhythm. Rhythm is that peculiar quality of parallelism, hard to define or formulate, that helps explain its practicality and impact.

Chiasmus and paired constructions

Cohesion

…when we talk about flow we’re talking about the variation of sentence structure and lengths; about the “sequence of syntax” and its effects on the reader’s emotional response; about the rhythmic mimesis and the way it contributes to those effects; and about the rhythmic relation of the work’s parts to the whole. Thus, if we want to write fiction that flows, we need to explore the syntax of our prose on all levels, from the micro level of the sentence to the macro level of the complete work.

– David Jauss, “What we talk about when we talk about flow”

Syntactic symbolism

Now and then a skilled writer may use the same structure in a way that mimics the particular actions the sentence describes.

Stop consontants slow the progress of the sentence to produce an aural analogue for the announcement of the hour. The sentence is made symbolic primarily by its sounds, but the arrangement of the words helps to produce the intervals that contribute to the effect:

Somewhere a ponderous tower clock slowly dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom.

– James Thurber, The Wonderful O

You can buy the book here. :)

artful sentences cover

Be the first to get new posts and articles

I lead the marketing team at Buffer, a SaaS tool with a blog of over 1.2M monthly visits. Let me show you how we got there and how we plan to grow.

Sign up to receive updates