Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Importance of Commas, Meter, and Reading Aloud for the Fiction Writer

By Dario Ciriello, @Dario_Ciriello 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: How your writing sounds is just as important as how it reads. Dario Ciriello discusses how rhythm and meter work to create memorable writing.

I recently completed an edit for a client, Cordia Pearson1, whom I’d gently persuaded to let me introduce Oxford commas into her list phrases. The reasoning for this is that using the Oxford (aka serial) comma never does any harm, and can prevent serious confusion. Consider the sentence,
My parents, Jesus, and Lady Gaga taught me all I know.
If you remove the serial comma after Jesus, the meaning changes, and not for the better.
After I’d delivered the completed edit, Cordia—who was going through my every edit with admirable diligence, reading each chapter aloud as she went—emailed me to ask why I’d not introduced an Oxford comma in the last clause of the sentence,
Wish I could wail and rend my clothing as so many others do, families who have lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters or lovers.
When I read her email, I actually remembered thinking through that sentence as I was editing, and the reason for my decision to omit the worthy Oxford comma. Stay with me as we get nerdy, friends, because this will be hugely useful in making your prose sing.

(Here’s more with Three Fun Literary Devices to Make Your Prose Sing)

Here's the thing: comma use in English is sometimes as much art as science.

Now, if we're using the Oxford comma, every item in a list except the last gets one.

In the above example there's no comma between sons and daughters as they're a natural pairing, and so with brothers and sisters: each of these pairs counts as a list item. So there's a strong grammatical case for a comma after sisters, making the sentence read as,
Wish I could wail and rend my clothing as so many others do, families who have lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, or lovers.
But if you read this version aloud with a momentary pause after each comma, putting one after sisters breaks the rhythm, leaching energy out at the end; this would be different if we had a third paired item instead of lovers—then I'd insert an Oxford comma).

(Here’s more with Feel the Rhythm of the Words)

Meter isn’t only for poetry; it can power your prose.

So if you omit the comma, as in the first example and the way Cordia had written it, you change the meter of brothers and sisters or to dactylic2 and get a slightly breathless effect, almost a galloping, hypnotic rhythm:
BROthers and SISters or LOVers3
which IMO suits the despairing tone of the passage far better4. Placing a comma after sisters breaks the second dactylic “foot” and ruins the effect. That galloping dactylic rhythm is one reason why the phrase. Lions and tigers and bears is so memorable. Dactylic meter also drives the saying, Live long and prosper. And it's absolutely no accident that Tennyson used dactylic in his poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”—the meter is a major factor in the poem’s hypnotic effect.

Finally, I suggested she might also change the “or” to “and” for even more power—reading each of these variations out loud makes the effects obvious.

(Here’s more with Give Me a Beat: Rhythm in Dialogue)

In conclusion, reading your work aloud reveals subtleties and nuances of rhythm which can make your prose stronger or weaker. The best writers often use meter subconsciously, but a working understanding of poetic meter is a very useful tool for the writer wanting to tweak their prose for maximum power and effect. And although your reader may not have a clue about poetic meter, they—and their appreciation of your story—will be affected by it to no small degree.

Do you read your work aloud during revision? Do you consider prose rhythms?

1 Name and example used with permission. Cordia’s book (forthcoming) is titled Iridesce.
2 One stressed or long syllable followed by two unstressed, or short: DUH-duh-duh
3 More properly written as

/ — — / — — / —

Brothers and | sisters or | lovers

(where / = stressed syllable and — = unstressed)

4 You could probably find a curmudgeonly grammarian to disagree, but I think the poets would all be cheering.

Further Reading

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing.

Dario’s fiction includes Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller with a shimmer of the fantastic; Black Easter, a supernatural suspense novel which pits love against black magic and demonic possession on a remote, idyllic Greek island; and Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short science fiction work.

Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Sk√≥pelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles Area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Panverse Publishing

About The Fiction Writing Handbook

A Unique Approach to the Craft of Writing Fiction

The Fiction Writing Handbook
 is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers' block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo | Panverse


  1. Fascinating. I need to go back over my WIP thinking about rhythm now. I also write poetry, and didn't think to apply what I use in that discipline to my books. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    1. I'm glad you found it interesting, V.M, and thanks for commenting. If you write poetry, you likely know good deal more about meter than I do. I used to just read my dialogue aloud, but when I found that several author friends and clients whom I admire make a habit of reading their entire work, I was sold. And bringing awareness of poetic meter to prose can work magic.

      I don't write poetry, but love it and read it regularly. I have half a shelf full of poetry, mostly the English C17-C20 classics. I always preface a writing session with 15-20 minutes of reading poems, it primes the creative pump wonderfully.


  2. Ahh, rhythm. It really can matter -- the human mind never really forgets it, and that's not even including the audiobook side of the business. Reading a passage aloud is by far the best simple editing trick there is.

    Hmm. I hadn't noticed, but there's even a dactyl in the *title* of "Charge of the Light Brigade." That's committing to a pattern.

    1. Ken, thank you for commenting. Your observation about the human mind never forgetting rhythm is very astute, and probably not surprising given that we spend months in the womb listening to the steady rhythm of the mother's heartbeat...


    2. Also good points about both the title of Tennyson's work (I;d not noticed that!) and audiobooks, which last I also touched upon in my answer to Christina, below. --D

  3. I like how you think. Early on, I don't always read aloud. If there's a lot to fix it isn't always worth the effort at that point. When I do, though, I lend the characters the voices I hear in my head. Thankfully, no one hears me. I recently read aloud a short story of 5K words. Even though it was fantasy, in my mind I heard the heroine's voice as having a southern accent (I'm sure mine is awful, but it suited my purposes). After, I struggled to go back to my normal voice, which at this point has become influenced by my characters so "normal" should have an asterisk beside it. Therefore, yes, I completely agree. Rhythm is oh so important. When it's right it might as well be music.

    1. Christina, I agree, the reading aloud is best left for the later phases of revision. I love that you use character voice *as you hear it,* complete with accents and all. That's the way!

      It also makes me think of audiobooks, where the best prose and prose rhythm can be destroyed by a voice actor who's not completely in tune with the material they're reading. It works both ways. Those among us who are planning an audiobook of their work should be very exacting in their choice of narrators, even if means dozens of auditions.


  4. Rhythm comforts and helps readers as they enjoy a story. I noticed a pattern during a concert in the changing rhythms and pacing's of several musical compositions. I actually follow certain musical pieces during writing. It helps that I am a musician, but is not necessary. An extreme example is a sunrise scene following Also Sprach Zarathustra, used also in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.