Writing By Beats

The world goes by beats — the sound of rain on the roof, the clicking of the subway train, the rhythmic beating of the heart… if you listen closely you’ll hear it.  Some beats are regular, some are irregular, but they’re always there.  Those beats inspire poetry, but they should also be informing prose.  Writers of every variety need to learn how to capture that natural pulse in order to create work that transcends the paper.

What Does it Mean to Write By Beats?

Long ago and far away in a writing class we discussed the power of beats.  Short sentences and tightly spaced punctuation convey meaning beyond the basic word — they add context and rhythm.  For example, short, choppy sentences can create the sense of fast, excited speech to a reader.  In the same way, long drawn out sentences that don’t have a lot to really say for themselves can convey a more relaxed tone.

It’s about the beat.  The rushed beats, the prolonged beats, the irregular beats.  The pulse of your writing, the pulse of your life, the pulse of the lives of your characters or your readership — they’re more than words, so much more.  And the more you pay attention, the better you’ll do with them.

The Trick to Writing By Beats

Writing by beats is a much more tricky thing, though.  For some people, it comes quite naturally — I wrote by beats before I knew what beats were.  Others struggle, they grasp at it and can’t quite make it happen.  There’s a rhythm they can’t hear, but this is a skill anyone can learn, no matter how much you’re struggling with it today.

And this doesn’t just go for fiction or poetry — I write digital copy by beats each and every day.  I write this blog by beats.  I do it subconsciously, pounding out the words like I’d pound on a drum.  Fast for when I want you to be excited about a product — slow when I want you to carefully consider what I’m writing.  Beat, beat, beat… it goes on and on.

So, just how do you learn to do what I do naturally?  I have some ideas that have helped plenty of writers before you.  Here we go!

1. Set a Mood.  When I say set a mood, what I mean is that you need to choose some music that perfectly reflects the beats you’re trying to create.  I write sales copy to a playlist I named “Happy, Punchy Copy.”   It’s both happy and punchy — and that’s where that copy comes from.  The thing is that you have to sort of push it away and absorb it like a meditation on rhythm.  So, stick on your headphones, immerse yourself in music, then ignore it while you compose.

2. Read Everything Out Loud.  Beats are something you feel, but they’re also something you hear in your head as you read.  Like you’re reading this, someone else will read what you’ve written and narrate it as they go.  They’ll hear a voice in their heads, they don’t just read the words — words are never just words.  If you can’t get the beats right, start reading your work out loud to yourself.  Feel the words, feel the beat as you go.  If you hit spots that seem awkward, talk it out until it’s smooth.  Hone that copy like a fine steel blade.

3. Study Rhythmic Poetry.  I have a particular opinion on non-rhythmic poetry that there’s not space for here, but if you need some real obvious examples of beats pick up a poetry anthology.  Read those rhythmic poems, commit them to memory, understand how they pulse in the mind of a reader.  Poetry is a gateway to better writing, if you’ll only learn how it works.  Beat by beat, it’ll improve your copy exponentially.

Beats are one of the most misunderstood parts of a writer’s voice, in my opinion.  As you write more and more, your voice will develop — but if you really want to pack a wallop, figure out this beat stuff early on.  The rest will be child’s play.

Now get to work, fuckers.