“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 😉