You are getting deep into the narrative ………very deep …………….into the narrative

Hyp – no – ti – sm. Four syllables = four beats. Say it aloud and you can feel the rhythm. Quite musical really. Probably because it has embedded in it that universally appealing rhythm of four, (tetracolon, grammatically speaking). Composing a sentence is made up of the following three elements – propositional content, word choice and syntax (arrangement of the words). Rhythm (or lack there of) is an automatic consequence of sentence composition in which you have to fine tune to get the music happening. A little etymology will help us get a clear idea of what rhythm is – the Greek rhythmos translates as measured flow, while the Latin rhythmus translates as movement in time.

You are reading about the engaging effect of rhythm in written communication.

The proposition in this sentence is ‘effective communication’.

The word choices are:

You – are – reading – about – the – engaging – effect  – of – rhythm – in – written – communication.

The syntax moves the story forward:

From “you” to “the written communication”

There a 23 beats in the sentence. The tempo of these beats give a satisfying resolution to the sentence. But you could edit it down to:

You are reading about engaging communication.

There are 14 beats now. But the tempo experience flat-lines. Those extra 9 beats make it “sing” and that’s what you want to do – make your copy sing. It’s one of the skills of hooking your reader in, in what some writers describe as “hypnotic”. This is so important to us copywriters who do not have the luxury of a willing audience. Your words may not be as eloquent as Joni Mitchell’s or Nick Cave’s. They might just be as plain and in your face as Neil Young’s or Joe Strummer’s. But if you train yourself into awareness of rhythm, then you too can make your words sing. From a social blog to an internal communique, rhythm is what makes your reader come along for the ride. When you get rhythm, something like this:

Ministers rely on you to provide them with the information they need. We use official briefings to get this information to them.

Becomes this:

Whether you’re a policy officer, a manager, or an executive assistant, we all need to know how to write a good briefing.

And something as interesting as this:

Are you a keen photographer? Ever considered visiting China, the jewel of the Far East? How about joining a group of like-minded people on a special photography tour during January 2013.

Begins to sing like this:

How about joining a group of creative-minded people on a special photography tour to the many faces and places of China during January 2013? Opportunities abound for you in one of the world’s most spectacular locations:

Rhythm is already built into our language, you just have to become aware of it. In the following examples using three classic rhythmic forms, you will see, feel and hear the difference and thereby begin to absorb this valuable skill into your own skin, flesh, bone and, ultimately and most desirably, marrow.

Parallel Phrasing (the rhythm of twos)

This is when two phrases parallel each others rhythm and line of thought. It’s very tempting to use literary examples such as Martin Luther King’s “When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative”, but instead, I will case study one of my student’s before (no rhythmic prose) and after (the craft of copywriting) drafts:

Before:

Beyond reading, writing,  arithmetic and lunchtime football, the students at Cleeland Secondary College are learning far more than they ever expected.

After:

Beyond the 4 Rs of reading, writing, arithmetic and Aussie Rules, the students at Cleeland Secondary College learn the other 4 Rs: racial respect, religious respect, cultural respect and Love Rules.

You’ll probably feel another rhythm in this extract:

…reading, writing, arithmetic and Aussie Rules + racial respect, religious respect, cultural respect and Love Rules.

That is the rhythm of fours (tetracolon), in this case its in two sets to make a parallel phrase. But first to the rhythm of threes (tricolon).

The Rhythm of threes

Once again, rather than quote something like Quentin Crisp’s, “If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist” (The Naked Civil Servant, 1968), I quote another of Copywriting in Action’s student work:

Before:

Every great discovery in history started with “What if?” A curious thought. And a desire to improve the world in which we live. This spirit of inquiry led Albert Einstein to develop the theory of evolution; Pablo Picasso to revolutionize art and Charles Darwin to realise the theory of evolution.

After:

“What if?”

Every great discovery in history started with this question. Every great answer came from a desire to improve the world in which we live. And every great outcome took us to a renewed perception of our world. This spirit of inquiry led Albert Einstein to E=mc2; Picasso (and Braque) to the multi-view-points of cubism; and Darwin to the origin of species.

There are a few skills working here, but we’ll just focus on the list of three, which happens twice in this extract. The first three sentences do a gradatio by building the narrative, sentence by sentence by climactic sentence to a new world-view. Then there’s another list of three highlighting specific examples that brought on this new world view. Notice how the rhythm of three also helps to organise and unify the information so that it is clearer and easier to comprehend, not to mention more engaging to read.

The Rhythm of Fours

This is when you not only want to drive the point home, but through the front door and into the lounge room. Ryszard Kapuscinski makes sure of that in, “Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat,” (“A Warsaw Diary”, Granta Magazine, 1985). Bob Dylan did the same with, “How does it feel to be on your own, a complete unknown, with no direction home, like a rolling stone?” One of Copywriting in Action’s own students put it to effective use with:

“Passed down through the centuries, Bharatha Natya is a harmonious fusion of expression (bhava), melody (raga), rhythm (thala) and the transcendental delight of dance (natya).

As you probably have gathered by now, the elements that make up for a list two, three or four echo each other in length, number of syllables, and rhythm. The – clo – ser – to – this – for – mu – la – you – can – get, the – bet – ter – your – com – mu – ni – ca – tion – will – be.

38 Comments

  1. Helen says:

    I think this is a really powerful concept and I’m guessing it’s the concept behind every jingle that gets stuck in our head

  2. Christopher says:

    i can see how the rewording of the sentences gives the reader an easier time to read them.

  3. Mel says:

    Favourite line from this piece: “Rhythm is already built into our language, you just have to become aware of it.”. I am looking forward to putting this in practice, but am concerned with how long the sentences may turn out to be… When do they become too long to easily digest? Guessing it’s a case by case basis that depends on context?

  4. Bonny says:

    This concept really appeals to me. It adds yet another dimension to copywriting that I hadn’t considered. It’ll be fun to play around with it.

  5. Veronica says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I like the idea that rhythmic writing can captivate the reader to sing and dance to my tune.

  6. Jessie L says:

    Ooh, now things are getting interesting…

  7. Rebecca L says:

    Interesting read. I like how it presents copywriting as more of an art, rather than strictly churning out ‘less is more’. The intention is to make our copy sing so that it get’s read!

  8. Julie Wood says:

    The power of three (or four) is such a useful tool, and help add closure and rhythm to sentences.

  9. Abbie says:

    This is definitely something that I need to work on. I’ve always been a ‘straight to the point’ writer (hence why i’m taking this course), and this has made me realise just how important the rhythm of a sentence can be in creating a more enticing and enjoyable piece.

  10. Kirby Fenwick says:

    I’ve never considered the rhythm of what I write, the song my word form; but it really makes sense. Even from the few examples here, it’s obvious that work on the rhythmic quality of your writing can significantly improve it.

  11. Katie says:

    Something to definitely keep in mind as I’m writing. I have a naturally tendency to want to group words/ideas together so this gives me really good direction.

  12. Kat says:

    Love this – very inspiring to think how you could make even a dry snippet of sales copy ‘sing’!

  13. Kate says:

    A classic case of less isn’t always best. No longer do I need to feel restrained by the need to always cut down on copy! Thanks Nicolas!

    • NICOLAS says:

      As Hemingway said: “write drunk, edit sober”. Although he was famous for short sentences, he never shied away from long ones. His longest being 424 words on page 148 of Green Hills of Africa.

  14. Appu says:

    Good sentences and words have a ring to it ; can just say it off the tongue; just clicks. However, have not considered a musical term like rhythm in writing before so that was interesting to discover. And also how to better incorporate the Rhythm of twos,threes and fours to communicate the point.

  15. Anagha says:

    If we can bring rhythm in the routine, it will make life so much more interesting for ourselves and our readers. I love music, now need to work on making it a part of my writing…

  16. Enjoyed the read, as I have never thought about it before, It does make sense though, rhythmic formulas are engaging and very easy to read, it somehow rounds off the sentence.

  17. Megan says:

    I have never even thought this existed and was a possibility in writing. What a wonderful way of explaining it. Less is more and getting straight to the point yet still engaging the audience is genius. Every word needs to flow on and create resonance. I am looking forward to learning more on this.

  18. Leona Devaz says:

    I love the quote by Quentin Crisp! I’m learning that even though words appear static, flat on a page or website – it’s the musicality of how we compose them,
    that brings the content to life.

  19. Coreen says:

    I think we’re unconsciously compelled to read sentences (to the end) where these techniques have been applied. Looking at the examples I felt a sense of satisfaction after having read the sentences that used rhythmic formulas. They resonate more and they string along the reader, urging him/her to continue reading.

  20. michaelcxs says:

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the art of good copywriting is not so far removed from that of poetry. Love this post.

  21. Jen says:

    The balance the writer needs to strike is engaging the reader through the use of rhythm whilst writing in plain english and avoiding unnecessary words.

  22. Sarah says:

    Rhythm is a great way to emphasise an important point while keeping the reader’s attention. For example, while your reader may not be consciously aware of the rhythm in a sentence which uses the ‘rhythm of fours’, they may understand that you’re telling them a compelling story.

  23. Vicky says:

    And you can trace the connection even further back to oral storytelling traditions and epic poetry, when rythmic language facilitated memorisation. Reading text aloud is definitely the key to testing if the rhythm ‘works’.

  24. Rebecca says:

    This reminds me of reading Shakespeare aloud in tutorials at Uni to hear the iambic pentameter. Twos, threes, fours and fives! Hypnotic morse code with its shorts and longs.

  25. Jeremy G says:

    Rhythm sounds like a concept that needs to be practiced quite heavily to master, but the positive impact it has on a piece of copy is clear. Will be interesting to see how I go using it in my own work.

  26. Faiyaz Khan says:

    I teach poetry so this really interests me and gives me a different perspective to writing with rhythm in everyday writing to make it more interesting.

  27. Johanna says:

    I love this – thinking about language with rhythm is a fantastic way to get inside it.

  28. A post on how to make your content sing with rhythms.

  29. Caitlin says:

    The difference between a sentence that is thrown together, and one the is given it’s own rhythm, is huge. s

  30. Bronwen says:

    Having attended the class yesterday and felt and listened to the difference rhythm makes I am a convert, it brings a level of excitement to even the most dull or dry copy content – Thank you

  31. Cameron Sundblom says:

    This approach is not as workable when you’re writing to a strict word limit, and it can make for wordier copy if you’re too conscious of it. There’s also the possibility of getting bogged down in sentences if you’re concerned about syllables and rhythm. But the importance of ‘the hook’ outweighs this consideration in most cases.

  32. This explains why I read, write and think better when listening to music.

  33. pepperedmoth says:

    I am a musician… hadn’t thought of applying my ‘beats’ to writing before.

  34. Mark Thomas says:

    A rhythm in a copy is a marvelous beat, a tingle in your fingers, a tingle in your feet, it connects you to the content of the story that you have to read and complete.
    Using a tetracolon within the rhythm of your copy to drive the point home is a clear example of the power of 4’s to move the beat forward to a conclusion.

  35. Natalia says:

    Rhythm is definitely an interesting concept and I am now more aware of the important role rhythm plays in copywriting. Like an artist adding the final touches to the canvas, the copywriter weaves his/her magic with rhythm into the copy. This technique certainly will help ‘engage’ the reader and give them the desire to read on.

  36. Jeff Hyde says:

    Love reading good rhythm in prose
    When done well it certainly shows
    It may not rhyme
    All of the time
    But somehow the sentence just flows

    I think you can really have some fun with this aspect of copywriting. Could be where the art and the science of copywriting intersect? Not sure. But to me, an inspiring message always seems to come across better when aided by a built in rhythm. Now, I will be able to not only appreciate it, but identify it as well.

  37. Olivia Zan says:

    This is an interesting concept. It challenges the notion of ‘less is more’ and requires a delicate balance of words to strike a rhythm that will keep the reader engaged. Without losing the message. I like the idea that words don’t have to be particularly eloquent, but must strike the right rhythm to ‘sing’.

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