Shout it out loud

You find yourself reading a passage again and again to make sense of it. It’s not because the cat is strutting across your screen (not this time, anyway). It’s not because the game on TV between [insert your favourite team and its arch-rival team here] is distracting you. It’s because – let’s face it – it’s bad writing.

Writing is like music – it possesses rhythm, meter, cadence, pitch. Bad writing is clumsy and trips over itself like a skipping CD. Good writing is an arrangement of pleasing sounds that elevates the message as it carries it to your audience.

So here’s a tip: Read it out loud.

Hey, you’re prepared to publish your work for the entire world to see, so don’t get shy on me now. Give it a sound check – and make your prose sing.

Listen for variety.

Change up the lengths of sentences, allowing for fluctuation in the number of syllables and their emphasis. You’re aiming for the ebb and flow of a jazz improvisation, not the rat-a-tat-tat of “Chopsticks.”

Listen for flow.

Vary the structures of sentences. When every line builds the same way, there is no crescendo, no diminuendo, no contrast. Monotony ensues. It’s a Gregorian chant – a sure cure for insomnia.

Let it breathe.

The “wall of sound” has its place, but one of the stunning subtleties of music is the spaces between the notes. (No one equals the mastery of Pink Floyd on this score, particularly on albums like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Wish You Were Here.”) Spaces are essential in writing, too. It’s easy to get crowded with too many ideas demanding equal attention. But when they’re crammed together with no room to stretch, you’ve got a mosh pit on the page.

Take two.

The time-honoured creed commands: Write first, edit later. Once you’ve heard how it sounds aloud, you know how it will sound in the reader’s head. Now you’re ready to go back and tweak. In no time, your masterpiece will be Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along The Watchtower” – an improvement on the original.


About this entry