The rhythm of writing

Tony Zhou's Every Frame A Painting video essay series has a devoted following online, and for good reason. His pieces are one of the few things you can honestly say couldn't work in any form other than video.

That isn't the case for most content. It's trendy to bash media outlets for pivoting to video, but like many, I can't stand receiving a link to a video without a transcript because most of the time video is the least efficient way to consume the information within. Like many infovores, I can read and scan faster than I can listen to someone talk (which is why I listen to podcasts at 2X speed, sometimes even faster depending on who's talking). Video scanning and seeking is notoriously inefficient, and if the internet has done anything it's turned us into screen scanners with even shorter attention spans than before (as anyone who has looked at data from any eye-tracking study can attest).

Back to Every Frame A Painting. The series works well as video in part because Zhou has a deep understanding of film's visual grammar, but don't underestimate the patience needed to rip discs and scan through video. Someday, that may be easier to do, but for now, it's a long time suck, involving ripping Blu-Rays and DVDs with MakeMKV and then transcoding them with Handbrake into a format editable in Premiere or Final Cut, then watching over and over to assemble the clips, then writing a script and recording the voiceover, then fine-tuning. Writing an essay isn't easy, but compared to producing a video essay it's trivial. Christian Marclay's The Clock is a remarkable piece, but a moment of silence for all the assistant editors and interns who had to rip and label all the video from which it was assembled.

The Zhou essay on Kurosawa titled Composing on Moment reminded me of something about writing that has become more salient to me over time: rhythm. Zhou's essay is about shot structure, movement, and length, but many of the lessons he discusses apply to writing.

Each shot in a movie is a sentence. One of the simplest ways to improve one's prose and to keep a reader's attention is simply to vary sentence length. I don't love editing my own writing, it's so easy to overlook errors when your mind knows what it was trying to say; it tends to fill in the blanks instead of processing what's actually on the page.

However, I don't really have any other option, so I am my own editor. To protect against my familiarity, I usually set aside anything I've written for a long time, sometimes months, until I've forgotten it completely, before revisiting it to revise and edit. Once you're estranged from your own work you can see it anew. Also, sometimes the work doesn't survive the test of time and can be tossed.

The most effective way I've found to edit myself is to read the text out loud (using my inner voice, that is). Reading the text out loud does two things. One, it slows me down. Speed readers largely increase their velocity by training themselves to not read aloud. When I started editing myself, I had to un-train myself in speed reading techniques like word block scanning.

The other benefit of reading out loud is to render the rhythm of your writing audible. Where in a block of text can you pause to take a breath, and where do you go breathless? The cadence of breathing and speaking tends to mimic the frequency of the brain's ability to process words and sentences..

Think of your reader as someone with as a limited amount of RAM. They can only hold so much of a thought in their head at once. The longer your sentence, the more structure it needs if you're hoping the reader will remember it.

There are exceptions, as there are to any rule.

Here's an opening line from Cormac McCarthy:

They crested out on the bluff in the late afternoon sun with their shadows long on the sawgrass and burnt sedge, moving single file and slowly high above the river and with something of its own implacability, pausing and grouping for a moment and going on again strung out in silhouette against the sun and then dropping under the crest of the hill into a fold of blue shadows with light touching them about the head in spurious sanctity until they had gone on for such a time as saw the sun down altogether and they moved in shadow altogether which suited them very well.

That's from Outer Dark.

There are other authors known for an occasional colossus of a sentence, and some who seem to rely on it as the base unit for entire novels, like Joyce or Proust. The film equivalent is something like the nearly 3-minute continuous shot that opens Boogie Nights by Paul Thomas Anderson. or the famous Copacabana Steadicam shot from Goodfellas.

[If you plot the Copacabana shot spatially you realize that Ray Liotta takes a purposefully circuitous route through the kitchen to lengthen the shot, for no apparent reason other than to lengthen the shot. But it's such a great moment, and it has such a purpose in the film at that moment, that you forgive it the indulgence. Ray Liotta is trying to impress Lorraine Bracco, and the lack of a cut allows him to draw out the performance in one unbroken, escalating build. It works. No one who watches the movie ever notices the circuitous route because the shot itself is so dazzling, which is how magicians pull off many a sleight of hand.]

In both text and video, such a flourish is overtly showy, like magician wearing a tuxedo with tails, conjuring one dove after another from his breast pocket, his sleeve, his collar, back to his sleeve, and oh! here's three doves at once. Or a sporting event employing flame throwers during introductions, or a concert beginning with the artist rising from beneath the stage through billowing florets of smoke. 

As anyone who builds such an elaborate apparatus knows, such displays inevitably attract accusations of grandstanding. As soon as any film auteur releases a long unbroken shot in a film, an argument will erupt online over whether the shot is justified and breathtaking or just self-indulgent, rent-seeking on the viewer's attention. Generally it's both, and where you settle is a matter of taste.

I find my novelty-seeking sloping upwards at this point in my life, so I appreciate the occasional grasp at the sublime. Not every sentence needs to be in the unadorned prose style of The New Yorker (Tom Wolfe once described their house style it as "leisurely meandering understatement") and not every film needs to be a series of back and forth over-the-shoulder shots while two people talk, like is common in a network TV drama which must brute-force its way through a 24 episode full season order.

In my spare time, I've dabbled with creating my own writing app, a common fantasy among those who write, since no one is ever perfectly satisfied with their word processor.

[Processor, incidentally, is a terrible name for an application. "Word processor" is bad, and so is "food processor." Is there any craft that can retain the slightest bit of romance and dignity when its primary tool is named a processor? There's a reason we don't call Tinder and other dating apps mating processors, though many might argue that online dating deserves exactly such a name. Processing is a word that should be reserved for bureaucratic procedures; it feels appropriate that so many government institutions have FAQs about processing times.]

Among the many odd features I'd include in my theoretical writing app (whose goal would not just be to make it more enjoyable to write, but to write better, and which would likely make for a terrible business), one would be an editing view which would transform the rhythm of the text into a more scannable form. It might be color coding each sentence according to its word length, or turning a block of text into a graphic like a line graph, with sentence length as the y-axis. You might be able to calculate the variance of sentence length mathematically, though I suspect such a figure would be too reductive to be useful.

The longer the text, the more sentence length variation is desirable, so regardless of methodology, the goal would be the same, to make monotonous stretches of similar sentence lengths more visible to the writer. Readers can't handle being bludgeoned with sentences of the same length in perpetuity. Occasionally they need a breather.

A pause.

The next time you edit something you've written, look for places where a sentence or two needs trimming or splitting, or where a longer sentence might find an opportune moment in which to wander languidly. We may not all be poets, but even a million monkeys at a million typewriters can churn out the occasional line of Shakespeare, more so if they know what to look for.