From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

From Adults to Teens and Everything In Between

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Writing for the Ear

I recently submitted a piece to the group for critique. As the comments came back, they contained much of the standard fare:

“This is a run-on sentence.”
“Fragment, delete.”
“Consider rewording.”

And that is when it dawned on me for the very first time in my entire writing life: I do not write for the eye. I write for the ear. Whenever I read – or write – a story, in the back of my head I am constantly hearing the hum of the words as they lift from the paper and zing between my ears. I can hear my characters speak; I can feel their frustration, their angst, their undiluted joy held within the pauses, the stops, the crescendos of the words. Sometimes it’s not pretty. Because it exists in a place beyond the eye. The world is not shaded merely by black and white, and neither should our writing be.

This got me into considerable trouble when I was younger. No, Mom, I actually didn’t hear you calling me to dinner. You see, I was lost in the mist with Carl Sandburg as he ominously informs me:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Can’t you hear that delicious alliteration? Can’t you feel the darkness deepening around you as it silently overtakes you, as it settles down around you, before you’ve even taken note?

Sure, you can write: “Mary ran outside to play.” That’s a fine sentence. Nothing wrong with it. Our gal Mary just wants to head on out and get some fresh air and sunshine. But if you write: “Mary ran outside. To play.” Hmm, now we’ve got ourselves a whole new situation. Was there another choice besides playing? Don’t you wonder: what was she doing before she ran outside? Why does the author feel he must inform us that she went out to play? There’s an implication in breaking the Rules for Writers contained in this sentence. There is more here than a sweet little girl and a dreamy day. There are things unsaid.

Conversely, run on sentences can be used to show enthusiasm, breathlessness, an overabundance of anxiety or anticipation. It’s called poetic license, and I utilize it liberally. I think Encyclopedia Britannica has captured the essence of it quite succinctly:

…The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the sounds and modulations of the words themselves all affect the subtle meanings and feelings that the poet may be trying to convey or evoke. Poets may distort normal prose patterns for the sake of form and therefore assume poetic license…

Writing is about more than what meets the eye. Writing should encourage all of the senses to join in. When you read about a field of lavender, you should see the royal purple tide swell before you, smell the subtly spicy fragrance as the tender leaves succumb underfoot, feel your boot solidly moving amongst the stalks. And yes, hear the words as they fall down upon you, a sudden, unexpected but oh-so-sweet spring shower.

Writing for the ear may not be pretty on the page. But then again, it shouldn’t be.


  1. Absolutely write by ear. Also, absolutely, edit by ear.

    People are rhythmic creatures. We listen for pattern and beat whether it's in a conversation or with something we're reading. That's how we tell if something is "authentic".

    The rhythm to the way something is said tells us more than we consciously realize about a person / situation. It tells us where a given speaker is from. It tells us their age or (ability level if the person is mentally a different age than they are physically). It tells us their mood or the mood of a given room. Speech patterns change to accommodate different situations from casual to formal.

    When you read or edit by eye, you're placing "the rules" on a higher pedestal than the story. And while that's fine for picking out typos, it can completely destroy atmosphere.

    Often, it's that unintentional rhythm to a given work that's the difference between "meh", "good", and "great", even if the reader doesn't realize it. It's something that can be difficult to point to and say "This is why XXXX works so well." But, if the rhythm is off, nearly everyone will notice, even if they don't know why.

  2. I absolutely love this post. I write by ear but I had never really thought about it until I read this.

    The only true way to help the reader hear your characters the way you do is to write by ear, and to read out loud as you go. That's my trick and it works.


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