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Story Craft: I Got Rhythm

M.D. Spenser is the author of the popular 36-book Shivers series and a journalist. In his new column, Story Craft, he will help you improve your writing by sharing his decades of knowledge on the craft of creating stories for children. (Learn more about M.D. Spenser here.)

I got rhythm: Getting your sentences right

The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman said she could look around the newsroom and tell who the good writers were: They were the ones whose lips were moving.

She was right. Want to write well? Read your stuff out loud. The same holds doubly true for children’s authors. Children want to be able to hear your story in their heads. And the truth is, good writing not only has meaning – it has rhythm.

Read Dr. Seuss. Remember the refrain in “Horton Hears a Who?” “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” You can tap your foot to that. Four beats to the line, like the rest of the book.

What if it read, “A person is still a person, however small he or she may be.” The meaning would stay but the magic would be gone.

Of course, not every book has four beats to the line. Still, consider the opening of “The 13 Clocks,” by James Thurber:

“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there a lived a cold, aggressive Duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile, and almost as cold as his heart.”

It just begs to be read aloud.

Few of us will ever be in Thurber’s league. But we can still pay attention to how our stories sound, just as we pay attention to plot and character. Read your stuff aloud. If a sentence is too much of a mouthful, if it doesn’t roll off the tongue, recast it. Take out the extra words, change it around, break it in two, do what it takes to make it sound good.

If you get the rhythm right, your phrases will ring in kids’ heads long after they finish the book.

Next Column: You’ve Got to Play Fair

Previous Column: Don’t Talk Down to Kids

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    • avivagittle avivagittle

      At the same time, sometimes when the author reads it they can “make” it sound better than it actually is. At some point, having other people read it aloud is really helpful.

    • avivagittle avivagittle

      So true, Mariana! Nothing like learning from someone with decades of writing experience.

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