Voice: Rhythm made visible

by Darcy Pattison

Robert Frost says, “Good writing is good speaking caught alive.”

In other words, the pitch changes, intonation and rhythm pattern can carry the meaning of a sentence like, “Nice haircut.” You can say that phrase and by changing your intonation patterns you can give it different meanings: ironic, disapproving, enthusiastic.

How you say something–the pitch changes, rhythm, intonation–determines meaning.

Frost says, “Aa sentence must convey a meaning by tone of voice and it must be the particular meaning the writer intended. The reader must have no choice in the matter. The tone of voice and its meaning must be in the black and white on the page.”

Making ideas memorable has much to do with intonation over a longer passage. There should be places for the reader to pause, speed up, emphasize, gloss over. The living part of any piece of writing is the pitch changes, intonation, and rhythm entangled in the sentence construction (syntax) and across sentences. Today, we?ll look at how to visualize the rhythm patterns of a passage.

Rhythm Patterns

But how can we look at this? It happens in time for our ears.  So it’s hard to evaluate. Joe Glaser, in his book, Image from Amazon
Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing says, “English speakers tend to speak each breath unit in the same amount of time, going faster or slower in keeping with the number of syllables they need to fit in.”

A breath unit, by his definition, is the number of words said on one breath; usually sentences are broken into breath units by some sort of punctuation, which indicates a slight pause. We can make rhythm visible, thus easier to study by making a visual display of breath units. Because each breath unit takes the same amount of time, I’ve spread the words over the same amount of space, the width of the page. (At each punctuation mark, I did a hard return; then, I full-justified the text.) Where lots of words are compressed into one line, the speaker must speed up to get everything one one breath. Where words are spread out across the line, the speaker slows down to spread the words across one breath. My divisions are, of course, arbitrary; different speakers will take breaths at different points. Still, it’s an attempt to make rhythm visible so we can discuss it. Look at the breath units of Boggart and Despereaux (Click on the picture below for a larger view. ):

Boggart: mostly medium to long breath units with short ones for variety.

Despereaux: mostly short breath units with long ones for variety. It also has the greatest extremes, with both the shortest and longest breath units. Glaser says that after about 25 syllables, it becomes hard for the English speaker to continue on that breath. Despereaux pushes that limit with one 28 syllable sentence, while balancing it with a two syllable sentence. Speed up to get all 28 words in, slow way down for a small rest, go medium speed–variations make for an interesting rhythm–and interesting voice. In the end, what does this mean.

Should we analyze every text and do this funny layout to visualize our rhythm patterns? No. It is interesting to do this exercise with a sample of your writing, to see where your work lies in this respect. How would you describe your writing?

For example, I did this analysis on samples from eighth grade students. Their sentences were almost always between 11-13 words long, with a uniformity that was amazing. No longs; no shorts. For these writers, one of the most helpful things for their voices would have been teaching them how to write long and interesting sentences; but they are scared to use semi-colons, colons, parentheses, lists, or other punctuation that could help them achieve variety. Uniformity of intonation is the antithesis of voice.