Pay attention to rhythm when you write.
Consider whether you can adjust your word choice to improve your prose’s rhythm.
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Great writers hone their sense of rhythm over a lifetime of reading. But all writers who have mastered the fundamentals can elevate their prose by paying attention to its cadences.
Because rhythm only slightly affects readability and clarity, it is rarely considered in legal writing texts. But you should still be aware of it when you write, and you can use it as a tiebreaker to help you decide between two alternative modes of expression. In particular, consider whether you can adjust your word choice to improve your prose’s rhythm.
Rhythm is affected by sentence-level factors such as punctuation and sentence length. Short sentences tend to be “punchy” and emphatic, while long sentences can create either a long, rhythmless drone or (more desirably) a series of rhythmic cadences. Punctuation affects rhythm by causing the reader to pause:
An opening parentheses creates a short pause.
A comma creates a slightly longer pause.
An em-dash (—) creates a relatively long pause.
Rhythm is also affected by word choice. Each word has a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables that contributes to the overall rhythm of a sentence. You may remember these patterns from a high school or college poetry lesson. In the following diagrams, a hyphen indicates that the syllable is unstressed, while a slash indicates that the syllable is stressed:
iamb ( - / ) (Ex: “enough,” “alert”)
trochee ( / - ) (Ex: “caution,” “writing”)
spondee ( / / ) (Ex: “bookmark,” ”sunset”)
anapest ( - - / ) (Ex: “understand,” “comprehend”)
dactyl ( / - - ) (Ex: “poetry,” “elephant”)
As with other aspects of writing, the best long-term way to improve your rhythm is to read a lot of high-quality prose. For now, however, you can improve your rhythm just by being aware of it and considering it as you write — and, crucially, by reading your prose aloud or subvocalizing when you edit.
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Ryan McCarl (LinkedIn | Twitter | Blog) teaches Advanced Legal Writing at the UCLA School of Law and is a partner at the law firm Rushing McCarl.