How to Listen to Your Writing
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
September 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
September 2019

This guest post was written by Monica Duncan, author of Twine

I was a professional clarinetist coming to the world of writing. I remember seeking the help of a developmental editor who I was willing to pay to critique my novel-in-progress. Yet she rejected me as a client (nicely), saying we weren’t a genre match. I didn’t even really know my genre yet, believe it or not. But she informed me: “You are clearly in the literary fiction camp.” And then she added sincerely, “Have fun playing on that playground!”

I had not had someone articulate so clearly what I was feeling about this new world—I did feel like I was on a playground. It was exciting. And one thing I discovered that added to the excitement was all the professional baggage I brought with me. Good baggage such as being disciplined. Bad baggage such as being totally used to rejection.

Also, because I had spent my life paying extra attention to the art of listening, I approached my sense of worth by if I sounded good. So it was natural for me to continue using the same skills I had been using in the world of music. I found that when I finished a piece of writing, I started by asking myself how it sounded. My first real whacks at writing didn’t include me orating each scene into iMovie on my laptop or anything, but it was more of a mumbling through each passage while I cut and pasted like mad. Over and over again I would mumble a word or phrase, trying to find something better or clearer. As my scenes became chapters and my chapters became a book, (this was novel #1—never published) my mumbling slowed down and got louder. I would ask my husband to please sit and listen while I read him a chapter. Did it sound good? I’d ask. Or I would pull over on the way to teach music lessons and voice memo some thrilling idea or solution to a plot hole.

And when I played the voice memo back later that night I would nod or cringe, based on if it was an idea that actually worked or not. But what I was really learning was to assess my own work. Not pitches and tone quality this time, but:

  • Rhythm
  • Pacing
  • Articulation
  • Consonance and dissonance 

I was learning to hear writing tics and redundancies. I was learning how to tell if my writing sounded good.

You really don’t need a musician’s ear to use the skill of listening, but you do need to do one other thing that I find indispensible (if you’re not doing it already.) Read your work aloud. And I don’t mean just once. I mean pretty much every iteration. When you do, I believe your work will become tighter, sooner.

What are we listening for?

Rhythm

People often think of rhythm as ‘the beat’, something you can tap your foot to. But that implies a constancy. And really, with words, we are usually looking to vary that rhythm. We want to differ length of sentences and the words themselves. A ‘mellifluous plethora of coloratura auditionees awaiting their opportunity to vocalize’ is ridiculous. As is, ‘Doug sat. He thought.’ There is also a direct connection to rhythm in lyrics, and we can pay attention to how we use accented and unaccented syllables in our prose.

Phrasing

Just like in music, we also use phrasing as a means of expressing our intent or even urgency. For instance, if a character discovers her bedroom is on fire, we want to shape and control the reader’s excitement: First she is dreaming about a campfire. Then sits up. She smells smoke. “Mom!” she yells. The increasing sentence brevity is used to deliberately heighten the drama.

Pacing

In my mind, pacing is just rhythm on a larger scale. We’ve all experienced pacing ‘fails’ when we think the middle of a story sags or there has been too much exposition or description and a writer loses our interest. Pacing can be the arc of an entire novel, or just the decision about whether or not to start a new paragraph.

Articulation

Attack and release of a note is so important in music. Attack and release of a word can also matter. Alliteration, sibilance as in sip or zip, and use of elision like in the phrase ‘clever robot’ can all be utilized deliberately to emphasize or obscure, or just play around and have fun with words.

Consonance and Dissonance

In music, a simple way to think about consonance is two notes that sound good together. Dissonance is the opposite. There is a tension to dissonance and a release or ease to consonance. In writing, we ask, do these words go together? Do these thoughts go together?

But you don’t need to be thinking of music terminology when you listen to your work. You just need to ask yourself if it sounds good. Storytellers have always paid attention to the world around them by listening (I prefer not to use the word eavesdropping.) And if nothing else, we have spent our lives reading. We know what sounds good.

I love the crossovers between writing and music. And I love that my favorite skill as a writer I learned from my life in music: Be a good listener.

About Monica

Monica Duncan is a writer of literary fiction, musician, wife, and mother. Originally from Michigan, she finds herself continually drawn to the hidden richness of the places she comes from. Now living in Newburyport, Massachusetts, she is still at home, by the water.

Monica holds music degrees from Michigan State and Indiana University, and is active as a freelance musician and teacher in the Greater Boston area.

She’s pretty sure she’ll always be in love with the soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, and has discovered that her favorite skill as a writer she learned from her life in music: Be a good listener.

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