3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as Music

“If … a poem remains predominantly writing, never coming alive to voice and to sounds as voiced, it will remain only a sketch of a work.” – Susan Stewart

3 Reasons to Think of Your Writing as MusicIf you think about it, the words we put down on the page are but symbols of the sounds we make via speech. In that sense, letters are representative of sounds, a cluster of letters forms a word, those words then form longer structures, and voilà, you have sentences and paragraphs and novels. Though your readers will not physically hear the sounds of the words you write, they will feel them.

That’s why, even if you’re writing something “simple” — even if you’re writing genre literature where the plot tends to (but certainly not always) take precedence over the use of language, the way you use words, if used well, will still pluck the strings of your reader.

So what does all this have to do with music? Like music, writing relies on sound and rhythm to bring life to our work. With that said, I think the above quote is applicable to all realms of writing (and music, too), not just poetry: if our work remains mere writing, without utilizing the tools of (in this case) sound, then it does not truly live.

Think of your story as a song that needs to stay in key

Music, like language, relies on a string of sounds put together in specific patterns to form rhythm, harmony, etc. Even a listener who has had no previous musical education (like me) can hear when someone hits a bad note, or when a note doesn’t quite go with the others. It’s the exact same with readers. If a writer hits a “bad note” — a word that doesn’t quite work with the rest of the prose, for instance — the reader will notice it. This will draw them out of your story, and you risk losing their attention.

Knowledge of this is especially important for writers, because it’ll better enable you to see areas where your prose falls flat. A good line editor, too, will ‘hear’ it and be able to help you find the strongest way to use your voice to emphasize the emotion and music of your own work.

The way things sound together matters

If you want your words to sing to the reader, your prose needs to feel right. This means rhythm is going to be your best friend. Writers rely on intuition for a majority of their written choices. Every time we select a word, we are selecting it among thousands of other possibilities, which in turn changes the possibilities for the rest of the sentences that come after it. Each word hinges off the last; each word influences the next: the way the sounds wrap around one another. Afterwards, these sounds begin to represent something bigger — the actual meaning (both literal and figurative) as well as the emotional direction in which you wish to move your reader.

Do you have a scene that needs to express a state of panic? Like music, you must speed up your use of language. You must control the rhythm if you wish to convey these feelings to your reader. Find a way to harmonize between the beat of the sentences and the sound of the words and then merge them with the character and the scene.

As with notation in music, punctuation is a marker of rhythm and should be used effectively

You can influence the rhythm of your prose with punctuation. Just as certain musical notation marks the length of a beat when sung or played, punctuation marks show the amount of time a reader should pause, thus lengthening the bridge between one word and the next (which then translates to the length the reader subconsciously holds onto ideas). Each punctuation mark conveys a certain aspect of rhythm, whether just half a beat or a full breath pause. Not only does it vary the sound of what you’re writing, but it also gives you a certain amount of emotional power over your reader.

To use the example from before — a state of urgency –you could use short declarative sentences to show the speed with which events are transpiring. Then, by using a dash, for instance, or repeating words (in moderation), you can use this rhythm to then link the rest of it with the character’s own state of mind.

In conclusion . . .

There are a lot of ways to compare music to writing. As a sort of reminder, think of the way music dips in and out of our emotions, the way it holds us. This is what you want to do to your reader—this is why writers are so powerful. Because when we manage to use the sound of our writing effectively, we are in control. A good writer wraps the reader in a web of words; a good writer doesn’t let go, even after the song has ended.


Do you have any comparisons to make between writing and music? What are your experiences?

Advertisements

Repetition, Repetition: The Don’ts of Repetitive Writing

There are a lot of articles out there that give writing advice. I’ve come to realize that one of the lesser talked about issues (and one of my personal favorites) is repetition. Most posts I’ve read primarily touch on how not to use repetition, not how you should. So seeing as textual repetition is my secret (read: not-so-secret) love, I figured I’d do the opposite: write a few posts to show you how to use repetition to the benefit of your work, because repetition, when used correctly, can prove to be one of the most powerful tools in a narrative.

But, first things first, what is repetition?

RepetitionWell it’s harder to define than it seems, and there are actually half a billion academic terms for the various types, depending on when and where they occur in a sentence or word. Basically, repetition occurs on all levels of a narrative: repeated words, repeated phrases, clauses, and syntax, repeated ideas or expressions, repeated sound patterns, repeated structural techniques. (See what I just did there?) The list goes on, actually.

And what does repetition do? Well, its main goal is emphasis, and just as repetition may occur on all linguistic levels, so too does its emphasis on the reader: on emotional, physical, and mental levels. That’s the beauty of it. Not only does it connect areas of the text, it also connects the text to the reader: from the basic structures to the abstract semantics.

So that next week I can get on to the part I love, let’s get the bad, negative stuff out of the way. When should one not use repetition?

1.) When the rhythm becomes too predictable.

2.) When the reader notices the fact that you’ve repeated the same words or ideas.

3.) When it’s more of a distraction than an asset.

And when does this happen?

Badly Repeated Words:

There is a time and place for repeating words, and I’ll get into that at some other point, but in general, it’s bad practice to overuse a word, especially within a small portion of text.

Example: She stepped out onto the street, looked about, and purposely strode in the direction of Booth Street, weaving in and out of street vendors and less savory characters. (Sentence contribution courtesy of Robyn.)

There are two primary repetitive problems with this sentence: the repetition of the word “street” and the repetition of the word “out”. Even to the untrained eye, they are immediately visible distractions. A change of vocabulary will keep the prose fresh for the reader (and will refrain from launching them out of the story).

Badly Repeated Syntax:

Syntax is the way we arrange sentences, and the way we arrange sentences is important to rhythm. It may be one form of repetition that is less obvious to the author at first, but it’s immediately noticeable to someone who is reading your work for the first time. As I said, this is where you form your rhythm, and if it’s consistently the same rhythm, you run the risk of boring your reader.

Example: I went to the store. I bought some eggs. I went home.

Despite the simplicity of these sentences, there are several issues of repetition here. Firstly, the repeated pronoun “I” is not only a repeated word, but it’s used repeatedly to start the sentence, which means the subject never once changes. But that’s not the only reason these sentences are so repetitively boring. Check out the syntax structure: Subject + Verb+ Object/prepositional phrase. There is no variation from that pattern. Most people would suggest combining the sentences: I went to the store to buy some eggs and then went home. Not much more interesting, but at least it gets to the point.

Repeated Ideas or Information:

Not only is repeating ideas distracting, but it’s somewhat insulting to the reader’s intelligence. It’s possible to repeat themes, for instance, but if you have characters repeating information over several pages, that’s going to gnaw on the reader’s insides. Repeatedly. Don’t do that. Don’t gnaw away the reader’s brain.

One example I can think of is from a book I recently (several months ago) read. The character always performed the same motions when she sat down (with the same wording, too). Something like: “She sat on the chair and tucked her legs beneath her.” At first, this was used to emphasize the character’s issues with trusting people. Eventually, I started noticing she did it every time she sat, and then I started wishing the author would find different words to show the character’s wariness of people. It was so noticeably repetitive that I still remember this. (I went and actually ran a count of how many times the author wrote it into the novel.) Avoid this by finding different ways to describe a character’s actions.

In Conclusion:

For a prose writer, repetition will make or break the text. Too much in the wrong way is going to drive your readers crazy (perhaps off the nearest cliff), but just the right touch of it can help hone that emotional moment you were working on, for instance, or call attention to the right parts of a scene in just the right way. Most importantly, however, repetition will give your writing rhythm. Want to write poetic, lyrical prose? Learn the art of repetition. 

Like this post? These others may interest you:

Repetition, Repetition: Effectively Repeated Words

Writing Fluid Fiction: How to Use Italics


So what do you think? What repetitive mistakes have you seen? Which ones have you seen that you like?   Thoughts, comments? Let me know!