Sound: Its Importance In Prose

November 2, 1999
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Sound: Its Importance In Prose

Noah Lukeman, New York Literary Agent

November 1999

From The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster/Fireside Books, © 1999 Noah Lukeman. May not be downloaded, photocopied, distributed or excerpted without permission of the author and/or publisher

 

Chapter Three: Sound

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

This chapter forms a demarcation: the first two chapters covered ailments an agent or editor could detect based upon a surface glance at a manuscript. But to evaluate sound, even on the crudest level, the agent or editor must actually give a manuscript a surface read, enter the text, let the words, for good or for bad, ring in his head. So if you’ve made it this far in the evaulation process, you’re getting there.

There is a sound to prose; writing is not just about getting a story across, but also-if not mainly-about how you get there. Prose can be technically correct but rhythmically unpleasant. This is one of the distinctions between writing in general and writing as an art form. We’ve all encountered the ill-sounding sentence, most commonly found in the run-on. Technically it’s correct, but it just "sounds" wrong. If it’s easier, what I label "sound" may also be thought of as "rhythm."

Accomplished poets often make for the best writers of prose because they bring to their art years of paying close attention to the sound of language, to its rhythm, breaks, to subtle elements like alliterations and echoes. They can spend years working on just one line, and this devotion to the craft of the individual word almost always translates into immaculate prose, beautiful to hear and beautiful to read.

If you strike the right notes on a piano and let them reverberate, you will, if you listen very closely, hear the "waves" beneath the music. Musical notes do not, as most people think, ring steadily; they reverberate in tiny waves, always growing louder and softer. The same holds true of prose: beneath the text there lurks a wave of sound, one that must always be monitored, tempered.

There are myriad shades of sound problems-from overt to subtle-and so this chapter is relevant both to the beginner and expert. Sound comes among the first considerations because the ill-sounding manuscript is instantly recognizable. Sound problems begin with sentences that are poorly constructed and divided, the most elementary form of grammatical misusage-so elementary, in fact, it is actually rare to find a manuscript with overtly terrible sound.

But sound problems can also trouble the expert. He will clearly know how to form a sentence-may even form a nice sounding sentence-but he may be less conscious of things like subtle echoes or distasteful consonants or vowels. Every writer, like every artist, has his strong and weak points: many writers who are otherwise quite good often don’t pay as much attention to sound as they should, focused as they are on things like plot, characterization, setting. Of course, there are only so many things a writer can keep in his head at once! Many writers first want to get their story down and then worry about things like sound upon revision; but after one or two revisions, the writer will inevitably begin to hate his own work. The sentences will begin to sound the same and he’ll lose perspective. So it is not uncommon for even the greatest writer to have at least some minor sound afflictions-be it only one word every thirty pages-that can be handled with good editing from an outside reader.

Sound can be one of the harder problems to diagnose. A few of its more common manifestations:

o Poor sentence construction. On the most basic level, sound problems arise out of simple grammatical mistakes in sentence construction. Poorly constructed sentences will seem to a lay-reader to "make no sense;" he may read a sentence repeatedly and still not get it. Watch him as he reads: he will first wrinkle his brow, then frown in frustration, then drop the manuscript in anger. The symptoms are sentences that seem too long, too short. But the underlying cause, most often, is that the sentences are not well divided. To be even more specific, the root of this poor division is the misuse of commas, periods, colons, semi-colons, dashes and parentheses.

It is my experience that nearly everyone knows how to use the period and most people know how to use the comma most of the time. But you would be amazed at how many people use the comma poorly at least some of the time (the difference between proficiency and mastery) and more amazed at how few people really know how to use the semi-colon, colon, dash and parenthesis for optimal effect. For your convenience, a brief rundown:

The semicolon should be used to connect two (or more) sentences or ideas that are distinct but closely related. These two (or more) sentences should not be so similar that they warrant being merged (with, say, a comma) and yet should also not be distinct enough to be separated (by a period). Thus, you use the semi-colon. (The semicolon has other uses too, such as when listing or numbering ideas.) It is worth looking at Moby-Dick to see how Melville employs the semicolon. One critic of the 1800s criticized Melville’s usage; perhaps he was right. But still, after reading 800 pages of Moby-Dick’s sentences, it’s hard to imagine a sentence without one.

The colon should be used to clearly offset a point. It can also be used to replace the phrase "that is." For instance: "All of his actions pointed to one thing: he was a mean man." In this example the colon replaces the phrase "that is" (offset by commas). Colons should also be used before listing items, as in, "I bought three things at the store: soap, toothpaste and a candy bar." (The colon has other uses, such as to separate a title from its subtitle, to initiate a formal letter, etc.)

The dash essentially serves the same purpose as the colon, without the formality. I say essentially, because it differs in two ways: 1) you might use the dash to denote an afterthought to a sentence. For instance: "This product is great-it’s amazing, actually." In this case, you would not use the colon. And 2) unlike the colon, dashes are frequently used in pairs, to offset a clarification (or tangent) in the midst of a sentence. For instance: "I was running in the rain-I had forgotten my umbrella-when I saw the vendor." In this case, "I had forgotten my umbrella" clarifies why the subject was running.

A common mistake is to confuse the hyphen with the dash. The hyphen is one mark "-", the dash is two "—"; the hyphen is used to connect multiple words or indicate that a word is broken by the margin and will continue on the next line.

Parentheses serve almost the same purpose as pairs of dashes: they are used as a way of including a clarification or tangent in the midst of a sentence. They differ slightly in that they are more formal than dashes, and are often used to imply an afterthought. They should also be used less frequently, as they are stylistic. If overdone, they can often be effectively replaced by dashes.

o Echoes. The echo is most commonly found in three forms: 1) character names (when a character’s name is repeated too often); 2) the words "he" and "she" (when either "he" or "she" is substituted for a character name but then ends up being used too much itself); and 3) unusual words (often writers end up siezing on some unusual word and using it at least a few times throughout a text).

o Alliteration. Technically, alliteration is the repetition of the first letter of a word in the first letter of a word following it (either immediately or a few words later)-for instance, the "large lock" or "walking down the wide street." I studied under a professor of Shakespeare who argued that alliteration can be even more subtle, should also include sound picked up from the middle and even ends of words, for instance, "eloquent quixotic". No matter how used, alliterations have a strong presence and must be tempered. When overused they can make a manuscript sound juvenile, like forced poetry. (Of course, we need not even mention rhymes in prose manuscripts, which should be avoided at all cost.)

o Resonance. To climb the subtlety ladder, a more advanced usage (or misusage) of sound comes in the form of resonance, that is, the way a sentence resounds within the context of a paragraph (or line break or chapter). For instance, if you have a series of long sentences and then one short one, this short sentence will resonate differently than it would have if the other sentences had also been short. But resonance can also apply to the beginning and middle of paragraphs and even to individual words. This gets tricky, because everything in writing is relative, and a short sentence beside a short one may not necessarily work, whereas it might beside a long one.

Solutions

In general, a sound problem is difficult to fix by yourself: since you were the one who wrote the words, they will most likely "sound" fine when you read them back. Also, you already know your sentences by heart (or at least well) and so will not scrutinize them upon a further read, but rather mentally fill in the gaps. However, here are some solutions:

o The most effective solution will be to give your manuscript to a trusted reader, specifically asking him to read just for sound. Ask him in advance to tell you if there are any places it "sounds" wrong; any sentences that are confusing, that seem too long or too short or poorly divided; any echoes, any repetitions that bother him; any difficulties grasping the meaning of any sentences, no matter how many times he read them.

o Read your manuscript aloud. Playwrights always say they can never tell anything about their play until they’ve heard it read out loud; to a lesser degree, the same holds true for prose. When it comes to sound, you can turn yourself into an outside, discriminating reader simply by switching the voice in your head with the one in your throat. Did you stumble anywhere? What felt wrong? Reading aloud, if done genuinely, will almost always bring out any awkward sentence fragments. Experiment with altering, moving or cutting them.

o Cut. Most sound problems, including repetition, echoes, alliteration, rhymes and poor sentence fragments, can be fixed by simple cutting. How to actually write harmonious prose is beyond the scope of this book, but at least the offensive passages will be removed.

o Simplify. Most writers equate complexity of thought with complexity of sentence structure. A big mistake. On the contrary, it is much harder to present complex ideas in a straightforward manner. Personally, I am always more impressed by simplicity and clarity; it is the mark of a writer who knows his subject well and is secure enough not to "lay it on" in the telling. So aim for complexity of thought, not expression. Even if your sentence sounds great, always ask yourself if the meaning is clear for the reader.

To read more free excerpts from the book, visit:

www.Lukeman.com/TheFirstFivePages

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