Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Sound Edit

One of the most important self-editing tips I can give writers is to read your work aloud.

Writing is not a visual art. It is more like a symphony than an oil painting. Words make sounds—even when read silently--and it is the way you string these sounds together that satisfies or irritates the reader.

Think about it. You probably hear many grammatical errors in conversation. You might not know the grammatical rule that defines it, but you know it sounds wrong. You have developed an ear for grammar. The same holds true for writing. Reading your work aloud will help you to develop your writer’s ear. It is a quick way to identify any problem areas.

When something doesn’t sound right, there are several things that you can try to make it work.

a) Vary the length of sentences. Short sentences can increase urgency and excitement or build tension. Long sentences will slow down the story and create a particular mood. Your ear will tell you when you need more sentence variety.

E.g. The sun had already set. He went around to the back of the house. Everything was quiet. He got his gun from the cabinet. He headed for the woods. It had to be here somewhere. He just had to keep looking. His breathing was ragged. The gun slipped in his sweaty hands.
Do you see how this rhythm is annoying after awhile? You’d better hope that something exciting happens fast or you will lose your reader. Variety is the key. Save the short sentences for a really exciting part. Even then you will only want to use a few in a row and you’ll want to vary the length a bit among them.

b) Vary sentence construction. It keeps the reader from becoming bored by the monotonous drone of several sentences with the same construction strung together.

E.g. Mike thought about what he had to do. He couldn’t do anything about the past. He could do something about now. He picked up his instrument. He walked onto the stage.

These sentences are somewhat varied in length but they all have the same simple sentence construction. The rhythm is annoying. The one caution here is to avoid starting sentences with gerunds (ing verbs) just for the sake of variety. When a sentence begins with a gerund, it means that two actions are occurring simultaneously. Eg. Singing Jingle Bells, she stirred the soup slowly. This is correct because she can sing and stir soup at the same time. Slamming the truck door, she ran to the house. These actions do not occur at the same time. She slams the door and then runs for the house.

c) Try to use complete sentences. Used sparingly, sentence fragments make writing sound more natural and can add emphasis. If overused, they become ineffective. Don’t let rules inhibit your writing but break them only if there’s a reason to do so.

d) Repetition. If used properly repetition can be powerful, but don’t fall into repetition because you are too lazy to find a synonym. Be equally wary of overusing an unusual word. Uncommon words stand out and if you repeat one of these, even with a couple of paragraphs separating them, the reader will notice.

e)Listen. Make a habit of listening to your words the way you would listen to a band rehearsal. Is something out of tune, off the beat? A sound can be inappropriate--just as laughter is a good sound in the school yard but not so good in a math test--or it can simply interrupt the rhythm of the story. Listen for things that are out of place as you read your work aloud.

It is always helpful to have another person read your work, aloud if possible. If they stumble over words, or you find them going back to re-read something because they don’t understand it, you will know there is a problem. But when you don’t have someone to share your work with or you are pressed for time, reading aloud can give you the emotional distance that it takes to find awkward spots. Taping your story and playing it back is an excellent way to find inconsistencies in your text, repeated words, dialogue confusion, switched subjects and so on that the eye misses.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that reading your work aloud is a wonderful way to edit. Of course, if you do it when your family is around, you'll gather some odd looks. (Ask me how I know)!

    Thanks for such "sound" advice, Sherry!