A Sound Problem

Speed-of-Sound

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t ‘sound’ right. What’s wrong with it?”

“Can’t put my finger on it. It’s…”

It is a “sound” problem; unfortunately this is one of the more difficult ones to diagnose. Your reader won’t notice it if you get it right, but it will upset their inner ear if you get it wrong.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, to detect sound, you have to read the text. It is not a matter of glancing over it. You have to delve ‘ear in’ and let the words reverberate, because technically correct prose is not always rhythmically pleasant.

What are the best ways to identify sound problems? The usual suspect: poor sentence construction. No matter how often you read and reread that sentence, it simply doesn’t make any sense. It may be that the sentence is too long, or perhaps too short; more often than not, the sentence is poorly divided.

Can it really be just a matter of punctuation? Never! Surely everyone knows how to use a full stop and comma? What of colons, semicolons, dashes, and parentheses? Even after acquiring a decent level of proficiency, I find that going back to the basics always helps refresh my memory.

In addition to poor sentence construction, “sound” problems may be caused by echoes, alliteration and resonance.

Most echoes are character names or personal pronouns (“he” and “she”)  that are repeated to often, although unusual words that have become “pets” for the author, and appear repeatedly throughout, may have the same undesirable effect.

Alliteration has such power in prose that its use must be tempered. As someone who writes poetry, I am often in danger of infusing my prose with too much lyricism, so this is one particular “sound” problem I am constantly on the lookout for.

I am afraid that when it comes to resonance the issue is so broad that I may have to dedicate an entire post to this topic alone. Resonance is a matter of subtlety. It can be the sound of one sentence in the context of a paragraph, the sound of a paragraph in the context of a page, of one page in the context of a chapter and so on.

When I first began to consider the issue of “sound” in writing, I though it far too complicated. How on earth am I supposed to get all of this right as well?

The good news — as far as I see it at least — is that we all have a ear for sound. We all know when something doesn’t “sound right”, and this is half of the battle: identifying problem areas.

To do this, I read out loud what I have written, record it (smart phones have handy apps for this if you don’t have a professional recorder), and then I listen. Reading out loud is good in and of itself, but the additional benefit of listening to a recording is the detachment it gives me from the text. It is a shortcut to objectivity.

I listen – I cut – I simplify. It may not fix all “sound” problems, but it does work for most.

Sound, language, rhythm, breaks, alliterations and echoes… In mastering sound, we step into the realm of writing as an art form. By paying close attention to these elements of our craft, we can produce exquisite prose that is as beautiful to hear as it is to read.

When in doubt, play it by ear 😉

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21 thoughts on “A Sound Problem

  1. I can see how the above approach can then allow one to hone the tactile elements/aspects to the story. A reader can virtually reach inside of the story to absorb it with all of their senses. I t also seems possible to tell the reader a different story to each sense, a way to create doubt as to where the narrative might go. I found the above useful, cheers.

    • I’m very glad you found it useful, Sean. I love the fact that you referred to other senses too. It is wonderful – at least to me as a reader – to discover writing that has used all bodily senses so well that I feel immersed in a thee dimensional world. Or if we consider all senses we might say a five dimensional even. Thank you.

  2. I suppose I now know why you are the Mistress of Meter.

    *nav has vision of poetess in thigh-high leather boots*
    *nav notices tremor waves in wine*
    *Victoria’s Secret catalogue in the mail was his secret undoing*
    *foaming at the mouth*
    *wishes his cholesterol wasn’t so high*
    *navigator’s gyros start to precess beyond specs*
    *gyros topple*
    *inexplicable terror at the mention of metronomes*
    NAV DOWN! NAV DOWN!

    It would appear as if poetry is indeed an art form. A potentially lethal one.

  3. I read aloud my posts before I publish anything too. It’s a habit. But a sure factor and indicator if everything “sounds” smooth. But then again, I read aloud most anything. Still wondering if it’s because I like to or I like the sound of my own voice. Childhood habits that still runs strong. 😀

    • I always read my poetry out loud and always imagined that everyone else did as well when writing poetry. I read somewhere that poets tend to write immaculate prose because they spend so long over one single line, turning it over, perfecting. And… I have to admit that since I’ve returned to writing poetry on a regular basis, I have noticed a slight improvement in the sound of my prose too. 🙂
      Thank you for sharing, love o’clock. Always a pleasure reading your comments.

  4. One Dark & Stormy Night
    As Bard Wore Favorite Tights
    He Was Sorely Tempted
    With Words of Fanciful Flight

    What to Do
    Oh What Must Be Done
    Surely The Tale of Puck
    Should be Taken on the Run

    Beautiful Words
    Never Repeated
    Such Lyricalise
    Language Not Depleted!

    Story Told
    In the Round
    Before the Globe
    Burnt to the Ground….

    The Bard’s Tales
    Greatest Ever Told
    Strong Statement!
    If I may be so bold!

    😉

      • LoL. I wrote this a while ago.

        And overstuffed it with pop cultural references to be funny.

        But it’s somewhat related to your point, as a general matter of “doesn’t sound right” haha. But it’s intentional.

        I do it in other humor as satire and parody as well. Just not to this extent normally. You can overstuff pop references and stuff as well I think. To the point that people aren’t paying attention to what you are saying, and just going from pop reference to pop culture reference.

        http://wp.me/p3NHOl-yb

        I think 3 people have read it. LoL.

        One Week is the longest song ever that clocks in at 2:55… They rap so fast… Haha… Felt like forever to write it.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post and then thought of it again this morning while getting coffee. The barista suggested to the customer ahead of me that he try a sip of his latte to make sure it was to his liking. His reply was “No thanks, every time I come here, the coffee is usually good.” Just the logic didn’t sound right but it took me a few moments to figure out why. And then I recalled your post with a smile.

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